(a physical double travels in
the physical world)"
First there is the kind of explanation
which suggests that we each have a second physical body which
can separate from the usual one. There are two aspects to consider,
one being the status and nature of the double which travels,
and the other being the status and nature of the world in
which it travels. In this theory both are material and interact
with the normal physical world. You may immediately dismiss this
notion, saying that the double is non-physical.
To make this theory even worth
considering it is necessary to assume that this double is composed
of some 'finer' or more subtle material that is invisible to
the untrained eye. This kind of idea is sometimes expressed in
occult writings. The idea appears, for example, as the 'etheric
body' of the Theosophists. Objections to this type of theory
are numerous, and are made on both logical and empirical grounds.
First, what could the double be made of? The possibilities seem
to range between a complete solid duplicate and a kind of misty
and insubstantial version. Another problem with this kind of double
is its appearance. If all have a second body why does it appear
to some as a blob or globe, to other as a flare, or light,
and to yet others as a duplicate of the physical body? Muldoon
and Carrington [MC29] wrestled with this problem and so has Tart
If the notion of a physical
double is problematic, the notion that it travels in the physical
world is just as much so. First there are the types of errors made
in OB perception. These tend not to be the sort of errors which
might arise from a poor perceptual system, but seem often
to be fabricated error, or additions, as well as omissions. Then
sometimes the OB world is responsive to thought, just as in a dream
the scenery can change if the person imagines it changing; and lastly,
there is the fact that many OBEs merge into other kinds of experience.
The OBEer may find himself seeing places such as never
were on earth, or he may meet strange monsters, religious figures
or caricature animals. All these features of the OBE make it harder
to see the OB world as the physical world at all, and lead one
to the conclusion that the OB world is more like a world of thoughts.
(a non-physical double travels
in the physical world)"
Many theories have suggested
that the double is not physical but non- physical, even though
it travels in the physical world. Many occultists believe there
to be a whole range of non-physical worlds of differing qualities.
Let us look at some examples of this sort of theory to try to
find out what is meant by it. Tart [Tar74b, 78] refers to it
as the 'natural' explanation. He describes this theory of the OBE
as follows '... in effect there is no need to explain it; it is just
what it seems to be. Man has a non-physical soul of some sort
that is capable, under certain conditions, of leaving the physical
seat of consciousness. While it is like an ordinary physical body
in some ways, it is not subject to most of the physical laws
of space and time and so is able to travel at will.'
The 'theta aspect' has been
mentioned in connection with detection experiments. Morris et. al.
[MHJHR78] explain that '... the OBE may be more than a special
psi-conductive state; they hold that it may in fact be evidence
of an aspect of the self which is capable of surviving bodily death.
For convenience, such a hypothetical aspect of the self will hereafter
be referred to as a Theta Aspect (T.A.).' According to Osis
and Mitchell [OM77] it is possible that '... some part of the
personality is temporarily out of the body,' and many occult theories
involve a non- physical astral double rather than a physical one.
Blackmore criticizes this view
[Bla82]. She claims if the 'soul' is to interact with the objects
of the physical world so as to perceive them then it should not
only be detectable, but all the other problems of previous theories
arise. On the other hand, if this 'soul' does not interact with
the physical, then it cannot possibly do what is expected of
it in this theory, namely travel in the physical world. She
sees no escape from the dilemma. Moreover, she claims there is already
evidence that what is seen in an OBE is not, in any case, the physical
(a non-physical double travels
in a non-physical, but 'objective,' astral world)
Each of the theories presented
thus far support a conclusion that OBEs do not take place in
the physical world at all, but in a thought-created or mental
world. Each of the next three types of theory start from this premise,
but they are very different and lead to totally different
conceptions of the experience.
The term 'mental world' could
mean several different things. It could mean the purely private
world created by each of us in our thinking. One possibility is
that there is another world (or worlds) which is mental but is
in some sense shared, or objective and in which we can all travel
if we attain certain states of consciousness. The important
question now becomes whether the OB world is peculiar to each individual,
or shared and accessible to all.
Occultists have suggested that
there is a shared thought world. There are many other versions
of this kind of theory. The pertinent features of this idea are
that there is a non-physical OB world which is accessible by thought,
that it is manipulable by thought, and that it is the product
of the mind of more than just one person.
