An out-of-body experience (OBE) is the feeling of perceiving one's physical body as if from a place outside of one's body (auto-scopy). Auto-scopy has been of interest to humankind from time immemorial and is abundant in the folklore, mythology and spiritual narratives of most ancient and some modern societies. The term ‘out-of-body experience’ was introduced in 1943 by G. N. M. Tyrrell in his book Apparitions, and was adopted by researchers Celia Green and Robert Monroe as an alternative to belief-centric labels such as, 'astral projection’, ‘soul travel or ‘spirit walking’. The OBE differs from the near-death experience (NDE) in that the traveller does not leave the room where its physical body is located. During an NDE the traveller does leave the room and continues to rise, entering a tunnel and emerging in another world or dimension. OBEs can be induced by brain traumas, sensory deprivation, psychedelic drugs, dehydration and electrical stimulation of the brain. Also, with extensive training it be deliberately induced. One in ten people have had an OBE once in their life. Neuroscientists and psychologists regard OBEs as dissociative experiences arising from different psychological and neurological factors.

Causes of OBEs

Spontaneous - Those experiencing OBEs sometimes report it preceding and initiating a luciddream state. In many cases, people who claim to have had an OBE report being on the verge of sleep or being already asleep shortly before the experience. A large percentage of these cases refer to situations where the sleep was not particularly deep (due to illness, noises in other rooms, emotional stress, exhaustion from overworking or frequent re-awakening, etc.). In most of these cases subjects perceive themselves as being awake and about half of them note a feeling of sleep paralysis.

Near-Death Experiences - The out-of-body state is an essential component of the near death experience (NDE). Some subjects report having had an OBE at times of severe physical trauma such as near-drownings or major surgery. Near-death experiences may include subjective impressions of being outside the physical body, sometimes visions of deceased relatives and religious figures, and transcendence of the ego and spatiotemporal boundaries.

Extreme Physical Effort - Extreme physical effort during activities such as high-altitude climbing and marathon running can induce an OBE. A sense of bilocation (when an individual or object appears to be located in two distinct places at the same time) may be experienced with both ground and air-based perspectives being experienced simultaneously.

Chemical Induced - OBEs can be induced by hallucinogens (particularly dissociatives) such as psilocybin, ketamine, DMT, MDA, and LSD.

Mental Induction - Falling asleep physically without losing awareness. The mind awake the body asleep state is widely suggested as a cause of OBEs, voluntary and otherwise. Thomas Edison used this state to tackle problems while working on his inventions. He would sit in a chair and rest a silver dollar on his head. As he drifted off, the coin would noisily fall into the bucket, restoring some of his alertness. OBE pioneer Sylvan Muldoon more simply used a forearm held perpendicular in bed as the falling object. Salvador Dalí was said to use a similar paranoiaccritical method to gain unusual visions which inspired his paintings. Deliberately teetering between awake and asleep states is known to cause spontaneous trance episodes at the onset of sleep which are ultimately helpful when attempting to induce an OBE. By moving deeper and deeper into relaxation, one eventually encounters a slipping feeling if the mind is still alert. This slipping is reported to feel like leaving the physical body.

Deep Trance, meditation and visualization - Brainwave synchronization via audio/visual stimulation. Binaural beats can be used to induce specific brainwave frequencies, notably those predominant in various mind awake/body asleep states. Binaural induction of a body asleep at 4 Hertz brainwave frequency was observed as effective by the Monroe Institute. Some authors consider binaural beats to be significantly supportive of OBE initiation when used in conjunction with other techniques. Simultaneous introduction of mind awake beta frequencies (detectable in the brains of normal, relaxed awakened individuals) was also observed as constructive. Another popular technology uses sinusoidal wave pulses to achieve similar results, and the drumming accompanying Native American religious ceremonies is also believed to have heightened receptivity to other worlds through brainwave entrainment mechanisms.

