Much of the discussion of out-of-body experiences has centered around the recounting of experiences and speculation on the nature of those experiences. Some articles have questioned whether the experiences are of an hallucinatory nature or purely a function of biochemical processes that occur in the brain, and, at the other extreme, some have linked them with notions of the existence of an immortal soul and other ideas generally associated with religious interpretations of human existence. Most readers are intrigued by the thought of being able to have and control OBEs, and see them as a potentially interesting experience, though some smaller number of people taking part in discussions are interested in trying to figure out their nature and function and their possible implications for the understanding of what it means to be fully human.
What is an out-of-the-body experience?
Out-of-body-experiences (OBEs) are those curious, and usually brief experiences in which a person's consciousness seems to depart from his or her body, enabling observation of the world from a point of view other than that of the physical body and by means other than those of the physical senses. Thus, an out-of-the-body experience can initially be defined as 'an experience in which a person seems to perceive the world from a location outside his physical body' [Bla82]. In some cases experients claim that they 'saw' and 'heard' things (objects which were really there, events and conversations which really took place) which could not have seen or heard from the actual positions of their bodies.
OBEs are surprisingly common; different surveys have yielded somewhat different results, but some estimates indicate that somewhere between one person in ten and one person in twenty is likely to have had such an experience at least once. Furthermore it seems that OBEs can occur to anyone in almost any circumstances. Researchers have approached the question of the timing of OBEs by asking people who claim to have had OBEs to describe when they happened. In one of these, over 85 percent of those surveyed said they had had OBEs while they were resting, sleeping or dreaming [Bla84]. Other surveys also show that the majority of OBEs occur when people are in bed, ill, or resting, with a smaller percentage coming while the person is drugged or medicated [Gre68a, Poy75]. But they can occur during almost any kind of activity. Green cites a couple of cases in which motor-cyclists, riding at speed, suddenly found themselves floating above their machines looking down on their own bodies still driving along. Accidents did not ensue. Pilots of high-flying airplanes (perhaps affected by absence of vibration, and uniformity of sensory stimulation) have similarly found themselves apparently outside their aircraft struggling to get in. One might well struggle frantically under such circumstances.
More curious still are reciprocal cases of OBE and apparition: the OBE subject, aware that he is operating in some kind of duplicate body, travels to a distant location where he sees a person and is aware of being seen by that person; this person confirms that he saw an apparition of the OBEer at the time that the OBEer claimed to be in his presence. Thus the two experiences corroborate each other.
Not all OBEs occur spontaneously. Using various techniques, some people have apparently cultivated the faculty of inducing them more or less as desired, and a number have written detailed accounts of their experiences. These accounts do not always in all respects square with accounts given by persons who have undergone spontaneous OBEs. For instance the great majority of those who experience OBEs voluntarily state that they find themselves still embodied, but in a body whose shape, external characteristics, and spatial location are easily altered at will, and an appreciable number refer to an elastic 'silver cord' joining their new body to their old one. A much smaller percentage of those who undergo spontaneous OBEs mention being embodied, and some specifically state that they found themselves disembodied. The 'silver cord' is quite rarely mentioned. It is hard to avoid suspecting that many features of self- induced OBEs are determined by the subject's reading and his antecedent expectations.
Common aspects of the experience include being in an 'out-of-body' body much like the physical one, feeling a sense of energy, feeling vibrations, and hearing strange loud noises [GT84]. Sometimes a sensation of bodily paralysis precedes the OBE [Sal82, Irw88, MC29, Fox62]. OBEs, especially spontaneous ones, are often very vivid, and resemble everyday waking experiences rather than dreams, and they may make a considerable impression on those who undergo them. Such persons may find it hard to believe that they did not in fact leave their bodies, and they may draw the conclusion that we possess a separable soul, perhaps linked to a second body, which will survive in a state of full consciousness, perhaps even of enhanced consciousness, after death. Death would be, as it were, an OBE in which one did not succeed in getting back into one's body.
Such conclusions present themselves even more forcefully to the minds of those who have undergone a 'near-death experience' (NDE). It is not uncommon for persons who have been to the brink of death and returned -- following, say, a heart stoppage or serious injuries from an accident -- to report an experience (commonly of a great vividness and impressiveness) as of leaving their bodies, and traveling (often in a duplicate body) to the border of a new and wonderful realm. Reports suggest that the conscious self's awareness outside the body is not only unimpaired but enhanced: events which occurred during the period of unconsciousness are described in accurate detail and confirmed by those present. The subject sometimes 'hears' the doctor pronouncing him dead when he feels intensely alive and free from physical pain, and finds himself returning unwillingly to the constrictions of the physical body. If OBEs show the capacity of the conscious self to have experiences and perceptions outside the physical body, near-death experiences seem to suggest that this capacity still obtains when the physical body is totally unconscious.
The idea that we all have a double seems to spring naturally out of that of the OBE. If you seem to be leaving your physical body and observing things from outside it then it seems natural to assume that, at least temporarily, you had a double. It also seems obvious that this double could see, hear, think and move. This interpretation is not necessarily valid. As Palmer has so carefully pointed out [Pal78a] the experience of being out of the body is not equivalent to the fact of being out.
According to the English psychologist Susan Blackmore the definition of the OBE as an experience may not be a perfect definition but one of its major advantages is that it does not imply any particular interpretation of the OBE. The consequences of this definition are important. First, since the OBE is an experience, then if someone says he has had an OBE we have to believe him. Conceivably in the future we might find ways of measuring, or establishing external criteria for, the OBE, but at the moment we can only take a person's word for it. Another related consequence is that the OBE is not some kind of psychic phenomenon. As Palmer has explained, 'the OBE is neither potentially nor actually a psychic phenomenon.' This view is a natural consequence of any experiential definition. A private experience can take any form you like. This experience may turn out to be one associated with ESP and paranormal events, but it may not.
What are ESP, PK and psi?
