Brain scan reveals out-of-body illusion

Brain scan reveals out-of-body illusion
Brain regions in which the scientists could successfully decode the participants' perceived self-location from patterns of neural activity. Illustration of study published in 'Current Biology' April 2015. Credit: Malin Björnsdotter/Arvid Guterstam

The feeling of being inside one's own body is not as self-evident as one might think. In a new study from Sweden's Karolinska Institutet, neuroscientists created an out-of-body illusion in participants placed inside a brain scanner. They then used the illusion to perceptually 'teleport' the participants to different locations in a room and show that the perceived location of the bodily self can be decoded from activity patterns in specific brain regions.

The sense of owning one's and being located somewhere in space is so fundamental that we usually take it for granted. To the brain, however, this is an enormously complex task that requires continuous integration of information from our different senses in order to maintain an accurate sense of where the body is located with respect to the external world. Studies in rats have shown that specific regions of the brain contain GPS-like 'place cells' that signal the rat's position in the room - a discovery that was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. To date, however, it remains unknown how the shapes our of being a body somewhere in space, and whether the regions that have been identified in rats are involved in this process.

In a new study, published in the scientific journal Current Biology, the scientists created an out-of-body in fifteen healthy placed inside a brain scanner. In the experiment, the participants wore head-mounted displays and viewed themselves and the brain scanner from another part of the room. From the new visual perspective, the participant observes the body of a stranger in the foreground while their physical body is visible in the background, protruding from the bore of the brain scanner. To elicit the illusion, the scientist touches the participant's body with an object in synchrony with identical touches being delivered to the stranger's body, in full view of the participant.

To elicit the out-of-body illusion, the participants viewed a stranger's body, lying in the corner of the room, being touched while they received identical touches on their real body (hidden from view). To examine whether the illusion actually worked, the scientists would threaten the stranger's body with a knife and measure the participants' stress response. The results showed that the knife threat lead to increased skin sweating and level of neural activity in fear centers of the brain during periods when the illusion was experienced compared to when it was broken, suggesting that the brain interpreted the stranger's body as one's own. Conversely, when the scientists threatened the participants' real body with a large rubber sledgehammer, experiencing the illusion was associated with a lower stress response; as if the seen physical body belonged to someone else. Credit: Arvid Guterstam
"In a matter of seconds, the brain merges the sensation of touch and visual input from the new perspective, resulting in the illusion of owning the stranger's body and being located in that body's position in the room, outside the participant's physical body," says Arvid Guterstam, lead author of the present study.

In the most important part of the study, the scientists used the out-of-body illusion to perceptually 'teleport' the participants between different places in the scanner room. They then employed pattern recognition techniques to analyze the brain activity and show that the perceived self-location can be decoded from in specific areas in the temporal and parietal lobes. Furthermore, the scientists could demonstrate a systematic relationship between the information content in these patterns and the participants' perceived vividness of the illusion of being located in a specific out-of-body position.

Brain scan reveals out-of-body illusion
Visual perspective from one of the out-of-body positions. Illustration of study published in Current Biology April 2015. Credit: Arvid Guterstam
"The sense of being a body located somewhere in space is essential for our interactions with the outside world and constitutes a fundamental aspect of human self-consciousness," says Arvid Guterstam. "Our results are important because they represent the first characterization of the brain areas that are involved in shaping the perceptual experience of the bodily self in space."

One of the from which the participants' perceived self-location could be decoded was the hippocampus - the structure in which the Nobel Prize awarded 'place cells' have been identified.

"This finding is particularly interesting because it indicates that are not only involved in navigation and memory encoding, but are also important for generating the conscious experience of one's body in space," says principal investigator Henrik Ehrsson, professor at the Department of Neuroscience.


Explore further

Neuroscientists create the sensation of invisibility

More information: 'Posterior Cingulate Cortex Integrates the Senses of Self-location and Body Ownership', Arvid Guterstam, Malin Björnsdotter, Giovanni Gentile & Henrik Ehrsson, Current Biology, online 30 April 2015.
Provided by Karolinska Institutet
Citation: Brain scan reveals out-of-body illusion (2015, April 30) retrieved 18 January 2019 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-04-brain-scan-reveals-out-of-body-illusion.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
576 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

May 01, 2015
We *learn* to associate our mind with our body. It has long since been observed that people can integrate mechanical appendages from as small as a hook that replaces the hand to as big as a motor car or other machine into the body image.

Our body image is learned and flexible, as is the self image eg our personal self, our family, our tribe/community/group and our country can all be modelled as the self and so can be loved, protected and generally treated as the self.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more