Stimulation Techniques

  1. Magnetic stimulation of the brain, as with the God helmet developed by Michael Persinger.
  2. Direct stimulation of the vestibular cortex.
  3. Electrical stimulation of the brain, particularly the temporoparietal junction.
  4. Sensory deprivation. This approach aims to induce intense disorientation by removal of space and time references. Flotation tanks or pink noise played through headphones are often employed for this purpose.
  5. Sensory overload, the opposite of sensory deprivation. The subject can for instance be rocked for a long time in a specially designed cradle, or submitted to light forms of torture, to cause the brain to shut itself off from all sensory input. Both conditions tend to cause confusion and this disorientation often permits the subject to experience vivid, ethereal out-of-body experiences.
  6. Strong g-forces that causes blood to drain from parts of the brain, as experienced for example in high-performance aircraft or high-G training for pilots and astronauts.
  7. An apparatus that uses a head-mounted display and a touch that confuses the sense of proprioception (and which can also create the sensation of additional limbs).

Psychological Theories

In the fields of cognitive science and psychology OBEs are considered dissociative experiences arising from different psychological and neurological factors. Scientists consider the OBE to be an experience from a mental state, like a dream or an altered state of consciousness without recourse to the paranormal. Charles Richet (1887) held that OBEs are created by the subject's memory and imagination processes and are no different from dreams. James H. Hyslop (1912) wrote that OBEs occur when the activity of the subconscious mind dramatizes certain images to give the impression the subject is in a different physical location. Eugéne Osty (1930) considered OBEs to be nothing more than the product of imagination. Other early researchers such as Schmeing, 1938 supported psychophysiological theories. G. N. M. Tyrrell interpreted OBEs as hallucinatory constructs relating to subconscious levels of personality. Carl Sagan (1977) and Barbara Honegger (1983) wrote that the OBE experience may be based on a rebirth fantasy or reliving of the birth process based on reports of tunnel-like passageways and a etheric cord-like connection by some OBE subjects which they compared to an umbilical cord.

Paranormal Theories

Writers within the fields of parapsychology and occultism have written that OBEs are not psychological and that a soul, spirit or subtle body can detach itself out of the body and visit distant locations. Out-of-the-body experiences were known during the Victorian period in spiritualist literature as ‘travelling clairvoyance’. The psychical researcher Frederic Myers referred to the OBE as a ‘psychical excursion’. An early study which described alleged cases of OBEs was the two volume Phantasms of the Living, published in 1886 by the psychical researchers Edmund Gurney, Federic Myers and Frank Podmore. The book was largely criticized by the scientific community as the anecdotal reports lacked evidential substantiation in nearly every case.

The Theosophist Arthur Powell (1927) was an early author to advocate the subtle body theory of OBEs. Sylvan Muldoon (1936) embraced the concept of an etheric body to explain the OBE experience. The psychical researcher Ernesto Bozzano (1938) had also supported a similar view describing the phenomena of the OBE experience in terms of bilocation in which an etheric body can release itself from the physical body in rare circumstances. The subtle body theory was also supported by occult writers such as Ralph Shirley (1938), Benjamin Walker (1977) and Douglas Baker (1979). James Baker (1954) wrote that a mental body enters an ‘inter-cosmic region’ during the OBE. Robert Crookall in many publications supported the subtle body theory of OBEs.

Studies of OBEs

Early collections of OBE cases had been made by Ernesto Bozzano (Italy) and Robert Crookall (UK). Crookall approached the subject from a spiritualistic position, and collected his cases predominantly from spiritualist newspapers such as the Psychic News. For example, the majority of his subjects reported seeing a cord connecting the physical body and its observing counterpart; whereas Green found that less than 4% of her subjects noticed anything of this sort, and some 80% reported feeling they were a ‘disembodied consciousness’ with no external body at all.

The first extensive scientific study of OBEs was made by Celia Green (1968). She collected written, first-hand accounts from a total of 400 subjects, recruited by means of appeals in the mainstream media, and followed up by questionnaires. Her purpose was to provide a taxonomy (the science of classification) of the different types of OBE, viewed simply as an anomalous perceptual experience or hallucination, while leaving open the question of whether some of the cases might incorporate information derived by extrasensory perception.

