Imagery and the OBE

Blackmore,S.J. 1983 Imagery and the OBE Research in Parapsychology 1982 Ed. W.G.Roll, J.Beloff and R.A.White, Metuchen, N.J., Scarecrow 231-232

Paper presented at the 25th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association and Centenary Conference of the Society for Psychical Research, Trinity College, Cambridge, August 1982

Susan J. Blackmore (Brain and Perception Laboratory, University of Bristol)


It has often been suggested that the world of the out-of-body experience (OBE) is a product of imagery or hallucination. If so, one would expect those people who have OBEs (OBErs) to have better controlled or more vivid imagery, or to be more likely to suffer from other kinds of hallucinations. Several previous studies have not found the expected relationships with vividness or control of imagery (H. Irwin, Parapsychology Review, 1981, 12(4), 1-6; S.J. Blackmore, Beyond the Body, 1982). However, the most appropriate tests may not have been used in these investigations. In most OBEs the experient seems to observe things from a location above his or her normal viewpoint. It may be hypothesized that OBErs should be more used to imagining things from such a viewpoint. Therefore subjects were asked about the viewpoint of remembered scenes.

In addition, if the OBE world is imagined, then the ability to “move” by changing the imaginary viewpoint should be important. Subjects were therefore asked to imagine changing viewpoints. In this process the manipulation of three-dimensional shapes is involved and so some subjects were given a Space Relations test to investigate this ability.


A questionnaire was given to 98 psychology students asking them to imagine from memory six simple scenes. They were asked whether they imagined each scene as though from eye level (as they would have seen it at the time), as though from above eye level, or in some other way. They were also asked how easily they could switch from one view to another (easily, with difficulty, or not at all). Other questions included Palmer’s OBE question (JASPR, 1979, 221-252) and questions on visual distortions (see pages 232-234).

Those who volunteered were given the Space Relations Test from the Differential Aptitude Test battery. This 25-minute paper and pencil test measures ability to imagine the rotation of simple geometrical forms. There was no stated connection between this and answers to the OBE question. 9 OBErs and 28 non-OBErs took this test.


30, or 31%, of the students reported having had at least one OBE. Most of these (89%) had had more than one. There were no significant age or sex differences. The number of scenes imagined as though from above did not differ between OBErs (mean = 2.57) and non-OBErs (mean = 2.15, t = 1.23, 95 df, p = .22). However, there was a difference in reported ability to switch from one view to another (t = 2.02, 95 df, p = .046). On the Space Relations test OBErs (mean = 46.2) scored higher than non-OBErs (mean = 41.3) but the difference was not significant (t = 1.32, 36 df, p = .19).


Two of the hypotheses were not confirmed and the tests failed to distinguish OBErs from others. The only significant difference lay in the reported ability to switch from one imaginary viewpoint to another. This could be important because if the OBE world is a mental construction then the ability to “move” about in it may be crucial to the experience. In order to establish this, better tests of this ability should be devised. Since all the differences were in the expected directions similar test with larger samples are planned.