Do out of body experiences prove that the mind can exist independently of the brain? Robert Matthews investigates
Out of body experiencesSusan was sitting cross-legged on the floor with some student friends late one night when it happened. She noticed the voices of her friends becoming oddly distant and her body feeling strangely ethereal: Ã¢â‚¬Å“It didn't seem to be firmly on the hard floor, but rather indistinct, as though surrounded by cotton wool,Ã¢â‚¬Â she recalls.
Suddenly, she felt as if she was racing through a tunnel of leaves towards a light. She could hear a friend ask, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Sue, where are you?Ã¢â‚¬Â Then she noticed something deeply unnerving: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I watched, amazed, as the mouth below said, 'I'm on the ceiling.'Ã¢â‚¬Â
With that she began a journey high over the house and roof tops and out across the sea. The experience became even more bizarre, ever more cosmic. Ã¢â‚¬Å“There seemed no time and all space was one... the whole experience lasted about two hours.Ã¢â‚¬Â
At the time, Susan Blackmore was an Oxford University psychology student. She is now a leading expert on the nature of consciousness (see p74). But she has never forgotten her encounter with one of the most perplexing of all manifestations of consciousness: an out of body experience (OBE). Ã¢â‚¬Å“It changed my life,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says.
OBEs may alter our basic understanding of the relationship between mind and brain. If people really can leave their bodies and experience the world from elsewhere, it implies the mind can exist beyond the physical brain.
Unusually for a 'paranormal' phenomenon, not even hard-lined sceptics doubt the existence of OBEs. Where the controversy begins is over their implications. There is certainly no shortage of accounts, which span millennia and cultures from Siberian shamans to hunters in Papua New Guinea. Research suggests that around one in 10 people have experienced an OBE, and they can occur pretty much anywhere, any time. Some have experienced them in situations of extreme stress, others while lying in bed. Most may only have one during their lives, but some claim to be able to conjure them up at will. They can last from just a moment to several hours, during which time people experience anything from a mere feeling of separation from their physical bodies to 'astral travel' through time and space.
Most intriguing of all, OBEs have been reported among people who have been brought back from the very brink of death, as part of a broader phenomenon known as the 'near-death experience' (see 'Near-death experiences' on p65).
Striking phenomenaFew can doubt that millions of people have experienced OBEs. But are OBEs really what they seem: proof that conscious mind can transcend physical boundaries? If so, they cast a new light on issues ranging from the possibility of reincarnation to the reality of the soul. Or are OBEs creations of our mind, triggered by some physical or psychological event? In that case, understanding OBEs would raise fundamental questions about how we acquire our sense of existence.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“They are striking phenomena, because they challenge the traditional view of spatial unity of self and body,Ã¢â‚¬Â says leading OBE researcher Professor Olaf Blanke of Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). Ã¢â‚¬Å“In science, the most challenging phenomena are often the ones we take for granted.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The way to resolve the mystery of OBEs is obvious. If they really are the result of the conscious mind leaving the body, then they should allow people to witness events otherwise completely inaccessible to them. And this is precisely what some OBE researchers claim to have shown.
Since the early 1980s, cardiologist Michael Sabom of Northside Hospital, Atlanta, has tracked down many patients whose OBEs apparently allowed them to witness inaccessible scenes. They included a 35-year-old woman who apparently saw and heard surgeons operating on her, even though she was technically dead. She also gave apparently accurate descriptions of devices unlikely to be seen by anyone but specialist surgeons.
Such anecdotes fail to impress those who say it is always impossible that the real explanation is coincidence or lucky guesswork. This has prompted some scientists to set up so-called 'prospective studies'. The researchers firstly hide bizarre objects around a hospital resuscitation unit. They then interview all patients brought back from the brink of death to find out if they experienced an OBE. And if they did, whether they observed any of the otherwise inaccessible objects planted around the ward.
First proposed by the US parapsychologist Dr Charles Tart in 1968, this technique was used in a recent OBE study by a team led by Dr Sam Parnia of Southampton General Hospital. Over 60 patients resuscitated in a cardiac ward over the course of a year were asked what they had experienced. Unknown to the patients, various images had been suspended from the ceiling of the ward, all facing upwards. Publishing their findings in 2001, the researchers found that seven of the 60 patients had experienced some form of near-death experience (NDE), with four recalling many of the classic sensations of joy, tranquility and seeing a bright light.
Frustratingly, however, not one of the patients recalled experiencing an OBE. This left the team unable to confirm or refute claims that people really had observed their surroundings from beyond their bodies.
In another case, student Keith Harary, having experienced OBEs throughout his life, believed he could leave his body to 'project' himself to another location. To test his abilities, in the 1970s he took part in a series of tests at Duke University in North Carolina. At the start of each test, Harary would be wired-up to monitors and lie down on a bed at the university medical centre. Meanwhile, half a kilometre down the road, a team of observers at the Psychical Research Foundation Laboratory would be watching a kitten prowling around in a box. The kitten knew Harary, and responded to his physical presence by settling down near to him. What the researchers were looking for were signs of the same behaviour from the kitten when Harary 'projected' himself into the laboratory.
The experience began at the sound of a buzzer in both labs. A researcher next to Harary flipped a coin. Only if it came up heads would Harary attempt to project himself next to the kitten. Meanwhile, those watching the kitten were unaware whether an OBE was being attempted or not.
The results were perplexing. Some tests gave statistically significant evidence of a change in the cat's behaviour; others did not. As so often happens, both sceptics and believers were able to claim vindication.
In contrast, some recent studies have boosted the case for OBEs actually being 'IBIs' - in-the-brain illusions. From the psychedelic 'trips' triggered by certain plants and drugs to schizophrenics driven to kill by 'real' voices in their heads, there can be no doubt that the brain can create astonishing distortions of reality. Over the years, various medical disorders capable of creating OBEs have also been found. These include migraines, epileptic seizures and full blown psychosis. Scientists have also discovered ways of triggering OBEs. At the US Naval Air Development Center in Pennsylvania, Dr James Whinnery and colleagues have shown that pilots exposed to high G-forces experience classic symptoms of NDEs - including a sense of leaving their bodies.
Neuroscientists have also discovered that OBEs can be induced by the electrically stimulating part of the brain, known as the temporal lobe. This region serves a host of complex roles, from speech processing to object perception and spatial awareness. Suspicions of its role in OBEs stem principally from studies of epileptics, who appear particularly prone to such experiences if their seizures take place in the temporal love. Prof Blanke's team at EPFL have also induced OBEs at will by stimulating this part of the brain. They've even controlled the height reached during the experience, and triggered a rare OBE-like phenomenon called 'autoscopy', where people find themselves looking at a double of themselves. These studies suggest that the key to OBEs does indeed lie in part of the temporal lobe - near its junction with the overlying parietal lobe. Scientists recognise that this same area plays a role in creating a sense of 'wholeness' and of feeling distinct from other beings.
Many scientists see these findings as proof that OBEs can be explained without invoking theories about disembodied minds. But some insist it's still too early to declare the mystery of OBEs solved. They include Dr Peter Fenwick of the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He says that the new findings cannot explain the OBEs apparently experienced by patients with no detectable brain activity during surgery: Ã¢â‚¬Å“These are the really interesting ones that we are looking at.Ã¢â‚¬Â Dr Fenwick is currently working with doctors at several hospitals in the south of England in what will be the biggest study yet of OBEs experienced by people brought back from the brink of death. Their findings may prove that reports of the death of the OBE mystery have been greatly exaggerated.
Robert Matthews is Visiting Reader in Science at Aston University, Birmingham
Dr Susan Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, specialising in consciousness.