by Lynne Levitan and Stephen LaBerge, Ph.D.
From NIGHTLIGHT 3(2-3),
"Out of body” experiences (OBEs) are personal
experiences during which people feel as if they are perceiving the
physical world from a location outside of their physical bodies.
least 5 and perhaps as many as 35 of every 100 people have had an OBE at least once in their lives (Blackmore, 1982). OBEs are highly
arousing; they can be either deeply disturbing or profoundly moving.
Understanding the nature of this widespread and potent experience
would no doubt help us better understand the experience of being
alive and human.
The simplest explanation is that OBEs are exactly what
they seem: the human consciousness separating from the human
body and traveling in a discorporate form in the physical world.
Another idea is that they are hallucinations, but this
requires an explanation of why so many people have the same
delusion. Some of our experiments have led us to consider the OBE as
a natural phenomenon arising out of normal brain processes.
believe that the OBE is a mental event that happens to healthy
people. In support of this, psychologists Gabbard and
Twemlow (1984) have concluded from surveys and psychological
tests that the typical OBE experient is,
“a close approximation of
the ‘average healthy American.’” (p. 40)
Our conception, also proposed by the
English psychologist Susan Blackmore, is that an OBE begins
when a person loses contact with sensory input from the body while
remaining conscious (Blackmore, 1988; LaBerge - Lucidity Letter;
Levitan - Lucidity Letter).
The person retains the feeling of having
a body, but that feeling is no longer derived from data provided by
the senses. The “out-of-body” person also perceives a world that
resembles the world he or she generally inhabits while awake, but
this perception does not come from the senses either.
The vivid body and world of the OBE is
made possible by our brain’s marvelous ability to create fully
convincing images of the world, even in the absence of sensory
information. This process is witnessed by each of us every night in
Indeed, all dreams could be called OBEs in that in them
we experience events and places quite apart from the real location
and activity of our bodies.
So, we are saying that OBEs may be a kind of dream. But, even
so, they are extraordinary experiences.
The great majority of people
who have had OBEs say they are more real than dreams. 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 (Gabbard & Twemlow, 1984). Sometimes a
sensation of bodily paralysis precedes the OBE (Salley, 1982; Irwin,
1988; Muldoon & Carrington, 1974; Fox, 1962).
To the sleep researcher, these strange phenomena are remarkably
reminiscent of another curious experience, called sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis occurs sometimes when a person is waking from or
falling into REM sleep, the state in which most vivid dreams
During REM sleep, the muscles of the body, excluding the eye
muscles and those responsible for circulation and respiration, are
immobilized by orders from a nerve center in the lower brain. This
prevents us from acting out our dreams. Occasionally, this paralysis
turns on or remains active while the person’s mind is fully awake
and aware of the world.
Some of the experiences people have reported during sleep
“I feel completely
removed from myself”
“feeling of being
separated from my body”
“hissing in the ears”
“roaring in the head”
These events appear to be much like the
OBE sensations of vibrations, strange noises, and drifting away
from the physical body (Everett, 1983).
Fear has also been
described as a common component of sleep paralysis (see the
“Question and Answer” in NightLight, Vol. 2, No. 1 for a discussion
of overcoming fear in sleep paralysis.)
WHEN DO OBES
So, it seems possible that at least some OBEs arise from the
same conditions as sleep paralysis, and that these two terms may
actually be naming two aspects of the same phenomenon.
As a first
test of this idea, we should ask how many OBEs actually occur at
times when people are likely to experience sleep paralysis - that is,
do OBEs happen when people are lying down, asleep, resting, or while
awake and active?
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. (Blackmore,
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. (Green, 1968; Poynton, 1975; Blackmore, 1983 )
Survey evidence favors the theory that OBEs could arise out of the
same conditions as sleep paralysis. There is also considerable
evidence that people who tend to have OBEs also tend to have
lucid dreams, flying and falling dreams, and
the ability to control their dreams (Blackmore, 1983, 1984;
Glicksohn, 1989; Irwin, 1988).
