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From Issue Fifteen, October 2011 « Previous Article Next Article »

Out-of-Body Experiences: In Search of the Truth

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It was approaching Christmas, and the medieval city of Tallinn, in the northern European country of Estonia, had been covered with snow for some time. The cobbled streets were all but deserted, and I had barely been out in days. I’d spent my time working on my second book and enjoying some solitude. On this particular night, I felt tired and decided to lay back and close my eyes. As I did, a familiar sense of heightened awareness and energy came upon me. I knew what it meant, so I attempted to relax further, at which point I felt the distinct sensation of floating upward. I looked around and saw that I was in midair at the top of the tall windows in my bedroom. Excitedly, I passed through the glass of the closest window, and moments later drifted higher into the air, over the stone turrets of Old Town, passing the dome of a large Russian orthodox church, and then across into the main square.

I hadn’t visited the square for awhile and was surprised to see a group of workers hoisting a large fir tree into place at the center of the open area across from the old town hall. I circled above them, taking in the details of their position and appearance, already aware that I might return that night to find out if what I was seeing was true or simply some illusion of my mind. It was probably the excitement of wanting to verify the experience that started drawing me back to my body. So I drifted away from the scene and back over the rooftops as my awareness of my surroundings faded, then I opened my eyes back in my body.

As I began to dress for the cold of the Baltic night, I felt calm and confident that what I had seen was real. Walking out into the dark streets alongside the crumbling walls, looking up at the charcoal grey dome I had seen from above just minutes earlier, I had the same sense of wonder I had felt as a child when I first left my body. I recalled two similar journeys: once when I discovered that the sign outside a restaurant matched my out-of-body perception, and another powerful experience in which I saw not just the name of a man living in an old house on Lancaster Road in London but also the area around it and the appearance of the house.

On this particular night in Tallinn, as I turned the corner into the square and saw the workers still struggling with the tree, I felt elated. In many ways it was a mundane experience with no great significance to it, and yet there it was again—a simple confirmation that our perceptions may not be limited to the realm of our physical senses, that there is more to consciousness than what the dominant paradigm suggests.

I am far from alone in having these glimpses of the seemingly ethereal; out-of-body experiences (OBEs), near-death experiences (NDEs), and remote viewing all suggest that our consciousness extends—or maybe even separates—from our brain during these “peak” moments. Yet the body of research that has dominated press coverage of the subject in recent years claims that OBEs are nothing more than bodily illusions or hallucinations. If we are rational beings engaged with the scientific understandings of our time, how do we reconcile the seeming divide between the experience of individuals like me and the work of parapsychologists demonstrating the existence of psi with studies in neuroscience claiming that it’s all little more than an illusion? What is going on here? How do we choose? Perhaps this divide is essentially an ideological one based on preconceptions.

Olaf Blanke: The Media, OBEs, and NDEs

A major shift in public awareness about the idea that OBEs are illusory dates to around 2002 when Olaf Blanke, a Swiss researcher who studies “self consciousness” (how understanding and awareness are constructed in the brain), claimed to show that such experiences are produced by distortions in brain function. This claim was repeated in 2005 when another paper by Blanke gained widespread media attention. Yet when we take a closer look at the research, it’s clear that the media exaggerated the results. Blanke produced elements of what some experience in an out-of-body state but never a fully convincing out-of-body experience as described across the literature on the subject.

The debate over Blanke’s work was underlined when NDE experts Janice Holden, Jeffery Long, and Jason MacLurg wrote a reply to Blanke’s study that challenged his conclusions. The authors focused on two cases: an English patient who had a spontaneous out-of-body experience and the Swiss patient who was the key subject in Blanke’s 2002 study. They write:

[T]he English patient’s experience seemed quite realistic, whereas the Swiss patient’s experience was unrealistic—fragmentary, distorted, and illusory. In fact, a thorough review by one of us (Holden) of three classic books reporting extensive OBE research [Green (1968), Gabbard & Twemlow (1984), and Irwin (1985)] and one very recent review of the entire OBE research literature (Alvarado, 2000)] reveals that the English patient’s OBE is quite characteristic of OBEs in general, while the Swiss patient’s is highly uncharacteristic.1

Janice Holden, who conducted the review mentioned above, found evidence across the literature of NDEs that out-of-body experiences are often objective—much as I have found in my own experience. As she writes in her book The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, “Of the 111 cases of apparently nonphysical perception, I found that 92 percent contained absolutely no errors, 6 percent contained minor errors, and 2 percent were completely erroneous. Thus, the vast majority of these apparently nonphysical perceptions were veridical.”2

Pim van Lommel: Veridical Evidence

The largest single study of NDEs was published in The Lancet medical journal in 2001 by Dr. Pim van Lommel of Rijnstate Hospital in the Netherlands. It covered a 13-year period starting in 1988 and included some 344 survivors of cardiac arrest from 10 Dutch hospitals, 18 percent of whom were able to recount an NDE.3 As in other research, veridical accounts (when NDErs perceive earthly events from a vantage point outside their physical bodies that appear to be imperceptible from the vantage point of their physical bodies) were recorded.

