In the late 1960s Charles Tart began the first laboratory tests with subjects who could have OBEs voluntarily [Tar67, 68]. In addition to his physiological research he also tested subjects’ ability to see a target hidden from their normal sight. His first subject, Miss Z., was tested in a laboratory where a target was placed on a shelf about five and a half feet above the bed where she lay. The target was a five-digit number prepared in advance by Tart and placed on the shelf. Miss Z. slept in the laboratory on four occasions. On the first she had no OBE; on the second, she managed to get high enough to see the clock, and on third night she had an OBE but traveled elsewhere. However, on her fourth and last night she awoke and reported that she had seen the number and it was 25132. She was right on all five digits which has a probability of only one in 100,000 of being right by chance.
Tart himself seemed reluctant to conclude that it was paranormal. Tart’s second subject was Robert Monroe, who came to the laboratory for nine sessions, but he was only able to induce an OBE in the penultimate session, and then he had two.
During the first of these OBEs he seemed to see a man and a woman but not to know who or where they were. In the second he made a great effort to stay ‘local’ and managed to see a technician, who was supposed to be monitoring the apparatus. With her he saw a man whom he did not know was there and whom he later described. It turned out that this was the husband of the technician, who had come to keep her company. Since Monroe did not manage to see the target number, no real test of ESP was possible.
In 1971 Karlis Osis began to plan OBE research at the American SPR. One of the first subjects to be tested there was Ingo Swann, who went to the laboratory two or three times a week where Janet Mitchell tested him to see whether he could identify a target placed out of sight. A platform was suspended from the ceiling about 10 feet above the ground and divided into two. On either side of a partition various objects were placed and Swann was asked to try to travel up to see them. The reason for the partition was to see whether Swann would identify the correct target for the position in which he claimed it to be. Bright colors and clear familiar shapes seemed most successful and glossy pictures or glass did not work well for the experimental purposes.
After his OBE, Swann usually made drawings of what he had ‘seen.’ Although these drawings were far from perfect renderings of the original objects, they were similar enough that when eight sets of targets and respondes were given to an independent judge she correctly matched every pair; a result which is likely to happen by chance only once in about 40,000 times.
The results of all these experiment were most encouraging. From Tart’s results especially it seemed that although it was very hard for the subject to get to see the number, and that if the number was seen, it was seen correctly.
Further research showed that OB vision could be just as confused and erratic as ESP has always seemed to be.
For example Osis advertised for people who could have OBEs to come to the ASPR for testing. About one hundred came forward and were asked to try to travel to a distant room and to report on what objects they could see there. Osis found that most of them thought they could see the target but most were wrong. He concluded that the vast majority of the experiences had nothing to do with bone fide OBEs. This conclusion means that Osis was using the ability to see correctly as a criterion for the occurrence of a genuine OBE.
Much of the recent research on OBEs has been directed towards that important question; does anything leave the body in an OBE? On the one hand are the ‘ecsomatic’ or ‘extrasomatic’ theories which claim that something does leave. This something might be the astral body of traditional theory or some other kind of entity. Morris has referred to the ‘theta aspect’ of man which may leave the body temporarily in an OBE, and permanently at death. On the other hand there are theories which claim that nothing leaves.
Some of these predict that no paranormal events should occur during OBEs, but the major alternative to consider here is that nothing leaves, but the subject uses ESP to detect the target. This concept has been referred to as the ‘imagination plus ESP’ theory. This last theory is problematic. The term ESP is a catch-all, is negatively defined, and is capable of subsuming almost any result one cares to mention. How then can it be ruled out? And given these two theories, how can we find out which, if either, is correct?
In spite of the difficulties several parapsychologists have set about this task. Osis, for example, suggested that if the subject in an OBE has another body and is located at the distant position, then he should see things as though looking from that position. If he were using ESP he should see things as though with ESP. This general ideal led Osis to suggest placing a letter ‘d’ in such way that if seen directly (or presumably by ESP) a ‘d’ would be seen, but if looked from a designated position a ‘p’ would appear, reflected in a mirror. Following this idea further he developed his ‘optical image device’ which displays various pictures in several colors as in four quadrants. The final picture is put together using black and white outlines, a color wheel, and a series of mirrors. By, as it were, looking into the box by ESP one would not find the complete picture. To do so can only be achieved by looking in through the viewing window .
Experiments with this device were carried out with Alex Tanous, a psychic from Maine. Tanous lay down in a soundproofed room and was asked to leave his body and go to the room containing the device, look in through the observation window and return to relate what he had seen. Osis recounts that at first Tanous did not succeed, but eventually he seemed to improve. On each trial Tanous was told whether he was right or wrong and was thus able to look for criteria which might help to identify when he was succeeding.
On those trials which he indicated he was most confident about, his results ‘approached significance’ on the color aspect of the target. Osis claimed that this aspect was most important for testing his theory because some of the colors were modified by the apparatus and would be very hard to get right by ESP. The next tests therefore used only a color wheel with three pictures and six colors. This time overall scores were not significant but high-confidence scores for the whole target were significant and in the second half of the experiment Tanous scored significantly on several target aspects, especially the one which Osis claimed required ‘localized sensing.’
Blue Harary, who has provided so much interesting information about the physiology of the OBE, was tested for perception during his OBEs, but according to Rogo he was only ‘sporadically successful’ on target studies and so research with him concentrated on other aspects of his experience.
