Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Are OBEs "Real?" - Part 3

Are OBEs "Real?" - Part 3

by Bob Peterson

This is part 3 of a series of articles that examine whether out-of-body experiences are "real" or veridical. Full disclosure: Much of this is based on the chapter I wrote for Alexander DeFoe's eBook Consciousness Beyond the Body, which is free to download from amazon.com in many locations.

To read part 1, Introduction, click here.

To read part 2, Laboratory Experiments, click here.

In my previous article, I talked about OBE experiments in the lab. Now let's turn our attention to more anecdotal evidence. That is, evidence that wasn't gathered under strict lab protocols.

Anecdotal evidence from spontaneous OBEs 

Conservative estimates based on polls indicate that 20 – 25% of the general population have had one OBE in their lifetime. Many of them report some kind of evidence. The mountain of evidence is too big to quote in any detail, but can be found in several books and periodicals.

The voyage of S. R. Wilmot 

Some of the earliest anecdotal evidence of OBEs comes from the SPR (Society for Psychical Research), a British organization dedicated to scientifically studying psychic phenomena. Founded in 1882, the SPR was the first society to conduct organized scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models, including OBEs. One famous case, quoted in several OBE books, concerns Mr. S. R. Wilmot, a sailor who survived a great storm while sailing from Liverpool to New York. Here are some excerpts:

Upon the night following the eighth day of the storm the tempest moderated a little, and for the first time since leaving port I enjoyed refreshing sleep. Toward morning I dreamed that I saw my wife, whom I had left in the United States, come to the door of my state-room, clad in her nightdress. At the door she seemed to discover that I was not the only occupant of the room, hesitated a little, then advanced to my side, stooped down and kissed me, and after gently caressing me for a few moments, quietly withdrew. 

Upon waking I was surprised to see my fellow passenger, whose berth was above mine, but not directly over it—owing to the fact that our room was at the stern of the vessel—leaning upon his elbow, and looking fixedly at me. 'You're a pretty fellow,' said he at length, 'to have a lady come and visit you in this way.' I pressed him for an explanation, which he at first declined to give, but at length related what he had seen while wide awake, lying in his berth. It exactly corresponded with my dream.... 

The day after landing I went by rail to Watertown, Conn., where my children and my wife had been for some time, visiting her parents. Almost her first question, when we were alone together, was, 'Did you receive a visit from me a week ago Tuesday?' 'A visit from you?' said I, 'we were more than a thousand miles at sea.' 'I know it,' she replied, 'but it seemed to me that I visited you.' 'It would be impossible,' said I. 'Tell me what makes you think so.'.... 

On the night previous, the same night when, as mentioned above, the storm had just begun to abate, she had lain awake for a long time thinking of me, and about four o'clock in the morning it seemed to her that she went out to seek me. Crossing the wide and stormy sea, she came at length to a low, black steamship, whose side went up, and then descending into the cabin, passed through it to the stern until she came to my state-room. 'Tell me,' said she, 'do they ever have state-rooms like the one I saw, where the upper berth extends further than the under one? A man was in the upper berth, looking right at me and for a moment I was afraid to go in, but soon I went up to the side of your berth, bent down and kissed you, and embraced you, and went away.'

The description given by my wife of the steamship was correct in all particulars, though she had never seen it. (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Volume VII)

The problem with the Wilmot case is that it was all hearsay evidence, and that it happened so long ago. Skeptics like Susan Blackmore can easily rattle off a huge laundry list of reasons why it should be ignored.

Phantasms of the living

In 1886, three of the SPR's most distinguished members, Edmund Gurney, Frederic W. H. Myers (two of the SPR's founding members) and Frank Podmore, published the book Phantasms of the Living. While the book covers a wide range of psychic phenomena, such as telepathy, it also contains evidence to suggest OBEs may be objective (or “real.”) In some cases cited the non-physical body (commonly called the “astral body”) of a living person is seen as a ghostly apparition by another person, suggesting that the subject's body image has an objective counterpart. In the introduction of the book, Myers writes: 

"I refer to apparitions; excluding, indeed, the alleged apparitions of the dead, but including the apparitions of all persons who are still living, as we know life, though they may be on the very brink and border of physical dissolution. And these apparitions, as will be seen, are themselves extremely various in character; including not visual phenomena alone, but auditory, tactile, or even purely ideational and emotional impressions. All these we have included under the term phantasm; a word which, through etymologically a mere variant of phantom, has been less often used, and has not become so closely identified with visual impressions alone." (p. Xxxiii) 

Many more narrations containing evidence of an objective astral body are given by Myers in his posthumous book from 1903, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death.