According to Van Lommel, one of the most striking involved a 44-year-old man who arrived at the hospital in a comatose state. While the nurse attempted to resuscitate him, she found he was wearing dentures, which she removed and placed in her cart. A week later, when the man regained consciousness, the same nurse visited him to administer drugs. Upon seeing her, the man exclaimed, “Oh, yes, but you know where my dentures are. Yes, you were there when they brought me into the hospital, and you took the dentures out of my mouth and put them into that cart. It had all these bottles on it, and there was a sliding drawer underneath, and you put my teeth there.”4 The nurse describes being shocked at this because at the time that this occurred the man had been in a deep coma and undergoing resuscitation.

It soon came to light that the man had had an out-of-body experience during which he watched his resuscitation and desperately tried to make those present aware that he was alive and to keep trying to save him. The facts of the case were later verified down to the descriptions the man gave of the doctors and nurses present at the time.

It seems that every report of near-death experiences brings more such cases to light, yet in no study looking at the brain’s role have I found an investigation of these veridical elements of out-of-body states. One of the few researchers whose work has blended neuroscience with the idea that human perception can be extended is Michael Persinger.

Michael Persinger: Neuroscience and Psi

Persinger, a neuroscientist, works extensively with a device originally called the “Koren helmet,” named after its inventor, Stanley Koren. Now nicknamed the “God Helmet,” the apparatus is believed to induce numinous experiences in those who wear it. It uses an electromagnetic field to stimulate the temporal lobes of the brain, resulting in a range of mystical effects, from the sense of a nearby “presence” to a full-on connection with “God.” The question that often comes up is whether these experiences are simply induced hallucinations or whether the helmet facilitates access to nonhallucinatory realities.

Persinger has also experimented with remote viewing and telepathy. He doesn’t believe that human awareness, or perception, is limited to the brain. His research with the remote viewer Ingo Swann led him to conclude that the results were accurate and consistent, noting that there was clear activity over Swann’s occipital lobes at times when he was independently judged as being highly accurate in his remote viewing tasks: “The durations of the conspicuous 7 Hz spike activity over the occipital lobes per trial were positively correlated with his accuracy.”5 Persinger further concludes that such experiences can be enhanced. He believes that this enhancement can be achieved using a circular magnetic field:

What we have found is that if you place two different people at a distance and put a circular magnetic field around both and you make sure they are connected to the same computer so they get the same stimulation, then if you flash a light in one person’s eye, the person in the other room receiving just the magnetic field will show changes in their brain as if they saw the flash of light. We think that’s tremendous because it may be the first macro demonstration of a quantum connection, or so-called quantum entanglement.6

Persinger’s work in this area has not yet been replicated, but it does suggest that open-minded explorations of our brain function could revolutionize our understanding of mystical and out-of-body states. The brain is obviously a part of the puzzle, and the more we can blend our understanding of the brain with an honest investigation of nonlocal perception, the closer we will come to the truth. Ironically, Persinger’s research on the nature of consciousness has been championed by skeptics and proponents alike. Yet despite his research and that of Van Lommel, the research focus since Blanke’s study has been on brain-only explanations for OBEs. A couple of new studies seem to reflect this perspective.

The Birmingham University Studies

A team at the University of Birmingham in England recently conducted a series of tests that give insight into possible differences between people who claim to have had an OBE and those who don’t. The research compared the differences between university students who say they’ve had an OBE and others from the general student population. “Sixty-three university students participated in the study, 17 of whom (26 percent) claimed to have experienced at least one OBE in their lifetime.”7 In the follow-up study, 39 students took part (none of whom took part in the first), 11 of whom claimed to have had an OBE.

The study, funded in part by the UK Skeptics, started with the hypothesis that OBEs are a form of hallucination. Using tests designed to measure the performance of the students in simple tasks, the study appears to show neurological differences between those who’ve had an OBE and those who haven’t, concluding that there was “a significantly increased role of (1) temporal-lobe instability and (2) body-distortion processing in OBEers (relative to non-OBEer controls).”8 If this is correct, it suggests that OBEs are hallucinations or illusions resulting from a distortion in brain function, much in line with what Olaf Blanke concluded.

