Brain and Perception Laboratory
University of Bristol
This paper argues that for
both theoretical and empirical reasons the out-of body
experience (OBE) cannot provide evidence for survival of death.
Definitions of the OBE are discussed and typical features described,
including the fact that OBEs often convince people of survival. OBEs
can provide survival evidence only if it can be shown that (1)
something leaves the body during an OBE, and (2) that that
"something" could survive the death of the body. There are
serious difficulties in conceiving of anything that could perform the
movement, perception, and information transfer required in an OBE. The
evidence suggestive of something leaving the body includes (a)
perception at a distance during OBEs, (b) the detection of a double or
astral body, and (c) near-death experiences. That evidence is reviewed
and argued to be inconclusive. A psychological theory of the OBE is
presented in which the out-of-body world is seen as constructed by
imagination from the cognitive map. It is argued that this theory
provides greater hope for understanding mystical and related
It may be rather rash of me
to ask whether OBEs are evidence for survival, not because the answer
is so obviously "No," nor even because it is "Yes"
or "Maybe," but because some of the issues raised are so
problematic. Nevertheless I think it is an important question because
it forces us to confront the theoretical obstacles involved and the
inadequacies of the evidence. Having considered these problems, I
shall argue that it is far more profitable to look at the OBE in quite
a different way.
This question has a long
history and has never been satisfactorily answered. When the Society
for Psychical Research was founded over a hundred years ago, the major
motivation behind it was the quest for evidence for survival. The
subject has since had declines but now seems to be coming back into
vogue. Both then and now OBEs have been considered as part of that
evidence. Indeed, many writers seem to take it for granted that the
occurrence of an OBE implies both the existence of something that
leaves the body, and the possibility of that "something"
surviving death (see, e.g., Mitchell, 1981; Badham and Badham, 1982;
Rogo, 1983). That view has of course been challenged (e.g., Noyes and
Kletti, 1976; Siegel, 1980), but why has it become so popular in the
From time to time people
claim to have seen things at a distance during an QBE. That is
therefore "paranormal" and provides an apparent
justification for OBEs being considered to
be "psychic experiences." However, I believe that by far the
more important reason is that having an OBE so often persuades people
of personal life after death.
The argument goes something
like this: "I have been out of my body during life. Therefore 'I'
am not my body. I can live without my body and therefore when it is
dead I shall still live." In other words death is no more than an
extended, or permanent, OBE. The argument is demonstrably false, but
that does not detract from its power. It is strangely true that the
persuasiveness of an argument need bear little relationship to its
validity. The argument seems to be terribly convincing with very
What I hope to do here is
to discuss briefly some logical and philosophical problems with
relating OBEs to survival, to discuss some of the evidence bearing on
their relationship, and finally to show why I believe there are far
more interesting questions to ask about the OBE. But first I should
say a little about the nature and definitions of the OBE.
It is almost impossible to
describe a "typical" OBE because the experiences differ so
very much. I shall therefore indulge in relating my own first OBE, as
an example. This happened one evening in a friend's room in college at
Oxford. I was very tired, had had a small amount of cannabis, and was
lost in a pleasant imaginary tunnel of trees, when one of my friends
quite unexpectedly asked me where I was. I suppose that should have
seemed a silly question, since he could obviously
see me; however, I struggled to answer and found myself apparently
looking down on my own body from the ceiling. I watched as my own
mouth opened and closed in telling him where I was. I seemed to have
some sort of duplicate body "up there," and it was connected
by a "silver cord" to the body. I could move at will, by
thinking, and found that it was a delightful sensation to do so. It
was not hard to leave the room, the building, and even Oxford, and I
spent more than two happy and excited hours exploring that amazing
state, and telling my friends all about it. At first I was sure I was
seeing the actual room and surroundings, but later I seemed to be in
what the occultists have long described as the "world of
illusion" or a "thought-created world." Everything is
biddable by thought, and the only limits seem to be what one can
Now I must emphasize that
mine was not a "typical" OBE, but then none is. To give an
idea of what most seem to be like, though, various figures are
relevant. Surveys have shown that something like 10-20 percent of
ordinary people claim to have had an OBE at some time in their lives,
although extreme figures of 8 percent and 50 percent have been
obtained with certain groups (see Blackmore, 1982a,
1982b, and 1982c for a review). As far as we can tell, people who have
OBEs (OBErs) are not odd in any way. They are not more often male or
female, are not cleverer, more educated, richer, more religious, or
different in any very obvious way (see Green, 1968; Palmer, 1979; Kohr,
1980), nor do they show any special psycho- logical
Recent findings suggest that they may have slightly better
spatial imagery skills and are better able to immerse themselves in
experiences to the exclusion of the outside world (Irwin, 1981), but
basically we can say that there is nothing odd about someone who has
Some OBEs take place during
stress, accidents, or operations. Others occur when person is deeply
relaxed or meditating, but some happen for apparently no reason at
all. Most are fairly short. A minute is relatively long for an OBE.
