Out of Body experiences (OBEs) are often considered proof for spirituality, some sort of afterlife, or at least a concept of consciousness where the mind and the body are severable (something I have written about before as not having a basis in physics).
Some of the history and types of OBEs are described on the Out of Body Research Site.
In order to fully understand what an out of body experience (OBE) is, it must be understood as one of many related spiritual spectrum phenomena. An OBE can be defined as an experience in which a person seems to perceive the world from a location outside the physical body.
The study of OBEs began with Robert Monroe based upon a personal experience, experiences that are shared by many around the world.
In 1958 Monroe had his first OBE. The experience was profound enough to him that he spent the rest of his life trying to scientifically figure out what happened to him. Since Monroe was the son of a college professor and a doctor, he readily subjected himself to be scientifically studied at the Topeka VA hospital in 1977. Needless to say Monroe was greatly relieved when Dr. Stuart Twemlow, M.D. declared him a sane individual with no evidence of psychological disturbance or other mental imbalances. In 1980, Twemlow presented his OBE study of 339 individuals to the American Psychiatric Association of San Francisco, entitled The Out-Of-Body Experience Phenomenology. This is one of the first major studies of its kind and can be found at the back of Monroe’s second major book, Far Journeys. Charles Tart, a prominent OBE researcher, also conducted experiments on Monroe.
Other pioneering work on OBEs was done by Dean Shiels, in a 1978 study of almost 70 non-Western cultures around the world. Out of 54 cultures that responded, 46% claimed that most or all people could travel outside the physical body under certain conditions. 43% claimed that a few people could have OBEs, and only 3 cultures claimed that OBEs don’t happen. His formal conclusion was similar to what we typically observe in NDEs – that although there are significant differences in cultural upbringing, religious beliefs, and experiencers come from all walks of life across geographical and vastly different socioeconomic and educational stature, there remain striking similarities in the basic elements of separation of consciousness from the body. Moreover, the OBE phenomena is fairly common in that 14-34% of people have experienced an OBE depending on which of the numerous surveys one reviews. Susan Blackmore, an NDE skeptic, conservatively estimates the incidence of OBEs around 10%.
Some of the types of OBEs are:
- NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE A near death experience is loosely defined as a collection of memories occurring at or after the time of bodily death.
- ASTRAL PROJECTION, DREAMING While out of body, astral projection, and
lucid dreaming all share the common element of the consciousness separating from the body, there are some technical distinctions. OBEs may occur consciously (voluntarily) or spontaneously (involuntarily), but the person is usually in a wakeful or relaxed state, and then the consciousness leaves the body.
- ASTRAL PROJECTION. Astral projection is usually associated with inter-dimensional travel where places may sound like dreams since there are no earthly points of reference.
- LUCID DREAMING. Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden, first used the term “lucid dreaming” in 1913, when referring to the type of dream one consciously knows they are dreaming. Lucid dreaming is considered an altered reality, much like a dream, but one is usually asleep when the body travels. Lucid dreaming appears to be a type of dream where a person is super-alert and is open to communication from the other side.
All of these are based upon the subjective experiences of individuals and many of the people explaining them make the initial assumption that there is a ‘mind’ separate from the brain that is capable of leaving the body and having it’s own experiences. This concept is not backed up by modern neurology. Steve Novella, a clinical neurologist, has written several blog posts on the topic (here, here, and here). In the latter, he lays out the foundation for the scientific view of consciousness, based upon predictability.
If the mind is completely a product of the material function of the brain then:
- There will be no mental phenomena without brain function.
- As brain function is altered, the mind will be altered.
- If the brain is damaged, then mental function will be damaged.
- Brain development will correlate with mental development.
- We will be able to correlate brain activity with mental activity – no matter how we choose to look at it.
All of these predictions have been resolved in favor of materialism. “Every single one!” Dualism makes predictions too – that some mental function will be documented to exist separate from brain function. The evidence for this? None.
This is the essence of science. Not only must there be an explanation for a phenomenon, there must be predictability and falsifiability. A scientific theory is must be able to make predictions that can be tested. If necessary, the theory is modified to accommodate the new information, and new and different predictions are made.
