out-of-body experiences

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out-of-body experiences (OBEs) occur when an individual's direct perception of the world seems to originate from a point outside their physical frame. Such perceptions usually engender the idea that the subject's consciousness or soul has become detached from the body, and thus released to fly freely throughout space. A typical example was reported by the author, Ernest Hemingway.

Hit by shrapnel during a battle in the 1917 Italian campaign, the writer reported an intense sensation of ‘my soul or something, coming right out of my body, like you'd pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. It flowed around and then came back and went in again.’ These brief ecstatic transports are an almost universal phenomenon. Similar experiences have been reported within most of the world's cultures and by people of all ages. They are not tied to any physical state nor any emotional situation. Surveys carried out by the University of Virginia in the 1970s suggest that OBEs occur in around 20% of the general population, with the incidence rising to almost 50% amongst marijuana users.

Despite the relative commonness of OBEs, they have traditionally been credited with a deep religious significance. In the Hindu Upanishads, the soul's flight in the sky appears as one of the six siddhis or supernormal powers attained by the enlightened. In Tibet, there is a separate designation (delog) for those who can detach themselves from their physical bodies. Similarly, the shamans of Siberia and North America achieve their special status through starvation and self-persecution rituals, which allow the adept to enter trances from which they can project their souls to distant places. Likewise the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan, whose teachings were popularized (or possibly fictionalized) in the novels of Carlos Castaneda, claimed that out of body experiences could be controlled and promoted through the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

Although the Bible makes little explicit reference to OBEs its theology has provided the central framework for understanding these phenomena in the West. The episode in Acts 8: 39, when the Spirit of the Lord ‘caught away Philip’ from Gaza and placed him in Azotus, is sometimes understood as an OBE. Likewise, Paul's reference in Corinthians II 7: 2–4 to the convert ‘caught up in Paradise’, who heard unspeakable words, is seen as another example. These events map on to a division that has been central to Christian theology: the Pauline distinction between man's spiritual body and his fleshly self. Within the Christian mystical tradition, OBE has been interpreted as a moment of grace, which allows the individual to escape the restrictions of the sinful flesh. Moreover the out-of-body experience did seem to provide immediate evidence for St Paul's division between the spiritual and carnal bodies.

With rise of Theosophy in the late nineteenth century, a more instrumental attitude to OBEs emerged. Drawing upon a mixture of Eastern mysticism and North American spiritualism, the theosophists developed a many layered model of man, gradating between the material and the astral selves. Authors such as Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater claimed that occult technique and meditation would allow the astral body to journey away from the physical flesh, joined only by a delicate silver cord. In the twentieth century, this model of ‘travelling clairvoyance’ or ‘astral projection’ was widely promoted in practical ‘How To’ books, such as Sylvan Muldoon and Hereward Carrington's The projection of the astral body (London, 1929).

Alongside the voluntary practice of astral projection, OBEs have also occurred spontaneously to individuals in situations of extreme stress or suffering. In 1918 Jack London published The Star Rover, a semi-fictional account of astral travelling based on the case of Edward Morell, a prisoner who repeatedly experienced OBEs whilst being tortured in Arizona State Penitentiary. On a larger scale, the Austrian psychoanalyst, Bruno Bettelheim, documented the incidence of OBEs amongst prisoners tortured and suffering in the concentration camps. More recently there have been minor epidemics of spontaneous OBEs unconnected to either stress or suffering. In America, the current wave of reports of alien abduction bears a strong resemblance to out of body experiences. In the UK house music scene, recreational users of the anaesthetic drug ketamine have reported a typical ‘trip’ in which the dissociated consciousness seems to travel from the prone body to a distant white room.

The pharmacological encouragement of OBEs provides strong anecdotal evidence for the idea that astral projection has a neurophysiological basis. This folk evidence has been reinforced by laboratory research carried out by Michael Persinger in Toronto and Susan Blackmore in Bristol. These psychologists have been able to simulate OBEs in subjects held in a state of sensory deprivation, through the electrical stimulation of the brain's temporal lobes. Persinger and Blackmore suggest that images witnessed during astral projection should be seen as makeshift mental models, made by the brain in order to orientate itself in the absence of sensory inputs. Within the framework of this research, the OBE does not reveal the soul's precarious connection to the body, rather it demonstrates the fragility of those models through which the brain normally makes sense of its place in the world.

Rhodri Hayward


Blackmore, S. (1982). Beyond the body: an investigation of out-of-the-body experiences. Granada, London.
Crookall, R. (1961). The study and practice of astral projection. Aquarian Press, London.