Popular Delusions: Out-of-Body Experiences

Most religious people believe in the soul, an ethereal locus of consciousness that separates from the body upon physical death and travels elsewhere to receive its reward. To people who hold this belief, it’s a natural next step to guess that the soul or spirit could sometimes leave a person’s body while they’re still alive and travel to distant places on its own initiative. Such is the belief in out-of-body experiences, the subject of today’s Popular Delusions post.

Belief in OBEs is probably as old as humanity. The Bible alludes to a man who was “caught up to the third heaven”, “whether in the body… or whether out of the body, I cannot tell” (2 Corinthians 12:2-3), and the apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah claims to describe that famous prophet caught up out of his body and taken to heaven to witness prefigurements of Christianity. However, OBEs today are mostly the province of New Age believers, who usually refer to them as “astral projection”.

Although many purported OBEs involve voyages to dreamlike, conveniently unverifiable “spiritual realms” (where meetings with Jesus, guardian angels, and other religious figures are guaranteed crowd-pleasers), the existence of the phenomenon is an eminently testable claim. All that would be needed is for a person having an OBE to travel to some distant location, view it, and then give accurate details of their experience that could not have been obtained through normal sensory channels. Alas, all such attempts have come up short.

One of the most famous was the planetary voyage of the psychic Ingo Swann, who was enlisted by ESP researchers Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff to take an astral voyage to Jupiter. As reported by Swann, Jupiter was an eerie and compellingly beautiful place, with a surface of shifting sand dunes, enormous mountain ranges, and lakes or oceans in which icebergs floated. These marvelous discoveries were only slightly tarnished by the fact that none of them turned out to be true; Jupiter is a gas giant with no solid surface. Not to be deterred, Swann later claimed that he must have accidentally overshot Jupiter and traveled into another solar system entirely, and was describing a different planet which he saw there.

Other tests of OBEs, though more modest, proved equally flawed. The best-known were carried out by Charles Tart, such as this one on a subject who claimed she had experiences in which she left her sleeping body and floated up to the ceiling or through the walls of the room. Tart claims that his subject correctly perceived a remote target consisting of a five-digit random number during an OBE, but his methodology was less than rigorous:

The sleep laboratory consisted of two rooms… A large window was between the rooms for viewing, but in this experiment it was covered with a Venetian blind in order that the subject’s room could be reasonably dark for sleeping. An intercom system allowed hearing anything the subject said. I monitored the recording equipment throughout the night while the subject slept and kept notes of anything she said or did. Occasionally I dozed during the night, beside the equipment, so possible instances of sleep talking might have been missed.

…The subject slept on a comfortable bed just below the observation window…. Immediately above the observation window (about five and a half feet above the level of the subject’s head) was a small shelf (about ten inches by five inches)… This five-digit random number constituted the parapsychological target for the evening. I then slipped it into an opaque folder, entered the subject’s room, and slipped the piece of paper onto the shelf without at any time exposing it to the subject.

So, to review: the number the subject was supposed to be psychically viewing was on a shelf five feet above her head throughout the night. She was neither recorded nor observed; the window into her room was covered by a blind, and Tart, who was sitting in the next room, helpfully notes that he dozed off several times during the night. Readers are invited to imagine a non-supernatural means by which the result could have been achieved.

This sloppy methodology, subjective judging, and flat-out inaccuracy pervades parapsychological research in general and on OBEs specifically. It shouldn’t be a surprise that all the most striking claims of people gaining true information through OBEs are completely anecdotal, even hearsay – as in the famous case of the woman named Maria who allegedly saw a tennis shoe on a window ledge outside the hospital where she was having one. We have only the word of one person, a social worker named Kimberly Clark Sharp, that this OBE happened at all or that the shoe was there as described. Anecdotal accounts like this are impossible to test or verify. And so far, no rigorous, well-designed experiment has proven that people can acquire information this way at rates significantly greater than chance, much less that they can use it to do something genuinely useful, such as sending or receiving messages.

As with many other popular delusions, belief in OBEs is probably sustained in part by natural psychological phenomena which true believers have misunderstood (such as the role of sleep paralysis in alien abduction and haunting claims). The truth is, many people do have out-of-body experiences – that is to say, they have the experience of being outside their body. But that is not the same thing as saying that something actually leaves the body. Instead, these experiences appear to be nothing more than elaborate hallucinations caused by the brain misfiring.