'Extrasensory perception' (ESP) is a term coined by Dr. J. B. Rhine of Duke University. It covers any instance of the apparent acquisition of non- inferential knowledge of matters of fact without the use of the known sense organs. ESP is usually said to have three varieties: 'telepathy,' in which the knowledge is of events in another person's mind, 'clairvoyance,' in which the knowledge is of physical objects or states of affairs; and 'precognition' (telepathic or clairvoyant), where the knowledge relates to happenings still in the future. The word 'knowledge' is, however, not entirely appropriate, for there may be telepathic or clairvoyant 'interaction,' in which a person's mental state or actions may be influenced by an external state of affairs, though he does not 'know' or 'cognize' it.
Another American term is 'psychokinesis' (PK), the direct influence of mental events on physical events external to the agent's body. 'Psi' (from the Greek letter) is 'a general term to identify personal factors or processes in nature which transcend accepted laws' [Gay74]. It is sometimes used to cover both ESP and PK.
What theories have been put forward to account for the OBE?
The notion of the human double has a long and colorful history. Plato gave us an early idea. He believed that what we see in this life is only a dim reflection of what the spirit could see if it were released from the physical. Imprisoned in a gross physical body, the spirit is restricted; separated from that body, it would be able to converse freely with the spirits of the departed, and see things more clearly. Another idea which can be traced to the Greeks is that we have second body. The spirit or some subtle body would be able to see better without its body. Aristotle taught that the spirit could leave the body and that it is capable of communicating with the spirits, while Plotinus held that all souls must be separable from their physical bodies. This 'doctrine of the subtle body' runs through Western tradition.
Homer regarded man as a composite being comprising three distinct entities, namely the body (soma), the 'psyche,' and the thumos; this last term is untranslatable, but is always closely associated with the diaphragm/midriff (phrenes), which was considered to be the seat of the will and feeling, perhaps even of the intellect. At this stage (800 - 750 BC) the term psyche had not come to mean personal soul, but rather it represented the impersonal life-principle which dwells in the body but which is unrelated to the intellect and the emotions. A fourth component, the 'image' ('eidolon'), might also be included in human make-up; it was this aspect of self which acted and appeared in dreams, where it was considered as a real figure.
Dionysus' early followers in Thrace reenacted his death and resurrection in a gruesome ceremony, where they tore a live bull to pieces with their teeth, and then roamed about the woods shouting frantically. Later rituals were hardly less barbaric and frenzied; all were calculated to induce a stage of religious madness or mania. They took place at night to the accompaniment of loud music and cymbals, thus exciting the chorus of worshippers who soon joined in with shouts of their own. Dancing was so violent that no breath was left for singing, and eventually the worshippers induced through their excesses a state of such exaltation and rapture that it seemed to them that the ordinary limits of life had been transcended, that they were 'possessed,' their soul having temporarily left the body. The soul was in a condition of enthousiasmos (inside the god) and ekstasis (outside the body); liberated from the confines of the body it enjoyed communion with the god.
Perhaps the most pervasive idea relating to other bodies is that on death we leave our physical body and take on some subtler or higher form. This notion has roots not only in Greek thought and in much of later philosophy, but also in many religious teachings. Some Eastern religions include specific doctrines on the forms and abilities of other bodies and the nature of other worlds; and in Christianity there are references to a spiritual body. Some religious works can be seen as preparing the soul for its transition at death.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thodol (meaning Liberation by Hearing on the After-Death Plane) was first committed to writing in the eighth century AD, although the editor, Dr W. Y. Evans-Wentz, has no doubt that it represents 'the record of belief of innumerable generations in a state of existence after death.' It is thought that its teachings were initially handed down orally, then finally compiled and recorded by a number of authors. The book is used as a funeral ritual, and is read out as a guide to the recently deceased. It contains an elaborate description of the moment of death, the stages of mind experienced by the deceased at various stages of post-mortem existence, and the path to liberation or rebirth, as the case may be.
The Bardo body, also referred to as the desire- or propensity-body, is formed of matter in an invisible and etheral-like state and is, in this tradition, believed to be an exact duplicate of the human body, from which it is separated in the process of death. Retained in the Bardo body are the consciousness-principle and the psychic nervous system (the counterpart, for the psychic or Bardo body, of the physical nervous system of the human body) [Eva60]. Due to its nature, the Bardo body is able to pass through matter, which is only solid and impenetrable to the senses, but not to the instruments of modern physics; and the fact that the conscious self is not embedded in matter enables it to travel instantly where it desires. Flights of the imagination become objectively real, the wish comes true.
In his introductions to The Egyptian Book of the Dead -- called in the language of that people 'Pert Em Hru' ('Emerging by Day') -- Wallis Budge points out that its chapters 'are a mirror in which are reflected most of the beliefs of the various races which went to build up the Egyptians of history.' As all commentators have hastened to indicate, the Book of the Dead is not a unity but a collection of chapters of varying lengths and dating from different ages. A selection of these would be made for the deceased, and would be copied on the walls of the tomb or inscribed on the sides of the sarcophagi; or they might even be written on scrolls of papyri which were then laid within the folds of the bodycloths. The extracts meant to benefit the deceased in a variety of ways.
In the Egyptian Book of the Dead the perishable physical body, preservable only by mummification, is called the khat. Next comes the ka, which is generally translated as 'double,' and is defined by Wallis Budge as 'an abstract individuality or personality which possessed the form and attributes of the man to whom it belonged, and, though its normal dwelling place was in the tomb with the body, it could wander about at will; it was independent of the man and could go and dwell in any statue of him.'
The ba, or heart-soul, is depicted as a bird and is often translated as 'soul.' It is sometimes conceived of as an animating principle within the body, but elsewhere it is hinted that one only becomes a ba after death, when it either dwells with the ka in the tomb or with Ra or Osiris in heaven. The ba is often referred to in connection with the spiritual soul (khu), which was regarded as imperishable and existed in the spiritual body (sahu). The sahu was originally considered to be a more material body, and may have formed a part of an early and literal view of the resurrection, whereby the sahu, ba, ka, khaibit (shadow) and ikhu (vital force) all came together again after 3,000 years, and the man was reanimated. Gradually the sahu came to be regarded as more spiritual in its compositions, and the idea of physical resurrection lost its prominence. It was believed that this sahu was germinated from the physical body, provided that it was not corrupt, and that the appropriate ceremonies had been performed by the priests.