Dr. Robert Crookall's OBE case collection 

Similar narrations can also be found in several books by author Dr. Robert Crookall, a geologist who collected, studied, analyzed and published hundreds of OBE accounts. Many of his narrations contain anecdotal evidence of OBEs. Here's an example: 

Case No. 93—Dr I.K. Funk's doctor-friend

Dr. I.K. Funk the publisher and theologian gave the experience of a physician well known to, and trusted by, him in The Psychic Riddle, (Funk and Wagnall's Co.). The doctor went to bed. His feet and legs became "as cold as those of the dead" ..."All at once...for an instance I became unconscious. When I recovered, I seemed to be walking in the air. No words can describe the exhilaration and freedom and clearness of mental vision that I experienced. I thought of a friend who was a thousand miles distance and seemed to travel with great rapidity through the atmosphere. Everything was light...a peculiar light of its own, such as I had never known. It could not have been a minute after I thought of my friend before I was standing in a room with him. Suddenly turning and seeing me, he said, 'What are you doing here? You were in Florida'." … He approached the doctor's 'double' and the doctor heard the expression he used. He was, however, unable to answer.

..."I may add here that the friend referred to as having been seen by me that night was distinctly conscious of my presence and he made the exclamation mentioned. We both wrote the next day, relating the experiences of the night. The letters corroborating the incident crossed in the post." (Crookall, The Study and Practice of Astral Projection, 1979, pg. 96)

Anecdotal evidence: Reports from NDEs

Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) often feature OBEs that are more dramatic than typical run-of-the-mill OBEs, and often contain convincing evidence of an objective component. There have been numerous cases where people reported NDEs from which they were able to accurately quote conversations between doctors and nurses during surgery, despite the fact that they were rendered completely unconscious by anesthetics. Some patients have described operating room procedures in detail, and even procedural blunders during their NDE. Sometimes they accurately reported events occurring in the hallway of the hospital or other patients' rooms.

Dr. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven

Skeptics often argue that NDEs really don't provide proof because they are almost always the result of cardiac arrest, which doesn't prove that the brain stopped working; it may still be functioning, albeit, abnormally. Since EEGs only measure activity on the surface of the brain, there could still be electrical activity during the NDE that's undetectable because of its distance from the skull surface. While that may be true in many cases, it doesn't explain the NDE of Dr. Eben Alexander from his book Proof of Heaven. Alexander, a brain expert and neurosurgeon, had an NDE due to E. Coli bacterial meningitis, which is almost always fatal. The disease completely shut down the neocortex of his brain; the area recognized by scientists as responsible for all experience. If there was a purely biological explanation for consciousness, he should have experienced absolutely nothing during his NDE. Given that the author is a brain surgeon and expert on the topic, his account is impressive. He was a skeptic of his own patients' NDE claims until it actually happened to him.

Next time, in part 4 of this series, I'll talk about evidence from OBE adepts, that is, people who can self-induce OBEs.

Bob Peterson

17 Nov 2020

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Are OBEs "Real?" - Part 2

Are OBEs "Real?" - Part 2

by Bob Peterson

Wow. It's hard to believe, but this marks the 8-year anniversary of my blog, "The OBE Outlook on Life," which I launched on November 4, 2012. Time flies whether you're having fun or not!

This is part 2 of a series of articles that examine whether out-of-body experiences are "real" / veridical. Full disclosure: Much of this is based on the chapter I wrote for Alexander DeFoe's free eBook Consciousness Beyond the Body.

To read part 1, click here.

OBE experiments in the laboratory 

Most OBE adepts have gotten the same request multiple times: “Travel to my house in an OBE and describe the object I've placed on my bedside table. That will prove you're able to leave your body.” 

The problem with this request is that it is unscientific. It proves nothing and has no value in a scientific sense. Why? First, people are too predictable: They leave the same things on their bedside table: phone, alarm clock, keys, wedding rings, and so forth, so the system can be fooled by careful guesswork. Second, it is too easy to cheat: a certain amount of reconnaissance or detective work can fool the system. This is the case with many psi experiments. Third, it has no lasting meaning: it is all uncontrolled and word-of-mouth. These little bedside experiments usually never find their way to reputable scientists, and it won't convince them if it does.