Perhaps the most
interesting finding of modern case studies is that so few OBEs fit the
classical astral-projection pattern. The doctrine of astral projection
asserts that an OBE is the result of the astral body being released
from the physical body and taking
"consciousness" with it. The two remain connected by a
silver cord, at least as long as the body is alive, and the astral
body can travel at will in the astral worlds. In view of that it is
interesting to find that only about 20 percent of OBErs report having
had another body. Most seem to be just a point or blob. And less than
5 percent have anything remotely like a silver cord (see Green, 1968;
Osis, 1979; Blackmore, 1982a). Was my silver cord only the result of
expectation? Whatever its origin, the facts seem to contradict the
astral-projection model, which has to be stretched yet further to
accommodate them. That means an already vague and elastic theory
becoming even more so.
Another fact to note
about the OBE is that what is seen varies widely. Many people see
their own bodies, but that is not universal. Quite a few travel long
distances, but many only glimpse their own room and the experience is
over. A few, but I must emphasize that it is only a few, claim to have
seen things at a distance that they could not possibly have known
about, and finally, even fewer claim that they appeared as an
apparition to someone else.
That may give some
idea of the variety of OBEs, but what about their definition? I would
define the OBE as an experience in which a person seems toĽ perceive
the world from a location outside of his physical body, or more simply
as the experience of seeming to leave one's body. The definition is
important, and those I have given are neutral regarding theories of
the OBE. One might prefer to say that an OBE occurs when a person does
leave the body, but that immediately raises awkward questions about
what we mean by a person and so on. Also, if the definition assumes
that something does leave the body, then not only is one presuming
what has to be tested, but it also becomes impossible
to know whether any particular OBE is "genuine."
notably Karlis Osis (1974) and Hornell Hart(1954), have tried to
distinguish "genuine" or "bona fide" OBEs from
others on the basis of whether any paranormal perception was involved.
That attempt is clearly doomed, if we have learned anything in one
hundred years of psychical research, it surely includes the fact that
we can never be sure on any particular occasion whether anything
paranormal has occurred or not. We can therefore never be sure whether
any OBE was "genuine" or not on that basis.
That is just one of the
reasons why I prefer to stick with an experiential definition. We need
not commit ourselves on that most important question of all,
"Does anything leave the body in an OBE?" If we someday have
an answer to that, or if we find some objective measure of whether
someone is having an OBE or not, then we can easily change our
Of course the experiential
definition carries costs, if someone says he has had an OBE, we have
to believe him, since it is defined as an experience. That raises the
important distinction, to which I shall
keep referring, between what people say they saw in their OBEs
and how they interpret what they saw. At a certain level the
distinction breaks down, but for most discussion it is terribly
important to make it clear. I make a general policy of always
believing what people say about their experiences, if they say they
flew over St. Paul's, then I believe that that was what they
experienced. That is quite different from believing that any
particular thing flew over St. Paul's. The latter is not implied by
the experience, and it is what we have to find out. Does anything
actually travel in an OBE?
We may now tackle the
question of what bearing the OBE has on the evidence for survival.
There are two steps here. First is the question of whether anything
leaves the body in an OBE. That question is crucial because if OBEs
are to be considered evidence for survival, it is necessary (though
not sufficient, of course) to show that something leaves the body.
Second is the question of whether that something could survive the
death of the physical body.
There are two major
approaches to answering those questions. One involves logical and
philosophical arguments; the other, empirical evidence. I shall
consider each in turn.