The Egyptians agree with the Primitives and the Tibetans in asserting a form of continued existence after physical death. Their notions are less psychologically consistent and subtle than those of the Tibetans, but much more complex and symbolically developed than those of the Primitives, whom they resemble only in the earliest stages of their civilisation. Their unique features center round the overwhelming dread of physical corruption and corresponding longing for the germination of the indestructible sahu in which the khu will exist 'for millions and millions of years.'
One of the directly relevant ideas derives from the teachings of Theosophy. Within a scheme involving several planes and several bodies, the OBE is interpreted as a projection of the 'astral body' from the physical body. Theosophical ideas have influenced the thinking and terminology of many OBE researchers since many people reporting OBEs have found terms like 'astral projection' which derive from Theosophy to be useful in describing their experiences. Other researchers, however, find such terminology and the model it has been devised to describe to be unnecessarily biased in favor of a certain 'esoteric' interpretation of the actual experiences.
The idea that we have a double also appears in popular mythology. Often these doubles have sinister overtones, or are associated with the darker side of the psyche, but usually they are supposed to be quite harmless. These phenomena seem to be related to the OBE in that they involve a double, but there the resemblance ends.
Dean Sheils [She78] compared the beliefs of over 60 different cultures by referring to special files kept for anthropological research. Of 54 cultures for which some information was reported, 25 (or 46%) claimed that most or all people could travel outside the physical body under certain conditions. A further 23 (or 43%) claimed that a few of their number were able to do so, and only three cultures expressed no belief in anything of this nature. In a further three cultures the possibility of OBEs was admitted but the proportion of people who could experience it was not given. From this evidence, we can conclude that some form of a belief in out-of-body experiences is very common in various cultures.
Apparently, as many cultures interpret dreams as OBEs as those which do not. The notion that one may induce an OBE deliberately is not entirely absent from the cultures included by Sheils, though it is usually confined to certain types of people. Often only shamans can achieve OBEs, sometimes by using special drugs or methods for inducing a trance. Of those cultures described by Sheils, there were several in which there was a common belief that the soul could travel in earthly places, while in others the general belief was that the soul could only move in the world of the dead or spirits, and in others both kinds of soul travel were accepted.
There are stories of bilocation in which the physical body exists and acts in two separate places at once. But physical effects in OBE are rare. Also related to OBEs are the phenomena of traveling clairvoyance, ESP projection and remote viewing. 'Traveling clairvoyance' was used to describe a form of clairvoyance in which a medium or sensitive seemed to observe a distant place, therefore it included both OBEs and experiences in which the clairvoyant 'perceived' the distant scene but without any experience of leaving the body. In both 'traveling clairvoyance' and 'ESP projection' the occurrence of ESP is presupposed, but the experience of leaving the body is not. Remote viewing is a recent and better-defined term. Typically a subject describes or draws his impressions while an 'outbound experimenter' visits randomly selected remote locations. Later the descriptions and the locations are matched up. Remote viewing has often been compared with OBEs, and sometimes subjects who can have OBEs are used in remote viewing experiments.
Many people have argued that the OBE itself is some kind of dream and involves no double other than an imaginary one. However, an ordinary dream does not have those important features of the experient seeming to leave the body and being conscious of perceiving things as they occur. In this sense OBEs are better compared with lucid dreams, which are dreams in which the sleeper realizes, at the time, that he or she is dreaming. In such an experience, the sleeper may become perfectly conscious in the dream, which makes the experience very much like an OBE.
The experience of seeing one's own double has been called 'autoscopy' or 'autoscopic hallucinations.' Here again the double is not the 'real' or conscious person. It is seen as another self, but the original self still appears the most real. In the OBE it is the 'other' which seems most alive.
It has been argued that the OBE is an hallucination, and any other body or double is likewise hallucinatory. There are in fact many similarities between some kinds of hallucinations and OBEs.
Among other experiences difficult to disentangle from OBEs are a variety of religious and transcendental experiences. People may feel that they have grown very large or very small, becoming one with the Universe or God. Everything is seen in a new perspective, and may seem 'real' for the very first time. It is difficult to draw a line between a religious experience and an OBE and any line one does draw may seem artificial or arbitrary.
What is an astral projection?
Superficially, the idea of having a double may seem to explain the OBE. However, as soon as this idea is pursued, problems become obvious and the system has to get more complicated to deal with those problems. One of the most complex, and certainly the most influential, of such systems is the theory of astral projection, based on the teachings of theosophy. In 1875 Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York, to study Eastern religions and science. From her teachings, brought back from her travels in India and elsewhere, a complex scheme evolved. According to the Theosophists, man is not just the product of his physical body, but is instead thought to be a complex creature consisting of many bodies, each finer and more subtle than the one 'below' it. These bodies should be thought of as an outer garment which can be thrown off to reveal the true man within.
Although there are variations in the details, it is commonly claimed that there are seven great planes and seven corresponding bodies or vehicles. The grossest of all is the physical body, of flesh, with which we are all familiar. There is supposed to be another body also described as physical known as the 'etheric double,' or 'vehicle of vitality.' Etheric double is the manifestation of physical vitality. It is constant and does not change throughout the cycles of life and death, but it is not eternal, for it is eventually re-absorbed into the elements of which it is composed. This 'double' acts as a kind of transmitter of energy, keeping the lower physical body in contact with the higher bodies. Etheric substance is seen as an extension of the physical.
Next up the scale is supposed to be the 'astral world' and its associated 'astral body', or the 'vehicle of consciousness'. These entities are thought to be finer than their etheric counterparts and correspondingly harder to see. Astral body is thought to be 'a replica of the physical body (the gross body), but of a more subtle and tenous substance, penetrating every nerve, fibre and cell of the physical organism, and constantly in a supersensitive state of vibration and pulsation' [Gay74].
The astral world consists of astral matter, and all physical objects have a replica in the astral. There is therefore a complete physical copy of everything in the astral world, but in addition there are things in the astral which have no counterpart in the physical. There are thought forms created by human thought, elementals and the lowest of the dead, who have gone no further since they left the physical world. All these entities and many others are used in ritual magic, and thought forms can be specially created to carry out tasks such as healing, carrying messages, or gaining information.