I wrote on Ebon Musings about the brain’s superior parietal lobe, also called the “orientation association area”. Among its other functions, this part of the brain orients a person in three-dimensional space and calculates how to move through the world. In deep meditative states and other circumstances, the superior parietal lobe ceases its activity, causing a person to feel as if the physical boundaries of their self have been dissolved – they can no longer tell where their body ends and the world begins. It’s easy to see how such an event could be implicated in an OBE. Another brain area, the angular gyrus, is involved in OBEs more directly. In at least one experiment, when electrically stimulated, it repeatedly caused them to occur in the patient.

No matter how impressive they may feel, out-of-body experiences are just tricks of the brain, and do not contain any sensory information not accessible to a person through normal means. A well-designed, repeatable experiment could prove otherwise, but an endless string of unverifiable anecdotes does not.

Other posts in this series:

Anti-Vaccination Fever Rages On
Repost: The Age of Wonder
Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • AnonaMiss

    I had an OBE once! It happened the first time I went down a professional waterslide, around the time probably of my 9th birthday. When I hit the bottom I was going really fast, and it dumped me into the little pool at the bottom, and the next thing I knew I was looking at myself underwater, from the side of the pool. I (“my body”) was just kind of floating there – in the back of my mind I knew that I had to get out of the water before the next person came down or I’d be injured and possibly drown, but I looked so still and peaceful. It required a real effort of will to start moving my arms to swim, but I did manage it, and as soon as I started moving I snapped back into an internal perspective again.

    I didn’t really think anything of it, having not heard about OBEs before – my brain does weird things to me sometimes. (This was before I realized I could trigger myself to have visual hallucinations, but judging by how well I took the OBE, I must have had prior experience with my brain goofing off.) A few years later I mentioned it on a forum, in a thread by someone asking if anybody believed in OBEs, and the guy who started the topic went ballistic. He started treating me like I deserved to be honored for a second of hallucination I’d had years ago, and despite the obvious connection between the content of the hallucination and the emotional arousal ranging to just pain shock/dissociation involved in the circumstances, even after I explicitly pointed it out, he stubbornly clung to the belief that my experience was “real.” It was very odd.

    This post brought to you by self-centeredness!

  • Samuel Skinner

    When ever I hear about this I always wonder what a person would do if this was permanent. What do you do when you lose your sense of self?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    When ever I hear about this I always wonder what a person would do if this was permanent. What do you do when you lose your sense of self?

    A body with no soul? You become vice president under a weak figurehead president.

  • Brian

    Scientists have been trying to recreate out of body experiences for a while.


    The article above is about some experiments that were done in which people actually thought they were separated from their body. I tried (but failed) to track down the video in which a reporter tries out the virtual reality device and is also convinced he is disconnected from his body.

    In a Metephysics class I had we talked briefly about the soul, and many people attested to stories they’ve read about in which patients would have OBEs, come back, and then know information about an operating room near them. So, QED, the soul exists.

    It seems the most ardent supporters of OBEs that I’ve encountered know very little about cognitive and perception research.

    Not-so-surprisingly, I haven’t encountered any controlled scientific studies that offer credibility to OBE claims either.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    I believe in OBEs, though I don’t expect to ever have one. You presumably need to be a British citizen to have an Order of the British Empire.

    Seriously… there’s something interesting to be said for believers in woo. You’d think they’d actually want to know whether something is there, but when it comes down to it, the “looseness” of testing suggests that they’re worried it’ll go away.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Out of body experiences are also sometimes abbreviated OOBE or OOB.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    If the soul is the seat of conciousness, as most of the woo-woos aver, then another test suggests itself: test the perceptions of the now-soulless body, say, by striking cymbals near their ears, or tickling their feet.

  • http://priorperceptions.com Frank DN

    I had a stroke in 1998. During the event, I clearly had the sensation that I was floating several feet over my body. I could see myself laying on the floor with eyes open. I did not attribute this to anything spiritual even though I was a christian fanatic at the time. I didn’t know this was a stroke until much later in the day and I had no idea what it had actually done to me. It left me in continual pain but did not paralyze me. It did, however, effectively kill my faith. No one will ever be able to convince me it didn’t really happen the way I remember but I do accept that there are scientific explanations for it. You had a few articles that mentioned this sort of phenomena on Ebon Musings which were among the first I found. They gave me a starting point for my new brain altered life.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    test the perceptions of the now-soulless body, say, by striking cymbals near their ears, or tickling their feet.