However, very little information is given in the paper about the participants, and I was unable to gain further information from the researchers on what controls were used. It’s clear though that a definition of an OBE was used that allows for a wide range of experiences. It comes from Susan Blackmore’s 1982 work on the subject: “an experience in which a person seems to perceive the world from a location outside his physical body.”9 This definition formed the basis of the question, “Have you ever had an experience where you have perceived/experienced the world from a vantage point outside of the physical body?” which was used to divide the students into the control or the OBE group.10

This definition of an out-of-body experience is far too broad. It doesn’t mention the sensation of being out of the body, the heightened realism, or the coherence of OBEs (many dreams would fit the Blackmore definition, for example). We also need a definition that is context dependent, which looks at the circumstances under which the experience took place. If the out-of-body experience was the result of a cardiac arrest, this is a very different from one that occurs during a relaxed semi-sleep state. If an OBE is presumed to be no more than brain activity, then the context of what was happening to the brain at the point the OBE occurred is of extreme importance to our understanding.

The sample size was relatively small: only 28 OBErs were studied. While in this form of study the number of subjects is not of key importance, the topic does call for more specific definitions and a broader demographic that would generate more accurate insights. It would be fascinating, for example, to research those who claim an ability to consciously have out-of-body experiences and compare them to those who have them spontaneously or to those whose experience comes from such trauma as cardiac arrest. In short, this field of research is ripe for further refinement.

Completing the OBE Puzzle

One of the most famous case studies of an OBE was published by Charles Tart in 1968. It described the experience of a young woman in her early twenties who though intelligent and insightful often showed signs of psychological disturbance. She’s referred to in the study by the now famous codename “Miss Z.” Miss Z spent four nights at the lab, eventually having an OBE in which she claimed she had read a target number fixed on a platform high up on a wall. The number was 25,132; the odds of her guessing such a number are less than 1 in 100,000.11 Even more extraordinary was the 1991 NDE/OBE case of Pam Reynolds, an American singer who while in a state of monitored general anesthesia reported with remarkable accuracy the surgical implements used and the words that were spoken as the top of her skull was being removed by surgeons.

In more recent times, experimentation on the out-of-body state has diminished due to the difficulty in controlling them. One study in 2005 by Guido Del Prete and Patrizio E. Tressoldi showed that significant objective results can be obtained by using hypnosis to induce a semi-out-of-body state, which could be as useful as methods that utilize complex forms of technology.12 It also supports further the position that OBEs are more than the illusions of confused or dying brains.

What does the published research conclude so far about the out-of-body experience? It seems to suggest that when stimulated artificially, the brain is capable of producing similar sensations to those experienced in a “true” OBE. However, because an induced experience has similar elements, it does not follow that it is the same in cause or outcome; the full out-of-body experience remains much more complex. Future research in this area must find a way to bring together the objectivity of neuroscience and the testing of the type that began with the famous Miss Z experiments, which has been neglected since. Without this important piece of the puzzle, neurological explanations will look incomplete and research into OBEs will not move forward.


Notes

1. Janice Holden, Jeff Long, Jason MacLurg, “Out-of-Body Experiences: All in the Brain?” http://www.iands.org/research/important-research-articles/69-out-of-body-experiences-all-in-the-brain.html?start=3.

2. Janice Holden, Bruce Greyson, and Debbie James, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2009).

3. “The NDE and Out-of-Body: Kevin Williams’s Research Conclusions,” http://www.near-death.com/experiences/research11.html.

4. Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience (New York: HarperOne, 2010), p. 21.

5. Michael Persinger, “The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences,” Journal of Neuropsychiatry Clinical Neurosciences 13 (2001): 515–524.

6. Michael Persinger, interview by Alex Tsakiris, Skeptiko.com, December 16, 2009, http://www.skeptiko.com/michael-persinger-discovers-telepathic-link/.

7. J. J. Braithwaite, D. Samson, I. Apperly, E. Broglia, and J. Hulleman, "Cognitive Correlates of the Spontaneous Out-of-Body-Experience (OBE) in the Psychologically Normal Population: Evidence for an Increased Role of Temporal-lobe Instability, Body-distortion Processing, and Impairments in Own-body Transformations," Cortex 47(7) (2011): 839-53. Epub 2010 May 21.

8. J. J. Braithwaite and K. Dent, “New Perspectives on Perspective-Taking Mechanisms and the Out-of-Body Experience,” Cortex 47 (2011): 628–632.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Charles T. Tart, “A Psychophysiological Study of Out-of-the-Body Experiences in a Selected Subject,” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 62, no. 1 (1968): pp. 3–27.