In the scheme just described, those who have the ability are supposed to be able to see the nature of a person's thoughts by changes in the color and form of the astral body. All around the physical can be seen the bright and shining colors of the larger astral body, making up the astral aura. The aura is multi-colored and brilliant, or dull, according to the character or quality of the person and therefore 'to the seer, the aura of a person is an index to his hidden propensities' [Gay74].
All these conceptions are of special relevance because of the fact that the astral body is supposed to be able to separate from the physical and travel without it. Since the astral is the vehicle of consciousness, it is this body which is aware, not the physical. It is said that in sleep the astral body leaves the sleeping body. In the undeveloped person, little memory is retained and the astral body is vague and its travels are limited and directionless, but in the trained person the astral can be controlled, can travel great distances in sleep, and can even be projected from the physical body at will. It is this which is called astral projection.
In astral projection the consciousness can travel almost without limitation, but it travels in the astral world. It therefore sees not the physical objects, but their astral counterparts, and in addition the beings that live in the astral realms. The astral world has been known as the 'world of illusion' or world of thoughts. The unwary traveler can become confused by the power of his own imaginings. In this state one can appear, as an apparition to anyone who has 'astral sight.' Indeed one can appear to other too, but to do so requires some involvement of lower matter, for example of etheric matter, as in ectoplasm. Ectoplasm is considered to be the materialization of the astral body and is described as 'matter which is invisible and impalpable in its primary state, but assuming the state of a vapour, liquid or solid, according to its stage of condensation' [Gay74].
An aspect of astral traveling which has become important in later writings, though it appears little in early theosophy, is the silver cord. It is held that in life the astral body is connected to its physical body by an infinitely elastic but strong cord, of a flowing and delicate silver color. Traditionally the cord must remain connected or death will ensue. As one approaches death, the astral gradually loosens itself, lifts up above the physical, and then the cord breaks to allow the higher bodies to leave. Death is thus seen as a form of permanent astral projection.
Beyond the astral Theosophy distinguishes a further five levels. These include the mental or devachnic world, the buddhic, the nirvanic, and two others so far beyond our understanding that they are rarely described. The task of every person is to progress through all of these.
Is astral projection an adequate explanation?
Many investigators are convinced of the reality of astral projection. Among the best known are Muldoon and Carrington, and Crookall. Sylvan Muldoon claimed to be able to project at will and described his experiences in The Projection of the Astral Body [MC29] written in collaboration with the psychical researcher Hereward Carrington. Together these two collected many cases of spontaneous OBEs which they amassed as support for the reality of astral projection. Many years later Robert Crookall [Cro61-78], in more systematic fashion, did much the same thing. Many of the people who report OBEs have found the notion of astral projection helpful, and describe their experiences in these terms.
There are several serious problems with the theory of astral projection, as pointed out by Susan Blackmore [Bla82]. The first is that many OBEs simply do not fit well into the astral projection framework. Celia Green [Gre68a] has collected many cases in which the person describes no astral body, indeed no other body at all. Also very few people actually report any cord, let alone the traditional silver cord.
Of course this type of experience can be fitted in by saying that the experient's astral vision was clouded, or the astral body or cord too fine to be seen, but these methods of attempting to account for actual experience begin to weaken the theory. Blackmore criticizes the complexity of the theory of astral projection as it tries to account for new facts. And this relates to the second problem, its 'stretchability.' In her opinion the theory is so complicated and flexible that almost anything can be stretched to fit it and it makes hard to draw definite predictions from the theory. If you don't see the features you should, your astral vision is not clear enough, or memory was not passed on from higher levels. If you fail to make yourself visible to someone else then not enough etheric matter was involved and so on. In this way the 'theory' is in danger of explaining everything and nothing. Furthermore, any theory which is untestable is useless in scientific terms.
What is animism?
A school of thought has grown up within parapsychology, and around its fringes, which takes very seriously the idea of death being an OBE in which one did not succeed in getting back into one's body. Gauld [Gau82] refers to this school of thought as the 'animistic' school (anima = soul), 'animism' being the view that every human mind, whether in its before death or after death state 'is essentially and inseparably bound up with some kind of extended quasi-physical vehicle, which is not normally perceptible to the senses of human beings in their present life' [Bro62]. An argument which one commonly hears from members of the animistic school runs as follows: OBEs and near-death experiences are, so far as we can tell, universal. They have been reported from many different parts of the world and in many different historical eras. The experiences of the persons concerned therefore must reflect genuine features of the human constitution; for we cannot possibly suppose that they derive from a common stream of religious tradition or folk-belief -- the societies from which they have been reported are too widely separated in space and time for the common-origin idea to be a serious possibility.
The most powerful shot in the the animist's locker remains, however, still to be mentioned. There are some cases -- by no means a negligible number -- in which a person who is undergoing an OBE, and finds himself at or 'projects' himself to a particular spot distant from his physical body, has been seen at that very spot by some person present there. Such cases are generally known as 'reciprocal' cases. Thus the animist, starting from his study of OBEs and NDEs, claims to have direct evidence that after death we remain the conscious individuals that we always have been and that the 'vehicle' of our surviving memories and other psychological dispositions is a surrogate body whose properties (other perhaps than that of being malleable by thought) are, he would admit, largely unknown.
In addition to taking OBEs and NDEs as themselves evidence for survival, the animist might well feel able to offer the following argument in support of regarding a further class of phenomena as evidence for survival of consciousness following physical death. There is in the literature on apparitions a substantial sprinkling of cases of apparitions of deceased persons, some of which have been seen by witnesses who did not know the deceased in life. An extensive statistical investigation by the late professor Hornell Hart [Har56] strongly suggests that apparitions of the dead and the phantasms of living 'projectors' in reciprocal cases are, as classes, indistinguishable from each other in what may be called their 'external characteristics' -- such as whether the figure was solid, dressed in ordinary clothes, seen by more than one person, whether it spoke, adjusted itself to its physical surroundings, etc. Now we know that in reciprocal cases the phantasms of the projector is in some sense a center of or a vehicle of consciousness, namely the consciousness of the projector. Since apparitions of the dead and of living projectors manifestly belong to the same class of objects or events, we may properly infer that since the apparitions of living projectors are vehicles for the consciousness of the person in question, this must be true of apparitions of the dead also. Hence the consciousness of deceased persons survives and may either have, or make use of, a kind of body.
