One area of the paranormal that has risen to prominence since the 1970s is the out-of-body experience, or OBE. This, and the related near death experience, or NDE, has regularly caused bafflement.
Do these phenomena offer evidence of wider paranormality, even survival of death? Or are they simply quirks of the mind, with nothing of a paranormal nature actually occurring?
SOME CASE STUDIES
Ernest Hemingway claimed to have had an OBE in Italy in 1918 after being hit by shrapnel from a mortar bomb. He talked of seeing his soul leave his body and float around.
Psychologist D Scott Rogo spoke of his OBE in 1965, describing how, whilst lying down, tired, he saw himself walk about the bedroom. However, it is often the case that this soul-body actually sees things itself.
Typical was the case of biologist Lyall Watson, when a bus overturned whilst on a safari in Kenya. Knocked unconscious, he found himself looking down at himself. He also saw a trapped boy. Moments later he regained consciousness and immediately dived down to rescue the boy - a boy only seen by his ‘other’ body.
IT’S BEEN AROUND A WHILE
Beliefs in the OBE are worldwide. In the Bible, St Paul seems to describe his own OBE. Also known as Astral Travel, the soul-body was known as the ‘ka’ to the ancient Egyptians.
In India it is usually known as the ’siddhi’, whilst the Tibetans call it the ‘bardo-body’. During the 1970s Dean Sheils from Wisconsin studied tribal cultures from around the world and found beliefs in the OBE in 95% of people.
Beliefs tend to be just as strong today. For instance, a 1952 survey of 115 students at Duke University by Hornell Hart revealed that 30% thought they had had an OBE. A similar 1966 survey by Celia Green showed that 19% of students asked at Southampton University had had one.
A typical modern case was identified by cardiologist Dr Michael Rawlings. He spoke to one patient who could remember what the doctor was wearing and what he did during an emergency procedure. This was impossible because the patient was in a coma at the time.
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
Following studies by Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Raymond Moody in the early 1970s, the OBE came to be associated with the Near Death Experience, where, close to death, the patient leaves the body, often gaining extrasensory insight, and then goes down a tunnel before meeting a light.
Beyond the light, an afterlife is percieved and the person is judged as to whether they should die or not. A 1982 Gallup Poll claimed that eight million Americans have had such an experience, which can be life changing.
The Near Death Experience can, I think, be discounted as a real event. During the 1990s students in Berlin achieved such afterlife images during deep faint, suggesting the experience is psychological in nature. But the extrasensory information available is something else.
Some people claim to be regular OBErs, or Astral Travelers. The early 20th century gave us some spectacular claims. Marcel Forhan, known as Yram, claimed to often have OBEs, claiming to have met his wife whilst traveling.
The American Sylvan Muldoon was a bedridden, sickly individual who got his only excitement from ‘traveling’, a thing he claimed to do since he was twelve. He claimed that we all do it, our dreams being remembrances of our OBEs.
Virginia businessman Robert Monroe claimed to first have an OBE in 1958. He decided to research the subject, going on to claim he had met entities whilst traveling. In 1965 he teamed up with psychologist Dr Charles Tart of the University of California.
He rigged up tests where Monroe was to ‘visit’ another room and read a five digit number whilst being monitored. He failed to do so, but often gained information of other rooms and the people around the experimental area.
In the early 1970s two other research projects were attempted. American SPR member Dr Karlis Osis monitored subjects whilst they attempted to identify objects and numbers on a platform ten feet above them. One subject, New York artist Ingo Swann, often identified objects on the platform.
Dr Robert Morris did experiments with Stuart ‘Blue’ Harary in North Carolina. Blue would ‘travel’ from one building to another, often identifying target pictures and numbers. He had a cat called Spirit. Monroe asked Blue to ‘travel’ to the cat. On occasions Spirit seemed to act as if he recognized Blue’s presence.
A WIDER AWARENESS
As with other research into paranormal abilities, sceptics easily destroy the above findings. But what seems to be lacking is theory in which to place the data. And what we seem to be dealing with in the OBE is a wider extrasensory ability.
Occultists would put the mechanisms of insight down to the Anima Mundi, or ‘soul of the world’, a connecting entity which merges thoughts and experiences into a single source available to all. However, a further theory is on offer.
In 1981 biologist Rupert Sheldrake published his ‘New Science of Life’ in which he claimed that physical and mental organisation is evolutionary and due to non-physical fields which he called morphic fields.
Such fields contain memory and are, in effect, connecting systems, working on the physical world, society and the mind through an influence he calls ‘morphic resonance.’
As an example of such an influence, he carried out tests to show that once a member of a species had done something, all members of the species are more prone to be able to do it as if the memory has risen in their minds too.
A classic example was the learnt ability of birds to peck through the top of milk bottles - a new ability which seemed to occur too quickly to have been learnt in the accepted way.
Such an idea allows for a wider extrasensory ability, with the Astral Traveler somehow accessing this universal ‘memory’ of all things, including contemporary events.
New York psychologist Lawrence LeShan worked with many psychics, including Eileen Garrett, and became convinced that we live in two realities. ‘Sensory’ reality was the world we seem to inhabit. But he also identified a ‘Clairvoyant’ reality we can access. Is this the reality we descend into for the OBE?
Sceptical psychologist Dr Susan Blackmore would say no. To her the OBE is a simple mind creation - a world of thought and imagination born of the desire to be free of the limitations of bodily existence. But could it be that in offering a sceptical answer to the OBE, we could have a real hint as to what this clairvoyant reality is?
Cryptomnesia, the ability to bring to consciousness information we didn’t know we had retained, could hold the route towards understanding.
Some studies have suggested that for every seven units of information we sense in the world, ten thousand units slip straight into the unconscious, making our senses a very inferior recorder of the world about us. Imagine the mind as an iceberg, with our conscious the tiny tip on the surface, the vast bulk of our perceptions and memories lying underneath.
With such a mind model, we must ask: how much information do we have stored in memory, and continually topped up every second by our perceptions? Could we have, within us, an immense store of unknown information?
If so, picture that inner mind as a form of ‘cryptomnesic’ inner map, a mind model of the world about us; perhaps, even, a mind construct of the world about us.
I would argue that this cryptomnesic inner map could well be a total reflection of the outside reality; and I would further argue that this map is the world we descend to in the OBE; a world which contains almost as much information as the world outside.
Of course, we could go even deeper than this – into ideas held in quantum theory of the part and the whole being one and the same; at the information level, at least. Would such a concept allow for our journeying in the inner mind to also be a route into reality through the back door?
At our present level of knowledge it is perhaps a step too far. The ‘inner map’ can maybe explain OBEs sufficiently. But if it were a possibility?
Now that would be Magic.
© Anthony North, December 2007
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