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:

The Pope's Laudato: So Close And Yet So Far
The World in the Dark
Blood Moon Lunacy, or the Virtue of Vagueness
Book Review: 1491
About Adam Lee

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