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I am far from alone in having these glimpses of the seemingly ethereal...yet the body of research that has dominated press coverage claims that OBEs are nothing more than bodily illusions or hallucinations.
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Out-of-Body Experiences: In Search of the Truth
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.
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.
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.