Heartbeat can trigger 'out-of-body experience'

Published: 12 August 2013 at 15:31

Anglia Ruskin psychologist hopes research could help people suffering from anorexia

Scientists, who for the first time have generated an “out-of-body experience” through the visual projection of human heartbeats, hope their research could lead to new forms of treatment for people with self-perception disorders, including anorexia.

The study was carried out by Dr Jane Aspell, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, and Dr Lukas Heydrich at Olaf Blanke’s lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, and will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

This research is the first to show that information about the internal state of the body, in this case the heartbeat, can be used to change how people experience their own body and self. 

Volunteers were fitted with a head mounted display (HMD), which served as “virtual reality goggles”. They were filmed in real time by a video camera connected to the HMD, which allowed them to view their own body standing two metres in front of them.  

By also recording the volunteers’ heartbeat signals using electrodes, the timing of the heartbeat was used to trigger a bright flashing outline which was superimposed on the virtual body shown via the HMD.

After watching the outline flash on and off in sync with the heartbeat for several minutes, the subjects experienced a stronger identification with the virtual body (it felt more like their own body) and also perceived that they were at a different location in the room than their physical body (closer to their double). The experiment also showed that the volunteers experienced touch at a different location to their physical body.

Dr Aspell said:

“This research demonstrates that the experience of one’s self can be altered when presented with information about the internal state of one’s body, such as a heartbeat.
“This is compatible with the theory that the brain generates our experience of self by merging information about our body from multiple sources including the eyes, the skin, the ears, and even one’s internal organs.”

In the future, Dr Aspell hopes the research might help people suffering with self-perception problems, including anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder. She is currently working on a study about “yo-yo dieters” and how their self-perception changes as they gain and lose weight.

Dr Aspell added:

“Patients with anorexia, for example, have a disconnection from their own body. They look in the mirror and think they are larger than they actually are. This may be because their brain does not update its representation of the body after dieting, and the patient is therefore stuck with a perception of a larger self that is out of date.

“This experiment could be adapted to help people ‘reconnect’ with their current physical appearance. It could help them realise what the ‘real me’ actually looks like.”