Out of Body Experience

An out-of-body experience (OBE) is an experience that typically involves a sensation of floating outside of one’s body and, in some cases, perceiving one’s physical body from a place outside one’s body (autoscopy). The term was introduced in 1943 by G.N.M Tyrrell in his book ‘Apparitions,’ and adopted as a bias-free alternative to belief-centric labels such as ‘astral projection,’ ‘soul travel,’ or ‘spirit walking.’

Though the term usefully distances researchers from scientifically problematic concepts such as the soul, scientists still know little about the phenomenon. Some researchers believe they have managed to recreate OBE in a laboratory setup by stimulating a part in the human brain. One in ten people has an out-of-body experience once, or more commonly, several times in their life. OBEs are often part of the near-death experience. Those who have experienced OBEs sometimes claim to have observed details which were unknown to them beforehand.

In some cases the phenomenon appears to occur spontaneously; in others it is associated with a physical or mental trauma, dehydration, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, use of psychedelic drugs, dissociative drugs, or a dream-like state. Many techniques aiming to induce the experience deliberately have been developed, for example visualization while in a relaxed, meditative state. Recent studies have shown that experiences somewhat similar to OBEs can be induced by electrical brain stimulation (particularly the temporoparietal junction). Some of those who experience OBEs claimed to have willed themselves out of their bodies, while others report having found themselves being pulled from their bodies (usually preceded by a feeling of paralysis). In other accounts, the feeling of being outside the body was suddenly realized after the fact, and the experiencers saw their own bodies almost by accident.

Some neurologists have suspected that the event is triggered by a mismatch between visual and tactile signals. They used a virtual reality setup to recreate an OBE. The subject looked through goggles and saw his own body as it would appear to an outside observer standing behind him. The experimenter then touched the subject at the same time as a rod appeared to touch the virtual image. The experiment created an illusion of being behind and outside one’s body. However, both critics and the experimenter himself note that the study fell short of replicating ‘full-blown’ OBEs.

Those experiencing OBEs sometimes report a preceding and initiating lucid-dream state, though other types of immediate and spontaneous experience are also reported. In many cases, people who claimed to have had an OBE reported being on the verge of sleep, or already asleep shortly before the experience. A large percentage of these cases referred to situations where the sleep was not particularly deep (due to illness, noises in other rooms, emotional stress, exhaustion from overworking, frequent re-awakening, etc.). In most of these cases the subjects then felt themselves awake; about half of them noted a feeling of sleep paralysis.

Another form of spontaneous OBE is the near-death experience (NDE). Some subjects report having had an OBE at times of severe physical trauma such as near-drownings or major surgery. OBEs due to medical trauma only occur when the patient’s heart stops beating and patient stops breathing. In the case of motor vehicle accidents, they are able to recall the accident as if observing it from a location outside the vehicle. Along the same lines as an NDE, extreme physical effort during activities such as high-altitude climbing and marathon running can induce OBEs. A sense of bilocation may be apparent, with both ground and air-based perspectives being experienced simultaneously.

Non-spontaneous methods include mental, mechanical, and chemical induction.

Mental inductions include falling asleep physically without losing wakefulness. The ‘Mind Awake, Body Asleep’ state is widely suggested as a cause of OBEs, voluntary and otherwise. Thomas Edison used this state to tackle problems while working on his inventions. He would rest a silver dollar on his head while sitting with a metal bucket in a chair. As he drifted off, the coin would noisily fall into the bucket, restoring some of his alertness. OBE pioneer Sylvan Muldoon more simply used a forearm held perpendicular in bed as the falling object. Salvador Dali was said to use a similar ‘paranoiac-critical’ method to gain odd visions which inspired his paintings.

Deliberately teetering between awake and asleep states is known to cause spontaneous trance episodes at the onset of sleep which are ultimately helpful when attempting to induce an OBE. By moving deeper and deeper into relaxation, one eventually encounters a ‘slipping’ feeling if the mind is still alert. This slipping is reported to feel like leaving the physical body. Some consider progressive relaxation a passive form of sensory deprivation.