First, why did I reject the
argument from experience out of hand? The main reason is that it
involves quite unwarranted leaps from what the experience feels like
to a particular interpretation. Clearly, in most OBEs the body is
alive and functioning during the experience, and it is unjustified to
say that the "real me" was "out" or that it did
not depend on the body. I know how much it feels as though the body is
nothing, but that is no reason for assuming it is. I shall mention
later cases in which the brain may not have been functioning, but for
the most part it is clear that it could have been responsible for the
experience. The big question becomes, can the whole experience be
accounted for by imagination, memory, and so on, or does something
actually leave the body?
The main problem to face is
conceiving of anything that could do so. The "whatever it
is" must not only be capable of leaving the body, but must be
able to move, to perceive at a distance, and to transmit the results
back to the body. That is a very tall order. If we conceive of some
sort of pseudo-physical entity doing all that, then we must face all
the problems of energy transmission from place to place, and movement
and perception without detection.
W.A.H. Rushton (1976)
'pointed out one problem, that in order to see, the "double"
must pick up light, if it picks up light, it must be opaque, and hence
must be visible. In various forms that argument is compelling because
perception necessarily involves interaction with the environment. Of
course the interaction need not involve light, and one could postulate
some kind of interaction that was hard to detect. Nevertheless, it
should in principle be detectable. The problem may not be insoluble,
but it is a real problem.
We must next explain how
information gets from the distant entity back to the body, and that
raises all the problems that psychical researchers
grappling with so unsuccessfully for so long.
To get away from those
kinds of problems, many have preferred to argue that the double is an
astral body and that it travels in the astral, not physical world.
That maneuver leads to either of two suggestions. One may postulate an
astral world that duplicates the physical and so face problems of
communication between astral and physical (much like mind-body
problems). Or one may have a kind of astral world with no connection
with the physical. In that case OBEs could not involve travel in the
physical world and can be seen as private fantasies. (As I shall try
to show later, that may in fact be a more interesting result, but it
is not what is usually meant by astral projection and does not really
entail anything leaving the body.)
To escape from all of these
problems, some people (see Rogo, 1978) have resorted to suggesting
that what leaves the body is just consciousness, or just a perceiving
point. However, it seems very hard to define consciousness in any way
that allows it to do the job required in an OBE. Consciousness is not
normally considered to be the kind of thing that has a location at
all, and to expect it to be located outside of the body and capable of
perceiving, moving, and so on is to distort any normally recognized
notion of consciousness unacceptably far. The final option, of saying
that all that leaves is a perceiving point, also fails. The point is
defined only by where it is perceiving from. One of the very few
things we know for certain about the OBE is that people often make
errors in what they see. Whether they are sometimes correct is in
dispute, but that they are often wrong is not. Clearly, then, the
hypothetical perceiving point hits a problem. It seems to be at a
rather distorted version of a point rather than at any actual place,
so in what sense can it be said to have left the body or indeed to
exist at all?
In my opinion all attempts
to find something that could leave the body in an OBE fail on
theoretical grounds. For that reason I prefer explanations of the OBE
that do not involve anything leaving the body; psychological theories
of the OBE, for example. If nothing leaves the body in an OBE, then
there is nothing to survive, and the OBE cannot be cited as evidence
However, I am quite
prepared to believe that my arguments are wrong. One can read many
philosophical works of twenty years ago expressing cogent reasons why
one could never know that someone was dreaming, and could never answer
such questions as how long dreams take, and whether babies dream. The
arguments may have lost none of their force. However, there are few
who would deny the importance of the progress in the psychology of
dreaming that took place when objective correlates of dream reporting
were discovered. And we have now been able to answer those awkward
questions, at least to some extent. I mention that because I do
believe that however convincing are my arguments against anything
leaving the body, that is no justification for refusing to look at the
evidence. It might still be the case that there was evidence that
forced me to say, "I can't believe it, it can't be true, but the
evidence suggests it." So is there any such evidence?
I shall consider any
evidence that suggests something leaves the body. There are at least
three types. First there is evidence that during OBEs people can see
things at a distance without using the recognized senses (i.e., using
extrasensory perception [ESP]). Secondly there is evidence that the
double or astral body can be detected. And finally there is evidence
from OBEs occurring near death. I shall consider each in turn.
In each case we may
consider both anecdotal and experimental evidence. The
spontaneous-case, or anecdotal, evidence is in some ways the most
interesting and persuasive, but it is also the most problematic. In
any case in which someone reports out-of-body vision, there are
problems of collecting the reports, the vagaries and distortions of
human memory, the difficulty of finding relevant witnesses and
checking the details claimed, and the problems of eliminating
expectation, sensory cues, and even fraud.
