The out-of-body experience (OBE) is one in which the "centre of consciousness"
of a person appears, from the viewpoint of that person, to occupy temporarily
a position which is spatially remote from his or her physical body (9,
see also 1,10,12). The definition refers to an experience rather than
to an actual event, whether accurately described or not. the term "centre
of consciousness" does not assume any particular theory or content of
the imagery. In occult traditions, a deliberate induction of an OBE is
termed astral projection. The term OBEr refers to a person who has experienced
an OBE. Research interest has recently accelerated in tandem with interest
in its "cousin" the near-death experience (NDE).
Method of study
Knowledge about the OBE comes from three sources. First, people's descriptions
of their OBEs have been compiled into case collections (5,15) and questionnaire
Second, people who can deliberately induce an OBE have written books
of instruction and self-observation (14). A problem with these methods
is that human testimony is fallible, and that spectacular OBEs are over-represented
as they are remembered better. Such data serve only as sources of hypotheses.
Third, procedures for inducing OBEs in the laboratory permit controlled
investigation. However, experimental OBEs tend to be more vague than real-life
spontaneous ones (4). The subject is under pressure to produce an OBE.
Induction methods (particularly hypnotic) are susceptible to contamination
from the bias (beliefs) of the experimenter.
Irwin summarises 37 studies of the incidence of OBEs (9). In four samples
of the general population, the average incidence was 10%. In 12 samples
of university students, the average was 20% (more willing reporters? greater
drug use?) In nine samples of first year psychology students from the
University of New England, Armidale NSW, the average was 30%. Irwin finds
no correlation of OBEs with age, sex marital status, education level,
social class, religious beliefs, race, brain physiology, and prior knowledge
of OBEs. Nor are OBEs indicators of mental illness (4A,6,9).
In most spontaneous OBEs, the person suddenly becomes aware of being
outside his or her physical body. This "self", apparently located above
the body, perceives a vivid "real" impression of the nearby environment.
The OBEr reports looking down, usually for periods up to five minutes,
and seeing his or her own physical body. Some OBErs describe their "self"
as a specific shape, usually a replica of the current physical body, although
some elderly persons report a younger OBE body. Rarely, a point of light
or a mist is reported, or no shape at all ("asomatic"), but even here
a shape is implied because the subject may report squeezing through a
The "centre of consciousness" of a person appears, from the viewpoint
of that person, to occupy a position spatially remote from [the] physical
About 20-30% of OBEs, particularly those under the control of the subject,
involve distinctive skeleto-muscular sensations at the beginning and/or
end of the experience. These include percussive noises (buzzes, clicks),
vibrations in the body, catalepsy and/or momentary blackouts. Some OBEs
contain extrasensory elements such as an ESP experience (9,10).
More than 90% of OBEs are naturalistic and visual
(i.e., the external
world is seen more or less as it really is). Most features of a room are
seen correctly, except that a door, for example, may appear open when
it is actually closed. Rarely, odd effects occur, such as time distortion,
wide-angle vision and seeing through objects. A few visual OBEs are also
auditory; vision and sound are not sensed separately, but in a single
comprehensive way ("synthetic"). A few OBEs are sensory; there is only
an intuitive conviction that the "centre of consciousness" is external
to the body.
A few OBEs reflect an exotic world, such as the person moves through
a dark tunnel towards a golden light and peace ("paradise"), populated
by "spirits" of the dead (similar to some NDE reports). The medium Helene
Smith claimed she took out-of-body trips to the planet Mars. In early
spiritualist literature, in particular, an "astral cord" is reported,
connecting the physical body and OB body; if the cord breaks, the subject
will die. Such exotic features are probably determined by the culture
and beliefs of the subject (9,10).
The OBE may happen spontaneously, or it may be forced, for example, by
means of drugs (hallucinogenic or anaesthetic), hypnosis or emotional
trauma. Rarely, a person (often a meditator) can produce an OBE at will.
The OBEr displays less fear of death. The OBEr sees with strikingly increased
clarity, vividness and awareness of "self", relative to normal consciousness
within the physical body. In long-duration OBEs, it is possible to control
the content, location and termination of OBEs by directing attention to
the required state of affairs.
OBErs also tend to report more falling dreams, lucid dreams and mystical
experiences than non-OBErs. OBErs are more likely to be fantasisers or
"fantasy-prone" people (18). Unlike normal and lucid dreams, there are
no rapid-eye movements during OBEs. In apparitions and autoscopic images
of oneself, the "centre of consciousness" is still within the physical
body. In depersonalised images of oneself, caused by fear of impending
death, the depersonalised self feels like being a stranger to the physical
body; in contrast, the OBEr feels "more real". In schizophrenic body boundary
disturbances (unlike OBErs), the person cannot distinguish between the
real and imagined world.
The OBE is only one element of the NDE: about 10% of OBEs are reported
in conjunction with NDEs (6,9).
OBErs are more likely to be fantasisers than persons
not having OBEs.
A person reporting spontaneous OBEs has more mystical experiences, compared
to non-OBErs (2,4). OBEs happen in two contrasting contexts.
Low arousal of the brain. The person is very relaxed (mentally and physically)
- on the point of going to sleep or waking up, or meditating, or in a
very quiet setting. If the person is active at all the activity is automatic,
such as walking, jogging, or a skilled musician playing a familiar composition.
Most OBEs probably occur when waking up (the hypnopompic state).