‘Waking up mentally but not physically’ is typically achieved through the practice of lucid dreaming. Once inside a lucid dream, the dreamer either shifts the subject matter of the dream in an OBE direction or banishes the dream imagery completely, in doing so gaining access to the underlying state of sleep paralysis ideal for visualization of separation from the body.

Deep trance, meditation and visualization can also lead to OBE. Common imageries include climbing a rope to ‘pull out’ of one’s body, floating out of one’s body, getting shot out of a cannon, and other similar approaches. This technique is considered hard to use for people who cannot properly relax. One example of such a technique is the popular Golden Dawn ‘Body of Light’ Technique.

Mechanical induction methods include brainwave synchronization via audio/visual stimulation. Binaural beats can be used to induce specific brainwave frequencies, notably those predominant in various mind awake/body asleep states. Binaural induction of the ‘body asleep’ theta brainwave frequencies characteristic of dreaming REM sleep was observed as effective by the Monroe Institute (and corroborated by others). Simultaneous introduction of ‘mind awake’ beta frequencies (detectable in the brains of normal, relaxed awakened individuals) was also observed as constructive. Another popular technology uses sinusoidal wave pulses to achieve similar results, and the drumming accompanying native American religious ceremonies is also believed to have heightened receptivity to ‘other worlds’ through brainwave entrainment mechanisms.

Other moralities of mechanical induction include magnetic stimulation of the brain, as with the God helmet developed by Michael Persinger; electrical stimulation of the brain, particularly the temporoparietal junction; sensory deprivation (encourages intense disorientation by removal of space and time references); flotation tanks; or pink noise.

Sensory overload, the opposite of sensory deprivation, can also induce OBE. The subject can for instance be rocked for a long time in a specially designed cradle, or submitted to light forms of torture, to cause the brain to shut itself off from all sensory input. Both conditions tend to cause confusion and this disorientation often permits the subject to experience vivid, ethereal out-of-body experiences. This tends to happen when the subject believes he or she is in a particular position, whereas his or her actual body is either rocking in a cradle actively, or still lying down. Consciousness suddenly transfers to the mental body.

Chemical induction includes the use of drugs. OBEs induced with drugs are sometimes considered to be hallucinations (i.e., purely subjective), even by those who believe the phenomenon to be objective in general. There are several types of drugs that can initiate an OBE, primarily the dissociative hallucinogens such as ketamine, dextromethorphan (DM or DXM), and phencyclidine (PCP). It has also been reported under the influence of tryptamine psychedelics including dimethyltryptamine (DMT) from ayahuasca. Salvia divinorum has been known to produce symptoms in which the user is said to be able to leave his or her body and travel to many places at once. Many users also claim that they feel as if their ‘soul’ falls out of their body.

Methamphetamine has also been known to cause OBEs, not in itself but through lack of sleep. It has been reported that it felt like the person was talking above and behind them and, being under the influence of the drug, had no idea what was happening.

Galantamine, an Alzheimer’s disease treatment, is a nootropic (smart drug) that can increase the odds of success when using along with out-of-body experience or lucid dream induction techniques.

OBEs tend to fall into two types, categorized by Robert Monroe as Locale 1 and Locale 2 experiences. In Locale 1 experiences the environment is largely consistent with reality; other common labels for this form are etheric, ethereal or RTZ (Real Time Zone) projections. The onset of this type can be frightening as intense physiological sensations may be perceived, such as electrical tingling, full body vibrations and racing heartbeat. Confusion is common in spontaneous Locale 1 experiences; the person can believe he or she has awakened (or died) physically and panic can be caused by the realization that one’s limbs appear to be penetrating other objects.

Locale 2 experiences are less overtly physical in nature and have much subjective overlap with lucid dreaming. The subject is immersed in unrealistic worlds, modified forms of reality exhibiting physically impossible or inconsistent features. Bright and vivid colors are a common feature of this form. Robert Bruce considers this type of OBE to be an ‘astral projection.’

In surveys, many espondents tell of hearing loud noises, known as ‘exploding head syndrome’ (EHS), during the onset of OBEs. An archetypal OBE unfolds through perceptually distinct stages:

Withdrawal stage: Conscious interaction with the physical environment ceases. Attention is elsewhere, with sensory inputs going unnoticed; the body is on auto-pilot. Sleeping is an example of this stage.