Resuscitation Study

In 2001, Sam Parnia M.D. and colleagues investigated out-of-body claims by placing figures on suspended boards facing the ceiling, not visible from the floor. Dr. Parnia wrote, "Anybody who claimed to have left their body and be near the ceiling during resuscitation attempts would be expected to identify those targets. If, however, such perceptions are psychological, then one would obviously not expect the targets to be identified." The philosopher Keith Augustine, who examined Dr. Parnia’s study, has written that all target identification experiments have produced negative results. Psychologist Chris French wrote regarding the study, "Unfortunately, and somewhat atypically, none of the survivors in this sample experienced an OBE."

In the autumn of 2008, twenty-five UK and US hospitals began participation in a study, coordinated by Dr. Parnia and Southampton University known as the AWARE study. Following on from the work of Pim van Lommel in the Netherlands, the study aims to examine near-death experiences in 1,500 cardiac arrest survivors and so determine whether people without a heartbeat or brain activity can have documentable out-of-body experiences. As part of the study Dr. Parnia and colleagues have investigated out of body claims by using hidden targets placed on shelves that could only be seen from above. Dr. Parnia has written, "If no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories.”

In 2014 Dr. Parnia issued a statement indicating that the first phase of the project has been completed and the results are undergoing peer review for publication in a medical journal. No subjects saw the images mounted out of sight according to Dr. Parnia’s early report of the results of the study at an American Heart Association meeting in November 2013. Only two out of the 152 patients reported any visual experiences, and one of them described events that could be verified.

On October 6, 2014 the results of the study were published in the journal Resuscitation. Among those who reported a perception of awareness and completed further interviews, 46% experienced a broad range of mental recollections in relation to death that were not compatible with the commonly used term of NDEs. These included fearful and persecutory experiences. Only 9% had experiences compatible with NDEs and 2% exhibited full awareness compatible with OBEs with explicit recall of 'seeing' and 'hearing' events. One case was validated and timed using auditory stimuli during cardiac arrest. According to Caroline Watt, the one verifiable period of conscious awareness that Dr. Parnia was able to report did not relate to this objective test. Rather, it was a patient giving a supposedly accurate report of events during his resuscitation. He didn’t identify the pictures, he described the defibrillator machine noise. But that’s not very impressive since many people know what goes on in an emergency room setting from seeing recreations on television.

The Monroe Institute

The Monroe Institute (TMI) is a nonprofit education and research organization devoted to the exploration of human consciousness. TMI was founded by Robert Monroe after he began having what he called ‘out-of-body experiences', now also commonly referred to as OBEs. It comprises several buildings on 300 acres of land south of Charlottesville, Virginia. One of its activities includes teaching various techniques, based on audio-guidance processes, in order to expand consciousness and explore areas of consciousness not normally available in the waking state. Upwards of 20,000 people are estimated to have attended TMI's residential gateway program during its first thirty years. TMI claims a policy of no dogma or bias with respect to belief system, religion, political or social stance.

In 1958 Monroe had his first OBE, which was profound enough that he spent the rest of his life trying to scientifically explain what had happened to him. Since Monroe was the son of a college professor and doctor, he readily subjected himself to be scientifically studied at the Topeka VA hospital in 1977. Needless to say Monroe was greatly relieved when Stuart Twemlow, M.D. declared him a sane individual with no evidence of psychological disturbance or other mental imbalances. In 1980, Dr. Twemlow presented his OBE study of 339 individuals to the American Psychiatric Association of San Francisco entitled, The Out-Of-Body Experience Phenomenology. This is one of the first major studies of its kind and can be found at the back of Monroe’s second major book, Far Journeys. Charles Tart, a prominent OBE researcher, also conducted experiments on Monroe.

Other facilities that study OBEs are: The Center for Higher Studies of the Consciousness in Brazil. The International Academy of Consciousness in southern Portugal features the Projectarium, a spherical structure dedicated exclusively for practice and research on out-of-body experience. Olaf Blanke's Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience has become a well-known laboratory for OBE research.

