It’s 4 a.m. Lying half asleep, you feel a rush of energy course through your body. A sound like white noise from a TV set begins filling your head to a deafening roar. You sit up and effortlessly step out of bed, looking behind you with shock to see your physical body lying motionless. It doesn’t feel like a dream, and it sure doesn’t look like a dream, either. Suddenly realizing you might be dead, you begin to panic, only to be thrown instantly backward by a powerful contraction. You sit up again—this time in your body—wide awake and thoroughly confused.
Known to researchers as OBEs, out-of-body experiences are estimated to have happened to one in ten people—approximately thirty million in the United States alone. Though the phenomenon has long been shrouded in the murky realm of New Age incense and tarot cards and promoted by books adorned with swirling pastel motifs, it seems that OBEs are finally taking some bold steps into the mainstream of scientific inquiry.
This past August, researchers Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Henrik Ehrsson, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, published the results of their recent OBE-related experiments in the peer-reviewed journal Science. Their research, which found its way into major media outlets around the world (from The New York Times to The Guardian to The Economist), essentially involved replicating key features of the OBE experience through a clever video camera setup that shifted volunteers’ sense of their bodies a few feet away from their actual location.
“Out-of-body experiences have fascinated mankind for millennia,” said Ehrsson. However, he added, the “neuro-scientific basis” of the phenomenon has remained unclear. Hoping to shed light on the matter, he modeled his experiments on the hypothesis that OBEs may result from errors in the way the brain processes sensory information. Since the brain relies heavily on visual and tactile cues to construct a sense of the body’s location in space, by intentionally confusing these senses Ehrsson was able to trick his research subjects (and their brains) into feeling as though they were observing themselves from outside their own bodies.
In a separate series of experiments, Blanke successfully displaced his subjects’ sense of themselves onto a virtual body seen in their virtual-reality goggles, as well as onto a mannequin dressed to resemble the subject. This wasn’t Blanke’s first venture into this kind of research. In 2002, he and his team were able to predictably induce OBE-like symptoms in an epileptic. And in 2006, they were able to make their subjects feel the uncanny sense of an invisible presence standing with them in the room, mirroring their every movement. The effects were created when parts of the somatosensory system, a region in the back of the brain responsible for integrating different kinds of sensory information such as vision, touch, and balance, were either confused or overstimulated.
According to Ehrsson, while this kind of study falls short of replicating “full-blown” OBEs, it does represent a huge step toward better understanding them. He believes further research along these lines may also lead to technological applications, such as the ability to project one’s sense of self onto a character in a 3-D virtual world or a way for doctors to perform remote surgery using robotic arms that they feel as their own. But perhaps more important will be the knowledge we may gain into the nature of consciousness and its relation to the physical body. Are they one and the same? Can the mind exist independently of the brain? And will we somehow be able to prove it—one way or the other—in the lab? WIE decided to ask some of the world’s foremost OBE experts for their thoughts on these questions and their opinions of this latest research.
I am happy to see the subject of OBEs getting some much deserved attention. I feel this research is still in its infancy but will eventually lead to a more refined approach to effective induction. The core issue remains interpretation. Different people will use this study to support their own preconceived opinions about OBEs. Some will continue to state that an OBE is a brain-created sensation, while others will say that this is evidence of our ability to separate consciousness from the body. This approach will continue to create a serious gray area for many people.
An important underlying issue here is the OBE experience level of the participants involved in any study of this kind. An experienced subject is far more able to use, interpret, and judge the authenticity of the virtual experience.
FREDERICK H. (“SKIP”) ATWATER
The researchers themselves state that this study falls short of reproducing “full-blown” out-of-body experiences, but that in no way diminishes the importance of this research. People who have had such experiences seek no explanation because these complete dissociations from the physical body are so vivid as to convince the experiencers that what is happening to them is more real than a hallucination or an illusion.
There is only so much science can measure if it is limited to quantitative measurement of objective parameters. Qualitative research, however, has unlimited potential, and that is why the OBE research just published is so valuable. It was an evaluation of the subjective experiences of the participants.
In my opinion, these experiments mimic the fundamental principle of all out-of-body “exit techniques.” Therefore it is not surprising that these experiments are producing low-power OBE-like symptoms.
There are two types of OBE exit methods, and the principles of each are the same—which are to exteriorize conscious body awareness, in part or in full, and to trick the body-mind into believing it is already outside of the physical body.
I think these experiments go a long way toward supporting the reality of OBEs. Further studies are obviously required, and I am confident that these will unearth even more similarities between virtual-reality-induced OBEs and more powerful types of OBEs, including the near-death experience (the most powerful form of OBE).
It seems likely that the OBE enthusiasts would feel justified by the results of these experiments—the OBE has some scientific validity, after all. And ironically, the scientific materialists would also feel justified; the OBE isn’t paranormal but is just a product of the physical brain.
Whether we consider OBEs to be actual experiences on the astral plane or virtual realities modeled by the brain, exploring them is a fascinating adventure. But I’ve learned too much that I didn’t consciously know from my dreams and projections to feel fully satisfied with the materialist explanation that dreams, projections, and OBEs are merely products of the brain. And yet if only the brain is responsible, it’s a pretty miraculous chunk of meat.
I am concerned by skeptics who want to reduce the OBE to a “trick of perception.” There are dozens of cases of astral projectors who have been able to obtain proof that they were out of body by getting information from a distant location. These cases prove beyond a reasonable doubt that we do have a second, nonphysical, body.
Continued research into virtual-reality (VR) simulations of OBEs will, I think, one day show what many astral projectors have discovered—that “reality” and “virtual reality” are not that far removed from each other. The physical world is essentially hallucinatory, as the only tool to perceive the world is the human body/brain. Thus, all of reality has been translated through our perception. And the universe is affected by our perception of it, as quantum physics has shown. So VR research will hopefully lead scientists to discover that Reality is integrally related to consciousness and perception.