We currently know that an OBE can be part of a near-death experience but not necessarily (see, for instance, Fenwick and Fenwick 1995). It is sometimes as if the experiencing 'I' has left the body and is sometimes, but certainly not always, as if the experiencing 'I' is floating above the body.
OBEs can occur in a variety of situations such as just relaxing and falling asleep, in waking moments (Green 1968), as a feature of epilepsy and migraine (Blackmore 1982), through electro-stimulation of certain parts of the brain (Persinger 1983; 1987), or in other situations such as dissociative anesthesia induced by ketamine (Jansen 1989; 2001), or profound 'psychedelic dissociation' sometimes resulting from DMT (Strassman 2001).
A collection of experiences describing forms of OBE was published in 1860 by Robert Dale Owen in his book entitled Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World (Owen 1980). A well-known example of an out-of-body experience is that of Alfonso de Liguori, who was seen simultaneously by many at the bedside of the dying Pope Clement XIV, while he was starving in a prison in Arezzo (Becker 1993). Carl G. Jung (1875-1961), in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1983) described having had an experience similar to those described above after he had broken his foot and suffered a heart attack in 1944. He wrote:
In a state of unconsciousness I experienced deliriums and visions which must have begun when I hung on the edge of death and was being given oxygen and camphor injections. The image was so tremendous that I concluded that I was close to death . . . It seemed to me that I was high up in space.
The psychoanalyst described the reddish-yellow desert of Arabia, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean:
Far below I saw the globe of the earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light. I saw the deep blue sea and the continents. Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India. My field of vision didn't include the whole earth, but its global shape was plainly distinguishable and its outlines shone with a silvery gleam through that wonderful blue light. In many places the globe seemed coloured, or spotted dark green like oxidised silver . . . Later I discovered how high in space one would have to be to have so extensive a view - approximately a thousand miles! The sight of the earth from this height was the most glorious thing I had ever seen . . . I felt violent resistance to my doctor because he had brought me back to life.
Independent of the cause, the most relevant feature of the experience is a sense of realness, which makes it rather different from the sensation of watching a movie, for example. Those who reported an OBE are sometimes sure that their minds have left their physical organism and that they have reached a position where they are able to note their bodies as well as things or events in the physical world from above or from elsewhere.14 As Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick have pointed out, an intriguing aspect of these experiences is that some people are able to provide accurate accounts of what they believe they have seen while disembodied. In their The Truth in the Light (1995), they mentioned the case of a young patient, named Audrey Organ. Little Audrey reported an OBE during a surgical operation (a tonsillectomy) at the age of 5. While unconscious, she was able to see and hear what happened during the operation and reported it to her mother the day after. She said: 'They had funny scissors with long, long handles and they go snip-snip into your throat' (ibid.: 32). Although the return to the body is rarely described,15 Audrey felt she was being 'pushed like a returning space rocket or maybe how births feels to a baby? - and I came back' (ibid.: 40). Given the age of the child, there is some probability that a dissociative anesthetic, which includes nitrous oxide, was involved.
Although some types of OBE and NDE have been associated with great anxiety and fear, the focus of the anxiety almost never appears to be a specific concern to go back into the body, although a desperate desire to go back to the familiar reality might be present. For example, Ivy Davey had three out-of-body experiences during her second pregnancy. On two of these occasions she felt her 'spirit ("or whatever") floated off to the right-hand corner of the ceiling, and stayed about a foot away for a time, and then came happily back into my body' (Fenwick and Fenwick 1995: 40). The third occasion was different: 'I had the greatest difficulty getting into my body. I can still remember the sensation vividly. I gave three "shudders" before my body "locked" into position.' Mrs Davey adds that although she was up on the ceiling, she didn't see her body (ibid.: 41).
In many ways, the OBE represents a challenge for research on near-death. For instance, Susan Blackmore, known for her skeptical point of view, has argued that
People really being resuscitated could probably feel some of the manipulations being done on them and hear what was going on. Hearing is the last sense to be lost and, as you will realize if you ever listen to radio plays or news, you can imagine a very clear visual image when you can only hear something. So the dying person could build up a fairly accurate picture this way.
