Out-of-body-experiences (OBEs) are those curious, and usually brief experiences in which a person’s consciousness seems to depart from his or her body, enabling observation of the world from a point of view other than that of the physical body and by means other than those of the physical senses.
Thus, an out-of-the-body experience can initially be defined as ‘an experience in which a person seems to perceive the world from a location outside his physical body'[Bla82]. In some cases experients claim that they ‘saw’ and ‘heard’ things (objects which were really there, events and conversations which really took place) which could not have seen or heard from the actual positions of their bodies.
OBEs are surprisingly common; different surveys have yielded somewhat different results, but some estimates indicate that somewhere between one person in ten and one person in twenty is likely to have had such an experience at least once. Furthermore it seems that OBEs can occur to anyone in almost any circumstances. Researchers have approached the question of the timing of OBEs by asking people who claim to have had OBEs to describe when they happened. In one of these, over 85 percent of those surveyed said they had had OBEs while they were resting, sleeping or dreaming[Bla84].
Other surveys also show that the majority of OBEs occur when people are in bed, ill, or resting, with a smaller percentage coming while the person is drugged or medicated[Gre68a, Poy75]. But they can occur during almost any kind of activity. Green cites a couple of cases in which motor-cyclists, riding at speed, suddenly found themselves floating above their machines looking down on their own bodies still driving along. Accidents did not ensue. Pilots of high-flying airplanes (perhaps affected by absence of vibration, and uniformity of sensory stimulation) have similarly found themselves apparently outside their aircraft struggling to get in. One might well struggle frantically under such circumstances.
More curious still are reciprocal cases of OBE and apparition: the OBE subject, aware that he is operating in some kind of duplicate body, travels to a distant location where he sees a person and is aware of being seen by that person; this person confirms that he saw an apparition of the OBEer at the time that the OBEer claimed to be in his presence. Thus the two experiences corroborate each other.
Not all OBEs occur spontaneously. Using various techniques, some people have apparently cultivated the faculty of inducing them more or less as desired, and a number have written detailed accounts of their experiences. These accounts do not always in all respects square with accounts given by persons who have undergone spontaneous OBEs. For instance the great majority of those who experience OBEs voluntarily state that they find themselves still embodied, but in a body whose shape, external characteristics, and spatial location are easily altered at will, and an appreciable number refer to an elastic ‘silver cord’ joining their new body to their old one. A much smaller percentage of those who undergo spontaneous OBEs mention being embodied, and some specifically state that they found themselves disembodied.
The ‘silver cord’ is quite rarely mentioned. It is hard to avoid suspecting that many features of self- induced OBEs are determined by the subject’s reading and his antecedent expectations. Common aspects of the experience include being in an ‘out-of-body’ body much like the physical one, feeling a sense of energy, feeling vibrations, and hearing strange loud noises [GT84]. Sometimes a sensation of bodily paralysis precedes the OBE [Sal82, Irw88, MC29, Fox62].
OBEs, especially spontaneous ones, are often very vivid, and resemble everyday waking experiences rather than dreams, and they may make a considerable impression on those who undergo them. Such persons may find it hard to believe that they did not in fact leave their bodies, and they may draw the conclusion that we possess a separable soul, perhaps linked to a second body, which will survive in a state of full consciousness, perhaps even of enhanced consciousness, after death. Death would be, as it were, an OBE in which one did not succeed in getting back into one’s body. Such conclusions present themselves even more forcefully to the minds of those who have undergone a ‘near-death experience’ (NDE). It is not uncommon for persons who have been to the brink of death and returned — following, say, a heart stoppage or serious injuries from an accident — to report an experience (commonly of a great vividness and impressiveness) as of leaving their bodies, and traveling (often in a duplicate body) to the border of a new and wonderful realm.
Reports suggest that the conscious self’s awareness outside the body is not only unimpaired but enhanced: events which occurred during the period of unconsciousness are described in accurate detail and confirmed by those present. The subject sometimes ‘hears’ the doctor pronouncing him dead when he feels intensely alive and free from physical pain, and finds himself returning unwillingly to the constrictions of the physical body.
If OBEs show the capacity of the conscious self to have experiences and perceptions outside the physical body, near-death experiences seem to suggest that this capacity still obtains when the physical body is totally unconscious. The idea that we all have a double seems to spring naturally out of that of the OBE. If you seem to be leaving your physical body and observing things from outside it then it seems natural to assume that, at least temporarily, you had a double. It also seems obvious that this double could see, hear, think and move.
This interpretation is not necessarily valid. As Palmer has so carefully pointed out [Pal78a] the experience of being out of the body is not equivalent to the fact of being out. According to the English psychologist Susan Blackmore the definition of the OBE as an experience may not be a perfect definition but one of its major advantages is that it does not imply any particular interpretation of the OBE. The consequences of this definition are important. First, since the OBE is an experience, then if someone says he has had an OBE we have to believe him. Conceivably in the future we might find ways of measuring, or establishing external criteria for, the OBE, but at the moment we can only take a person’s word for it. Another related consequence is that the OBE is not some kind of psychic phenomenon. As Palmer has explained, ‘the OBE is neither potentially nor actually a psychic phenomenon.’ This view is a natural consequence of any experiential definition. A private experience can take any form you like. This experience may turn out to be one associated with ESP and paranormal events, but it may not.