A case that illustrates all
of these problems is that most famous of spontaneous OBE cases, the
Wilmot case (Myers, 1903). Mr. Wilmot was travelling on a steamship
from Liverpool to New York in 1863. As the story goes, his wife was
worried because there was a severe storm at sea. She had an OBE and
travelled to her husband's ship. There she saw him lying in his
stateroom, and she went in and kissed him before returning home. Mr.
Wilmot, meanwhile, was sleeping well for the first time in nine or ten
days at sea, and dreamed he saw his wife come to his cabin. In the
morning he was amazed to find that his own vision of her had been
shared by his roommate, who chastised him for having a lady in his
room at night. Apparently they had both seen Mrs. Wilmot, and she had
seen them. On arriving home, Mr. Wilmot was asked by his wife if he
had received a visit from her on the night in question (Myers, 1903).
This story sounds very
convincing until you look a little further. It is now not possible to
talk to the people concerned, of course, and I have found that there
are no passenger lists or plans of the ship in existence. However,
just reading the reports
raises a host of questions. The whole story depends on the coincidence
of Mr. Wilmot's and his companion's visions with the experience of
Mrs.Wilmot. However, we are told all three sides of the coincidence by
none other than Mr. Wilmot himself, and he had been suffering from
days of seasickness and sleeplessness at the time. That reduces its
value, but worse still is that Mrs. Wilmot never reported having had
an OBE at all. Mr. Wilmot reported that she was worried and seemed to
go out to seek him. But in her own report she only alludes briefly to
her "dream," and she gives no description of what she saw.
She says she thinks she told her mother about it the next morning, but
there is no report from her mother. By the time the case was written
up in 1889, the roommate was dead and unable to give his account. It
seems to me that this case does not bear close scrutiny. I am not
trying to say that it is worthless — it is a very interesting story
— just that it is not the kind of evidence that would convince a
reasonable person of the existence of accurate out-of-body vision, or
of the accurate detection of a person in the out-of-body state.
So where do we look for
more solid evidence? We can look for more modern cases. I recently
presented one myself (Blackmore, 1982d). A Canadian architect claimed
to have visited London, and described in detail the houses he saw in a
certain area of Fulham. Apparently he had asked an English colleague
of his about that particular area of London, and the colleague had
"proceeded to describe the character of the streets, the
buildings, the style, the building setbacks and entrance yards — all
exactly as I had seen them!" (p. 3). It seemed an exciting case
and was easy enough to check, but as soon as I did I found that there
are no houses even remotely fitting the description in Fulham. Like so
many other cases, this one does not seem to stand up to examination.
The main lesson we have to learn, I believe, is that nothing has
changed. A hundred years has not produced the evidence, and yet we go
on looking for it in the same old ways. Will we never learn?
Some would say that the
experimental evidence is far stronger. There is a little such evidence
from early this century. For example, hypnotized mediums were asked to
"exteriorize" their doubles, and the doubles were then
supposed to be able to see things presented before their eyes, while
the mediums could not see them. The same was done with smells, tastes,
and touch, but the most elementary precautions against normal
perception were not taken, and those experiments cannot be considered
seriously (see Blackmore, 1982a).
For a long time nothing
along experimental lines was attempted, and then twenty years ago
laboratory research on OBEs began. Charles Tart (1967, 1968) was the
first to test a subject who claimed to be able to have an OBE at will
in the laboratory. Tart set up an experiment in which the subject was
to lie on a bed, above which was a shelf with a five-digit number on
it. The subject's aim was to see the number when out of his or her
body. Robert Monroe (well known for his book Journeys Out of the Body,
1971),was the subject on nine occasions but failed to see the number
at all. Then a girl referred to as Miss Z tried and, on her fourth and
last attempt, managed not only to have an OBE but to see the number
and report it correctly. That seemed to be a great breakthrough. One
of the most persistent problems in parapsychology is that results are
easy to collect, but terribly unreliable. Here it seemed that although
it was hard to get anyone to see the number, once seen it was seen
correctly. That would be a great advance if it could be repeated and
would put out-of-body vision in a class altogether different from
"normal" ESP. The hope, however, was short lived. Miss Z was
unable to come to the laboratory any more, and no other subject has
ever achieved that accuracy again. It is also a pity that the number
was in the same room as the subject, because however unlikely it seems
to be (and Tart [1967,1968] has argued that it is very unlikely), it
is possible that she saw the number normally. If the result cannot be
repeated, we shall never know for certain.