Because of the strong connection between OBEs and
lucid dreaming, some researchers in the area have suggested that
OBEs are a type of lucid dream (Faraday, 1976; Honegger, 1979;
Salley, 1982). One problem with this argument is that although
people who have OBEs are also likely to have lucid dreams, OBEs are
far less frequent, and can happen to people who have never had lucid
Furthermore, OBEs are quite plainly different from lucid
dreams in that during a typical OBE the experient is convinced
that the OBE is a real event happening in the physical world and not
a dream, unlike a lucid dream, in which by definition the dreamer is
certain that the event is a dream. There is an exception that
connects the two experiences - when we feel ourselves leaving the
body, but also know that we are dreaming.
In our studies of the physiology of the initiation of lucidity in
the dream state, we observed that quite of few of the lucid dreams
we collected contained experiences like OBEs. The dreamers described
lying in bed, feeling strange bodily sensations, often vibrations,
hearing loud humming noises, and then rising out of body and
floating above the bed.
Those studies revealed that lucid dreams have two ways of starting.
In the much more common variety, the “dream-initiated lucid dream”
(DILD), the dreamer acquires awareness of being in a dream
while fully involved in it. DILDs occur when dreamers are right in
the middle of REM sleep, showing lots of the characteristic rapid
eye movements. We know this is true because our dreamers give a
deliberate prearranged eye-movement signal when they realize they
These signals show up on our physiology record, so
that we can pinpoint the times when lucidity begins and see what
kind of brain state the dreamers were in at those times.
DILDs account for about four out
of every five lucid dreams that our dreamers have had in the
laboratory. In the other 20 percent, the dreamers report awakening
from a dream and then returning to the dream state with unbroken
awareness - one moment they are aware that they are awake in bed in
the sleep laboratory, and the next moment, they are aware that they
have entered a dream and are no longer perceiving the room around
them. We call these “wake initiated lucid dreams” (WILDs).
A casual look at the dream reports and physiological records led us
to think that the OBE-type dream content was happening mostly
So, we analyzed the data scientifically in the experiment
The data we studied consisted of 107 lucid dreams from a total of 14
The physiological information that we collected in
conjunction with each lucid dream always included brain waves,
eye-movements, and chin muscle activity. These measurements are
necessary for determining if a person in awake, asleep, and in REM
sleep or not. In all cases, the dreamer signaled the beginning of
the lucid dream by making a distinct pattern of eye movements that
was identifiable by someone not involved with the experiment.
After verifying that all the lucid dreams had eye signals showing
that they had happened in REM sleep, we classified them into DILDs
and WILDs, based on how long the dreamers had been in REM sleep
without awakening before becoming lucid (two minutes or more for
DILDs, less that two minutes for WILDs), and on their report of
either having realized they were dreaming while involved in a dream
(DILD) or having entered the dream directly from waking while
retaining lucidity (WILD).
Alongside the physiological analysis we
scored each dream report for the presence of various events that are
typical of OBEs, such as feelings of body distortion (including
paralysis and vibrations), floating or flying, references to being
aware of being in bed, being asleep or lying down, and the sensation
of leaving the body (for instance, “I was floating out-of-body”).
RESULTS - MORE OBE-LIKE EVENTS IN WILDS
Ten of the 107 lucid dreams qualified as OBEs, because the
dreamers reported feeling like they had left their bodies in the
Twenty of the lucid dreams were WILDs, and 87 were DILDs.
Five of the OBEs were WILDs (28%) and five were DILDs (6%). Thus,
OBEs were more than four times more likely in WILDs than in DILDs.
The three OBE-related events we looked for also all occurred
more often in WILDs than in DILDs. Almost one third of WILDs
contained body distortions, and over a half of them included
floating or flying or awareness of being in bed. This is in
comparison to DILDs, of which less than one fifth involved body
distortions, only one third included floating or flying, and one
fifth contained awareness of bed.
The reports from the five DILDs that we classified as OBEs were
actually much like those from the WILD-OBEs. In both the dreamers
felt themselves lying in bed and experiencing strange sensations
including paralysis and floating out-of-body. Although these lucid
dreams sound like WILDs, we had classified them as DILDS because the
physiological records showed no awakenings preceding lucidity.