Tart [74b, 78], as one of his
five theories of the OBE, suggests what he calls the 'mentally-manipulatable-state
explanation.' He raises here the familiar problem of, as
he puts it 'where the pajamas come from.' That is, if the OBE involves
the separation of a 'spirit' or 'soul' we have to include the possibility
of spiritual dinner jackets and tie pins. Of course any theory
which postulates 'thought created' world solves this problem.
Tart therefore suggested that a non-physical second body travels
in a non-physical world which is capable of being manipulated or
changed by 'the conscious and non-conscious thoughts and desires
of the person whose second body is in that space.'
In 1951 Muldoon and Carrington
had come to a similar conclusion [MC51]. Muldoon states '...
one thing is clear to me -- the clothing of the phantom is created,
and is not a counterpart of the physical clothing.' Through his
observations he came to the conclusion that 'Thought creates
in the astral, ... In fact the whole astral world is governed by
thought.' But he did not mean it was a private world of thoughts.
Also relevant here is the occult
notion of thought forms. Theosophists Besant and Leadbeater describe
the creation of thought forms by the mental and desire bodies,
and their manifestations as floating forms in the mental and
astral planes. All physical objects are supposed to have their
astral counterparts and so when traveling in the astral one sees
a mixture of the astral forms of physical things and thought created,
or purely astral, entities.
There are other versions of
a similar idea. For example Whiteman questions the 'one-space theory'
of OBEs [Whi75], and Poynton follow him suggesting '... what
is described is not the physical world as actualized by the
senses of the physical body, but a copy, more or less exact,
of the physical world' [Poy75]. Rogo [Rog78b] suggests that the
OBE takes place in a non-physical duplicate world which is just
as 'real' to the OBEer as our world is to us.
The idea of shared thought world,
attractive as it is, has some serious problems. The first problem
relates to how the thoughts of different people could be combined
together to create an astral world and the second problem
concerns the storage of ideas. The idea that thoughts can persist
independently of the brain has been a cornerstone of many occult
theories, but also parapsychologists have used a similar idea
to try to explain ESP.
According to Blackmore [Bla82]
the problem is essentially one of coding. We know that when a
person remembers something he has first processed the incoming
information, thought about it, structured it, and turned it into
a manageable form using some sort of code. We presume that the
information persists in this form until needed when the
person can use the same coding system to retrieve it and use
it. Even if we don't understand the details of how this system
works, there is in principle no problem for one person because
he uses the same system both in storing the material and retrieving
it. But if thoughts are stored in the astral world, then we have
to say that one person can store them there and another can get
them out again. And that other person may have entirely
different ways of coding information. So how can these thoughts
in the astral possibly make sense to him?
(imagination plus ESP)
The OBE might involve only imaginary
traveling in a private imaginary world. According to this type
of theory, nothing leaves the body in an OBE. The advantage of
such a theory is that it avoids all the problems of the
previous ones since it involves no astral worlds and other bodies.
Certain parapsychologists have tried to incorporate the evidence
that ESP occurs during OBEs by suggesting that the OBE is 'imagination
plus ESP' or PK. For example, one of Tarts's five theories is the
'hallucination-plus- psi explanation.' According to this
theory, 'For those cases of OBEs in which veridical information
about distant events is obtained, it is postulated that ESP, which
is well proved, works on a nonconscious level, and this information
is used by the subconscious mind to arrange the hallucinatory or
dream scene so that it corresponds to the reality scene'
Osis [Osi75] contrasts his 'ecsomatic
hypothesis' with 'traveling fantasy plus ESP' and Morris [MHJHR78]
compares the theory that 'some tangible aspect of self
can expand beyond the body' with what he call the 'psi- favorable
state' theory. In parapsychology many states have been thought to
be conducive to ESP. They include relaxation, the use of ganzfeld
or unpatterned stimulation, and dreaming. There are many reasons
why an OBE might be thought of as a psi-conductive state. Palmer
suggested that it might induce attitudes and expectations
consistent with psi, thereby facilitating its occurrence [Pal74].
This sort of theory is not satisfying.
It appears to avoid all the previous problems and yet to be able
to cope with the paranormal aspects of the experience. According
to Blackmore 'Calling the OBE imagination or hallucination
tells us very little, and adding the words 'plus ESP' adds nothing.
We know little enough about ESP. It is defined negatively, and
we cannot stop and start it or control it in any way.'
