The Frontal Cortex

The Self and the Body

Here’s a very cool experiment:

Using virtual reality goggles, a camera and a stick, scientists have induced out-of-body experiences — the sensation of drifting outside of one’s own body — in healthy people, according to experiments being published in the journal Science.

When people gaze at an illusory image of themselves through the goggles and are prodded in just the right way with the stick, they feel as if they have left their bodies.

I think there are two surprising lessons in this experiment.

The first odd finding is that our sense of being in a body is a surprisingly cognitive phenomenon, an extrapolation from multiple sensory inputs. You’d think that actually being tethered to a mass of flesh would override nonsensical signals coming in from our eyes, but you’d be wrong. Being located in ourself – and not somewhere else – is a rather abstract mental representation.

The second surprising element of this research is that it reveals just how bound our self-consciousness is to the body. (The Cartesian dictum should be rewritten, so that it’s actually: “I’m in my body, therefore I am.”) Despite the fact that the subjects knew the projected body image wasn’t theirs, they still located their self in the fake image, in a place outside their real body. In other words, the ghost inside the machine is really locked inside the machine. Move the machine – or just trick people into thinking that the machine has been moved – and the ghost is forced to follow.

This is the wondrous irony of our mind: its most ineffable property – the mysterious self – seems to emerge from our most concrete knowledge, which is the knowledge of our own body.

Walt Whitman wouldn’t be surprised. Here a few lines from Leaves of Grass:

Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance…
Behold the body includes and is the meaning, the main
Concern, and includes and is the soul


  1. #1 Ted
    August 23, 2007

    I’m gratified to know that there is a right way to prod people with a stick. For years I’ve suspected as much.

  2. #2 matthew
    August 23, 2007

    Neat experiment! I am reminded of phantom limbs.

  3. #3 JuliaL
    August 24, 2007


    What a wonderful comment. It makes me happy. If I had time, I’d embroider it into a sampler.

  4. #4 Xenia
    March 18, 2009

    @ matthew

    The phenomenon is related to the phantom limb condition. In fact, the philosopher who’s theory inspired this experiment (Thomas Metzinger) had spent an academic year with Vilayanur Ramachandran to flesh out his theory on the self. Ramachendran is the guy who found a ‘cure’ for phantom limbs.

    If you find this topic interesting, you should read “Being No One” by Metzinger.

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