However, it is possible that these people could have momentarily
become aware of their environments (and hence been “awake”) while
continuing to show the brainwaves normally associated with REM
The science of the EEG is not
sufficiently advanced that we can tell what people are experiencing
by looking at their brainwaves.
Anecdotes from dream reports
indicate that people sometimes become aware of sensations from their
sleeping bodies while dreaming - for example, the dream in which you
are trying to run while your legs become heavier and heavier,
perhaps because you are feeling their true immobile condition.
OBES AND WILDS
OUTSIDE THE LABORATORY
Our laboratory studies showed us that when OBEs happen in
lucid dreams they happen either when a person reenters REM sleep
right after an awakening, or right after having become aware of
being in bed.
However, we wondered if this relationship would apply
to OBEs and lucid dreams that people experience at home, in the
Not being able to take the sleep lab to the homes of hundreds of
people (the DreamLight may soon give us this capacity!), we
took a survey about OBEs and other dream-related experiences,
somewhat like the past studies referred to earlier. The difference
between our survey and previous ones is that in addition to asking
if people had had OBEs, we asked specifically about certain events
that we know to be associated with WILDs, namely, lucid
dreaming, returning directly to a dream after awakening from it, and
A total of 572 people filled out our questionnaire. They were either
students in an introductory psychology course or readers of the
NightLight. About a third of the group reported having had at least
one OBE. Just over 80 percent had had lucid dreams. Sleep paralysis
was reported by 37 percent and 85 percent had been able to return to
t a dream after awakening.
People who reported more dream-related experiences also reported
For example, of the 452 people claiming to have had lucid
dreams, 39 percent also reported OBEs, whereas only 15 percent of
those who did not claim lucid dreams said they had had OBEs. The
group with the most people reporting OBEs (51%) were those who said
they had experienced lucid dreams, dream return, and sleep
We would expect people who can return directly to dreams after an
awakening to be prone to having WILDs, and therefore also to have
frequent lucid dreams. Indeed, in this survey, people reporting
frequent dream return also tended to report frequent lucid dreams.
Thus, we believe that the fact that dream return frequency was
linked with OBE frequency in this study gives further support to our
laboratory research finding that WILDs were associated with OBEs.
WHAT DO WE
Our two studies have compared the frequency of OBEs in the
two types of lucid dream, and surveyed the relative frequency of
OBEs and dream-related events in a large number of people.
thereby learned that when OBEs happen during lucid dreams, they
generally happen in lucid dreams that arise from brief awakenings in
REM sleep, and that people who have certain special dream
experiences are more likely to have OBEs that people who do not.
These dream experiences include returning to the dream state after
an awakening, lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis.
Above we described our operating theory that OBEs occur when people
lose input from their sense organs, as happens at the onset of
sleep, while retaining consciousness. This combination of events is
especially likely when a person passes directly from waking into REM
sleep. In both states the mind is alert and active, but in waking it
is processing sensory input from the outside world, while in
dreaming it is creating a mental model independent of sensory input.
This model includes a body. When
dreaming, we generally experience ourselves in a body much like the
“real” one, because that is what we are used to. However, our
internal senses in the physical body, which when we are awake inform
us about our position in space and the movement of our limbs. This
information is cut off in REM sleep.
Therefore, we can dream of
doing all kinds of things with our dream bodies - flying, dancing,
running from monsters, being dismembered - all while our physical
bodies lie safely in bed.
During a WILD, or sleep paralysis, the awake and alert
mind keeps up its good work of showing us the world it expects is
out there - although it can no longer sense it. So, then we are in a
mental-dream-world. Possibly we feel the cessation of the sensation
of gravity as that part of sensory input shuts down, and then feel
that we are suddenly lighter and float up, rising from the place
where we know our real body to be lying still.
The room around us looks about the same,
because that is our brain’s best guess about where we are. If we did
not know that we had just fallen asleep, we might well think that we
were awake, still in touch with the physical world, and that
something mighty strange was happening - a departure of the mind from
the physical body!
The unusual feeling of leaving the body is exciting and alarming.
This, combined with the realistic imagery of the bedroom is enough
to account for the conviction of many OBE experients’ that
“it was too real to be a dream.” Dreams, too, can be astonishingly
real, especially if you are attending to their realness. Usually, we
pass through our dreams without thinking much about them, and upon
awakening remember little of them. Hence, they seem “unreal.”
