Out-of-body experiences, and what they tell us about our selves.

Towards a Science of Consciousness, TSC, Helsinki, 9-13 June 2015


In an out-of-body experience (OBE) you seem to perceive the world from a location outside your physical body. This kind of definition, settled on in the 1970s, is purely descriptive. If you seem to be out of your body then, by definition, it is an OBE. This leaves open for research the big question – does something leave the body or not? If it does, what is it? A soul, spirit, astral body? If not, how can these vivid, realistic and compelling experiences be explained?

It was my own experience in 1970 that set me on a lifetime of trying to understand the OBE. As Metzinger puts it, after such an experience “it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist” and I did. Yet this kind of dualism makes no sense in the light of our current understanding of the world. So OBEs provide a great challenge. Can they, as many people believe, overthrow scientific monism and prove that consciousness is possible beyond the body?

This battle was played out in nineteenth century psychical research, in early twentieth century astral projection, and in a flurry of more serious research in the 1970s and 80s. Yet the distinction always seemed to be trivialised into two camps. Either OBEs are ‘real’ and are actual journeys of the conscious self, or they are ‘just illusions’, ‘only hallucinations’, the ‘meaningless twitchings’ of neurons. In other words, either ‘true’ or ‘false’, ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’, fascinating or of no interest at all.

The truth is far more interesting. Since 2002, when Olaf Blanke induced an OBE by stimulating the right temporoparietal junction, research has leapt ahead. Blanke attributes OBEs to “disturbed self-processing at the TPJ” because this area constructs our body schema, a detailed and constantly updated model of our body oriented in space. Evoked potential mapping while mentally transforming one’s body pinpoints the same area and TMS disrupts such imaginings. Brain damage or direct stimulation at the TPJ can induce mystical and religious experiences, OBEs, autoscopy and other dissociations. In addition, three aspects of self-modelling – point of view, embodiment and ownership – have been independently manipulated using virtual reality techniques that induce cleverly constructed full body illusions, and these share many features of naturally occurring OBEs.

This exciting research shows that Stuart Hameroff and Deepak Chopra are wrong when they claim that “Modern science is unable to explain NDEs/OBEs, and ignores and derides such reports as unscientific folly or hallucination.” We are not ignoring OBEs. Although there are many details yet to be understood, the outline is becoming clear. Indeed scientists and philosophers are now using OBEs to investigate our in-body experience and the very nature of selfhood.

Far from being evidence for dualism, OBEs may now help us understand how illusions of duality, including the hard problem, come about in a nondual universe.