Subsequent experiments of
the same kind (e.g., Osis, 1974; Mitchell, 1981; Osis and McCormick,
1980) have produced results much like so many others in
parapsychology. That is, they are sometimes suggestively above chance,
but not much more than that.
Those experiments raise an
additional tricky question about the interpretation of out-of-body
vision. Even if people could see at a distance
during OBEs, that
is not necessarily evidence
that something leaves. After all, they could be using ESP. The ESP
problem has worried parapsychologists since modern research on OBEs
began some twenty years ago. The problem is how to distinguish between
ESP and out-of-body vision. In some sense, it is logically impossible.
ESP is defined negatively and therefore can never be ruled out.
However, some ingenious experiments have been designed to try.
Karlis Osis (1975) designed
the "optical-image device": a box containing a mass of
pictures, colored filters, and mirrors. Looking in through the lid,
one would see all of these in a jumble, but looking in through the
viewing hole, one sees a particular picture of a certain color
appearing in one of four quadrants. Osis's subject, Alex Tanous, was
asked to try to travel, during an OBE, to a distant room and to look
into the optical-image device. The idea was that if he "saw"
the right picture, he must have been using localized viewing rather
than generalized ESP. In fact the results were inconclusive. Osis
(1975) claimed that they supported the hypothesis of localized
viewing, but it was only by marginal effects. And in any case one
could never be sure that ESP could not operate like localized viewing.
We simply know too little about the workings of ESP.
So what are we to conclude?
I genuinely believe that the fairest and most reasonable
interpretation is to say that out-of-body vision has been tested and
has not been found. Here many others certainly disagree with me, but I
can only present the conclusion that seems to me to fit the evidence
One last thing to point out
is how very little the research has changed in all these years. Nearly
one hundred years ago Frederic W.H. Myers (1903) had a good idea of
what would be considered acceptable evidence. Psychical researchers
twenty and thirty years after his death were still looking for it and
using basically similar methodology. In spite of advances in
experimental design, we are still using it today; that is, testing
whether people can see some concealed object or target at a distance
while having an OBE. It may be considered a mark of a progressive
science that the problems it tackles change as it develops. In Imre
Lakatos's (1978) terms, there is a progressive problemshift. By this
criterion, research on OBEs has not progressed at all in a hundred
years. I think it is about time it did.
Much the same criticism can
be leveled at research of the second type; that is, the attempts to
detect the double. Early this century the doubles of hypnotized
mediums were asked to sit on weighing scales and to ring electric
bells and were even photographed (see Blackmore, 1982a). However, when
the research methods were improved, the early exciting results
disappeared. More recently, sophisticated apparatus has been used to
try to detect the presence of a double or astral body while a subject
is having an OBE in a different room. The most notable of that
research was a long series with the subject Blue Harary at the
Psychical Research Foundation. Humans, animals, and a mass of
different physical systems were used, but the final conclusion was,
"Overall, no detectors were able to maintain a consistent
responsiveness of the sort that would indicate any true detection of
an extended aspect of the self" (Morris etal., 1978, p. 1).
There have been some
indications of detectability. For example, in one of the experiments
Blue Harary was apparently able to influence the behavior of one of
his two pet kittens. The kitten miaowed and moved significantly less
when Harary was having an OBE as compared with control periods. Some
have seen that as evidence that the double left the body, but it
depends on a small statistical effect with one of two kittens, and it
was not repeatable. Also there still remains the problem that it could
have been ESP or psychokinesis between man and
cat. Osis and Donna McCormick (1980) claimed to have detected Alex
Tanous's out-of-body presence while he was engaged in a perceptual
task. Strain gauges were placed near the optical-image device, and
they showed greater activation on trials when he correctly perceived
the target in the box than on those when he was wrong. They argued
that in some sense he was more exteriorized on those trials and
unintentionally affected the strain gauges. I have pointed out
(Blackmore, 1981) that overall the results of the perceptual task were
equal to those expected by chance. So if he was "really
there" on hit trials, there
must have been psi-missing on the other trials. Julian Isaacs
(1981) has also
noted problems with the apparatus used.
