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What is Out-of-body experience?

An out-of-body experience (OBE or OOBE) is when a person sees the world from a place outside their body. An OBE is a type of autoscopy, which means “seeing yourself.” This term is more commonly used to describe the condition of seeing a second self, or doppelgänger. The term “out-of-body experience” was first used in 1943 by G. N. M. Tyrrell in his book Apparitions. It was used by researchers like Celia Green and Robert Monroe as an alternative to labels like “astral projection” or “spirit walking,” which are more based on beliefs. OBEs can be caused by things like traumatic brain injuries, sensory deprivation, near-death experiences, dissociative and psychedelic drugs, dehydration, sleep disorders, dreaming, and electrical stimulation of the brain, as well as many other things that happen to the brain. It can also be done on purpose by some people. Most people have an OBE once or several times in their lives. One in ten people have an OBE at least once. Psychologists and neuroscientists think of OBEs as dissociative experiences that happen because of different psychological and neurological factors.

An out-of-body experience is generally considered to be a form of autoscopy. Autoscopy comes from the Greek words – autos (self) and skopos (watcher) – meaning seeing the self.

There has been varied interest in autoscopic experiences, particularly in mythology, folklore, and other spiritual narratives of ancient and modern societies. Out-of-body experiences are usually said to be reported by people who have had a near-death experience. Neuroscientists and psychologists describe out-of-body experiences as dissociative experiences that can occur due to a variety of neurological and psychological factors.

G. N. M. Tyrrell, in his 1943 book Apparitions, first introduced the term ‘out-of-body experience.’ Researchers in this field, such as Robert Monroe and Celia Green, adopted this term as an alternative to other labels of belief-centered views like spirit walking or astral projections.

Numerous causes induce an out-of-body experience like sensory deprivation, dehydration, dreaming, sleep disorders, near-death incidents, psychedelic drugs, brain injuries, etc. Some studies show that one can also induce out-of-body experiences intentionally. Researchers have postulated that one in ten people undergo an out-of-body experience at least once or even several times in their lives.

Theories Of Out-Of-Body Experiences

Two predominant theories explain the occurrence of out-of-body experiences – psychological and paranormal.

Psychological Theory Of Out-Of-Body Experiences

Cognitive scientists and psychologists study out-of-body experiences as dissociative episodes that occur due to underlying psychological and neurological issues. In cognitive science and psychology, out-of-body experiences arise from a specific (disturbed) mental state. Specific mental conditions can include dreams or some other form of altered state of one’s consciousness.

The psychological theorization of out-of-body experiences began with various psychophysiological explanations of the phenomena in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several scientists and theorists postulated different kinds of theories to explain out-of-body experiences in their own terms. The French physiologist Charles Richet wrote in 1887 that a person’s memory and imagination contribute to an out-of-body experience, similar to the process of dreaming.

The American psychologist James H. Hyslop, on the other hand, described an out-of-body experience as a phenomenon that occurred when the subconscious mind dramatized some images in the brain to make it seem, to the person, that they were in a different place physically.

Progressing from the psychophysiological explanations, researchers also associated out-of-body experiences with hysteria and psychosis in the late twentieth century. Out-of-body experiences have also been linked to distorted body image issues among individuals.

Recent studies have also found connections between out-of-body experiences with somatic sensory activity and lucid dreaming. Certain kinds of sleep paralysis, such as nightmare waking experiences and hypnagogia, have also been found to cause out-of-body experiences. People prone to fantasies seem to be affected more by out-of-body experiences.

In 2013, a study conducted by Jason Braithwaite reported that out-of-body experiences are caused due to neural instabilities in the brain’s temporal lobes and a temporary disruption in the body’s multi-sensation process.

Paranormal Theory Of Out-Of-Body Experiences

In parapsychology and occultism, out-of-body experiences are understood as phenomena where a person’s soul or spirit detaches itself from its material body to visit a different place. In the spiritualist literature of the Victorian period, out-of-body experiences were known as traveling clairvoyance.

Out-of-body experiences are also mentioned in old Indian scriptures, stating that yogic and meditative activities can help one achieve ‘turiya’ or out-of-body experiences. During a deep yogic exercise, a yogi is liberated from the mind/body duality and can, thus, leave the material, physical body. This process is called ‘vigyan dehi’.

Occultists and esoteric researchers such as Arthur Powell, Sylvan Muldoon, and Ernesto Bozzano have tried to explain out-of-body experiences through the concept of the etheric body and the subtle body theory. The etheric body is a neo-Theosophical idea of the subtle body, which propounds the concept of human energy fields or aura. It is said that the etheric body is in direct contact with a person’s physical body and forms a link between the physical body and higher bodies.

Paranormal explanations of out-of-body experiences have generally been disregarded for their lack of scientific evidence and unscientific methods. A popular paranormal interpretation of out-of-body experiences is the astral projection. Astral projections or astral travel are assumed to occur in more than one non-physical plane of existence, called astral planes or etheric planes. During an astral projection, the spirit leaves the material body and travels to the spiritual dimension or the astral plane. Theosophists popularized the term' astral projection' in the 19th century.

Types Of Out-Of-Body Experiences

Out-of-body experiences can broadly be classified into spontaneous out-of-body experiences and induced out-of-body experiences. These are further subdivided into more categories based on the causal factors.

Spontaneous Out-Of-Body Experiences

  • Near-Death Experience

Experiences of severe physical trauma such as major surgery, near-drowning, or fatal accidents can trigger out-of-body experiences. People may experience a sense of being dead, hear sounds, have a tunnel experience, or have a sense of peace and painlessness. They might even have a vision of God or a higher light source.

  • Sleep

People who experience a lucid dream state during or just before asleep often experience out-of-body phenomena. This usually happens due to a lack of proper and deep sleep due to various causes such as emotional stress, illness, loud noise in the surroundings, etc. People have a feeling of sleep paralysis and usually are on the verge of sleep when they have an out-of-body experience.

  • Extreme Physical Exhaustion

An extreme physical effort, such as marathon running or climbing at high altitudes, can cause out-of-body experiences.

Induced Out-Of-Body Experiences

  • Mental Induction

Deliberately wavering between an awake and a numbed conscious state can induce an out-of-body experience. These trance-like episodes usually occur at the onset of sleep. As one moves into a deeper state of relaxation, one can feel a sense of dislocation. Visualization and mediation can also help in inducing an out-of-body experience.

  • Mechanical Induction

Out-of-body experiences can be induced mechanically through processes such as brainwave synchronization by auditory or visual stimulations. Sensory deprivation, sensory overload, and electrical stimulation of the brain are other processes through which out-of-body experiences can be deliberately induced.

  • Chemical Induction

Hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, DMT, ketamine, and psilocybin can trigger out-of-body experiences.


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