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How Out-of-Body Experiences May Enhance Empathy by Altering Our Sense of Self

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By reshaping our sense of self, out-of-body experiences may reshape our worldview, allowing us to truly step into another’s shoes.

How does floating outside your body, seeing yourself from above, sound? This surreal experience, known as an out-of-body event, might be more than just a curious phenomenon.

New research suggests these extraordinary events could unlock greater empathy. By reshaping our sense of self, they may reshape our worldview, allowing us to truly step into another’s shoes.

The Transformative Impact of Out-of-Body Experiences

Out-of-body experiences (OBEs) occur spontaneously during sleep, near-death experiences, or through induced methods like hypnosis or psychedelic drugs. Affecting approximately 15 percent of people, according to some research, out-of-body experiences challenge the notion that the mind is confined to the body.

Recent studies suggest OBEs can result in lasting increases in perspective-taking, patience, and compassion—similar to effects seen with meditation.

A new narrative review in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews explores the psychological and neurological basis of out-of-body experiences as “seeds” that, under certain conditions, can grow into transformative events.

“We propose psychological and neuroscientific mechanisms to try to explain how it works, how having an out-of-body experience could lead to increased empathy,” lead study author Marina Weiler, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia (UVA) who holds a doctorate in neurology, told The Epoch Times.

Dissolving the Ego

Central to an out-of-body experience is ego dissolution, a state where one detaches from his or her self-identity.

Historically rooted in spiritual practices, experiencers describe ego dissolution as perceiving no boundaries or awakening from an “egoic version” of oneself. Research shows that the intensity of out-of-body experience correlates with the degree of ego dissolution.

“When a person is not linked to their physical bodies,” Ms. Weiler said, “it allows the person to feel connected to other things, to other people, to other circumstances, or everything that is around them.” This occurs because our self-identity or ego is partly tied to our physical body, from which we typically view the world, she added.

Empathy, crucial for understanding others, involves adopting different perspectives by shedding one’s ego. Ms. Weiler emphasized that “making sense of the out-of-body experiences is crucial for integrating its transformative effects.” She describes it as a two-stage process: ego dissolution followed by re-evaluation of oneself and reality.

Those who process their OBEs emotionally and discuss them often experience less self-doubt and anxiety, she noted.

This shift from self-centered to other-focused thinking expands an individual’s worldview, fostering a more profound sense of connection with others.

How It Might Rewire Our Brains

Neuroscience provides insights into the brain mechanisms underlying empathy and its modulation through OBEs. The temporoparietal junction (TPJ), a specific brain region, is linked to bodily self-awareness. TPJ integrates sensory information from our bodies and the environment, distinguishing self from non-self.

OBEs can be triggered by temporarily altering brain activity through electrical stimulation of regions like the TPJ, according to research by Dr. Olaf Blanke, a renowned neuroscientist and neurologist at the University Hospitals of Geneva, Switzerland. This demonstrates how changing consciousness states can influence empathy.
According to Ms. Weiler, the TPJ relates to bodily sensations and spatial awareness. Mirror neurons, which fire both when a person performs an action and when they watch someone else do the same, activate in the TPJ when we understand others’ emotions—a key aspect of empathy. TPJ activity disruptions during out-of-body experiences may alter self-awareness, enhancing shared experiences and empathetic responses.
While mirror neurons enable empathy by mirroring others’ behaviors and emotions, OBEs involve multiple brain networks beyond the TPJ, including the frontal cortex and temporal lobes, which are also implicated in empathy and self-perception.
The review authors noted that these conclusions are primarily based on personal accounts, as no studies directly verify the correlation between OBEs, ego dissolution, and feelings of unity. Also, other experiences, such as awe, can promote empathy without the disembodied sensation typical of OBEs.

Unlocking the Potential

Out-of-body experiences have drawn attention over the years due to their potential to spur personal growth and spiritual transformation.

According to the Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews paper, a study from the 1980s found that OBEs profoundly affected 55 percent of the 386 participants, with 71 percent reporting long-term benefits. Also, 84 percent expressed a desire to relive the experience, and 40 percent ranked it as the most significant event of their lives.
Researchers highlighted that OBEs can act as catalysts for:

  • Motivation
  • Reducing fear of death
  • Fostering inner peace
  • Altering life perspectives
  • Increasing self-awareness
  • Redefining relationships
  • Strengthening spiritual beliefs

Current research does not link OBEs themselves to any serious health risks. However, they can sometimes cause confusion about the experience and raise concerns about neurological or mental health issues. Certain medical conditions have been associated with OBEs, including epilepsy, brain injuries, and dissociative disorders like depersonalization-derealization disorder.

Practices to Facilitate Out-of-Body Experiences

To study OBEs, which typically occur randomly, Ms. Weiler and researchers at UVA’s Division of Perceptual Studies work with volunteers who can induce them at will. Techniques include:

  • Meditation: deep absorption states that transcend ordinary self-identity
  • Visualization: using mental imagery to expand beyond the physical body
  • Lucid dreaming: maintaining awareness while transitioning into dream states
  • Yoga: practices like Kundalini yoga that aim to transcend bodily limits

According to Ms. Weiler, research progresses with the goal of harnessing out-of-body experiences as tools for promoting empathy and compassion rather than merely treating them as extraordinary experiences.

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