Many people would argue
with my conclusion that the evidence is
(personal communication, 1982) has argued that if I had been at
the experiment with the kitten and seen its behavior, I would
"know" that it had detected Harary's presence. I can only
say that I wish 1 had been there to see for myself. But going on the
basis of published findings, I think the only fair conclusion is that
of Robert Morris, et al. (1978). The out-of-body "whatever it
is" seems to be undetectable as yet.
The third type of evidence
concerns OBEs occurring near death. It has long been known that people
approaching death report visions of many kinds, and these visions can
include OBEs. Research into near-death experiences (NDEs), from
Raymond Moody's (1975) pioneering work to more recent research by
Kenneth Ring (1980)and Michael Sabom (1982), has made it clear that
the OBE is an important and frequent constituent of the NDE. Whether
OBEs occurring near death are the same phenomenon as OBEs occurring
under other circumstances is not yet clear. However, they are
certainly similar enough to treat as one until we have any evidence to
Other components of the
"typical" NDE include roaring noises in the ears, the
experience of rushing along a tunnel (like my tunnel of trees), seeing
a light at the end of the tunnel, meeting with dead relatives or
religious beings, and glimpsing another world. The big question is, of
course, whether all NDEs could be creations of the dying brain in its
last moments, or whether they are what they seem, a prelude to, and
glimpse of, the world to come.
This is not the place to
consider such evidence in detail, but I should point out the few
suggestions that something paranormal may be involved. In particular
Sabom (1982) has presented evidence that people having NDEs while
unconscious and unresponsive have correctly reported details of
medical procedures and apparatus that they could not possibly have
known about. In addition he found that cardiac patients who had not
had an NDE were unable to imagine such scenes in the same accurate and
convincing way. However, these patients did not have the auditory and
other information that may be available to people coming close to
death, so the comparison is not as fair as it first appears. The
importance of the
additional auditory information
is something to be determined by future research.
I believe it is too early
to say whether near-death experiencers can actually see things
paranormally. There is certainly evidence in that direction, but it is
not clear-cut, and we shall have to await the results of future work
to find out whether or not it stands the test of time. However, it may
be useful at this stage to consider what sort of evidence would be
convincing. First, there could be better evidence for paranormal
perception during NDEs. if that is obtained, then I would be forced to
reconsider my position. But it would still be a long step to
concluding that OBEs provide evidence for survival. We would still
have to deal with the thorny question of ruling out ESP as an
alternative explanation, even to conclude that something leaves the
body. And even that is only the first step.
The second is to ask
whether that "something" could survive death or operate
without a physical body. One way of approaching the problem is to ask
whether NDEs can occur when brain activity has ceased. If a complex
structured experience occurs, involves the paranormal acquisition of
information, and could be shown to occur at a time when there was
little or no brain activity, then that would strongly challenge any
purely cognitive or psychological account of the experience. The
ability to collect that kind of evidence is in sight, and it would be
important if found. However, I must add that even that still would not
get round the problem that anyone who can tell
us about his
or her NDE was not actually dead at the time. Awkward problems
like that beset the search for survival evidence at every turn.
I have now considered,
albeit very briefly, the kinds of evidence that might persuade one
that the OBE was evidence for survival, and the only verdict I can
reach is "unproven." The evidence, as it stands at the
moment, is not sufficient to persuade me to reject my arguments
against the possibility of something leaving the body, or of there
being a double, astral body, spirit, or soul to survive. Why then do
so many people disagree with me?
I think there are two
reasons. The first I have already discussed; that is, the convincing
nature of OBEs to those who have them. But I think there is a more
important reason. That is that the alternatives presented are always
so feeble. All too often the choice presented is between
"something leaves — wow — we have a spirit — everything is
exciting" and "it's all in the mind, or just
imagination." It is that "just" that infuriates me.
Imagination is far too vast and exciting a world to be denigrated with
the word "just." But the psychological theories of the OBE
are very weak, as pointed out for example by Rogo (1983). It is
therefore not surprising that people don't take them seriously. What
we need is a viable and exciting alternative to the "something
leaves" theories. We could then make a reasoned choice between
The test of a good theory
is, in my opinion, that it leads to progressive and productive
research. Looking back over the research of the last hundred years, it
is crystal clear that it has not progressed. The same questions are
being asked, the same awkward problems faced, and the same
difficulties tackled now as a hundred years ago. I believe it is
because the whole research program is fundamentally misguided and
We need to start all over
again. Let us make some new assumptions, ask some new questions, and
see where they lead. If that attempt fares as badly as previous
research, we can soon abandon it.