(Blackmore 1991: 39)
Her theories are based on various surveys she made with people who dream as though they were spectators, who are more inclined to have OBEs. She also noticed that people who can more easily switch viewpoints in their imagination are also more likely to report OBEs. Paul Badham has argued in reply that, 'Blackmore's explanatory categories (other than the catch-all category of "lucky guess") suggest that the data cannot be accounted for by such explanations' (2003: 205). Another NDE researcher, the cardiologist Michael Sabom tested Blackmore's hypothesis by asking a group of 25 cardiac arrest patients, who had at least five years history of serious illness, to close their eyes and imagine themselves watching a medical team resuscitate them and to describe what they would have expected to see. The finding was that almost all of them made major errors in describing the resuscitation process (Sabom 1982).
Various studies on out-of-body phenomena have focused on the 'ecso-maticity' (literally, 'out-of-body-ness'). Since the 1960s, a growing number of studies have tried to identify the brain mechanisms responsible for the experience. One of these attempts was carried out by Charles Tart with the use of the EEG. He came to the conclusion that some OBEs were characterized by a flat EEG with a marked predominance of alpha activity in the brain (Tart 1965). A similar result has been shown in similar studies by Mitchell (1973). According to Carl Becker, such theories are inadequate to explain the phenomenon simply because OBEs also occur in many other situations which will be impossible on an alpha or sleep level, such as while engaging in normal everyday activities (Becker 1993: 61).
Another approach is that proposed by the neurosurgeon Olaf Blanke of the University Hospital of Geneva in Switzerland. According to his team, the OBE involves a specific part of the brain, known as the right angular gyrus, which has various involvements with visual information, including the way our body is perceived, as well as touch and balance sensations that all work together to create the mind's representation of the body. Blanke claimed that an out-of-body experience 'may reflect a failure by the angular gyrus to integrate these different channels of information' (Blanke et al. 2002). Physical stress, or a lack of oxygen to the brain, as in the case of the NDE, might trigger the experience. So it was for one of his patients, a 43-year-old lady who suffered from epilepsy. The discovery happened accidentally while the team was trying to map the activity of her brain in preparation for surgical treatment. When Blanke and colleagues activated the electrodes placed just above the patient's right ear (the region of the right angular gyrus), the woman began to have strange sensations, which varied according to the amplitude of the stimulation and the position of her body. After the first stimulation, she felt as though she was sinking into her bed and then she felt as though she was 'falling from a height'. After another stimulation she said felt like she was 'floating' about 61/2 feet above her bed, close to the ceiling. When she was asked to watch her legs during the stimulation, the patient said she saw her legs 'becoming shorter' (ibid.). Blanke argued that multiple lobes of the brain play a part in something as complex as a religious experience, but that the temporo-parietal junction, responsible for orienting a person in time and space, is a prime node of that network. Similarly, Michael Persinger, a Canadian psychologist, found that he was able to trigger out-of-body and other paranormal experiences in people by exposing the right sides of their brains to a series of electromagnetic pulses (Persinger 1983; 1999). A part of the brain called the hippocampus is also likely to be very important (Jansen 2001).
One of the most recent investigations of OBE was carried out by Penny Sartori a nurse at the 'Intensive Therapy Unit' (ITU) in Swansea (Sartori 2003; 2005). In order to verify whether or not the experiences of patients, who reported that they 'left their bodies', were hallucinations or some other phenomena, she placed brightly colored cards above the bed spaces of each patient, in order to attract their attention. As soon as the patients regained consciousness and felt better, Sartori asked them if they had obtained any information during unconsciousness. Despite all the effort and preparation made in order to verify the OBE, none of the eight patients who reported an OBE in her group of study had seen the symbols. Does this mean that the OBE is just a mind model constructed by the brain from residual sight, sound and tactile stimulation? One of the most interesting findings of this study was that several patients reported experiences, which appeared to be very accurate. For instance, a female respondent claimed seeing her colon jutting out. As Sartori commented:
This was correct, the operation did not go to plan and part of her colon had to be exposed at the surface of the skin. The patient would not have expected to see this. However, this could have been seen while she was recovering in ITU, while she was still sedated, or recovering from sedation and could have contaminated her recall of the experience. She reported seeing herself looking as 'white as the paper' I was writing on. This would have been true, as she lost a large amount of blood during this emergency situation. Finally, this lady reported seeing people wearing theatre masks, which is also true. However, she is a retired auxiliary nurse so she would have been aware of the theatre attire prior to her operation.
As in this case, other OBErs reported accurate descriptions, but these were not verifiable.
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