A psychological theory of the out-of-body experience
original article is
Now reprinted, with this new postscript, in Psychological Scientific Perspectives on Out of Body and Near Death Experiences. Ed: Craig D. Murray. NY Nova, 2009
Twenty-five years after it was written, I rather nervously reread my own paper and was struck by two things. First was how much the psychology of mind and consciousness has changed in the intervening years, and second was how well the basic idea behind the theory still holds up.
Since then, the 1980s computer-inspired cognitive psychology has given way to a much richer science of the mind, from neuroscience and brain scanning to the multi-disciplinary field of consciousness studies. In particular, enactive theories of perception have exposed deep philosophical problems with the notion of representation, and replaced the idea that what we experience is the contents of a mental model with the idea that seeing is a kind of activity – we experience what we are doing (O’Regan and NoŽ 2001, NoŽ 2005). I have contributed in a small way to this change with experiments on change blindness (Blackmore et al 1995) and my arguments that consciousness is neither a stream nor a container with contents (Blackmore 2002, 2003).
In this context my cavalier use of such terms as “cognitive system” and “successive representations” seems naÔve. Even so, the theory does not depend on using these precise terms, and still makes sense in the light of more subtle notions of modelling and representation developed since then.
I originally conceived the theory because of my own dramatic out-of-body experience (Blackmore 1970). At first I assumed that my spirit had left my body, or my astral body had projected into the astral planes, but after much research and exploration I rejected those ideas, and began to wonder, instead, about the very nature of self. Most of us feel as though we are an inner self inhabiting our body and looking out from behind the eyes, but from a neuroscience point of view this inner self has to be a fiction. So what is going on? Around that time I began to practice Zen meditation, and this tradition also emphasises the illusory nature of the self we think we are. So if this perceiving, located self is a fiction, could it be that a different fiction might sometimes be constructed – one that seems to be looking down on the world from a bird’s eye view instead of looking out from inside the head?
The rest of the theory follows from there. Looking at the OBE this way led me to ask both how the normal fiction of a located self is created, and when and why it might be replaced with a bird’s eye view. I speculated that although we can think about, imagine, remember and perceive many things at once, we normally have no trouble distinguishing between our own thoughts and the actual world. This is because our perceptions are integrated with our body image into a complex, stable and coherent unity that I called the “model of reality”. This model of reality seems real not because of any particular distinguishing features but simply because it is currently the most stable and coherent model we have. This means that it might be replaced by an alternative view either because it is weakened or disrupted, or because something else becomes even more complex and stable (or both). The alternative could be a model constructed from memory and imagination, and we know that memories are often imagined in a bird’s eye view.
This made sense of the conditions under which spontaneous OBEs occur, the methods used to induce them, and the skills of the people most likely to have them. I made various predictions from the theory; that common OB locations would be those most easily imagined, that people with skill at imagining from different locations would be more likely to have OBEs; and that people who can induce OBEs at will should also be good at ignoring sensory input.
In this 1984 paper I reported some of my earliest findings confirming these predictions, and soon afterwards completed further research. I found that people reporting deliberate OBEs also reported better dream control skills, while those who had spontaneous OBEs were more likely to have mystical experiences (Blackmore 1986a). In a further three studies I found that OBErs are more likely to use an observer perspective (or bird’s eye view) in recalling dreams (though not when recalling actual events). This was also found by Irwin (1986). In experiments asking people to switch viewpoints in their imagination, OBErs were more easily able to do this, and they reported clearer and more vivid imagery from different viewpoints (Blackmore 1987).
My suggestion that inducing an OBE requires the ability to ignore input, was also confirmed by research showing that OBErs score higher on the scale of “absorption”, a measure of how easily people become absorbed in books, films, or music to the exclusion of the outside world (Gabbard and Twemlow 1984, Irwin, 1986). I also found that the incidence of OBEs among schizophrenics is no different from that in a control group (Blackmore 1986b), providing evidence against the popular idea that there is something pathological about having an OBE.
After this I turned to research on near-death experiences (Blackmore 1993), which very often include OBEs, but then I stopped all my research on these topics – mainly because so little was happening in the field. It was therefore a great surprise to find, in this new century, that at last progress was being made again, using new techniques.
In 2002 Blanke and his colleagues described how they induced an OBE repeatedly in a patient being treated for epilepsy, by electrically stimulating her right angular gyrus. This confirmed the early accidental findings of Wilder Penfield (1955) and has subsequently been repeated by another team treating a patient with tinnitus (Ridder et al 2007). The stimulation also induced other distortions of the body image suggesting, as I would expect, that OBEs “may reflect a failure by the brain to integrate complex somatosensory and vestibular information” (Blanke et al 2002).
Blanke (2005) argued that OBEs are related to a failure to integrate multisensory information at the temporo-parietal junction, leading to disruption of the body image and other aspects of self-processing, and further research confirmed that ambiguous input from sensory systems is indeed implicated in OBEs (Blanke et al 2004). In addition, this same brain area was found to be selectively activated when healthy volunteers imagined themselves in typical OBE positions (Blanke et al 2005). With a completely different approach Lenggenhager and colleagues (2007) induced experiences somewhat like OBEs, including seeing a virtual body and mislocalising the self, by using conflicting visual and somatosensory input in a virtual reality set up.
I could never have predicted which brain areas were involved in OBEs, but otherwise these findings are just what I would have expected: they show how the normally stable model of self in the world can be weakened, giving other viewpoints a chance to take over and seem real.
I find these new researches very exciting. One of the things that depressed me most in my decades of research is the tendency for people (and the media) to divide theories of OBEs and NDEs into two black-and-white types. On the one hand are the “good” (or “spiritual”) theories – OBEs mean the spirit can leave the body, NDEs are a glimpse of life after death. On the other hand are the “bad” (or “boring”, or “reductionist”) theories – OBEs and NDEs don’t exist or are “just hallucinations”, horrible scientists are denying people’s life-changing experiences.
Now, at last, we have research linking OBEs to measurable brain processes, to other experiences, and to research on the mystery of consciousness. We can confidently say that OBEs really do happen, they really do change people’s lives, and they are exciting and interesting to study. But rather than telling us about spirits, souls or astral bodies, they reveal something much more interesting about the illusion of being me.
Blackmore, S. (1970)
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Experience in the Brain