Let us assume for the
moment that all experiences depend upon a functioning brain, that
there is no soul, spirit, astral body, or double, and that nothing
leaves the body in an OBE. Why then do people have OBEs? Indeed, why
do they have NDEs and profound mystical experiences? And why are
people so very moved by these experiences, as clearly they are?
Let us start by looking at
the OBE as something telling us a lot about brain function, rather
than the reverse. In the psychology of perception a great deal has
been learned from the study of visual illusions (e.g., Gregory, 1966).
When the visual system concludes that one of two equal-length lines is
longer, for example in the Ponzo illusion, that does not tell us that
the brain has gone wrong,but rather it tells us how the visual system
draws an incorrect inference from perfectly reasonable processes. In
other words the illusion tells us about those processes.
Similarly the OBE may tell
us about how we normally structure our perception and our images of
ourself. The process of perception involves building models of a world
"out there" viewed by a stable self. If under certain
circumstances our brain concludes that "we" are outside our
bodies, I think that tells a lot about what it means to think we are
inside. Most of the time most of us think we are in our head, behind
our eyes, or in some other convenient spot within the body. Wherever
it is, that does not tell us that there is a soul or something at that
spot, rather it tells us that we have chosen to organize our
perception and self image that way, as a convenience in our
construction of experience. Why then should people sometimes make the
odd decision that they are outside the body?
Normally we create a stable
model of ourselves that includes our body position and immediate
surroundings, seen from our own "personal viewpoint." The
whole process of perception is one of modeling, and as we move, see,
and hear, we update our model of "reality" to accommodate
changing input. We also use information from memory, from the
"cognitive map" of the world. For example, when you see a
wall in your own home, you may easily be able to imagine the room
behind it, even though you cannot see it.
The reason we maintain a
"personal viewpoint" consistent with the body's position is
that sensory input keeps on confirming it. However, if sensory input
is cut off, or drastically reduced, we may go on building models, but
they cannot be tied to input or to the correct body position. The
result is that the model may drift from the correct viewpoint, and an
In that unusual state, if
you try to work out where "you" are, you have none of the
normal mechanisms operating that will tell you. In an attempt to, as
it were, regain normality, you may imagine the position you know
yourself to be in and your own body sitting, standing, or whatever it
was doing. That will provide a relevant image, but the coordination is
lost and the result is that you seem to be wherever you imagined the
An interesting question
raised is why so many OBErs find themselves seeming to be above and
behind the level of the head. A possible answer is that that is a most
convenient place from which to structure imagined places. In
particular, if you try to imagine any familiar room, you may well find
that you do so from just such a position because it gives a better
overall view than normal head height. That possibility could clearly
The idea that the OBEr's
brain constructs a world to explain what it perceives leads to a lot
of interesting conclusions. First it becomes clear why the occultists
refer to a "thought-created world." That is precisely what
it is. And you can travel in it at any speed you can imagine
travelling. Sylvan Muldoon (Muldoon and Carrington, 1929) described
the three travelling speeds in the "astral plane," and those
conform closely to the ways in which we can manipulate visual images
in our cognitive map (that is, the mental map we build from our
perceptual experience). Try to imagine, for example, traveling from
your home to work or to a friend's house. You will probably find that
you can either see every detail as you would when walking, or can skim
the streets very fast, or can just start at one and end at the other.
Those are almost identical to the "astral" travelling
We also know a lot about
the sorts of errors made in OBEs. People may not see things that are
there, may add likely objects like chimneys or doors and windows that
aren't actually there, and so on. That is exactly what we find in the
cognitive map. Imagine the same route as before, and look at a certain
building as you pass by. How many windows has it or how many steps up
to the door? You may well find that you can "see" the
windows or steps but are unable to count them. That is probably
because your image is not really like a picture at all. It is a
representation of what you know about the building. You know it has
windows so you "see" windows, but you have never counted
them, so the number of windows is not represented. I am convinced that
the astral world is just like that. It is a world of mental
representations, and that is why it has all the qualities of the
cognitive map. The occultists hit the nail on the head with their
expression "thought-created world."
