Out of body experiences

Imagine the feeling of falling asleep, or undergoing a relaxing meditative experience, only to suddenly feel yourself floating and upon opening your eyes looking down to see yourself below. For some this might be an intriguing experience with profound implications, whilst others may find it bewildering and disorienting. Such an event is encapsulated within the fascinating concept of an out of body experience (OBE), which is the focus of this chapter. The chapter begins by attempting to define an OBE, identifying some of the core components which make up the experience. This is followed by an exploration of the main characteristics of the OBE. It then examines how common such experiences are, under what conditions they occur and to whom. The chapter then examines four main approaches in the field of OBE research. This includes attempts to detect the subtle second body, obtain veridical information from such excursions, identify possible psychophysiological changes and more recently the work on inducing such experiences. The chapter then examines the three main types of explanation. These are encapsulated within the broad headings of psychological, neurological and projection theories. Finally, the chapter briefly considers some of the implications that arise from the OBE.

What is an OBE?

Initially it may seem a straight forward concept to define. The out of body experience is precisely that: the subjective experience of being, or existing, outside of the physical body whilst remaining consciously aware of the disconnection from the physical (e.g., Blackmore, 2005; Neppe, 2011; Tart, 1998; Twemlow, Gabbard, & Jones, 1982). Other terms are also used, including astral projection, spirit travel and travelling clairvoyance (e.g., Braude, 2001; J. C. Smith, 2010; Steiger, 1982). However, there are many features of the OBE that suggest it is a far more complex and less unitary experience than originally thought. For instance, all would agree that the element of conscious awareness needs to be spatially distinct from the physical body. In addition, some would argue that the OBE also needs to include the idea that the experient observes the world from an elevated viewpoint that remains distant from the physical body (Anzellotti et al., 2011; Bunning & Blanke, 2005; Holt, Simmonds-Moore, Luke, & French, 2012). A slightly more contentious point is the suggestion that during the OBE the individual needs to have the experience of seeing their own body (e.g., Anzellotti et al., 2011; Blanke & Arzy, 2005; Blanke & Mohr, 2005; Bunning 8c Blanke, 2005; Tart, 1998). This is problematic because others have reported thatmany OBE experients do not report seeing their own physical body (e.g., Irwin, 1985; Jones, Gabbard, & Twemlow, 1984). For instance, Braithwaite, Broglia, Bagshaw and Wilkins (2013) found that only 53% of those who experienced an OBE reported seeing their own body. Furthermore, not all those who report an OBE feel that they are in a body in the sense of being encapsulated within a particular form. Some feel as though they are simply a disembodied point of conscious awareness, like a bubble or spot of light (Blackmore, 2005). Others have reported multiple bodies including a physical body, a distinct psychic body and an intermediate called the subtle body (Tressoldi et al., 2015). Furthermore, others have found that up to 20% report the existence of a silvery cord linking their conscious awareness to their spatially distant physical body (e.g., Alvarado, 2012; Alvarado & Zingrone, 1998; Alvarado, Zingrone, & Dalton, 1999; Hurd, 2016) and others have argued that the OBE includes obtaining information which is later validated as correct (e.g., Osis & McCormick, 1980; Palmer & Lieberman, 1975; Tressoldi et al., 2014). The examples from Green (1968) in Box 9.1 nicely illustrate some of these elements.

Box 9.1 Elements of the out of body experience

Dislocation

I was sitting at the rear of the bus looking out through the window. When without warning I found myself looking at myself from the stairs of the bus. All my senses, sight and feelings and so on seemed to be on the stairs only my actual body remained at the seat. (p. 20)

Elevated perspective

I was resting on the bed in the afternoon, when suddenly I saw myself on the bed. I was so surprised, I couldn’t believe it... There was no doubt at all that I was outside of my body looking down on myself, (p. 62)

T ravel

I cannot ever remember having to consciously think about opening doors etc., there seemed to be no physical barrier as to where I go ... the mind seems just to roam anywhere, (p. 127)

Veridical perceptions

I looked down at my body then kind of floated out of the room into a street and stopped before a house and I entered and went to a bedroom facing the stairs. The man lying in bed was a very old friend whom I had not seen for a year or two ... When I [later] told him he lived in an upstairs flat and how the furniture was placed in the bedroom, he wanted to know how I knew. (p. 126) (Green, 1968)

What the findings outlined above show is that there is no clear consensus on what precisely an OBE represents. This has led to suggestions that the OBE is not a single unitary experience at all, but more accurately represents a diverse range of potential experiences across a spectrum (see Figure 9.1) that range from imagination to a fullblown OBE with veridical reports of distant target information (see e.g., Braithwaite & Dent, 2011a; Neppe, 2011; Tart, 1998; Twemlow et al., 1982). This has important implications because the various types of OBE may be supported by and/or influenced by distinct underlying psychological or neurological mechanisms. As Neppe (2011) has pointed out, to classify all OBEs under a single heading may be both erroneous and misleading. For instance, there may be distinct stages within the OBE realm of experiences as well as distinct sub-types of OBE. Some have suggested that the OBE contains specific multiple components, but as yet there is no agreement on precisely what those components should be (e.g., Anzellotti et al., 2011; Bunning & Blanke, 2005; Neppe, 2011; Tart, 1998). Hence, the differences in the way the experience may be defined are likely to account for the mixed findings in the literature. In addition, this lack of a clear definition represents a challenge for those exploring potential concomitants of the OBE. For instance, when examining personality features that may be associated with the OBE researchers often ask participants ‘have you ever felt your consciousness to be separate from your physical body’, and if the answer is affirmative the individual is classified as having had an OBE (e.g., Alvarado et al., 1999; Gow, Lang, & Chant, 2004; Murray & Fox, 2005; Parra, 2010). This is problematic for several reasons. First, it is not clear whether the participant’s understanding of what constitutes a separate consciousness is the same as that for the researchers. Second, there is often no verification that the experience referred to was an OBE and if so what type. For instance, when given the above question a participant could legitimately answer yes when thinking about a lucid dream.

