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out-of-body experience (OBE)
Surveys show that about 15% to 20% of the population have had an OBE at some time during their lives. (Blackmore 1982)
An out-of-body experience (OBE) is characterized by a feeling of departing from one’s physical body and observing both one’s self and the world from outside one’s body. The experience is quite common in dreams, daydreams, and memories, where we quite often take the external perspective. Some OBEs coincide with lucid dreaming. Some people experience an OBE while under the influence of an anesthetic or while semi-conscious due to trauma. Some people have an OBE while under the influence of drugs. OBEs have been induced by electrically stimulating the right angular gyrus (located at the juncture of the temporal and parietal lobes).* Finally, some people experience an OBE when they are near death (near-death experiences or NDEs).
Susan Blackmore, a former parapsychologist with heavy skeptical leanings, is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on OBEs and NDEs. She had an OBE while attending Oxford University during the early 1970s. By her own admission she “spent much of the time stoned, experimenting with different drugs” (Shermer 1998). During her first year at Oxford she had an OBE after several hours on the Ouija board while stoned on marijuana. The experience also occurred during a period of her life when sleep deprivation was common for her. She describes herself as having been in “a fairly peculiar state of mind” when she had the OBE (ibid.).
In her OBE, Blackmore went down a tunnel of trees toward a light, floated on the ceiling and observed her body below, saw a silver cord connecting her floating astral body, floated out of the building around Oxford and then over England, and finally across the Atlantic to New York. (In An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redford Jamison, who suffers from bipolar disorder, describes a similar voyage to Jupiter while she was enjoying the manic phase of her mental illness.)
After hovering around New York, Blackmore floated back to her room in Oxford where she became very small and entered her body’s toes. Then she grew very big, as big as a planet at first, and then she filled the solar system, and finally she became as large as the universe.
Blackmore attributes her experience to peculiar brain processes such as might cause “neuronal disinhibition in the visual cortex,” which is her explanation for hallucinations and NDEs. She did not consider investigating abnormal psychology—her interest in psychology would come later—where she would find many similar cases of Alice-in-Wonderland voyagers. At this stage in her life, the occult seemed to be the place to find an explanation for her experiences. So, she devoted her study to astral projection and theosophy, hoping to find an answer. Her experience with the silver cord is right out of traditional occult literature on astral projection.
One explanation of the OBE is that consciousness is a separate entity from the body (dualism) and can exist without the body and the body without it. The disembodied consciousness can ‘see,’ ‘hear,’ ‘feel,’ ‘taste,’ and ‘smell’. Some speculate that 'mind,' 'spirit,' or 'consciousness' can operate over vast distances and perceive objects by some mysterious power not yet discovered. Others think that they are due to brain states triggered by disease or stress.
If minds were leaving bodies, one would expect that there would be minds out of their bodies everywhere. You’d think that there’d be a mix-up occasionally and one or two souls or astral bodies would come back to the wrong physical bodies, or at least get their silver cords tangled up. One would expect some minds to get lost and never find their way back to their bodies. There should be at least a few mindless bodies wandering or lying around, abandoned by their souls as unnecessary baggage. There should also be a few confused souls who don’t know who they are because they’re in the wrong bodies.
My suspicion is that the neuroscientists are on the right track and that someday we will understand the pathology of the OBE. That is not to say that these experiences are not real. For example, one of my students has been having OBEs since she was seven. She's now 19 and says she has six or more OBEs a year. They occur only at night when she is in bed and they are all spontaneous. Even though she was, and remains, frightened by these experiences (because she fears she is dying and will not return to her body), she told me she used to think everybody had them. She's been to heaven and has seen Jesus and her guardian angels (she says we all have two). They were very large and dressed in white, though Jesus wore a purple sash. She told me she's very spiritual and suffers from migraines but has never seen a doctor about them because her family doesn't believe one should go to a doctor unless one is at death's door. Does her mind leave her body? Or is her brain playing tricks on her? I strongly suspect the latter, but even if it were discovered that she has a brain abnormality that is causing both her migraines and her OBEs, it is still theoretically possible that her mind leaves her body and that her experiences are not hallucinations. I suppose it is also theoretically possible that her experiences are paranormal. Maybe she's getting telepathic messages from her mother, who is very spiritual, too. Either way, these experiences seem to define her existence.
books and articles
Brugger, Peter and Marianne Regard. "Illusory Reduplication of One's Own Body: Phenomenology and Classification of Autoscopic Phenomena," Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 1997, 2 (1), 19-38.
Brugger, Peter. "Reflective mirrors: Perspective-taking in autoscopic phenomena," Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 2002, 7 (3), 179-194.
Shermer, Michael. "A Mind Out of Body," in Skeptic, vol. 6 No. 3, 1998, pp.72-79.
Robert Monroe (His doctor could find nothing was wrong with him, even though he was clearly hallucinating. He should have gotten a second opinion.)
Michael Shermer's OBE in the lab (YouTube)
Out-of-body experience and autoscopy of neurological origin by Olaf Blanke et al.