Can the OBEer be seen as an apparition?
The study of apparitions formed an important part of early physical research, and many different types of apparition have been recorded, but the ones which primarily interest us here are those in which a person having an OBE simultaneously appeared to someone else as an apparition. There are many cases of this kind in the early literature and they have been quoted again and again but a relatively small number of them really form the mainstay of the anecdotal evidence on OBE apparitions. Crookall [Cro61] and Smith [Smi65] give some recent cases but they too concentrate on the older ones. Green [Gre68a] discusses the similarities between apparitions in general and the asomatic body perceived by OBEers, but she does not give any examples from her own case collection in which another person saw the exteriorized double. By contrast, about 10% of Palmer's OBEers claimed to have been seen as an apparition [Pal79b] and Osis claims that from his survey OBEers 'frequently' said they were noticed by others and in 16 cases (6% of the total) he was able to obtain some verification through witnesses, although he does not expand on this remark. Obviously it would be very helpful if much more evidence of this sort could be collected, and recent cases thoroughly checked.
How can one find out what an OBE is like?
One of the easiest ways to find out what OBE is like is to collect a large number of accounts of cases and compare them. In this way any common features can be extricated and variations noted. A great deal can be learned about the conditions under which the experiences occurred, how long they lasted, and what they were like. Accounts by people who have had OBEs fall, roughly speaking, into two categories. There are the many ordinary people to whom an OBE occurs just once, or a few times; and there is a small number of people who claim to be able to project at will.
The limitations of this method are that there are many important questions which cannot be answered by collecting cases. Since the people voluntarily report their experiences, the sample necessarily ends up with a bias. Many accounts are given many years or even decades after the event and it is then impossible to determine how much of the story has altered in memory with the passage of time. For such reasons it is not possible to determine, for example, how common the the experience actually is. Second, many OBEers claim that they were able to see rooms into which they had never been, describe accurately people they had never met, or move physical objects during their experience. Such reports are of great interest to parapsychology but they cannot be tested by collecting cases.
What is an average astral projection like?
Accounts of OBEs have been collected since the beginning of psychical research. The first collection of cases of spontaneous apparitions, telepathy, and clairvoyance published in 1886 as 'Phantasms of the Living' [GMF86]. Frederic Myers also collected similar cases for his 'Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death' [Mye03].
The first major collection was made by Muldoon and Carrington and published in 1951 [MC51]. Nearly a hundred accounts were categorized according to whether they were produced by drugs or anaesthetics, occurred at the time of accident, death or illness, or were set off by suppressed desire. Finally they gave cases in which spirits seemed to be involved. By categorizing the cases in this way, Muldoon and Carrington were able to compare and interpret them in the light of their theories of astral projection, but they did not go beyond this rather simple analysis. These researchers implied that we do have a double, and that it is capable of perceiving at a distance and even of surviving without the physical body.
The largest collections of accounts of astral projection have been amassed by Robert Crookall. In his many books [Cro61, 64a] he has presented hundreds of cases which show the kinds of consistencies as Muldoon and Carrington found. He also divided the cases according to how they were brought about. First there were the 'natural' ones which included those people who nearly died or were very ill or exhausted, as well as those who were quite well. Contrasted with these were the 'enforced' cases, being induced by anaesthetics, suffocation and falling, or deliberately by hypnosis.
Typical features of Crookall's accounts were the mysterious light illuminating the darkness, the white double, the ability to travel at will and inability to affect material objects. Crookall cited typical elements of the natural projection being the cord joining the two bodies, feelings of peace and happiness and the clarity of mind and 'realness' of everything seen. By contrast with what Crookall calls 'the enforced' OBE, by which he means one which is entered into deliberately by the experient, he argued the person typically finds himself not in happy and bright surroundings but in a dream or conditions reminiscent of popular conceptions of 'Hades.'
In projection two aspects can be exteriorized: in natural OBEs the soul body or the astral body is ejected free of the vehicle of vitality and the vision of the experient is clear, but when the OBE is the result of a conscious effort to have an OBE some of the lower vehicle is shed at the same time and clouds the vision. The same principles apply in death: natural deaths according to NDE accounts usually lead to an experience of paradisaical conditions, but the victim of an 'enforced' death is likely to find himself in Hades with clouded vision and consciousness.
The implication of Crookall's argument is that there is an astral body, a vehicle of vitality and a silver cord, and that we survive death to live on a higher plane. He believed that insofar as such a thing could be proved, the many cases he had collected proved the existence of out other bodies.
What is an average OBE like?
The previous case collections were made by researchers who believed implicitly in the astral projection interpretation of the OBE. A properly analyzed case collection can provide a rich source of information about what the OBE is like. The collections used here include those by Hart, Green, Poynton and Blackmore and the analysis is made by Blackmore [Bla82].
Hornell Hart, a professor of sociology at Duke University in North Carolina, collected together cases of what he called 'ESP projection' [Har54]. He required that the person not only have an OBE, but also acquire veridical information, as though from the OB location. This excludes many OBEs in which the information gained was wrong or could not be checked. He also rated the cases. The best possible case would gain a score of 1.0, but in fact the highest score given was .90. No higher scores were gained because the cases show a curious mixture of correct and incorrect vision which seems to be common in the OBE.
Through this research, one assumption is crucial, that ESP projection is a single phenomenon which might have any or all of Hart's eight features. Rogo [Rog78b] and Tart [Tar74a] have both suggested that several different types of experience may have been lumped together under the label 'OBE.' It could be that astral projection, traveling clairvoyance, and apparitions are quite different and need different interpretations, or other distinctions might be more relevant. The reason Hart gave why the non- evidential cases should be excluded is far from satisfactory: if there was no evidence of ESP they did not count in his analysis. Hart was ruling out the majority of cases on the basis of a very shaky criterion.
