The new science of out-of-body experiences

Susan Blackmore, University of Plymouth, England.

Abstract for Totnes Consciousness Café, 26th November 2015

Forty-five years ago, as a 19 year-old psychology student, I had the most extraordinary experience – an out-of-body experience that lasted for hours and turned into a mystical experience of transformation and oneness. I was wide awake throughout and wrote a detailed account of everything I could remember a few days later. My determination to understand what had happened to me led to my becoming a parapsychologist, researching and writing about OBEs and eventually giving up because although I had learned a great deal about OBEs, and written a book about them, I still could not explain them. The big question, of course, is whether anything really leaves the body in an OBE.

Then in 2002 a Swiss neurosurgeon discovered he could induce and control an OBE by stimulating a woman’s temporo-parietal junction, an area that maintains our body schema and is implicated in the construction of self as well as empathy and understanding others. Further research reveals connections with mystical and religious experiences, as well as autoscopy and other dissociations. Three aspects of self-modelling seem to be involved – our first-person point of view, our sense of embodiment and our sense of owning our own body. All these have been manipulated using virtual reality to induce a range of full body illusions with curious consequences. These share many features of naturally occurring OBEs but can they really help us understand the OBE?

My own experience not only led me to decades of research but also to Zen training and long practice of mindfulness and meditation. Over these years my science and my personal practice have gradually come together and the way I understand my own OBE – and myself – has changed completely.

Short version for poster

In 1970 I had a dramatic out-of-body experience that lasted for hours and turned into a mystical experience of transformation and oneness. As a 19 year-old psychology student I had no idea what had happened, and have spent much of my research life trying to find out. Does something really leave the body? If so, what is it? If not, how can these vivid, life-changing experiences be explained? At last some new research on embodiment, virtual reality and full-body illusions is beginning to provide answers, and this common, yet mysterious, experience is helping us better understand the nature of self and consciousness.

Sue Blackmore is a psychologist, writer, lecturer, and Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She has written many books on consciousness including Conversations on Consciousness, Zen and the Art of Consciousness, and a student textbook. Her other books include The Meme Machine which is translated into nearly 20 other languages. She blogs for the Guardian and Psychology Today, campaigns for drug legalisation, and plays in her village samba band. She has been practicing Zen for thirty years.