Cataleptic stage: Movement is totally impaired. Alternative sensory information may suddenly seem present, such as intense vibrations, noises and sight through closed eyelids.

Separation stage: With effort, the perceptual viewpoint can be pulled away from the physical body location. Still subject to intense sensation, pull back towards the body obstructs progression.

Free movement stage: Beyond a certain radius, movement becomes unimpeded, with control increasing markedly. Visual and mental clarity can vary greatly, from barely functional to exceptional.

Re-entry stage: Perceived need to return increases, leading either to voluntary reversal of separation or extremely fast involuntary snap-back. Alternatively, a transition to waking or sleeping may occur.

In practice, the absence of one or more of the classical stages is not unusual. Some (notably Robert Monroe) have claimed these stages become considerably less applicable with extreme familiarity with OBE, eventually finding just a deliberate mental shift to the feeling of the state equivalent. Monroe likened this to tuning a radio away from one station and towards another, and termed the process ‘phasing.’

The OBE may or may not be followed by other experiences which are self-reported as being ‘as real’ as the OBE feeling; alternatively, the subject may fade into a state self-reported as dreaming, or they may awake completely. The OBE is sometimes ended due to a fearful feeling of getting ‘too far away’ from the body. Many end with a feeling of suddenly ‘popping’ or ‘snapping’ and sometimes a ‘pulling’ back into their bodies; some even report being ‘sucked back’ into physical form. A majority describe the end of the experience by saying ‘then I woke up.’

However, some report returning the physical body and senses consciously. Transitioning from the ‘dream body’ in an OBE back to the physical body has been compared to using a camera to slowly unfocus on a distant object (the dream or OBE body) while refocusing on a much closer one (the physical body). The distant object blurs out at first and eventually disappears completely as the new object comes into focus.

However it’s worth noting that even those who describe the experience as something fantastic that occurs during sleep, and who describe the end of the experience by saying ‘and then I woke up,’ are very specific in describing the experience as one which was clearly not a dream; many described their sense of feeling more awake than they felt when they were normally awake.

The phenomenology of a near-death-experience usually includes additional physiological, psychological and transcendental factors beyond those of typical OBEs. Near-death experiences may include subjective impressions of being outside the physical body, visions of deceased relatives and religious figures, and transcendence of ego and spatiotemporal boundaries. Typically the experience includes such factors as: a sense of being dead; a feeling of peace and painlessness; hearing of various non-physical sounds, an out-of-body experience; a tunnel experience (the sense of moving up or through a narrow passageway); encountering people of Light; God-like figures, helpers, spiritual guides, or similar forces; being given a ‘Life review,’ and a reluctance to return to life.

The first extensive scientific study of OBEs was made by Celia Green (1968). She collected written, first-hand accounts from a total of 400 subjects, recruited by means of appeals in the mainstream media, and followed up by questionnaires. Her purpose was to provide a taxonomy of the different types of OBE, viewed simply as an anomalous perceptual experience or hallucination, while leaving open the question of whether some of the cases might incorporate information derived by extrasensory perception.

Previous collections of cases had been made by Dr Ernesto Bozzano (Italy) and Dr Robert Crookall (UK). Crookall approached the subject from a spiritualistic position, and collected his cases predominantly from spiritualist newspapers such as the ‘Psychic News,’ which appears to have biased his results in various ways. For example, the majority of his subjects reported seeing a cord connecting the physical body and its observing counterpart; whereas Green found that less of her subjects noticed anything of this sort, and many reported feeling they were a ‘disembodied consciousness,’ with no external body at all.

In 1999, at the 1st International Forum of Consciousness Research in Barcelona, International Academy of Consciousness research-practitioners Wagner Alegretti and Nanci Trivellato presented preliminary findings of an online survey on the out-of-body experience answered by internet users interested in the subject. The most commonly reported sensations experienced in connection with the OBE were falling, floating, repercussions e.g. myoclonia (the jerking of limbs, jerking awake), sinking, torpidity (numbness), intracranial sounds, tingling, clairvoyance, oscillation and serenity.

