The experiments, described in the Science journal, offer a scientific explanation for a phenomenon experienced by one in 10 people.
Two teams used virtual reality goggles to con the brain into thinking the body was located elsewhere.
The visual illusion plus the feel of their real bodies being touched made volunteers sense that they had moved outside of their physical bodies.
The researchers say their findings could have practical applications, such as helping take video games to the next level of virtuality so the players feel as if they are actually inside the game.
Clinically, surgeons might also be able to perform operations on patients thousands of miles away by controlling a robotic virtual self.