Sunday, December 6, 2015

One Man's Compelling Story Of Lucid Dreaming and Out Of Body Experiences

An Ear Problem Gave This Man Lucid Dreams and Out-of-Body Experiences

"I'm running through a forest, and a group of people are following me closely. I suddenly see flying faces coming towards me. I find it strange, confusing, impossible... it makes me question it all and I tell myself, as usual, that I must be dreaming…The faces have their mouths open and pass me by, brushing up against me. I try to touch them with my hand but I can't, then I try to touch the branches along the edge of the path and can't touch them either. My hand goes straight through. Everything goes through me." 

This is how one of the bizarre and memorable dreams of a young man named Michel Chesi started. As he continued to run in the forest, he was suddenly stopped by a dark figure blocking his way. He felt like he had run into an invisible wall and fallen to the ground. He was terrified, thinking the figure was an embodiment of evil. He wanted to get out of the scene and, with a snap of the fingers, he found himself surrounded with total darkness. Then, a series of small illuminated letters appeared to him, hovering in the dark, spelling out the word "XANTIAZIZ." He tried to remember the letters to write them down in his diary, and that's when he seemed to wake up. Trying to grab a flashlight and a pen, he found there was nothing on his nightstand. The room was empty of any other furniture. Soon the dark figure started to permeate him.

He then woke up, this time for real, realizing that his previous "awakening" was part of a lucid dream. Chesi, now a 39-year-old resident of Marin-Epagnier in Switzerland, had such dreams from time to time when he was between 18 and 37 years old. The dreams were often accompanied by other bizarre experiences during which he had the sensation of leaving his body. Sometimes, Chesi would even experience "walking" in his neighborhood without physically leaving his bed.

Chesi's strange nightly experiences coincided with other symptoms such as vertigo attacks, dizziness, floating sensations while walking, and nausea, all of which suggested he might have a problem with his body's balance system.

"Over the years, I developed problems with my balance that were getting worse and worse and that's why I consulted a doctor," Chesi told Braindecoder.

The doctor, Dr. Dominique Vibert, a specialist for neurological disorders of the ear, examined Chesi and determined that his symptoms were due to damage to his right inner ear (a diagnosis called vestibulopathy), probably caused by a viral infection. The inner ear is one part of the vestibular system in the body that plays a crucial role in maintaining our sense of balance.

During the course of treatment for his vestibular symptoms, Chesi told Vibert about his out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and lucid dreams that he had been having. His OBEs occurred about three to four times a year, and lucid dreams occurred several times a month.

Curious to learn more about the mechanisms of these bizarre phenomena, Vibert and her colleagues decided to study Chesi's case, which they described in a recent report published in Multisensory Research. Based on their observations and the results of several experiments, the researchers attributed his experiences to a faulty multisensory integration, linked to his inner ear problem.

Combining senses

People normally rely on a combination of visual, vestibular, somatosensory and proprioceptive information in order to accurately position their bodies in space, and to position themselves in their bodies, explained study co-author Mariia Kaliuzhna of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

To see whether Chesi could properly integrate signals coming from his vestibular system and visual system, the researchers did a series of experiments. In one, they put him in a centrifuge cockpit-style chair, which rotated his whole body. A computer monitor was positioned in front of his face, showing a 3D pattern of dots that simulated his self-rotation.

Then Chesi was rotated in the same direction twice and his task was to judge whether the second rotation was bigger or smaller than the first one. In one condition, the screen in front of him was blank and he could only perform the task based on his vestibular information. In another condition, the chair remained stationary, and only the movement of the dots induced the feeling of rotation, meaning that he could only perform the task based on visual information. Then, in the last condition, the chair and the dots moved together and he had to base his judgment on both of these stimuli.

Schematic view of the experimental setup.M. KALIUZHNA ET AL. / MULTISENSORY RESEARCH 28 (2015) 613–635
For healthy people, who properly combine the vestibular signals from body rotation and the visual signals from the moving dots, it's easier to give correct answers when the two types of information are present, like in the last condition, than when only one type, vestibular or visual, is available.

But this wasn't the case for Chesi. He actually performed worse on the test when the dots moved too.

"We show for the first time that somebody having OBE does not integrate visual and vestibular cues, that is, he does not combine information from these two sources in an appropriate way," Kaliuzhna told Braindecoder.

The researchers think the Chesi might also process somatosensory information in an altered way. In a second experiment, the team conducted an augmented version of the Rubber Arm illusion, called the Full Body illusion. They had Chesi lay down in a darkened room on a robotic device designed to gently stroke his back, while wearing a head-mounted display to watch an image of a male body seen from the back. The touch of the robotic device was represented in the display as a red dot, moving along the back of the body. The researchers then tested what would happen in two conditions: in the first, synchronous condition, the robotic device and the red dot moved together in the same way. In the second, asynchronous condition, a delay was introduced between the dot and the robotic device, as a result of which the dot was seen in a different location than the one where touch was being felt. It has been shown that, in the synchronous condition, participants think they are closer to the virtual body than they actually are and identify themselves more with this body, Kaliuzhna said.

"The interesting result this manipulation produced in the patient is the strong feeling to float in the air, as well as a tingling sensation in his legs and lower back, which was reminiscent to him of the sensation he has during this OBE," she said. "Our control subjects did not report such sensations."

Nocturnal voyages

Chesi believes his experiences actually started long time ago when he was very young, but in the form of night terrors. "I started to overcome these night terrors towards the end of my adolescence," he said. Instead, he tried to enjoy the bizarre world of his dreams.

During a typical OBE episode, Chesi would first wake up at night and look at the clock, close his eyes and fall asleep again. But then he would experience the sensation of falling in complete darkness. The sensation would stop and he would experience the feeling of floating in the air. At that point he would hear a crackling sound inside his head, open his eyes and experience the sensation of leaving his body and the bed. He would then be turned around 180 degrees to see himself lying on the bed. During most of his out-of-body experiences, he felt he was positioned under the ceiling of his bedroom or next to his bed. But from time to time he also experienced so-called distant disembodiment, and felt that he was walking around the neighborhood.

These episodes typically lasted about two to three minutes. When he woke up, he felt a tingling sensation across his body for a couple of minutes, and then felt invigorated.

These out-of-body experiences started out in lucid dreams, in which Chesi suddenly became conscious about his dreaming and felt that he could control the content of the dreams. He often tried to interact with the environment while dreaming — he tried to touch things, pass through walls or talk to people.

"In my experiences, I often tried to explore the dream environment in terms of sensations, especially touch, and the transition between lucid dreaming and disembodiment," Chesi said. "I believe that the transition from one to the other is caused by the brain that puts itself in an "alert" mode: the lucid dream is a reality that visually resembles the reality that the dreaming person knows in his daily life and his brain cannot tell the difference."

Brain signals, interrupted

The findings of the new study are in line with previous research that has linked a faulty integration of vestibular signals and sensory information with various illusory body perceptions such as feelings ofdepersonalization, illusory self-motion, room-tilt illusions and disembodiment. In one such study, scientists were actually able to disrupt this integration by electrically stimulating a brain region andinduce OBE in a person.

In Chesi's case, it seems that a problem with the balance organs of the inner ear may have interfered with relaying body-related cues to the brain. This could occur at the level of the brainstem, and lead to a faulty integration of signals further up in the brain, such as in the temporo-parietal junction, Kaliuzhna said.

"Interestingly, one of the first relays that processes vestibular information is at the level of the brainstem; regions in the brainstem also regulate the sleep cycle and dream activity," she said.

As Chesi underwent treatment for his vestibular symptoms of vertigo and dizziness, the frequency of his lucid dreams and out-of-body experiences decreased. Although the dreams had started out as frightening experiences, over the years he had come to enjoy them. "In that world, everything is possible, the only limit is our imagination. It is a world where emotions are at least ten times more intense than in our reality and our engine to move around and to create is our thoughts." These days, he doesn't have them anymore, he said."I am not relieved to have my lucid dreams and OBE disappear... actually, I miss it a lot today."

The interview with Michel Chesi was conducted in French and Translated to English.

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