This theory amounts to the statement
that all the details of the OBE are to be accounted for in psychological
terms. Nothing leaves the body in an OBE, the astral body and
astral world are products of the imagination and the OBE
itself provides no hope for survival. Osis has called the followers
of such theories 'nothing but-ers,' reducing the OBE to 'nothing
but a psychopathological oddity' [Osi81].
Among psychological approaches
there have been psychoanalytic interpretations, analogies between
the 'tunnel' and the birth experience; the creation of the double
has been seen as an act of narcissism or as a way of denying
the inevitable mortality of the human body. Then there have
been theories which treat the near-death experience as a form
of depersonalization or regression to primitive modes of thinking,
and those which treat it as involving an archetype.
John Palmer used a mixture of
psychological and psychoanalytical concepts in his account [Pal78a].
He made the crucial point that the OBE is neither potentially
nor actually a psychic phenomenon. An OBE may be associated with
psychic events but the experience itself, just like any other
experience, is not the kind of thing which can be either psychic
or not. He went on to suggest that the OBE almost always occurs
in a hypnagogic state. Within this state it is triggered by a
change in the person's body concept which results from a
reduction or other change in proprioceptive stimulation. This
change then threatens the self concept and the threat activates
deep unconscious processes. These processes try to re-establish
the person's sense of individual identity as quickly and economically
as possible in a way that follows the laws of the Freudian
primary process. According to Palmer it is this attempt to regain
identity which constitutes the OBE.
Since the whole purpose of the
OBE is to avoid a threat, the person will usually remain unaware
of that threat and of the change in body image which precipitated
it. However, Palmer adds that it is possible, with practice, to
gain ego-control over the primary process activity. Of course
the OBE is, at best, only a partial solution to the threat
and both ego and primary process strive to regain the normal body
concept. As soon as they succeed the OBE ends. For Palmer any psychic
abilities which manifest themselves during an OBE do so more because
of the hypnagogic state than because anything leaves the body.
This theory has much in its
favor. It has no need of astral bodies or other worlds and so avoids
all the problems of the earlier theories. It makes sense of the situations
in which the OBE occurs, and the way it varies with the
situation, and it relates the OBE to other experiences. However,
the theory is not without its own problems. It depends heavily
on the idea that the OBE is a means of avoiding a threat to the
integrity of the individual and the anxiety which such a threat
would arouse. But it is not clear that the OBE would not provide
an even greater threat than the original change in body concepts.
Sometimes OBEers are terrified that they will not be able
to 'get back in' which is surely also a threat.
Susan Blackmore [Bla82] bases
her theory on the claim that the evidence of paranormal events
during the OBE is limited and unconvincing. She therefore asserts
that the claims for ESP and PK in OBEs are not impossible but there
is actually not very much evidence which has to be 'explained
away' in this fashion. Blackmore suggests that the OBE is best
seen as an altered state of consciousness (ASC) and is best understood
in relation to other ASCs. Everything perceived in an OBE is a
product of memory and imagination, and during the OBE one's own
imagination is more vividly experienced than it is in everyday
life. In other words the experience is a kind of privileged peek
into the contents of one's own mind.
Blackmore suggests that in the
case of the OBE the following are necessary: vivid and detailed
imagery; low reality testing so that memories and images may seems
'real'; sensory input from the body reduced or not attended to;
awareness and logical thinking maintained. She shows how
these prerequisites can lead to an altered state of which one form
is the semi- stable OBE and indicates related states, such as lucid
dreaming, and shows how experience can change into others when
conditions, or ways or thinking, change.
This theory accounts adequately
for cases of so-called traveling clairvoyance, where the subject
does not necessarily see his body, but is aware of a distant
scene. It accounts less well for cases of conscious projection,
where the subjects feels himself to be at a distant location and
is actually perceived by a person at that location. It also underestimates
the veridical aspect of perception in cases where there is no
apparent distortion by the imagination, in other words when the
scene viewed from another point of space corresponds exactly
with what one might expect to observe from that point; for instance
a room seen from the vantage point of the ceiling. The question of
perceptual distortion is related to the degree of interference by
the imagination: the greater the imaginative element, the less veridical
the perception of the place.
Stephen LaBerge describes a
theory in which OBEs occur when people lose input from their sense
organs, as happens at the onset of sleep, while retaining consciousness
[LL91]. This combination of events is especially likely when a
person passes directly from waking into REM sleep. In both
states the mind is alert and active, but in waking it is processing
sensory input from the outside world, while in dreaming it is creating
a mental model independent of sensory input. This model includes
a body. When dreaming, we generally experience ourselves in a
body much like the 'real' one, because that is what we are used
to. However, our internal senses reside in the physical body, which
when we are awake inform us about our position in space and about
the movement of our limbs. This information is cut off in REM sleep.