But waking life is also like that - our
memory for a typical, mundane day is flat and lacking in detail. It
is only the novel, exciting, or frightening events that leave vivid
impressions. If we stop what we are doing, we can look around and
say, “Yes, this world looks solid and real.” But, if you look back
and try to recall, for instance, brushing your teeth this morning,
your memory is likely to be vague and not very life-like. Contrast
this to a past event that excited or alarmed you, which is likely to
seem much more “real” in retrospect.
Lucid dreamers often comment to themselves in dreams,
“I know this
is a dream, but it all seems so incredibly real!”
All this goes to
show that the feeling that an event is real does not mean that it is
happening in the physical world that we all share when we are awake.
This is not to deny that that inner experiences are real, in that
they have deeply profound effects on our lives. However, as lucid
dreaming so amply demonstrates, we can learn to distinguish between
our personal dreams and events in the consensus dream we call
physical reality. When we do, we find that what we thought was one
thing - the waking world - is actually another - a dream.
Proof that some or even most OBEs are dreams is not enough to allow
us to say that a genuine OBE is impossible. However, in the
interests of lucidity, if you have an OBE,
Why not test to see if
the OBE-world passes the reality test?
Is the room you are in the
one you are actually sleeping in?
If you have left your body, where
Do things change when you are not looking at them (or when
Can you read something twice and have it remain the same
on both readings?
If any of your questions and investigations leave
you doubting that you are in the physical world, is it not logical
to believe you are dreaming?
Another point to consider is that a dream doesn’t always have to
happen in REM sleep.
Most do, but there are probably quite a few
other conditions in which people can lose touch with sensory
experience and enter a mental world. Some such states that we know
of are hypnotic trance, anesthesia, and sensory isolation. OBEs have
been reported from these states (Nash et al., 1984; Olson, 1988).
Thus, the argument that an OBE cannot be a dream because the
experient wasn’t asleep doesn’t hold water.
To end this discussion of the origins of the OBE, an event
considered unbelievable by many and metaphysical by others, let’s
consider the state of affairs that is considered normal: the
What does it mean to be in a body?
Saying that one is in a body implies that the self is an object with
definite borders capable of being contained by the boundaries of
another object - the physical body. However, we do not have any
evidence that the self is such a concrete thing. What we think of as
“out-of-body” in an OBE is the experience of the self.
This experience of being “in” a body is
normally based on perceptual input from the senses of both the world
external to the body and the processes within the body. These give
us a sense of localization of the self in space. However, it is the
body, and its sense organs, that occupy a specific locus,
not the self.
The self is not the body or the brain.
If we think that the self is a product of brain function, even this
does not make it reasonable to state that the self is in the
brain - is the meaning contained in these words in this page? It may
not make any sense on an objective level to say that the self is
anywhere. Rather, the self is where it feels itself to be. Its
location is purely subjective and derived from input from the
Putting aside the question of the essential nature of the self,
perception is undeniably a phenomenon tied to brain function. So,
when we find ourselves experiencing a world that seems much like the
one we are used to perceiving with our usual equipment - eyes, ears,
etc., all things linked to our brains, it would be logical to assume
that it is our usual brain creating the experience. And, if we were
to really leave our bodies - severing all connection with them - it
would be illogical to assume that we would see the world in the same
Therefore, although no amount of
contradictory evidence can rule out the possibility of a real “out
of body experience,” in which an individual exists in some form
entirely independent of the body, it is highly unlikely that such a
form would utilize perceptual systems identical to those of the
physical human form.
Spiritual teachings tell us that we have a reality beyond
that of this world. The OBE may not be, as it is easily
interpreted, a literal separation of the soul from the crude
physical body, but it is an indication of the vastness of the
potential that lies wholly within our minds.
The worlds we create in dreams
and OBEs are as real as this one, and yet hold infinitely
more variety. How much more exhilarating to be “out-of-body” in a
world where the only limit is the imagination than to be in the
physical world in a powerless body of ether!
Freed of the
constraints imposed by physical life, expanded by awareness that
limits can be transcended, who knows what we could be, or become?
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