Perhaps the most thorough, and certainly the best-known case collection was carried out by Celia Green of the Institute of Psychophysical Research [Gre68a]. Her definition of an OBE was an experience, defined as follows, '... one in which the objects of perception are apparently organized in such a way that the observer seems to himself to be observing them from a point of view which is not coincident with his physical body.' J. C. Poynton [Poy75], like Green, advertised in the press, and circulated a questionnaire privately, and on the whole Poynton's results, although less detailed, are similar to Green's. Susan Blackmore [Bla82] has analyzed the cases collected by the SPR and by herself.
Table: Some Results of Case Collections [Bla82]
Green Poynton SPR cases Blackmore
Proportion of 61% 56% 69% 47%
Some features of 'single' cases:
Saw own body 81% 80% 72% 71%
Had second body 20% 75% -- 57%
Definite sensation 'majority' 25% 36% --
on separation none
Had connecting 4% 9% 8% --
Apparently most people have had only one OBE, but the frequency of subjects claiming many OBEs is high enough to conclude that if a person has had one OBE he or she is more likely to have another. Also many people learn to control their OBEs to some extent, even if they never learn to induce them reliably at will.
OBEs are occurring in a variety of situations. Green found that 12% of single cases occurred during sleep, 32% when unconscious, and 25% were associated with some kind of psychological stress, such as fear, worry, or overwork. Some cases show that it is possible to have an OBE while the body continues with complex and co-ordinated activity. However, OBEs are far more common when the physical body is relaxed and inactive.
Most of Green's cases occurred to people whose physical body was lying down at the time (75%). A further 18% were sitting and the rest were walking, standing or were 'indeterminate.' In fact it seemed that muscular relaxation was an essential part of many people's experience. Just a few found that their body was paralyzed. A feeling of paralysis was found to be only rarely a prelude to an OBE.
A difference is found between the 'single' cases and the multiple cases. The latter tended to have had experiences in childhood, and learned to repeat them. The single cases tended to occur mostly between the ages of 15 and 35. Poynton found that many more of his cases came from females, but among the SPR cases there are more males than females. This sort of difference is most likely to be due to sample differences.
Floating and soaring sensations are certainly common. Poynton also found that most of his OBEers saw or felt their physical body. On the contrary, catalepsy rarely occurred. Some subjects mentioned noises or a momentary blacking out, but this did not seem to be the rule. The majority just 'found themselves' in the ecsomatic state. As for the return, for most it was as sudden as the departure. An interesting finding by Green was that more of the subjects who had had many OBEs went through complex processes on separation and return.
Green separated her cases into those she called 'parasomatic,' involving another body, and those she termed 'asomatic' in which there was no other body. Her surprising finding was that 80% of cases were asomatic -- they had no other body. She asked her subjects whether they had felt any connection between themselves and their physical bodies. Under a third said they had, and only 3.5% reported a visible or substantial connection such as a cord. Poynton's results tell a similar story. There seems to be little evidence from the case collections to support the usual details of astral projection.
Green found that on the whole perceptual realism was preserved. Subjects saw their own bodies and the rooms they traveled in as realistic and solid. Even when the scene appears to be perfectly normal there may be slight differences. Some her subjects said that everything looked and felt exaggerated. The experience is typically in only one or two modalities: vision and hearing. Green found that 93% of single cases included vision, a third also had hearing, but the other senses were rarely noted. Another interesting feature of the OBE world is its lighting. In some mysterious way the surroundings become lit up with no obvious source of light visible, or else objects seem to glow with a light of their own.
Perhaps the most important question about the OBE is whether people can see things they did not know about -- in other words whether they can use ESP in the course of an OBE. Among Green's subjects, some felt as though they could have seen anything, but lacked the motivation to test out such an ability. Another related question is whether subjects in an OBE can affect objects, or have the power of psychokinesis. On the whole the evidence is against that possibility.
The last feature which Celia Green found to be common in OBEs is that a spontaneous OBE can have a profound effect on the person who experiences it. Sometimes OBEs can be very frightening, sometimes exciting and sometimes they provide a sense of adventure. Interestingly, Green found that fear was more common in later, not initial experiences. Pleasant emotions are also common.
How common are OBEs?
Two surveys have used properly balanced samples drawn from specified populations. The first was conducted by Palmer and Dennis [PD75, Pal79b]. They chose the inhabitants of Charlottesville, Virginia, a town of some 35,000 people and selected 1,000 of these as their sample. The question on OBEs was worded as follows: 'Have you ever had an experience in which you felt that "you" were located "outside of" or "away from" your physical body; that is the feeling that your consciousness, mind, or center of awareness was at a different place than your physical body? (If in doubt, please answer "no".)' To this 25% of students and 14% of the townspeople said 'yes.'
Further data from this survey reveals that no relationship between age and reported OBEs was found. Palmer found a significant positive relationship between drug use and OBEs and concluded that this could account for the higher prevalence of OBEs in students. This relationship receives confirmation from work by Tart [Tar71]. In a survey of 150 marijuana users he found that 44% claimed to have OBEs. It seems possible that the use of this drug facilitate OBEs.
The second survey using a properly constructed sample was carried out by Erlendur Haraldsson, an Icelandic researcher, and his colleagues [HGRLJ76]. For the survey a questionnaire was sent to a random sample of 1157 persons between ages of 30 and 70 years. There were 53 questions on various psychic and psi-related experiences including a translation of Palmer's question. To this, only 8% of the Icelanders replied yes.
Table: Surveys of the OBE [Bla82]
Author Year Respondents size of N %
sample 'YES' 'YES'
Hart 1954 Sociology students 113 28 25
Sociology students 42 14 33
Green 1966 Southampton University
students 115 22 19
Blackmore 1980 Surrey University
students 216 28 13
students 115 16 14
Irwin 1980 Australian students 177 36 20
Blackmore 1980 Amsterdam students 191 34 18
Kohr 1980 Members of Association
for Research and
Enlightenment - - 50
Those vague statements about OBEs being 'common' are now backed up by a variety of figures. Blackmore gives a personal estimate of the incidence of OBEs, based on all the available evidence, putting it at around 10%. She thinks we can say with more conviction that the OBE is a fairly common experience.
The surveys show that if a person has had one OBE he or she is more likely to have another. All these figures are far higher than you would expect if OBEs were distributed at random in the population.
