Are OBEs "Real?" - Part 1
by Bob Peterson
Many people ask, “are out-of-body experiences (OBEs) real?”. In most cases what they really mean to ask is, “Does something really leave the body or is it a purely subjective experience?”. Or maybe "In an OBE, do we (or can we) witness people, things and events in the physical world?" It's an important question because it may suggest we survive the death of the physical body.
From the subject’s point of view, the OBE is very real. It’s
often impossible to convince them otherwise. In fact they sometimes seem so real people convince themselves during the experience that
they are actually awake and not in an OBE at all, at least until
something happens to convince them otherwise such as floating, passing
through walls, or otherwise breaking the laws of physics. This has happened to me many times.
In 2015 Alexander De Foe published the free eBook Consciousness Beyond the Body which examines a lot of the evidence regarding whether or not out-of-body experiences are "real." If you want a critical examination of the evidence, please download the book to your favorite device and give it a read.
At De Foe's request, I donated a chapter to the book. Since some of the evidence was covered by other authors, my chapter was understandably edited down.
In this series of articles, I'll present some of the evidence from the original uncut chapter, plus new evidence uncovered since De Foe's book was published. To be fair, I'm not just going to examine evidence to support the theory that OBEs are real. I'll also examine evidence to suggest OBEs may NOT be real. By the end of the series you can hopefully make up your own mind based on the evidence.
To find out if OBEs are veridical (a real perception of the physical world, not illusory) first we need to address two questions:
- What qualifies as an OBE? and
- What counts as evidence of its objectivity or reality?
The first question, “what qualifies as an OBE?” leads us to the notion of a continuum or sliding scale of awareness. Strong physical evidence suggests that varying amounts of awareness (perceived as nonphysical) can exert influence away from our physical body. (There are many good examples in the book Entangled Minds by Dean Radin, Ph.D.) Studies of telepathy over the past hundred years have proven beyond reasonable doubt that one mind can affect another from a distance, and various theories have been asserted to explain that long-distance relationship. If something (such as quantum Higgs fields) actually leaves the body to transmit the information in cases of telepathy, can OBEs be just a larger, more involved version of the same process?
Perhaps telepathy and OBEs are two different forms of remote sensory transmission on the same sliding scale. Remote viewing (where evidence is collected and remote locations are ’seen’ in the mind's eye while the subject is still awake and aware of his or her physical body) would lie somewhere in the middle. Perhaps as subjects lose awareness of their physical bodies in an OBE, their perception of this quantum field information is heightened to the point where the brain interprets it in terms of the five senses acting on a non-physical body (commonly called the “astral body” in the literature).
Future scientific research may lead to the discovery of this quantum field information, but since this is only conjecture at this point, for the purposes of this discussion I'm going to restrict the evidence to OBEs in which there is no awareness of the physical body whatsoever). In other words, the physical body seems to be just another inanimate object in the room. Although OBEs with partial body control or awareness may be just as valid as other OBEs, I'm imposing this restriction to minimize the possibility that the information was obtained by remote viewing, clairvoyance, telepathy and other forms of "in-the-body" extrasensory perception (ESP).
Evidence from Ingo Swann and Keith Harary
Although many might disagree, my definition of an OBE unfortunately disqualifies some of the best evidence, such as the many successes of the late psychic Ingo Swann (Swann, To Kiss Earth Goodbye, 1975, Mitchell, Out-of-Body Experiences, 1985). In one experiment, Swann claimed to have traveled to the planet Jupiter in one of his “OBEs” and identified rings around the planet in 1973, prior to the Voyager-1 probe's discovery of the actual rings in 1979. This is considered good veridical evidence of OBEs, but it doesn't pass my criteria, since he was still aware of his physical body during the experiment.
It also disqualifies the OBEs of other famous psychics like Stuart ‘Blue’ (now known as Keith) Harary who did laboratory experiments while still able to narrate what was happening (demonstrating some degree of control over the physical body). In one experiment, Harary was apparently able to remotely affect the behaviour of his cat, Spirit, during some of his “OBEs.” Technicians filmed the animal and counted the number of meow sounds the cat made before, during and after his OBEs. The cat became noticeably more calm and meowed less during his OBEs.
It also disqualifies the “Focus Level” experiences described by proponents of The Monroe Institute (authors Rosalind McKnight, Bruce Moen, Thomas Campbell, etc.) In some cases the subject seems to have retained awareness of their physical body during these “OBEs” and can describe what's going on. Others have reported no bodily awareness, and yet they're somehow able to control their body, and even make it narrate the event remotely from the OBE state.
The second question, “what counts as evidence of its objectivity or reality?” is a shaky one, and one with a sliding scale that varies from scientific to anecdotal evidence.
On one end of the spectrum is evidence obtained from controlled scientific experiments. Although acceptable by the average person, hardened skeptics can always discount it for any number of reasons: the senses can be fooled, eyewitness testimony is notoriously bad, memory is not reliable, shortcomings of the methodology, cheating, and so forth.
On the other end, we have loose anecdotal hearsay evidence that equally hardened believers will accept as incontrovertible proof, despite its shortcomings. Yet even the loosest circumstantial evidence is not without value: it is enough to convince the average person, given that the evidence is piled into a high enough mountain. Case in point: most of us believe Pluto actually exists, despite the fact that we've never had direct experience of it, nor even done a critical examination of the evidence to support it. What makes us so sure? Only the mountain of indirect evidence (books and papers from scientists, photographs, gravitational measurements, etc.), almost all of which could have been faked. I might also add that OBEs have similar piles of evidence: more than 200 books, hundreds of papers and thousands of eyewitness testimonials.
I'm going to break this series of articles into different categories of evidence based on this sliding scale:
- Laboratory experiments
- Anecdotal evidence from spontaneous OBEs and NDEs
- Evidence from OBE adepts, and
- Indirect evidence.
Next time, I'll examine evidence from laboratory experiments.
20 Oct 2020