While some of these experiences can be explained by sleep paralysis, there is research that demonstrates that the experiences can be reproduced in a laboratory with no need to add the complication of a separate mind. In Nature, Ed Yong discusses the work of Henrik Ehrsson, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm who regularly takes people and plays with their sense of self.
Out-of-body experiences are just part of Ehrsson’s repertoire. He has convinced people that they have swapped bodies with another person, gained a third arm, shrunk to the size of a doll or grown to giant proportions. The storeroom in his lab is stuffed with mannequins of various sizes, disembodied dolls’ heads, fake hands, cameras, knives and hammers. It looks like a serial killer’s basement.
Ehrsson’s work challenges the notion that consciousness and awareness of self are metaphysical concepts beyond study by mere science. In 2007, he reported that he was able to enable subjects into feeling an OBE
In his experiment participants wore goggles containing a video screen for each eye. Each screen was fed images from a separate camera behind the participant and, because the two images were combined by the brain into a single image, they saw a 3D image of their own back.
Dr Ehrsson then moved a plastic rod towards a location just below the cameras while the participant’s real chest was simultaneously touched in the corresponding position. The participants reported feeling that they were located back where the cameras had been placed, watching a body that belonged to someone else.
The experiment was repeated in France.
Olaf Blanke of Ecole Polytechique Fédérale de Lausanne carried out a similar experiment but added another exercise after the virtual reality section, blindfolding the volunteers and guiding them a few steps backwards. When the volunteers were asked to return to their original position, he found they were confused, always overshootingWhile some of these reported ex their actual start position in the direction of their virtual body.
“This is a part of what people with spontaneous out of body experiences have, the self is not within the bodily borders,” said Professor Blanke. “This is some aspect of an out-of-body experience we have reproduced in a mechanistic way.”
In Ehrsson’s later work, he tricked subjects into believing they were inhabiting another body.
This time, the volunteers’ goggles showed them the view from a camera on the head of a mannequin looking at its own plastic torso. Simultaneously poking the arm or stomach of the mannequin and the volunteer a few times was enough to convince the subjects that they were the dummy. They could even stare at their old bodies from their new ones and shake hands with their old self, all without breaking the spell.
He didn’t stop there. Next he manipulated his subjects’ concept of body size while inhabiting another body.
Ehrsson convinced people that they had jumped into a tiny Barbie doll. When he prodded the doll’s legs, the volunteers thought they were being prodded by giant objects. And when Ehrsson tested the illusion on himself and a colleague touched his cheek, he says, he looked up and “felt as if I was back in my childhood and looking at my mother”.
As long as they don’t become serial killers along the way.
Reflecting the number of people worldwide who claim to have experienced OBEs, Ehrsson reports a high percentage of responders.
Ehrsson suspects that people who can expertly localize their limbs without sight, such as dancers or musicians, would be less susceptible than the students with whom he normally works. But typically, the illusions work for around four out of five people.
Researchers are working towards understanding the neurophysiological underpinnings of the phenomenon.
“The details of the multisensory integration have never been formally worked out,” says [Matthew] Botvinick. “That’s the missing link for me.” Ehrsson and others are busy trying to see where these multisensory neurons reside in the human brain, by inducing illusions while volunteers sit inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. The results differ. Ehrsson has found that the ventral premotor cortex — known to be involved in visual guidance of movements — is particularly active when people experience the full body-swap illusion. Olaf Blanke at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, one of only a handful of other researchers in this field, has shown that the nearby temporoparietal junction lights up when people experience out-of-body illusions7. He points out that brain damage or tumours in that area can induce disembodied feelings. “It’s difficult to judge which is right, because we just have a thin neuroscientific layer of data at the moment,” says Blanke.
There is speculation towards using the information to assist in developing new prosthetic limbs that the wearer will exert control over. It may also be used in controlling avatars and robots.
Vitalistic notions of a ‘spiritual’ self are simultaneously ancient and a concept inherent in modern ‘new age’ thinking. People such as Deepak Chopra, John Edwards, Sylvia Browne, and many others make a very good living out of convincing others these spirits exist, persist after death, and can interact with our corporeal world.
Ehrsson and others are in the process of disproving the concept of self as an external entity that has control over our bodies. Instead our ‘soul’ is an intrinsic component of our physiology.