Green went on to compare different groups to see whether they had had different numbers of OBEs. Her only finding was that OBEers were more likely to report experiences which they thought could only be attributed to ESP. Palmer and Kohr found that subjects who reported one type of 'psychic' or 'psi-related' experience also tended to report others.
Palmer also, like Green, found that many simple variables were irrelevant. Sex, age, race, birth order, political views, religion, religiosity, education, occupation and income were all unrelated to OBEs.
Palmer found significant relationships between OBEs and practising meditation, mystical experiences and, as we have already seen, drug experiences. Palmer had over 100 people reporting one or more OBEs, and asked them various questions about the experience. They were asked whether they had seen their physical body from 'outside' and this was reported for 44% of the experiences and by nearly 60% of the OBEers. Fewer than 20% of experiences involved 'traveling' and fewer than 30% of OBEers reported it. Still fewer reported that they had acquired information by ESP while 'out- of-the-body,' about 14% of people and 5% of experiences, or had appeared as an apparition to someone else (less than 10% or OBEers). These results confirm the findings of the case collections: that few OBEs include all the features of a classical astral projection.
Overall the OBE seemed to have had a highly beneficial effect on its experiencers. Many claimed their fear of death was reduced, and their mental health and social relationships improved. Ninety-five per cent said they would like to have another OBE.
What are the prerequisites for inducing an OBE?
Many of the inducing methods use as a starting point techniques designed to improve the novice's powers of relaxation, imagery, and concentration. The ideal state appears to be one of physical relaxation, or even catalepsy, combined with mental alertness.
One of the easiest ways to relax is to use progressive muscular relaxation. In outline this technique consists of starting with the muscles of the feet and ankles and alternately tensing and relaxing them, then going on up the muscles of the calves and thighs, the torso, arms, neck and face, until all the muscles have been contracted and relaxed. Done carefully this procedure leads to fairly deep relaxation within a few minutes, and with practice it becomes easier.
Relaxation usually leads to state of paralysis or catalepsy. When you go to sleep, your brain deactivates the mechanism by which you are able to use your limbs, so that you become incapable of physical activity corresponding to your dream images when you dream. Quite a few people have found themselves in this paralysis state as soon as they have gotten up after sleeping.
The first type of paralysis, known as 'type A,' is a condition encountered when approaching a deeper layer of consciousness from a light trance state. The second, type B paralysis, is the reverse of type A, in that it happens during the return home to physical reality. The first type A 'paralysis' goes something like this:
"Mmmmmm.... I know I am awake; I can think ..... Mmmmmmm but my body is asleep ..." (Robert Monroe labelled it Focus 10 consciousness)
"Wait a minute here, there is something going on here, I just can't seem to...."
"Yes, I can't seem to move my limbs; they seemed to be laden with lead, why can't I move at all? Hey, what's happening here! (Panic!)"
A typical type B 'paralysis' goes something like this:
"Mmmmm... I am feeling groggy, absolutely. What was that just now, oh, it must be some dream..."
"Mmmm...... hang on a minute, was that a noise I heard? It must have come from the door... I need to check it out, could be a burglar..... but I am so tired... and sleepy..."
"I need to wake up, it could be important.... Hey, I can't seem to wake up, why are my legs not waking up, why can't my hands respond?"
"PANIC!!! I need to wake up!!! I don't want to die... I need to exert more will on this... Hey, body, wake up, eyes open, ... WAKE UP!"
"Gosh, NOW, I can move my limbs, I am awake now, body covered with perspiration, sitting at the edge of the bed, wondering why just now I simply couldn't wake up..."
"Phew -- Thank goodness, it is finally over. Am I glad to be back to the familiar physical environment."
However, type A paralysis is the type that should not be resisted; if the person can allow himself to 'go with the flow,' then some kind of altered state of consciousness is bound to happen, which is what the person is hoping to achieve anyway.
Many astral travelers have stressed the importance of clear imagery or visualization for inducing OBEs and of course imagery training forms an important part of magical development. Progressive methods of imagery training are often described in magical and occult books, and helpful guidance can be found in Conway's occult primer [Con72], and in Brennan's 'Astral doorways' [Bre71]. Most involve starting with regular practice at visualizing simple geometrical shapes and then progressing to harder tasks such as imagining complex three-dimensional forms, whole rooms and open scenery.
Practice 1: Read the description slowly and then try to imagine each stage as you go along: Imagine an orange. It is resting on a blue plate and you want to eat it. You dig your nail into the peel and tear some of it away. You keep pulling on the peel until all of it, and most of the pith, is lying in a heap on the plate. Now separate the orange into segments, lay them on the plate as well, and then eat one.
If this task doesn't make your mouth water, and if you cannot feel the juice which squirts from the orange, and smell its tang then you do not have vivid or trained imagery. Try it again, the colors should be bright and vivid and the shapes and forms clear and stable. With practice at this and similar tasks your imagery will improve until you may wonder how it could ever have been so poor.
Practice 2: This is a rather harder one: Visualize a disc, half white and half black. Next imagine it spinning about its center, speeding up and then slowing down, and stopping. Next imagine the same disc in red, but as it spins it changes through orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Finally you may care to try two discs side by side spinning in opposite directions and changing color in opposition too.
Other useful skills are concentration and control. Not only do you need to be able to produce vivid imagery, but also to abolish all imagery from your mind, to hold images as long as you want and to change them as you want, both quickly and slowly.
Practice 3: Brennan suggests trying to count, and only to count. The instant another thought comes to mind you must stop and go back to the beginning. If you get to about four or five you are doing well, but you are almost certain to be stopped by such thoughts as 'this is easy, I've got to three already,' or 'I wonder how long I have to go on.'
All these skills, relaxation, imagery and concentration, are suggested again and again as necessary for inducing an OBE at will. Other aids include posture. If you lie down you might fall asleep, although Muldoon [MC29] advocates this position. On the other hand discomfort will undoubtedly interfere with the attempt. Therefore an alert, but comfortable posture is best. Some have suggested that it is best not to eat for some hours before and to avoid any stress, irritation or negative emotions.
How to induce an OBE?