    Sorry won’t work. Read the definitive authority on this, Tuesday Lobsang Rampa. Any good student of this obviously genuine mystic knows that our astral bodies are tethered by a golden cord to the corporeal body so we can still feel what’s happening. But sever it and you die… Wooooooooo!

  • http://unreligiousright.blogspot.com/ UNRR

    “are tethered by a golden cord”

    It’s a silver cord. Get your mystical nonsense straight :).

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 6/30/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    It’s a silver cord. Get your mystical nonsense straight :).

    So it is, so it is. But then again, my invisible pink unicorn is actually purple.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    Whoa, Ebon, slow down and save some of this stuff for the Case for a Creator series! One of the “scientific experts” believes that OBEs prove mind-body dualism.

  • http://www.waialeale.org MikeK

    An interesting experiment when a person is experiencing an OBE and this incorporeal thingee is hovering above his body, looking around the room, would be to poke his (the solid, corporeal body part) eyes out and see if he can still see. If he could still see, that would be evidence for a soul!

    Or you could bust into an operating room when somebodies heart has been stopped as on a heart lung machine, heart transplant, etc. — heart stoppage being used to define death when folks claim to have “died” and have these OBE’s — and bash the patient’s head in and claim that you’re innocent of murder since the doctor had already killed the guy when he stopped his heart.

    Or when somebodies having an OBE, you could try and catch the thingee floating around the room with a plastic bag and determine if it’s really incorporeal, etc. And how would a incorporeal thingee see since seeing is the actual physical interception of photos by the retina. Ditto, hearing. Or, another way of looking at it, if there are two ways of sensing, both physical with the eyes and however the soul does it, how would you blind a person since his soul would still be able to see.

    I’m confused, at least my corporeal being is confused.

    And do republicans have OBE’s? — I doubt they’d have souls — at least Cheney doesn’t.

  • Brian M

    Love this site, love some of the commenting here, but can I just post one little minor (off-topic) quibble:

    Our political and economic problems are not the fault (solely) of the Republican Party. The modern incarnation of the Democratic Party shares most of the same basic fundamental economic, foreign policy, and ideological underpinnings as the Republican Party. A Democrat (Saint Jimmy of Plains) started the program which ebcame the horror zone of 1980s Central America (as well as giving the go ahead to the Indonesians to slaughter 1/3 of the East Timorese). Afghanistan was a bipartisan policy. Iraq was bipartisan…remember the lovely 500,000 children are acceptable collateral dmaage quote? That wasn’t Cheney. Clinton killed welfare. Clinton bombed Serbia.

    We all hated the Cheney Administration. But until “change” is something other a hackneyed political slogan and real differences in political philosophy and personnel is in place…let’s be more modest about assigning blame to one wing of our unified political-military-industrial complex. Even if he reads from a teleprompter more eloquently than his idiot predecessor.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Gee, thanks, Steve. Here I was trying to bring some sense to the insensible.

  • http://www.waialeale.org MikeK

    Sorry ’bout the confusion. I don’t think democrats have souls either. But if there were an anti-christ, he’d just have to be a republican. They are evil after all. And the blood letting by the right wing wingnuts started in Central American long before either of us was born as in William Walker.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    MikeK has a good point — anything that is invisible also has to be blind, by definition. I don’t think it could hear or sense anything either.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Gee, thanks, Steve. Here I was trying to bring some sense to the insensible.

    Hey Thump you’re welcome :) But of course this is the point about good ‘ol non-falsifiable mystical woo; if the story doesn’t fit the observable facts there’s nothing to stop you changing the story. Religious apologists have been doing this for millenia and the new age types do it too.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com Sabio

    religious people believe in the soul

    I think ALL of us believe in a soul — it is a natural cognitive illusion. Some of us take more efforts than others to not let the illusion influence us.

  • Scotlyn


    I think ALL of us believe in a soul — it is a natural cognitive illusion

    Sabio, while I broadly agree with the point you are making, it is perfectly possible to phrase it differently, for example: “I think ALL of us experience a SELF – a natural cognitive illusion – which makes it very easy to believe we have a SOUL.”

  • John

    I once had an OOBE. I had no idea what was going on. I floated up and saw my body lying there. I then floated into the attic and could see everything up there. I got as far as the top of my roof, panicked, and came back down.

    I described the entire incident (in a lot more detail than I just gave) to someone who said I had a textbook OOBE experience. And this was without me knowing what the textbook said.

    Vivid dream? Probably. But it was very bizarre.