Apart from all these experiments there is really only one more approach which is relevant to the question of ESP in OBEs and that is work done by Palmer and his associates at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. They tried to develop methods for inducing an OBE in volunteer subjects in the laboratory and then to test their ESP. One can understand the potential advantages of such a program. If it were possible to take a volunteer and give him an OBE under controlled conditions, when and where you wanted it, half the problems of OBE research would be solved.
It would be possible to test hypotheses about the OBE so much more quickly and easily, but alas, this approach turned to be fraught with various problems. First Palmer and Vassar developed an induction technique based on traditional ideas of what conditions are conducive to the OBE. Using four different groups of subjects in three stages, the method was modified to incorporate different techniques for muscular relaxation and disorientation.
Each subject was brought into the laboratory and the experiment was explained to him. He was then taken into an inner room to lie on a comfortable reclining chair and told that a target picture would be placed on a table in the outer room. The stage of the induction consisted of nearly fifteen minutes of progressive muscular relaxation with the subject being asked to heard a pulsating tone both through headphones and speakers which served to eliminate extraneous noises and produce a disorientating effect. At the same time he looked into a rotating red and green spiral lit by a flashing light; this stage lasted a little under ten minutes. In the final stage he was asked to imagine leaving the chair and floating into the outer room to look at the target, but here several variations were introduced.
Some subjects were guided through the whole process by taped instructions while other were simply allowed to keep watching the spiral while they imagined it for themselves. For some the spiral was also only imagined and for some there was an extra stage of imagining the target. When the procedure was over the subject filled in a questionnaire about his experiences in the experiment and completed an imaginary test (a shortened form of the Betts QMI). Then five pictures were placed before him. One was the target, but neither he nor the experimenter with him knew which it was. When he had rated each of the pictures on a 1 to 30 scale, the other experimenter was called in to say which was the target.
One of the questions asked was, ‘Did you at any time during the experiment have the feeling that you were literally outside of your physical body?’ Of 50 subject asked this question 21, or 42%, answered ‘yes.’ As for the scores on the targets, overall scores were not significally different from chance expectation. When the scores were compared for the 21 OBEers and the others there was no significant difference between them. The OBEers did get significantly fewer hits than expected by chance, but this result difficult to interpret.
Palmer and Lieberman took the techniques a stage further. Forty subjects were tested, but this time they had a visual ganzfeld: that is, half ping-pong balls were fixed over their eyes and a light was shone on them so as to produce a homogenous visual field. Half the subjects were given an ‘active set’ by being asked to leave their bodies and travel to the other room to see the target, while the other half were given a ‘passive set’ being asked only to allow imagery to flow freely in their mind. As expected more of the ‘active’ subjects reported having felt out of their bodies: 13 out of 20 as opposed to only 4 in the passive condition. The active subjects also reported more vivid imagery and more effort expended in trying to see the target, but when it came to the ESP scores both groups were found to have scores close to chance expectation and there were no significant differences between them. However, those subjects who reported OBEs did do better than the others and significantly so.
This result is quite different from the previous ones and is the opposite of what Palmer and Lieberman predicted, but it is what one would expect on the hypothesis that having an OBE facilitates ESP. Palmer and Lieverman put forward an interesting suggestion as to why more subjects in the active condition should report OBEs. Their idea is related to Schachter’s theory of emotions, which has been very influential in psychology. This theory suggests that a person experiencing any emotion first feels the physiological effects of arousal, including such things as slight sweating, increased heart rate, tingling feelings, and so on, and then labels this feeling according to the situation as either ‘anger,’ ‘passionate love,’ ‘fear’ or whatever.
In the case of these experiments the subject feels unusual sensations arising from the induction and then labels them according to his instructions. If he were told to imagine leaving his body and traveling another room he might interpret his feelings as those of leaving the body. Of course this suggestion has far wider implications for understanding the OBE than those relating to the evaluation of the results of these experiments.
In the next experiment Palmer and Lieberman tested 40 more subjects, incorporating suggestions from Robert Monroe’s methods for inducing OBEs. The was no ganzfeld and instead of sitting in a chair the subjects lay on beds, sometimes with a vibrator attached to the springs. This time time 21 subjects reported OBEs; and, interestingly, these score higher on the Barber suggestibility scale, but they did not have better ESP scores. In the final experiment in this series 40 more subjects were tested, 20 with ganzfeld and 20 were just told to close their eyes . This time 13 in each group claimed to have had on OBE, but whether they did or not was not related to their ESP scores. This time EEG recording was also used, but it showed no differences related to the reported OBEs. All in all it seems that these experiments were successful in helping subjects to have an experience which they labelled as out of the body, but not in getting improved ESP scores or in finding an OBE state identifiable by EEG.
In an experiment designed to look at the effect of religious belief on susceptibility to OBEs, Smith and Irwin tried to induce OBEs in two groups of students differing in their concern with religious affairs and human immortality. The induction was similar to that already described, but in addition the subjects were given an ‘OBE-ness’ questionnaire and were asked to try to ‘see’ two targets in an adjacent room. Later their impressions were given a veridicality score for resemblance to the targets. No differences between the groups were found for either OBE-ness or veridicality, but there was a highly significant correlation between OBE- ness and veridicality. This result implies that the more OBE-like the experience, the better the ESP.
All these experiments were aimed at finding out whether subjects could see a distant target during an OBE. Although the experimental OBE may differ from the spontaneous kind, a simple conclusion is possible from the experimental studies. That is, OBE vision, if it occurs, is extremely poor.