It is possible to use imagery alone but it requires considerable skill.
a) Lie on your back in a comfortable position and relax. Imagine that you are floating up off the bed. Hold that position, slightly lifted, for some time until you lose all sensation of touching the bed or floor. Once this state is achieved move slowly into an upright position and begin to travel away from your body and around the room. Pay attention to the objects and details of the room. Only when you have gained some proficiency should you try to turn round and look at your own body. Note that each stage may take months of practice and it can be too difficult for any but a practiced OBEer.
b) In any comfortable position close your eyes and imagine that there is a duplicate of yourself standing in front of you. You will find that it is very hard to imagine your own face, so it is easier to imagine this double with its back to you. You should try to observe all the details of its posture, dress (if any) and so on. As this imaginary double becomes more and more solid and realistic you may experience some uncertainty about your physical position. You can encourage this feeling by comtemplating the question 'Where am I?', or even other similar questions 'Who am I?' and so on. Once the double is clear and stable and you are relaxed, transfer your consciousness into it. You should then be able to 'project' in this phantom created by your own imagination. Again, each stage may take long practice.
Inducing a Special Motivation to Leave the Body
You can trick yourself into leaving your body according to Muldoon and Carrington [MC29]. They suggested that if the subconscious desires something strongly enough it will try to provoke the body into moving to get it, but if the physical body is immobilized, for example in sleep, then the astral body may move instead. Many motivations might be used but Muldoon advised against using the desire for sexual activity which is distracting, or the harmful wish for revenge or hurt to anyone. Instead he advocated using the simple and natural desire for water -- thirst. This has the advantages this it is quick to induce, and it must be appeased.
In order to employ this technique, you must refrain from drinking for some hours before going to bed. During the day increase your thirst by every means you can. Have a glass of water by you and stare into it, imagining drinking, but not allowing yourself to do so. Then before you retire to bed eat 'about an eighth of a teaspoonful' of salt. Place the glass of water at some convenient place away from your bed and rehearse in your all the actions necessary to getting it, getting up, crossing the room, reaching out for it, and so on. You must then go to bed, still thinking about your thirst and the means of satisfying it. The body must become incapacitated and so you should relax, with slow breathing and heart rate and then try to sleep. With any luck the suggestions you have made to yourself will bring about the desired OBE. This is not one of the most pleasant or effective methods.
Ophiel's 'Little System'
Ophiel [Oph61] suggests that you pick a familiar route, perhaps between two rooms in your house, and memorize every detail of it. Choose at least six points along it and spend several minutes each day looking at each one and memorizing it. Symbols, scents and sounds associated with the points can reinforce the image. Once you have committed the route and all the points to memory you should lie down and relax while you attempt to 'project' to the first point. If the preliminary work has been done well you should be able to move from point to point and back again. Later you can start the imaginary journey from the chair or bed where your body is, and you can then either observe yourself doing the movements, or transfer your consciousness to the one that is doing the moving. Ophiel describes further possibilities, but essentially if you have mastered the route fully in your imagination you will be able to project along it and with practice to extend the projection.
Ophiel states that starting to move into OBE will produce strange sounds. He says that this is because the sense of hearing is not carried over onto the higher planes, and that means that your mind tries to recreate some input, and just gets subconscious static. He asserts that the noises can take any form, including voices, malevolent, eerie, and get worse and worse, more and more disturbing, until eventually they peak and then just fade to a constant background hiss while one has OBE. Apparently, his 'final noise' sounded like his water heater blowing up. He says, anyway, to ignore the noises, voice or otherwise, as they are only static or subconscious rambling, and do not represent any being in any way, not even the self really.
The Christos Technique
G. M. Glasking, an Australian journalist, popularized this technique in several books, starting with Windows of the Mind [Gla74]. Three people are needed: one as subject, and two to prepare him. The subject lies down comfortably on his back in a warm and darkened room. One helper massages the subject's feet and ankles, quite firmly, even roughly, while the other take his head. Placing the soft part of his clenched fist on the subject's forehead he rubs it vigorously for several minutes. This should make the subject's head buzz and hum, and soon he should begin to feel slightly disorientated. His feet tingle and his body may feel light or floaty, or changing shape.
When this stage is reached, the imagery exercises begin. The subject is asked to imagine his feet stretching out and becoming longer by just an inch or so. When he says he can do this he has to let them go back to normal and do the same with his head, stretching it out beyond its normal position. Then, alternating all the time between head and feet, the distance is gradually increased until he can stretch both out to two feet or more. At this stage it should be possible for him to imagine stretching out both at once, making him very long indeed, and then to swell up, filling the room like a huge balloon. All this will, of course, be easier for some people than others. It should be taken at whatever pace is needed until each stage is successful. Some people complete this part in five minutes, some people take more than fifteen minutes.
Next he is asked to imagine he is outside his own front door. He should describe everything he can see in detail, with the colors, materials of the door and walls, the ground, and the surrounding scenery. He has then to rise above the house until he can see across the surrounding countryside or city. To show him that the scene is all under his control he should be asked to change it from day to night and back again, watching the sun set and rise, and the lights go on or off. Finally he is asked to fly off, and land wherever he wishes. For most subjects their imagery has become so vivid by this stage that they land somewhere totally convincing and are easily able to describe all that they see.
You may wonder how the experience comes to an end, but usually no prompting is required; the subject will suddenly announce 'I'm here,' or 'Oh, I'm back,' and he will usually retain quite a clear recollection of all he said and experienced. But it is a good idea to take a few minutes relaxing and getting back to normal. It is interesting that this technique seems to be very effective in disrupting the subject's normal image of his body. It then guides and strengthens his own imagery while keeping his body calm and relaxed.
Robert Monroe's Method
In his book Journeys out of the Body [Mon71] Monroe describes a complicated-sounding technique for inducing OBEs. In part it is similar to other imagination methods, but it starts with induction of the 'vibrational state.' Many spontaneous OBEs start with a feeling of shaking or vibrating, and Monroe deliberately induces this state first. He suggests you do the following. First lie down in a darkened room in any comfortable position, but with your head pointing to magnetic north. Loosen clothing and remove any jewellery or metal objects, but be sure to stay warm. Ensure that you will