High arousal of the brain. About 30% of OBEs. Associated with elation,
euphoria (such as fast driving, listening to loud music), intense anger,
confrontation with death, and sexual orgasm.
Compared to non-OBErs, subjects who can produce deliberate (experimental)
OBEs are better at the ability to control the content of, and stop, dreams
(4). Most programs for deliberate induction (8) emphasise physical and
mental relaxation in a quiet environment; creating mental imagery (for
example, of a specific symbol, or of the impression of leaving the body);
and total but effortless absorption in these thoughts. Hypnosis and sensory
deprivation are useful. Glaskin, an Australian novelist, has made popular
the Christos technique of J & N.Parkhurst, involving simultaneous massage
of forehead and feet (7).
Induction methods interact with an expectation or need, or motivation,
that an OBE will occur. Taking drugs is not recommended, because of the
relative lack of control over the OBE.
The external world seen from the out-of-body state is a memory of the
Separation theories propose that the OBE is literally as it seems to
be, that is, a spatial separation of mind/spirit from the physical body.
Because the OBE is so real and vivid, it is not surprising that this theory
has support. The concept of a physical double is supported by Crookall,
Whiteman, and by some theosophists (e.g., Besant and Powell) and
spiritualists (such as Findlay). But no one has convincingly suggested
what such a body is made from. The idea that a non-physical double ("soul")
leaves the physical body is more popular (9).
These models trend to provide post-hoc explanations of OBE features.
Moreover, scientific tests have been inconclusive or ambiguous. For example,
if an out-of-body state is sent to a distant locality, one cannot be certain
that the data was not got by clairvoyance, or from forgotten prior knowledge
of the locality.
A subject, Miss Z, tested by Tart, was able to correctly read a 5-digit
number on a shelf five feet above the bed where she slept. Because Z was
not always watched, the possibility she peeked cannot be excluded.
Keith Harary attempted experimentally to influence human and animals during
his out-of-body state. Humans, rodents and snake showed no effects compared
to non-OBE periods; but a kitten was quieter and less active during out-of-body
periods, although it did not obviously look at the supposed locality of
the out-of-body image (13).
The neutral term "imagery" is preferred to "hallucination" - a term that
originally implied mental illness. Imagery theories assert that the OBE
is a state of consciousness characterised by "dissociative" imagery (16A).
The external world seen from the out-of-body state is a memory of the
real world. This explains OBEs in which the OBEr sees the real world correctly,
except for a few misremembered bits. It also explains exotic misperceptions
as the product of the OBErs beliefs and culture. The imagery may also
incorporate apparently extrasensory information about discrete events.
Attention and absorption
Imagery theories can be evaluated in relation to a psychological process
called attention - the selection of some items to enter consciousness
while other items remain excluded.
The ease of having an OBE is related to the ease of entering meditative
and hypnotic states, and with having lucid dreams and mystical experiences.
The common factor in all of these is absorption - the (attentive) ability
or capacity of the person to focus on the mental task at hand to the exclusion
of all other disturbances (9). This capacity applies to the person, and
not just to the induction phase. All body activities (termed somatic or
kinaesthetic) cease or become automatic, so that no more attention is
paid to them. This is similar to the "onepointedness" of meditators, in
which attention is focussed on some event such as chanting a repetitive
mantra. The return of attention to body processes ends the OBE.
OBErs also have a need for (as well as a capacity for) absorption. Irwin
relates this need to a concern for, and attention to, one's mental processes.
A psychoanalytic model, based on narcissism, proposes that the OBEr needs
to step outside his or her body to look at it as others do. However data
shows that OBErs are not excessively obsessed by their physical appearance.
Ehrenwald states that the OBEr has a need to convince oneself of immortality
by observing the "soul" leave the body. This idea is also not supported
by data: "supernatural" OBEs do not happen most often to religious people
In particular, OBErs tend to evoke a type of absorption that Irwin calls
cross-modal experiencing or synaesthesia (9); one sensory mode (e.g.,
visual) tends to evoke imagery in another mode such as auditory. This
occurs especially for persons reporting an "astral body" or terminal sensations.
Attention and visual imagery
OBErs do not have exceptional ability or skill to generate and control
and manipulate general visual images. However, Irwin found that the ability
to generate body-like OBEs is related to the extent the subject can control
the OBE. Nor does the tendency to have an OBE depend on the vividness
of the imagery nor on the person being a visualiser rather than a verbaliser.
However, OBErs may be better at judging how an object appears from different
Specific imagery models
Blackmore considers that an OBE is an altered state of consciousness
produced when the body is deprived of sensory input, as during meditation
or stress, disrupting the normal "reality model" in favour of an OBE reality
model built from imagery and memory (3).
Palmer supposes that euphoria or relaxation produces a decline in skeleto-muscular
stimulation and this lack of body-sense feedback may threaten the subjects
sense of self (16). The OBE, which mainly occurs in the hypnopompic (waking
up) state, is an attempt to restore self-concept, and to save the ego
from being destroyed. This model fits spontaneous OBEs best.
Irwin argues similarly that OBEs involve losing touch with body senses,
as a result of becoming absorbed: extremely low or high arousal of the
brain interacts with a capacity (and need) for the individual to have
OBEs. This removes the conditioned preconscious (momentarily out of awareness)
assumption that "I" must be in the physical body. The static body image
is transformed into a conscious, active, disembodied body image that incorporates
synesthetic (visual plus auditory) experiencing of this new image (9,
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