Therefore, we can dream of doing all kinds of things with
our dream bodies -- flying, dancing, running from monsters, being
dismembered -- all while our physical bodies lie safely in bed.
During a WILD, or sleep paralysis,
the awake and alert mind keeps up its good work of showing us
the world it expects is out there -- although it can no longer
sense it. So, then we are in a mental dream world. Possibly we
feel the cessation of the sensation of gravity as that part of
sensory input shuts down, and then feel that we are suddenly
lighter and float up, rising from the place where we know our real
body to be lying still. The room around us looks about the same
as it would if we were awake, because such in image represents our
brain's best guess about where we are. If we did not know that
we had just fallen asleep, we might well think that we were
awake, still in touch with the physical world, and that something
mighty strange was happening -- a departure of the mind from the
The unusual feeling of leaving
the body is exciting and alarming. This, combined with the realistic
imagery of the bedroom is enough to account for the conviction
of many OBE experients' that 'it was too real to be a
dream.' Dreams, too, can be astonishingly real, especially if
you are attending to their realness. Usually, we pass through
our dreams without thinking much about them, and upon awakening
remember little of them. Hence, they seem 'unreal.' But waking life
is also like that -- our memory for a typical, mundane day is flat
and lacking in detail. It is only the novel, exciting, or
frightening events that leave vivid impressions. If we stop what
we are doing, we can look around and say, 'Yes, this world looks
solid and real.' But, if you look back and try to recall, for instance,
brushing your teeth this morning, your memory is likely to be vague
and not very life-like. Contrast this kind of event to a past event
that excited or alarmed you, which is likely to seem much
more 'real' in retrospect.
Perhaps all the distinctions and
problems are artificial, perhaps the mind is neither 'in' nor 'out'
of the body. Grosso argues the possibility [Gro81] that one is always
'out' and in an OBE just becomes conscious of that fact. Should the
distinction between normal and paranormal then be dropped?
Let us consider the state of affair
that is considered normal: the 'in-the- body' experience. What does
it mean to be in a body? LaBerge [LL91] argues that saying that one
is in a body implies that the self is an object with definite borders
capable of being contained by the boundaries of another object
-- the physical body. However, we do not have any evidence that the
self is such a concrete thing. What we think of as 'out-of-body'
in an OBE is the experience of the self. This experience of being 'in'
a body is normally based on perceptual input from the senses of both
the world external to the body and the processes within the body. These
things give us a sense of localization of the self in space. However,
it is the body, and its sense organs, that occupy a specific locus,
not the self. The self is not the body or the brain. If we think that
the self is a product of brain function, even this does not make it
reasonable to state that the self is in the brain -- is the meaning
contained in these words in this page? It may not make any sense on
an objective level to say that the self is anywhere. Rather, the self
is where it feels itself to be. Its location is purely subjective
and derived from input from the sensory organs.
Putting aside the question of the
essential nature of the self, perception is undeniably a phenomenon
tied to brain function. So, when we find ourselves experiencing a
world that seems much like the one we are used to perceiving with
our usual equipment -- eyes, ears, etc., all things linked to our
brains, it would be logical to assume that it is our usual brain
creating the experience. And, if we were to really leave our bodies
-- severing all connection with them -- it would be illogical to assume
that we would see the world in the same way. Therefore, LaBerge points
out, although no amount of contradictory evidence can rule out the
possibility of a real 'out of body experience,' in which an individual
exists in some form entirely independent of the body, it is highly
unlikely that such a form would utilize perceptual systems identical
to those of the physical human form.
Spiritual teachings tell us that
we have a reality beyond that of this world. LaBerge concludes that
the OBE may not be, as it is easily interpreted, a literal separation
of the soul from the crude physical body, but it is an indication of
the vastness of the potential that lies wholly within our minds. 'The
worlds we create in dreams and OBEs are as real as this one, and
yet hold infinitely more variety. How much more exhilarating to be "out-of-body"
in a world where the only limit is the imagination than to be in the
physical world in a powerless body of ether! Freed of the constraints
imposed by physical life, expanded by awareness that limits can
be transcended, who knows what we could be, or become?' [LL91].