Some of the most fascinating research came out of the 1984 study by D. Scott Rogo, whose specific findings helped legitimize the OBE phenomena in the eyes of the world. His research findings normalized the occurrences of OBE, rather than stigmatizing the OBE subject as having a psychological disorder. He found that 10-20 percent of the adult population had an OBE. That OBE experiencers weren’t any special personality type (crazy, hyper or mentally pathological). He also found that animals, humans and sometimes electrical devises can be used to detect when an OBE experiencer arrives at an arranged location. Rogo observed some people that were able to correctly identify surroundings at distant locations, and he also came to the conclusion that at least some OBEs are not dreams or hallucinations.


In 1975, Monroe registered the first of several patents concerning audio techniques designed to stimulate brain functions until the left and right hemispheres became synchronized. Monroe held that this state, dubbed Hemi-Sync (hemispherical synchronization), also known as ‘brainwave synchronization’ could be used to promote mental well-being or to trigger an altered state of consciousness. Monroe's concept was based on an earlier hypothesis known as ‘binaural beats’ and has since been expanded on a commercial basis by the self-help industry. Monroe indicated that the technique synchronizes the two hemispheres of the brain, thereby creating a frequency-following response designed to evoke certain effects. Hemi-Sync has been used for many purposes, including relaxation and sleep induction, learning and memory aids, helping those with physical and mental difficulties and reaching altered states of consciousness through the use of sound.

The technique involves using sound waves to entrain brain waves. Wearing headphones Monroe claimed that brains respond by producing a third sound (called binaural beats) that encouraged various brainwave activity changes. In 2002, a University of Virginia presentation at the Society for Psychophysiological Research examined Monroe's claim. The presentation demonstrated that EEG changes did not occur when the standard electromagnetic headphones of Monroe's setup were replaced by air conduction headphones, which were connected to a remote transducer by rubber tubes. This suggests that the basis for the entrainment effects is electromagnetic rather than acoustical. Replicated, double-blind, randomized trials on anesthetized patients have found Hemi-Sync effective as a partial replacement for fentanyl during surgery. A similar study found it ineffective at replacing propofol.

Astral Projection

Astral projection is a paranormal interpretation of the out-of-body experience that assumes the existence of one or more non-physical planes of existence and an associated body beyond the physical. Commonly such planes are called, ‘astral’, ‘etheric’ or ‘spiritual’. Astral projection is often experienced as the spirit or astral body is leaving the physical body to travel in the spirit world or astral plane.

While out of body, astral projection, and lucid dreaming share the common element of the consciousness separating from the body, although there are some technical distinctions. OBEs may occur consciously (voluntarily) or spontaneously (involuntarily), but the person is usually in a wakeful or relaxed state, and then the consciousness leaves the body. The consciousness separates from the body and is free to roam. Phenomena associated with the out-of-body experience, are things like remote viewing or the seeing of places and people as they exist in this time and place. I have heard reports of bi-location, a phenomena where a person appears (as in the physical body) in another location despite the fact that the body is physically in another location.

Astral projection is usually associated with inter-dimensional travel where places may sound like dreams since there are no earthly points of reference. The person is usually in a relaxed or meditative state and then the consciousness separates. Aethers (ethers) are generally thought of as energy layers around the Earth where different types of spirits reside depending on lessons they need to learn. People who talk about travelling the aethers such as students of Alistair Crowley are astral traveling. Another big proponent of this theory is Madame Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society in 1875.

Lucid Dreaming

Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden, first used the term ‘lucid dreaming’ in 1913, when referring to the type of dream one consciously knows they are dreaming. Lucid dreaming is considered an altered reality much like a dream, but one is usually asleep when the body travels. Lucid dreaming appears to be a type of dream where a person is super-alert and is open to communication from the other side. Frequently, people on Earth are contacted by deceased relatives and loved ones through the lucid dreaming state.


While this discussion by no means is a complete in-depth study, it does give a foundation in which to understand the portion of the spiritual spectrum that includes OBEs, the OBE component of the NDE, astral travel and lucid dreaming. One can quickly garner that while many of these phenomena are related in the study of consciousness, there are also some clear differences. Further study my be required to determine the unifying factor that exist to tie all of these phenomena of consciousness together.

Alan Ross