Out-of-body experiences (OBEs) can leave a significant and lasting impression on those who go through them, and can also boost feelings of empathy towards others, according to a new survey.

OBEs have been known to occur in many scenarios, including when people are near death or hypnotized. A 1982 paper reported that up to 15 percent of participants had experienced at least one OBE at some point in their lives.

While OBEs have been linked to increased empathy before, here a team from the University of Virginia took a closer look at the relationship between the two, and the brain mechanisms that might be behind it.

In particular, the researchers looked at ego dissolution or ego death, where someone's sense of self evaporates and they feel much more connected to everything around them, and the rest of the Universe.

"We explore the notion that OBEs may engender these changes through ego dissolution, which fosters a deep-seated sense of unity and interconnectedness with others," writes the team led by neuroscientist Marine Weiler.

We know OBEs can have a transformative effect: 55 percent of those who experience them report being profoundly changed afterwards, while 40 percent consider the OBE they've been through as the greatest experience of their lives.

After OBEs, people often become more aware of the needs of other people, and show greater patience with others, and this is where the empathy comes in: an ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

The feeling of disembodiment and removal from the physical realm that characterizes OBEs leads to ego dissolution, the researchers say. That then develops into a strengthening of relationships with other people.

"The sense of self is no longer centered on the 'me' and is perceived more as a process than as a separate entity," write the researchers.

OBEs are similar to a psychedelic drug high, the researchers suggest, and some of the results are the same, in the way that these mind-altering substances can make us feel more connected with everyone around us.

As for the mechanisms behind this phenomenon, the study points to the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) as one brain region that might be involved. The TPJ handles our sense of where we are in physical space and manages inputs from the senses, and malfunctions in this region have previously been linked to OBEs.

The whole default mode network (which the TPJ is part of) could be involved, the researchers say: it handles self-reflection and internal narratives about ourselves, and so is tied to our ego, and may be disrupted during and after OBEs.

This study relies on joining the dots between previous pieces of research, and didn't involve any experiments of its own. Future studies might enlist the help of virtual reality, or individuals who can self-induce OBEs on demand, to explore OBEs experimentally.

"The exploration, refinement, and application of methods to enhance empathy in individuals – whether through OBE-related ego dissolution or other approaches – is an exciting avenue with potentially profound implications for individuals and society at large," write the researchers.

This research was published in Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews.