Aug 19, 2010

Out of Body, Roger

I was there. But I, like, wasn't there. I was floating. I was looking at myself from outside of myself.

If it hasn't happened to you, it's likely happened to somebody you know. And whether or not you believe it, about one in ten people report having had one. "Out of body" experience, it's a dirty word in many circles. Which is perhaps why pilots call it "G-LOC" (gravity-induced loss of consciousness, pronounced "G-lock" not "glok"). Turns out this kind of experience (call it what you want) occurs quite frequently among fighter pilots. Producers Ann Heppermann and Kara Oehler bring us the story. We'll hear from pilots Tim Sestak, and Col. Dan Fulgham on what it's like to lose yourself, unfortunately for us skiddish passenger-types, while flying a plane. Finally we'll hear from Dr. James Whinnery, who simulates G-LOC by placing pilots in giant centrifuges. His research monitors their brain activity as they accelerate to speeds inducing this loss of consciousness. But Doc Whinnery isn't just a scientist, he's a subject. And his research has taken him to some surprising places.

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JAD: This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: And today on our program, we're looking at brains and bodies and how sometimes brains and bodies can get wildly out of sync. And let me offer one more flavor on this theme, which has to do with something that neuropsychologist Paul Broks calls body schema.

 

PAUL BROKS: Body schema is the brain's sort of working model of the body.

 

JAD: In order for the brain to keep track of where you are, where everything is, it creates an inner representation of you.

 

PAUL BROKS: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: This is what he thinks. A model, very much in the virtual reality sense, of where it thinks you are in space and where it thinks you aren't.

 

PAUL BROKS: The point is that we, although we think there's a very solid distinction between where our bodies end and the world begins, in fact, the brain has to work quite hard to produce this kind of consistency of experience. And clearly it can go wrong.

 

JAD: This brings us to pilots.

 

DAN FULGHAM: Okay. My name is Dan Fulgham. I spent 32 years in the Air Force, 25 of that in active flying. And this incidence occurred in July of 1952 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

 

JAD: Our story begins on a normal training day. It was really hot.

 

DAN FULGHAM: In the cockpit, flying down at low level below 3,000 feet it was over 100 degrees.

 

JAD: And Colonel Dan Fulgham was on his fifth run, flying in formation, doing a training maneuver he'd done a million times before. But this time something happened. He pulled the plane up hard, rolled out.

 

DAN FULGHAM: And the next thing I knew, I was -- seemed to be sitting up on the back of the airplane looking down into the cockpit.

 

JAD: Suddenly, he was outside the plane, not inside.

 

DAN FULGHAM: I could see what was going on. I could see the ground, I could see another airplane, and ...

 

JAD: And when he looked in the cockpit where he was supposed to be, he could see a pilot.

 

DAN FULGHAM: I was watching myself not knowing it was me. What's going on here? I'm just gonna watch this for a little while.

 

JAD: So he just sat there on the wing of his own plane watching himself fly the plane.

 

DAN FULGHAM: And just all of a sudden the curtain snaps up and you realize no, it's not a dream. Actually, that's me in the cockpit, and I'm flying the airplane again. But we began to realize at Luke that in the eight weeks of training period that I was there, we lost nine pilots.

 

ROBERT: They died?

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

ROBERT: Wow.

 

DAN FULGHAM: And most of them for running into the ground or running into each other in the air and that sort of thing. And that's an awful lot of pilots to lose just in training.

 

JAD: Okay, fast forward many years. Army engineers are studying this problem, and they figured out some stuff about it but not much. And then along comes this guy.

 

JIM WHINNERY: I'm Jim Whinnery.

 

JAD: Jim Whinnery's his name.

 

JIM WHINNERY: I'm at the Federal Aviation Administration, Air Medical Research Program.

 

JAD: And he had a radical notion. If we're gonna really understand this, I mean, really get to the bottom of this, we have to induce this experience on purpose.

 

ROBERT: Make them go blank? Make them go ...

 

JAD: Yeah. Create the conditions that exist in a fighter jet on the ground in a controlled environment so they can study this.

 

ROBERT: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: His idea was let's put pilots in a centrifuge.

 

JIM WHINNERY: This big centrifuge.

 

JAD: Like one of these things that the astronauts use. It's got a 50-foot arm that spins round and round.

 

JIM WHINNERY: Around and around. And on the end of that 50-foot arm ...

 

JAD: There's a cockpit.

 

JIM WHINNERY: ... a cockpit.

 

JAD: A pretend cockpit.

 

JIM WHINNERY: Mocked up to be exactly like what a fighter aircraft might be like, with all the controls, the screens, the throttle.

 

JAD: That's where the pilot sits and gets spun around real fast.

 

ROBERT: I see.

 

JAD: So Whinnery put out a call for volunteers.

 

TIM SESTAK: I'm Tim Sestak.

 

JIM WHINNERY: Commander Sestak ...

 

TIM SESTAK: I met Dr. Whinnery ...

 

JIM WHINNERY: ... he was one of the ones that ...

 

TIM SESTAK: ... got involved in his research.

 

JIM WHINNERY: ... heroically volunteered to fly the centrifuge and to deliberately knock himself out.

 

TIM SESTAK: Scared? Pilots don't do scared.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Three, two, one. Pressure.]

 

JAD: This is a recording from the experiment.

 

TIM SESTAK: The task was to chase this little airplane. So I'd sit there and you'd follow it. And first couple maneuvers would be three Gs.

 

ROBERT: G force is the -- is the ...

 

JAD: Well, it's like -- it's like when you're on a roller coaster.

 

TIM SESTAK: Five Gs.

 

JAD: That force that pins you back in your seat.

 

ROBERT: Yeah, yeah.

 

TIM SESTAK: Seven Gs.

 

JAD: Except really on a roller coaster, you're only ever gonna experience about two Gs.

 

TIM SESTAK: And then nine Gs.

 

JAD: Nothing like these guys.

 

TIM SESTAK: The high G forces hurt. The skin on your face sags, your eyelids sag so low that you can't see out from under them, and you wind up tilting your head back to look out from under your own eyelids that are sagging down in front of your face.

 

JIM WHINNERY: Meanwhile, you're tensing all your leg muscles and your abdominal muscles and your arm muscles as hard as you can.

 

TIM SESTAK: You learn to use your body to fight it. And what you do is you tense to every muscle from your toes to your calves and thighs.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Push it out. Push it all the way up. All the way up. Okay.]

 

TIM SESTAK: And you take a breath.

 

JIM WHINNERY: And you start to say the word "Hook." And you hold it for three seconds, and then you finish it off by finishing the K of the hook.

 

TIM SESTAK: Yeah, so these pilots they sound like they're wrestling or fighting or something. They're grunting and groaning and making all these hook noises.

 

JIM WHINNERY: It's like that.

 

TIM SESTAK: The most G I've ever pulled was 12.4 Gs.

 

JAD: Just to give you a sense of what that might feel like, for a pilot like Tim Sestak who weighs about 200 pounds, once he makes a 12.4 G turn his body goes from 200 pounds ...

 

ROBERT: To ...

 

JAD: ... to almost 2,500 pounds. So that's like over the weight of a car.

 

ROBERT: Ah. Because of the pressure pushing down on it.

 

JAD: Yeah, exactly. More crucially says Whinnery, those G forces pull blood ...

 

JIM WHINNERY: The blood ...

 

JAD: ... violently from the brain.

 

JIM WHINNERY: ... is pushed from the head down toward the feet, and it pools in the abdomen and the lower extremities. And when it pools down there, it can't get back up to the brain.

 

JAD: And that's when the problems start.

 

ROBERT: Well, that doesn't sound very good.

 

JAD: No. He -- Dr. Whinnery documented a particular sequence that happens when blood is pulled from the brain.

 

JIM WHINNERY: The first thing you lose is vision.

 

TIM SESTAK: Usually the first thing to go are your eyes.

 

JIM WHINNERY: And you have what's called gray out.

 

TIM SESTAK: Gray out.

 

JIM WHINNERY: Or loss of peripheral vision.

 

TIM SESTAK: And you start getting tunnel vision. And ...

 

JIM WHINNERY: Then you go through blackout where you can see nothing.

 

TIM SESTAK: You lose your sight.

 

JIM WHINNERY: And then if you take the acceleration forces a little higher, you'll lose consciousness.

 

TIM SESTAK: When I woke up, I remember just sitting there and I'm in this little white space. I actually had no idea who I was.

 

TIM SESTAK: Who am I?

 

TIM SESTAK: Where I was, or what I was doing.

 

TIM SESTAK: Why am I doing this?

 

TIM SESTAK: So I'm sitting in this little white ball and I'm looking around and ...

 

TIM SESTAK: What is this all about?

 

TIM SESTAK: I hear this beeping. There's this white light beeping, and then at that moment I realize that I'm in a little room and then I'm supposed to do something, and that one of the things I'm supposed to do is press that button. So I pressed the button. And at that moment, I realized holy mackerel, I'm a pilot and I'm in an airplane and I'm not flying it. And I grabbed the controls and then just made a giant right. I'm Tim Sestak. Holy mackerel, I'm Tim Sestak. I'm Tim Sestak, I'm a pilot. I'm flying in the centrifuge. It all came back to me at once and I was okay.

 

[ARCHIVE TAPE, Dr. Bennett: Commander Sestak, it's Dr. Bennett. How you feeling?]

 

[ARCHIVE TAPE, Tim Sestak: Again, like I've been gone a long time.]

 

JAD: Over the course of 15 years, Whinnery tested about 500 pilots in the centrifuge. He recorded their experiences, measured everything he could think of. And he found a few things. First, that the average blackout lasted somewhere between 12 and 24 seconds.

 

ROBERT: 24 seconds!

 

JAD: Yeah. And while blacked out, this is the interesting thing, pilots experienced these strange little visions.

 

ROBERT: Visions?

 

JIM WHINNERY: I'll give you an example of the individual that lost consciousness, had convulsive movements where he was moving his arms forward and back for about two or three seconds. When he came to, we asked him what had happened and he said, "Yeah, it was a nice warm day and I was out at the lake fishing. All of a sudden, I could feel like I had a -- about a five-pound bass on my line, and he was tugging. And each time he tugged I would pull back. And then all of a sudden I was back in the centrifuge. I don't know what happened."

 

JAD: These little dreamlets, Whinnery thinks, this is the brain confused. It's cut off.

 

ROBERT: Meaning?

 

JAD: Think of it from the brain's perspective. It's lost the body, and yet the body is convulsing, trying to get blood back up to the brain. The brain has no idea why it's convulsing, it just sees arms flailing about and it thinks "Well, my arms are jerking back and forth. I must be bass fishing."

 

JIM WHINNERY: The things that are happening around you frequently get incorporated into those short dreamlets.

 

JAD: Here's one of his own. Turns out he has tested himself in the centrifuge many times.

 

JIM WHINNERY: The little dreamlet that I had, I was going down the aisle of a grocery store, floating if you will. I don't know that I was on a magic carpet, but I sure wasn't having to walk. And I was just really motivated to try to pick up some ice cream as I was going down the aisle. And I was moving down through there and I could see the freezer. I knew the ice cream was over there, and I just could not move my hand over to get it. The next thing I realized was I was trying to turn off the buzzer in the centrifuge with my hand and I could hear it, I could not move it. And then just momentarily I got the ability to have motor control returned and I could turn it off.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I don't know where I am. I honest to God don't know where the hell I am. I thought I was at the grocery store. The other thing is I couldn't control my arm to get -- to get the sound off either.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, doctor: That's interesting.]

 

JAD: This recording you're listening to is from a day when Dr. Whinnery blacked out five times in a row.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I don't remember anything on that one.]

 

JAD: And after that fifth run, which you're about to hear, something weird happened.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, doctor: Let you take a break just a few seconds. Catch your breath.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I remember about that one. I don't remember starting that one.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, doctor: Last ride coming up.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: God, I don't ...]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, doctor: If you can take one more.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I'm hesitating because I'm not ready yet.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, technician: Say what?]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I say I'm hesitating because I'm not quite ready yet.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, technician: Okay. Just let me know whenever you get ready. Go ahead and relax. Let you blood flow through your brain a little bit.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: Okay, I'm ready for the last one, I guess.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, technician: Okay, final checklist. Data station. Data station is ready. Operator? Operator is ready. Medical? Medical is ready. Final ready, please. Okay, so final ready has been activated. Are you ready?]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I guess. I'm going up this time, right?]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, technician: Yes, sir.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I'm gonna remember going up on this one.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, technician: Yes, sir. Three, two, one, pressure.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: Goddamn, I can't get the -- I think that was enough.]

 

JAD: At the end of that last run, Dr. Whinnery got off the centrifuge woozy, and stumbled down the hall.

 

JIM WHINNERY: I was really confused when -- when I got off the centrifuge, and I was walking down the hall back to my laboratory. And all of a sudden I began to realize that I was above and behind myself, and I could see somebody who was myself walking down the hall, and I said, "Oh, man. That's unusual."

 

JAD: Pilots are generally not New Age kind of guys, but at least 40 of them in Whinnery's study did report what he just described: having an out-of-body experience. Weirder still, an even smaller sub sub group reported seeing the classic tunnel with white light type thing. All Dr. Whinnery can say is that that last sub sub group, they were the ones who were out the longest. They had the most intense blackouts. He's not ready to draw any conclusions, but he does suspect that the dreamlets, the visions of seeing yourself from above, even the tunnel and white lights, it's all part of the same situation. The brain is just confused at having lost the body.

 

JAD: Ann Heppermann and Kara Oehler produced that piece for us. Thank you to them. And thanks also to our pilots, Dan Fulgham, Tim Sestak and of course Jim Whinnery.

 

ROBERT: Wow.

 

JAD: That's all the time we have. For more information on anything you heard this hour, visit our website, Radiolab.org. And while you are there send us an email. Our email address, you know it.

 

ROBERT: No.

 

JAD: Come on!

 

ROBERT: I've never really learned it. Radiolab.org or something like that?

 

JAD: No, that's our website address.

 

ROBERT: Oh.

 

JAD: If you would like to email us, and we do like to get email, the address is radiolab@wnyc.org. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT: And I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: Thanks for listening.

 

[TIM SESTAK: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad and Ellen Horne, with help from Sara Pellegrini, Sally Herships, Melissa Kevill, Lulu Miller, Amber Seely and Brett Baier. Special thanks to Arwen Curry, Tamar Lewin, Nick Capodice, Ann Heppermann, Kara Oehler and Keith Scott. Production management by Dean Cappello and Michael Alsessor. And a very special thanks to me. I'm Tim Sestak, fully conscious and happy to be speaking to you from this side of the great divide. Radiolab is produced by New York Public Radio WNYC and distributed by NPR. Okay, thanks.]

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