Research on the Sense of Self

I’d like to offer some excerpts from Olaf Blanke’s articles on his medical research into out-of-body experience (also known as autoscopic phenomena, or AP-variants include AH or autoscopic hallucination, HAS or heautoscopy, and OBE or out-of-body):

Several authors have also highlighted the role of proprioception and kinesthesia in AP by noting that some patients report about shared movements between their physical and autoscopic body (autoscopic echopraxia). A further argument in favor of tactile and proprioceptive mechanisms in AP was given by Blanke et al. who reported that the body position of the patient prior to AH/HAS (upright) and OBE (supine) differs suggesting a differential influence of proprioceptive and tactile processing on AP.

…Another sensory system, which has been linked to AP, is the vestibular system that conveys sensations of the body’s orientation in three-dimensional space to the brain.

…It might thus be argued that, HAS (heautoscopy- patient unable to distinguish location of self between physical and autoscopic bodies) is not only an experience characterized by the reduplification of one’s body, but also by a reduplification of one’s self. As strikingly reported by Brugger et al. the high risk of suicide during this terrifying experience cannot be overstated as some of these HAS-patients try by all means to reestablish their unitary self.

…Thus, Blanke et al. proposed that AP result from a disintegration in personal space (due to conflicting tactil, proprioceptive, kinesthetic, and visual information) and a second disintegration between personal and extrapersonal space (due to conflicting visual and vestibular information).

…In summary: A conflict between tactil/proprioceptive/kinesthetic and visual information coupled with a conflict between visual and vestibular information can, in some cases, give rise to a feeling that the self is in two places simultaneously, which can result in suicidal tendencies in the individual as they attempt to re-establish a unitary self at all cost.  (1)

Blanke’s research indicates that the sense of self depends on a coordination of tactil/proprioceptive/kinesthetic and visual information coupled with a coordination of vestibular and visual information.

Gautama the Buddha taught that there is in reality no abiding self, and this accords well with Blanke’s finding that the sense of self actually depends on the coordination of particular senses.

Gautama described the experience of the senses when the notion of an abiding self has been abandoned:

(Anyone)- knowing and seeing eye as it really is, knowing and seeing material shapes- visual consciousness- impact on the eye as it really is, and knowing, seeing as it really is the experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye, is not attached to the eye nor to material shapes nor to visual consciousness nor to impact on the eye; and that experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye-neither to that is (such a one) attached…

(Such a one) experiences happiness of body and happiness of mind. (repeated for ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind). (2)

To the six senses that were known in Gautama’s day, we can now add the tactil/proprioceptive/kinesthetic and vestibular senses. Very simply, they are found in the ability to feel the placement and movement of the parts of the body relative to the whole, and in the sense of balance and movement with respect to the three dimensions of space. Blanke’s research points to a coordination of these two senses with the sense of vision in the establishment of a sense of self. Gautama’s teaching asserts that the source of suffering is the ignorance of the experience of the senses as they are, due to a misconception about the abiding nature of self.


Out-of-body experience, heautoscopy, and autoscopic hallucination of neurological origin–Implications for neurocognitive mechanisms of corporeal awareness and self consciousness, Olaf Blanke, Christine Mohr;  Handbook of Clinical Neurology, Vol. 88 [3rd series], Neuropsychology and behavioral neurology–Chapter 22, Illusory perceptions of the human body and self, Olaf Blanke, Shahar Arzy, Theodor Landis.
2 Majjhima-Nikaya, Pali Text Society volume 3 pg 337-338, ©Pali Text Society

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