Another interesting point
concerns the end of the OBE. Typically it ends suddenly, with a snap
back to the body or even a momentary "blanking of
consciousness" (Crookall, 1961). That is just what we would
expect on this model, if at some point sensory input starts to
reassert itself, the normal mechanisms will reinstate the usual
viewpoint. One cannot sustain an in-between state, seeing both from
the normal position and from the out-of-body position. The normal one
will always win, so back one comes with a rush. That may also account
for some of the apparent discreteness of the OBE.
I would also like to say
more about the tunnel. It seems there are good reasons why a tunnel
should appear. It is known to be a common form in drug-induced
hallucinations (Siegel, 1977; Drab, 1981) and of course in NDEs and
OBEs. One possible reason is that concentric rings in the visual field
are represented by straight lines in certain parts of the visual
cortex. In a hallucinating state there may be electrical noise in the
cortex that runs in straight lines. The effect is to produce the
appearance of concentric rings, or a tunnel, as though being
perceived. Any other images at the same time are seen in this
perspective. The same argument applies to tunnels in migraine, which
is certainly associated with cortical noise.
Another idea works by
analogy with visual constancy mechanisms. We see a plate as round
regardless of its angle to us, and it stays the same size as it
approaches us, because of constancy mechanisms. Also, everything we
see is in perspective, and that has to be counteracted so that
straight lines appear straight. However, if we applied this same
"correction" to internally produced noise, it would have the
reverse effect and produce a tunnel. That idea needs testing, but the
important point is that there are various psychological reasons why we
might expect tunnel forms, and these need no recourse to astral bodies
or spirit worlds.
The crucial point is
clearly whether all these speculations can lead to any testable
predictions or not. I believe they most certainly can, and I will give
just a couple of examples.
In the state I described as
necessary for an OBE, anything imagined appears "real." If
one imagined the room as from one's actual position, it should seem
real whether or not one's eyes were open. I have had the experience of
seeming to see with my eyes closed in a state that felt like that
necessary for an OBE. So in a recent survey I asked this question:
"Have you ever seemed to see with your eyes closed?" OBErs
answered "yes" to the question more often than did control
subjects. More generally, people who reported OBEs also reported all
sorts of hallucinations, and I have found that in a random sample of
people, among students, and among schizophrenics (Blackmore, 1982b,
1982c, 1984; Blackmore and Harris, 1982).
If the OBE is basically a
product of the imagination, then we should expect people with better
imagery to be more likely to have OBEs. That idea has led to a lot of
controversy, and in fact it seems that OBErs have no more vivid
imagery (Irwin, 1981), but there is good evidence that they can more
easily become immersed in an experience to the exclusion of the
outside world (Irwin, 1981). This research is still in its infancy,
but already it seems to be producing far more in the way of reliable
findings than the paranormally based research has
These are just a few of the
hints that it is worth pursuing the idea of the OBE as a product of
the imagination rather than as something leaving the body. It is too
early to boast that we have got very far, but I
am convinced it is worth following
this route, if this
approach is correct, it implies that there is no astral body, other
than one invented by the imagination, and nothing travels in the OBE.
Correspondingly there is nothing to survive, and the OBE cannot be
seen as evidence for survival. Therefore the answer to my original
question is "No."
But we mustn't fall into
the trap of saying that the OBE is "just imagination."
Rather, it provides a privileged glimpse into the structure of
imagination. We have scarcely begun to look into this world, and the
sooner we start to understand it the better. Understanding the OBE in
these terms, and abandoning the search for
paranormal aspects, may be just a beginning.
The next steps are towards
understanding NDEs and mystical experiences. At the moment we have no
science of mystical experience. Theologians study the implications for
theology, psychiatrists denigrate them to abnormality, and doctors are
only interested if they relate to pathology, and parapsychologists if
they involve the paranormal. A few psychologists have made just a
beginning (e.g., Maslow, 1971; Neher, 1980). I hope we may see the
future psychological study of the OBE leading to a larger study of
mystical experience; one that may finally give some non-religious and
non-medical insight into those experiences that to so many people are
the most important thing in their lives.
We have a long way to go,
but the first step is to say that the OBE is not
"just" imagination. It is imagination, and that may
be quite the most exciting thing it could be.
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