The Woman Who Thinks She Can Will Herself Out of Her Body

“Hold on just a second,” you’re thinking to yourself (I am not a psychic but I occasionally play one in blog posts). “Didn’t I already read this article on Popular Science?”

No, friend: you read an article written by Douglas Main titled “The Woman Who Can Will Herself Out Of Her Body,” which differs from this article’s title by a few very small yet critical words. You see, that post describes a case study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience titled “Voluntary out-of-body experience: an fMRI study.” Nothing in the post is immediately and obviously wrong, per se, but there are many things that are, at best, unclear. For instance, I’ve described this paper as a “case study,” while the original article terms it a “study describing the case.” The difference in wording seems minimal, but one phrase clearly means an exploration of one particular person or group, while the latter could mean an actual experimental study that includes this case in it.

It’s important for readers to understand that the fMRI paper is not an experiment with a hypothesis, like “people can leave their bodies and float around the room,” that has been tested in a double-blind scenario, like “once the subject was asleep, a playing card was placed next to them and removed before they woke. They were asked to name the card they saw during their out-of-body experience”, and been shown to be statistically valid, like “8 out of 10 times the subject was able to correctly identify the playing card,” and been peer reviewed and then published in a journal. Instead, this is the case of a person who claims to be able to leave her body at will, so researchers stuck her in an fMRI machine and looked at what happened to her brain when she was having this experience/hallucination.

The word “hallucination” appears ten times in the case study yet zero times in the Popular Science article. Because of this, a naive person who reads the PopSci article but not the original paper may walk away with the belief that the brain scans show what happens when a person actually leaves their body, as opposed to showing what happens when a person feels as though they are leaving their body. Again, the difference seems small but is actually quite large: the former describes a study that would be at home on an episode of Coast to Coast or Fringe or those episodes of Family Matters where Urkel did science experiments, and the latter would be at home in a scientific journal to be used as the basis for further study and experimentation.

In Douglas Main’s defense, he may have not considered while writing the article that there are many people out there who really believe that some people have the ability to float up out of their bodies and wander around town like Ghost Dad. These people, however, not only exist but are always excited when a high-traffic science outlet gives them something to support their beliefs, so it may be best if we keep them in mind from now on.