Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Explaining out-of-body experiences

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I like Susan Blackmore a lot, and her book The Meme Machine is on my list of books that I repeatedly recommend. In 2016 she wrong an interesting essay that offers an explanation of out-of-body experience (OBE). It begins:

Out of the body?

I was just 19, and a first-year psychology student at Oxford, when a brief experience changed my life. Indeed what happened in those two or three hours subsequently drove both my intellectual and spiritual lives. I do not, to this day, know what caused it. Perhaps it was extreme tiredness from having too much late-night fun and getting up for early lectures, perhaps it was the Ouija board session we had just finished, perhaps it was the small amount of cannabis we were smoking or perhaps it was something else altogether.

Whatever the cause, I was sitting on the floor listening to music with my friends, Kevin and Victoria, when I found myself rushing down an imaginary tunnel of trees towards a bright light. I was beginning to drift and float, wondering what was happening, when Kevin asked: ‘Where are you, Sue?’ As I struggled to reply, my vision cleared and there I was, looking down on the room, seeing myself and my two friends from above. ‘I’m on the ceiling,’ I said, as I watched my own mouth open and close below me.

From what I know now, I guess the experience would have ended as quickly as it had begun had it not been for Kevin continually asking me questions: ‘What can you see now? … Have you got a silver cord? … Can you go further?’ I had no time to panic or worry; I just tried to answer. I zoomed up through the ceiling, out into the night and began to fly across Oxford, across the countryside, over the sea and to many other wonderful places. The scenes were vivid and glorious, the light exceptionally clear and bright. I felt vividly alive and well.

Twice I tried to come back, but it was hard. The first time, I was dismayed to find the room looking far from normal and my own body now headless and distorted. So I set off again into more adventures in ever stranger seeming worlds. The second time, I tried to get back to normal and to go inside the body, but found it impossible. First I was too small, then too large. Then I began expanding and expanding until space and time themselves seemed to lose all meaning. I was no longer a separate ‘me’. Indeed ‘I’ and the vivid, glowing universe were one. There was just this and this was perfect and right and there was nothing to be done ever.

There seemed to be a decision to be made: to stay in this bliss forever or to go back to ‘normal’ life. I came back. Eventually, and with a great struggle, I emerged from oneness into separation again. I persuaded myself that I had to go back inside the body and take it with me wherever I went, which seemed a horrible thing to have to do. But I eventually succeeded and after another two days felt relatively normal again.

So what happened to me? Kevin said I had experienced ‘astral projection’: that my astral body had left its physical shell and gone travelling on the astral planes. It was the only idea we had. I had never heard of tunnel experiences or out-of-body experiences and although I had been through almost every aspect of the now classic ‘near-death experience’, that term was not invented until five years later.

It is not surprising, then, that I jumped to false conclusions. As Thomas Metzinger puts it, after such an experience ‘it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist‘ – and I did. I immediately became convinced of the existence of spirits or souls that can leave the body and survive death, even though my body was clearly alive and well during the whole experience. Despite this conviction, I could see that this kind of dualism made no sense in the context of the physiology and psychology I was learning in my course. So the experience created a great challenge and I grasped it. Quite illogically (it now seems) I became convinced of such paranormal powers as telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition. So I decided to become a parapsychologist and prove all my closed-minded, materialistic lecturers wrong.

A body of evidence

That decision led to a PhD documenting years of fruitless research. I did dozens of lab experiments, investigated local poltergeists and slept in haunted houses, trained as a witch and sat with mediums, learned to read Tarot cards and throw the I-Ching. But I never found the slightest evidence of any paranormal powers.

So what about that experience? If there were no paranormal powers or ghosts or spirits, how was I to explain it? I could still remember the visions and feelings vividly but could still not understand what had happened. By then I had learned that it was called an out-of-body experience (OBE) and was related to, though different from, ‘autoscopy‘ – a usually pathological experience in which people see a duplicate self, or Doppelganger, but remain within their own physical body. Pulling together what I could of the classic astral-projection literature and the small amount of available research, I wrote Beyond the Body and later Seeing Myself: What out-of-body experiences tell us about life, death and the mind. From the 1960s to the 1980s very few parapsychologists were researching OBEs from a scientific rather than an occult or theosophical perspective. Celia Green, John Palmer and Harvey Irwin studied the phenomenology and psychology of the experience and defined it purely as an experience. My preferred definition is ‘an experience in which you seem to see the world from a location outside of your physical body’. As Palmer pointed out, this means that if someone describes such an experience, then, by definition, they have had an OBE. The question of whether anything actually leaves the body or not remains open for investigation. And that is, indeed, the big question.

If something leaves, then this soul, spirit or astral body ought to be able to see at a distance and some, including the parapsychologists Charles Tart and Karlis Osis, tried to find evidence of such paranormal vision during OBEs but their results were far from convincing. I tried myself. For several years I kept a target word, object and five-digit number on my kitchen wall so that people who claimed to have frequent OBEs could visit at their leisure and send me the answers. No one succeeded. I became ever more sceptical and, along with others, including Palmer and Irwin, developed a psychological theory of the OBE. But none of us had sufficient knowledge to make this work.

Then finally, in 2002, everything changed when, quite by accident, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 January 2023 at 9:51 pm

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