Skeptic Susan Blackmore actually tried this experiment. She set a number of targets in her kitchen: numbers, words and objects (an example she documented is 34802 CAT, and a matchbox full of matches, but she periodically changed the target). She then invited OBE adepts to visit her home. In her 1996 book In Search of the Light she states that

“Several OBErs have now had a go at it, but none had ever succeeded in seeing it. That is, so far. It is still there, and I keep on changing it.” (pg. 234) 

In her 2017 book Seeing Myself, she states that she's given up on the idea and doesn't have OBE targets in her residence anymore.

I once got an email from a man who had memorized the serial number from the back of his desktop computer from an OBE state. Later he verified the numbers were correct. The evidence was convincing, but only to him. The problem is: The correct answer can easily be brushed aside as a lucky guess or feat of long-term subconscious memory recall. Unless, of course, it's repeated under laboratory conditions with qualified scientists driving the experiment and strict controls to rule out all other possible explanations. Clearly, OBEs should be studied in a controlled scientific fashion. Sadly, very few scientific experiments have been done on OBEs.

Dr. Charles Tart’s experiments with “Miss Z”

One of the most well-known scientific experiments done on OBEs was conducted by Dr. Charles Tart in the 1970s. His subject, a young woman known as “Miss Z” (to protect her identity) reportedly had OBEs three to four times a week. Tart studied her in his sleep lab for four nonconsecutive nights, over the period of two months. Each time she was cabled to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to record her brain waves. She was also monitored for Rapid Eye Movements (REMs) with a strain gauge taped over the right eyelid. Basil Skin Resistance (BSR) was also recorded on a Grass polygraph to monitor her level of relaxation. Other measurements were taken as well. The wires were fairly restrictive: if she sat up more than two feet, the cables would have been disconnected (they were still loose enough for her to turn over and get comfortable). And that would be indicated on the graphs.

Every night after Miss Z was in bed with cables attached and equipment recording, Tart would go into his office, flip a coin onto a printed table of random digits (computers are notoriously bad at generating truly random numbers, especially in the 1970s, so this was not an uncommon practice for scientists). Wherever the coin landed determined five random digits, which he then wrote in two-inch (5cm) high numerals on a piece of paper. He slipped the paper into an opaque envelope and used that to carry the number back to the lab. About five and a half feet above Miss Z's head was a small shelf (about ten by five inches/ 25x13cm). Tart carefully slipped the paper out of the envelope and onto the shelf where she could not see it.

On the final night of the experiment, Miss Z had an OBE. At 5:50am, Tart noted that the occipital channel [of the EEG] showed an enlarged, slow wave artifact, and the EEG looked like stage 1 (hypnagogic) tracing, with an irregular mixture of theta waves, random low-voltage activity and occasional isolated alphoid activity (brain waves of 1 to 2 cycles per second slower than her waking alpha) and occasional normal alpha. There were no Rapid Eye Movements (REM) at the time. At 5:57am, the slow wave artifact stopped and the EEG looked like stage 1 sleep with some eye movements, but she might also have been awake. At 6:04am she called out that the target number was 25132. This was the correct number (with all digits in the correct order). The odds of doing this by chance are around 1 in 100,000.

Dr. Charles Tart’s experiments with Robert Monroe

After his success with Miss Z, Tart decided to experiment on his close personal friend, Robert Monroe, founder of the Monroe Institute and author of three books on OBEs (Journeys Out of the Body, Far Journeys, and Ultimate Journey). He brought Monroe into a different lab for nine sessions. Although he called him “Mr. X” for the study, Monroe later admitted to being the subject.

As with Miss Z, Monroe was attached to probes and wires, which gave him a great deal of discomfort (according to Tart). When Tart wasn't there, Monroe was monitored by a woman lab technician. 

Despite being uncomfortable with the wires and probes, Monroe did produce two OBEs in the lab on one of the nights. He did not claim to see the target number, but something interesting did happen. In his OBE, Monroe saw the lab technician unexpectedly talking with a man. After Monroe awoke, he got her attention. When he told her he had seen her with a man, she replied that it was her husband. Monroe asked if he was outside, and she replied that he was, that he came to stay with her during the late hours. He asked her why he hadn't seen the man before, and she replied that it was policy for no outsiders to see subjects or patients. 


Although laboratory experiments on OBEs can be convincing, there's simply not been enough of it done to draw any conclusions. Tart's one-in-one-hundred-thousand odds against chance is not convincing to hardened skeptics. It certainly pales compared to, say, some of Dean Radin's meta-analysis of other (non-OBE) paranormal claims (telepathy, clairvoyance, etc.) in his fabulous book Entangled Minds.

In part 3, I'll begin to talk about the evidence gathered outside the laboratory.

Bob Peterson
03 November 2020