An out-of-body experience (OBE), which some might also describe as a dissociative episode, is a sensation of your consciousness leaving your body. These episodes are often reported by people who’ve had a near-death experience.
People typically experience their sense of self inside their physical body. You most likely view the world around you from this vantage point. But during an OBE, you may feel as if you’re outside yourself, looking at your body from another perspective.
What really goes on during an OBE? Does your consciousness actually leave your body? Experts aren’t totally sure, but they have a few hunches, which we’ll get into later.
It’s hard to nail down what an OBE feels like, exactly.
According to accounts from people who’ve experienced them, they generally involve:
- a feeling of floating outside your body
- an altered perception of the world, such as looking down from a height
- the feeling that you’re looking down at yourself from above
- a sense that what’s happening is very real
OBEs typically happen without warning and usually don’t last for very long.
If you have a neurological condition, such as epilepsy, you may be more likely to experience OBEs, and they may happen more frequently. But for many people, an OBE will happen very rarely, maybe only once in a lifetime.
Some estimates suggest at least 5 percent of people have experienced the sensations associated with an OBE, though some suggest this number is higher.
Some people refer to OBEs as astral projections. But there are some key differences between the two.
An astral projection usually involves an intentional effort to send your consciousness from your body. It usually refers to your consciousness traveling out of your body toward a spiritual plane or dimension.
An OBE, on the other hand, is usually unplanned. And rather than traveling, your consciousness is said to simply float or hover above your physical body.
OBEs — or at least the sensations of them — are largely recognized within the medical community and have been the subject of many studies. Astral projection, however, is considered to be a spiritual practice.
There’s some debate over whether the sensations and perceptions associated with OBEs happen physically or as a sort of hallucinatory experience.
A 2014 study tried to explore this by looking at cognitive awareness in 101 people who had survived cardiac arrest.
The authors found that 13 percent of the participants felt a separation from their body during resuscitation. But only 7 percent reported an awareness of events they wouldn’t have seen from their actual perspective.
In addition, two participants reported having both visual and auditory experiences while in cardiac arrest. Only one was well enough to follow up, but he gave an accurate, detailed description of what took place for about three minutes of his resuscitation from cardiac arrest.
Still, there’s no scientific evidence to support the idea that a person’s consciousness can actually travel outside the body.
The study discussed above did try to test this by placing images on shelves that could only be seen from a higher vantage point. But the majority of the cardiac arrests, including the event involving the participant who had specific memories of his resuscitation, took place in rooms without the shelves.
No one’s sure about the exact causes of OBEs, but experts have identified several possible explanations.
Stress or trauma
A frightening, dangerous, or difficult situation can provoke a fear response, which might cause you to dissociate from the situation and feel as if you’re an onlooker, watching the events taking place from somewhere outside your body.
The study didn’t specifically link OBEs to post-traumatic stress disorder, but the authors did point out that women who had OBEs had either gone through trauma during labor or another situation not related to childbirth.
This suggests that OBEs could occur as a way to cope with trauma, but more research is needed on this link.
Experts have linked several medical and mental health conditions to OBEs, including:
Dissociative disorders, particularly depersonalization-derealization disorder, can involve frequent feelings or episodes where you seem to be observing yourself from outside your body.
Sleep paralysis, a temporary state of waking paralysis that occurs during REM sleep and often involves hallucinations, has also been noted as a possible cause of OBEs.
Research suggests many people who have OBEs with a near-death experience also experience sleep paralysis.
In addition, 2012 research suggests sleep-wake disturbances may contribute to dissociative symptoms, which can include a feeling of leaving your body.
Medication and drugs
Some people report having an OBE while under the influence of anesthesia.
OBEs might also be induced, intentionally or accidentally, by:
- hypnosis or meditative trance
- brain stimulation
- dehydration or extreme physical activity
- electric shock
- sensory deprivation
Existing research hasn’t connected spontaneous OBEs to any serious health risks. In some cases, you might feel a bit dizzy or disoriented after.
However, OBEs and dissociation in general can cause lingering feelings of emotional distress.
You might feel confused over what happened or wonder if you have a brain issue or mental health condition. You might also not like the sensation of an OBE and worry about it happening again.
Some people also claim that it’s possible for your consciousness to remain trapped outside of your body following an OBE, but there’s no evidence to support this.
Simply having an OBE doesn’t necessarily mean you need to see your healthcare provider. You may have this experience once just before drifting off to sleep, for example, and never again. If you don’t have any other symptoms, you probably don’t have any reason for concern.
If you feel uneasy about what happened, even if you don’t have any physical or psychological conditions, there’s no harm in mentioning the experience to your care provider. They may be able to help by ruling out serious conditions or offering some reassurance.
It’s also a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider if you’re having any sleep issues, including insomnia or symptoms of sleep paralysis, such as hallucinations.
Whether your consciousness can truly leave your physical body hasn’t been scientifically proven. But for centuries, many people have reported similar sensations of their consciousness leaving their body.
OBEs appear to be more common with some conditions, including certain dissociative disorders and epilepsy. Many people also report having an OBE during a near-death experience, including electric shock or injury.