12. Guido Del Prete and Patrizio E. Tressoldi, “Anomalous Cognition in Hypnagogic State with OBE Induction: An Experimental Study,” Journal of Parapsychology 69, no. 2 (2005): pp. 329–339.

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  • 11 Comments
  • Anonymous Icon

    LawrenceCarson Oct 05, 2011

    Thank you for your post.

    I am a very left brain person (CPA, SEC's Series 7 & 63, etc.) that has have a number of OBE's ... including being escorted by a celestial tour guide into "living library’s." And there is something that really bugs the heck out of my beliefs systems ... when all of these so-self-labeled "scientists" write about what they have never experienced. I shall share just a few of the items that bugs me.

    1 - They use the terms mind and brain as though they are the same thing ... or that they try to tell us that """know by experience""" that brain is the cause and mind is the effect when just the opposite is true. The brain is like the blackboard while the teacher is the source (the mind) that shows up on the wall and chalk is likened to the electrical phenomena of induction.

    2 - They use the word consciousness like some master global term that covers more territory than the cosmos. I just wish I could momentarily erase every belief they have for one hour and then let them experience the mind state of "Awareness" without any capacity to think. Just Aware! Then I would ask them after I replaced their belief's thinking tools ... "So tell me ... do you now understand the difference between awareness and consciousness and which is dependent upon which?"

    3 - And finally I really wish all scientists would look up the words derivation and notice what the word was originally designed and coined to mean. It has nothing to do with replication ... or reductionistic measurement.

    There are more things that really bug me but I have probably worn out my welcome so should probably graciously exit in silence.
    If there is a God of design....Walt Disney and He must now be the dearest of friends - a Cartoon show of all cosmic times.

    Lawrence Carson – Boise, ID

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    benedict Oct 06, 2011

    It would be nice if there was a standard experiment or protocol that could be used as a baseline for OBEs. That way do-it-yourselfers could perform distributed experiments and potentially create enough data to be useful. Maybe the Miss Z experiment is the prototype to be emulated? My sense is that there is something akin to an inverse square law related to the distance from physical self and accuracy of the information obtained. I wonder if any of the experiments addressed this aspect.

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    carallel Oct 07, 2011

    I've only read one article prior to this, but I decided because of reading about that "scientific" finding that I wouldn't read anymore of these. Having had an out of body experience, I know that the scientific process wasn't used when regarding all of the facts surrounding the OBE phenomenon.. I've seen this so many times. It appears that many people simply feel free to take pot shots at what they can't understand, or touch, or see or experience.

    So glad for the previous two posts, because now I know I'm not alone in what I've been thinking.

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    lifenergy Oct 10, 2011

    I have been undertaking informal research into OBEs and NDEs ever since my NDE in 1975. I have formed an hypothesis that appears to explain these phenomena quite well. If our consciousness was contained in a form of energy, lets call it subtle energy, it would probably have the ability to leave the body under certain circumstances. It would account for OBEs NDEs and Remote Viewing. We know there is an energy field surrounding the body, it has been detected and recorded by researchers in UK.
    There are also indications this field can exist in cohesive form free of and independent of the body. It is difficult to understand why mainstream science has not looked into this. After all the experiment is repeatable, we see energy fields around every living human scanned, even animals. No field has been detected around deceased humans. Comments on this post are encouraged.

  • Graham Nicholls Oct 11, 2011

    Thanks for your comments, I do believe that scientists can indeed get drawn into assumptions and limited world-views much like anyone else. That is why I feel it is important to engage not just with scientific protocol, but also with the OBE/NDErs, so that a clear understanding of what is taking place forms our starting point for any study.

    As far as finding a standard protocol, I feel that the process for reaching the OBE is key. The Italian study I mentioned in my article used hypnosis, others have used binaural beat technology, and I have personally used combinations in an 'immersive' approach, including full virtual reality. So far I am leaning towards suggestion/hypnosis and immersion as keys to inducing consistent OBEs in subjects. I would also like to explore the psi enhancing methods Michael Persinger has been working with. Once we have greater consistency we will be closer to very significant results.

    The idea that there is a 'subtle' energy is one possible explanation for OBEs. It could fit well with Rupert Sheldrake's Morphic Fields for example. There are also ideas that draw upon dark matter, such as those put forward by the late Professor Gerhard Wasserman. Then there is the possibility that what is going on relates to Quantum Entanglement, as explored by Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson. While this idea does not relate directly to OBEs, it could be the underlying mechanism for an extended form of consciousness that would look very much like an OBE. I find all of these areas fascinating and feel that it is time to take another look at ways to explore the subject.