It is important to point out that whilst these issues are limitations, which may hinder the research conducted in the field, it does not mean that the OBE does not exist, simply that, as Neppe (2011) has argued, a more detailed level of screening and

The various elements reported during and OBE and the possible range of experiences from imagination and illusion at one end

Figure 9.1 The various elements reported during and OBE and the possible range of experiences from imagination and illusion at one end (i.e., the left) to the veridical perception of distant target information at the other (i.e., the right).

classification of such experiences is required to ensure that similar experiences are grouped together, and that relying on a single question to examine OBEs is inadequate.

Characteristics of the OBE

According to Hurd (2016) the OBE may represent a unique experience for the individual in question; however, there are certain aspects that appear across multiple reports which may help to provide some insights into the nature of such an experience. These include physical sensations, sensory experiences, the vividness of the experience, the level of control over the experience, the number of OBEs that an individual experiences and the duration of the experience.

Physical experiences

During an OBE many report the physical sensation of floating which can include movement to distant locations (Alvarado, 1992; Sellers, 2017, 2018), though Twemlow et al. (1982) found that 58% of their sample who reported OBEs remained in the same physical environment as their body. Some also report feeling physical vibrations move throughout their body, particularly at the beginning and end of the experience (Blackmore, 2005; Hurd, 2016; Twemlow et al., 1982) as well as hearing noises (Irwin, 1985). Interestingly, whilst Twemlow et al. (1982) found that 68% of their sample reported that their OBE form was similar to that of their physical body, others have reported feeling as though they were a disembodied form of consciousness, a ball of light or a silvery-white cloud (e.g., Alvarado, 2000; Blackmore, 2005; Tressoldi et al., 2015). Nevertheless, most report that during the OBE it is not possible for them to interact with physical objects and/or people in the world. Such attempts often result in the hand of the experient passing unnoticed through the object or person.

Sensory experience

Given that vision is the dominant sense in humans (e.g., Kolb, Whishaw, & Teskey, 2016) it is perhaps unsurprising that OBEs are predominantly visual in nature (Blackmore, 2005; Holt et al., 2012; Hurd, 2016; Sellers, 2018), although the precise nature of such visual sensations can differ in that experients report being able to see through solid objects, or around them as well as being able to see clearly in the dark. The involvement of the other sense seems to mirror that in normal perceptual experiences.

Vividness

A point raised by many who experience an OBE is the vivid and intense nature of the experience. For example, Twemlow et al. (1982) found that 93% of their sample reported that their OBE was more real than a dream. Others have also found that individuals report highly vivid and extremely clear experiences often associated with heightened sensory processing abilities that are more acute, bright and richly coloured than in the normal waking state (Blackmore, 2005; Hurd, 2016; Sellers, 2017). Such findings are consistent with the notion that the experience often produces a profound effect in the individual.

Control

The ability to control the OBE is one that has been reported by the more adept individuals (e.g., Monroe, 1971; Muldoon & Carrington, 1929; Steiger, 1982), though for others it is often much less. For instance Alvarado and Zingrone (1998) reported that 30% of their OBE sample reported having some level of control, with 38% responding that they had no control at all. In addition, Irwin (1985) found that females reported greater control compared to males. The ability to exert control over the OBE is predominantly used to define the location or individual focus of the experience. Such movement and focus have been reported to be regulated by intention rather than relying on or being influenced by physical ability. For example, attempts by Tressoldi et al. (2014) to induce an OBE showed that control of the process, which in this instance was the acquisition of visual information, was purely regulated by the participant’s focused conscious intention. They reported that the act of perceiving a distant object was achieved by zooming in on it using conscious intention and the ability to focus.

Number of OBEs

There is limited data on the precise number of OBEs any one individual has experienced. This is further complicated by many researchers attempting to classify such experiences in a dichotomous manner, labelling them as either one or more than one (e.g., Twemlow et al., 1982). This latter category offers a very wide range of possibilities but provides little precise detail. Hence, future researchers should clearly identify the precise number of OBEs any one individual has experienced. That said, the limited reports do suggest that the majority of those that have reported such experiences often had more than one OBE (e.g., Palmer, 1979; Parra, 2010; Sellers, 2017). This would fit with the findings suggesting that the majority find such an experience to be pleasant and beneficial. Indeed, Twemlow et al. (1982) noted that 84% of their sample that had experienced an OBE indicated they would try it again. As such, it may be that those who have already experienced an OBE are more likely to experience another, possibly in part due to their positive initial reaction.

Duration

Again it is not always clear how long such an experience may last. Sellers (2017) reported on a single case study of OBEs that could last from minutes to hours. However, such self-reports need to be interpreted with caution given the findings suggesting that those who experience an OBE may lose their sense of time when involved in an OBE (Alvarado et al., 1999; Twemlow et al., 1982). For instance, a phenomenological comparison among OBEs experienced both spontaneously and induced via hypnosis showed that perception of time changed during the experience (De Foe, Al Khafaji, Pederzoli, Prati, & Tressoldi, 2017). Reports indicated that the perception of time was counterintuitive to normal perception and that it was not perceived the same way, becoming faster or slower.

 
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