Another reported common sensation related to OBE was temporary or projective catalepsy, more commonly known as sleep paralysis. The sleep paralysis and OBE correlation was later corroborated by the Out-of-Body Experience and Arousal study published. Also noteworthy, is the Waterloo Unusual Sleep Experiences Questionnaire that further illustrates the correlation.

There are several possible physiological explanations for parts of the OBE. OBE-like experiences have been induced by stimulation of the brain. Positron-emission tomography was also used in this study to identify brain regions affected by this stimulation. The term OBE-like is used above because the experiences described in these experiments either lacked some of the clarity or details of normal OBEs, or were described by subjects who had never experienced an OBE before. Such subjects were therefore not qualified to make claims about the authenticity of the experimentally-induced OBE.

English psychologist Susan Blackmore suggests that an OBE begins when a person loses contact with sensory input from the body while remaining conscious. The person retains the illusion of having a body, but that perception is no longer derived from the senses. The perceived world may resemble the world he or she generally inhabits while awake, but this perception does not come from the senses either. The vivid body and world is made by our brain’s ability to create fully convincing realms, even in the absence of sensory information. This process is witnessed by each of us every night in our dreams, though OBEs are claimed to be far more vivid than even a lucid dream.

OBEs appear to occur under conditions of either very high or very low arousal. But, a substantial minority of cases occur under conditions of maximum arousal, such as a rock-climbing fall, a traffic accident, or childbirth. This paradox may be explained by reference to the fact that sleep can supervene as a reaction to extreme stress or hyper-arousal. OBEs under both conditions, relaxation and hyper-arousal, represent a form of ‘waking dream,’ or the intrusion of Stage 1 sleep processes into waking consciousness.

The first clinical study of near-death experiences (NDE’s) in cardiac arrest patients was by Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist from the Netherlands in 2001. Of 344 patients who were successfully resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest, approximately 18% experienced ‘classic’ NDE’s, which included out-of-body experiences. The patients remembered details of their conditions during their cardiac arrest despite being clinically dead with flatlined brain stem activity.

Van Lommel concluded that his findings supported the theory that consciousness continued despite lack of neuronal activity in the brain. Van Lommel conjectured that continuity of consciousness may be achievable if the brain acted as a receiver for the information generated by memories and consciousness, which existed independently of the brain, just as radio, television and internet information existed independently of the instruments that received it.

Research by Olaf Blanke in Switzerland found that it is possible to reliably elicit experiences somewhat similar to the OBE by stimulating regions of the brain called the right temporal-parietal junction (TPJ; a region where the temporal lobe and parietal lobe of the brain come together). Blanke and his collaborators in Switzerland have explored the neural basis of OBEs by showing that they are reliably associated with lesions in the right TPJ region and that they can be reliably elicited with electrical stimulation of this region in a patient with epilepsy. These elicited experiences may include perceptions of transformations of the patient’s arms and legs (complex somatosensory responses) and whole-body displacements (vestibular responses).

In a follow up study, Arzy et al. showed that the location and timing of brain activation depended on whether mental imagery is performed with mentally embodied or disembodied self location. When subjects performed mental imagery with an embodied location, there was increased activation of a region called the ‘extrastriate body area’ (EBA), but when subjects performed mental imagery with a disembodied location, as reported in OBEs, there was increased activation in the region of the TPJ. This leads Arzy et al. to argue that ‘these data show that distributed brain activity at the EBA and TPJ as well as their timing are crucial for the coding of the self as embodied and as spatially situated within the human body.’

Blanke and colleagues thus propose that the right TPJ is important for the sense of spatial location of the self, and that when these normal processes go awry, an OBE arises.

Astral projection is a paranormal interpretation of out-of-body experiences that assumes the existence of one or more non-physical planes of existence and an associated body beyond the physical. Commonly such planes are called astral, etheric, or spiritual. Astral projection is often experienced as the spirit or astral body leaving the physical body to travel in the spirit world or astral plane. Evidence for objective reality of projection on to the etheric plane (a near-copy of the physical plane) is sometimes suggested when people, such as patients during surgery, describe OBEs in which they see or hear events or objects outside their sensory range (for instance, Pam Reynolds reported experiencing an OBE during brain surgery and described a surgical instrument she had not seen previously, as well as conversation that occurred while she was under anethesia).

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