  • CliffSkater Oct 12, 2011

    I have had many OBEs facilitated by the dissociative anesthetic nitrous oxide. As soon as I revel that as my primary modality many automatically reject my findings including most prominent PSI researchers. In many researchers minds "drugs" can only deliver delusion and if seriously considered their reputations might be tarnished. Unfortunately this applies to our most prominent PSI research institutions as well; after all they have to protect their income sources and condoning off label use of scheduled substances could be risky. So that leaves us with protocols that I have found are far less effective at turning off the machine brain and unveiling pure consciousness.

    What I have found is that being centered, calm, peaceful and above all in a state of loving kindness is prerequisite to getting the cosmic cooperation one needs for a meaningful journey. A little humility will go a long way to ensure a harmonious exchange with whatever is encountered. Not getting caught up in the cerebral storm takes some practice thus meditators will have the best results. My primary interest has been the kundalini phenomenon and bringing modern insights like laser mechanics into the understanding of it's function. My frustration is that no one appears to have the diverse background needed to relate laser mechanics to esoteric human physiology and has experienced the awesome power of focused attention.

    OBEs can be difficult to categorize without a cartography of the fractal universe. There appear to be portals to many iterations. I have noticed that I can usually tell if I have gone micro to what I call an IBE (in body experience) or have exited a macro portal onto this plane or a larger cosmic plane. You appear to be traveling mostly on this plane and I would hope this will prove to be the easiest to find a standard protocol for. I have described my experiences previously on this site but it has been deleted along with so many other valuable blogged insights when we lost Shift-in-Action. Google: Kundalini and the Human Laser to find out how I moved between levels by "Buoyant Ascension". Nice work and Good Luck! You're on the right track following Sheldrake's lead.

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    Seaglass Oct 13, 2011

    There was an Institute somewhere in Kentucky at one time, forget the name now. I believe they were training people to do OBE by using sensory deprivation chambers. I tried one of these once for relaxation, I was way to claustrophobic though for this method. I do Tai Chi instead.

  • Graham Nicholls Oct 13, 2011

    Thanks for your comment Cliff, many people do describe results with various drugs from DMT, Ketamine, through to Amanita Muscaria and others. Personally, I have never used any drug, not because of any professional issues (as a non-scientist that does not apply), but more because I have not heard of a drug that is consistent in its results - and I'm personally not drawn to drug use. I also find that as I can induce OBEs when the conditions are right, there is no need.

    As far as my OBEs, they have not been "mostly on this plane", I simply focus on ones that have to allow for objective discussion. After hundreds of OBEs over the last, nearly 25 years, I feel this is the best way to move forward in our understanding. Once we have more consistent veridical evidence for OBEs, then we can ask more questions related to possible other levels. We have to be very cautious in my opinion with these areas, as it is easy to begin to feel we understand reality on a deeper level, and lose sight of the tools of science. I feel it is best to remember we probably don't have all the answers and that exploring and learning are the real gifts of consciousness.

  • CliffSkater Oct 13, 2011

    Sorry, you're absolutely right; I meant to only affirm that veridical evidence could only possibly manifest on this plane. Had I replaced traveling with describing it would have been more kind. I am not even sure now what the point of my rant was...gotta remember to do the "sweeten-up" rewrite. Oh, yeah Frustration! Because I would love to repeat my procedure under controlled, supportive conditions and see if the laser can be witnessed and recorded. Talk about veridical evidence! Especially if communication was demonstrated. Unfortunately it appears most think I am reporting a hallucination. I am realizing I am going to have to take some time and write up a much better sales pitch if I am ever going to get any help with this.
    As far as chemicals go, any moral stance is absurd. They merely modify the transducer that's precipitated on this iteration. oops...there I go again, sounding all High and Mighty, thinking I might have a deep understanding of Reality to guild my research tool use.

  • Anonymous Icon

    Beshman Nov 01, 2011

    Great article, thanks for the post.

    A great book on the subject is "How to make ESP work for You" by Harold Sherman. Harold goes in depth on OBEs and NDEs from his life experiences and multiple witness accounts. It's a must read if you're at all interested in the subject.

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    jayhbowers Nov 06, 2011

    Robert Monroe wrote two excellent books about his personal OOB experiences, JourneysOut of the Body, and Far Journeys. He founded the Monroe Institute in Virginia to study consciousness using sound as a basis to induce altered states of consciousness. I still have several of his tape sets, and I believe his daughter still operates the institute.

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