Out of Body Experiences:  

A Neurological, Psychological State or beyond the physical?

  

 Interview with Dr Alexander De Foe

by Joyce Bok

(16 June 2016)

 

Out of Body Experiences” (OBEs) have been reported throughout history as experiences of leaving the body and travelling to other places or interacting with an environment or other entities or just simply being able to look down at one’s body and observe the actions below them.  Often, these may be induced by a near-death experience, psychedelic drugs, head injuries, trauma, excessive exhaustion, illness, shamanic rituals or even just random and spontaneous incidences. Could OBEs be a neurological and/or psychological state or something beyond the physical? Dr Alexander De Foe is an Associate Lecturer in the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences at RMIT University.  He conducted his PHD through Monash University on this subject matter and I had the privilege of interviewing him on this fascinating subject.

  

 

  • How would you define “Out of Body Experience”?

An OBE involves a distinct change in one’s visuospatial perspective away from one’s physical body. For example, a person could be sitting at their desk one moment and the next find that their self-perspective has altered and is now situated behind their body, as they observe themselves from behind their desk. The experience might sound rather innocuous, but in reality, OBEs are often phenomenally-rich experiences that involved an altered state of consciousness. What’s interesting about the experience is that it is one of the most common altered states reported worldwide, with as many as one in five people having had an OBE at some point in their lifetime.

 

  • How does it differ from “Lucid Dreaming” and “Astral Projection”?

Lucid dreaming occurs when we become aware that we are in a dream while we are dreaming. When we become self-aware in a dream, we can manipulate the dream elements and have fun in the dream space, or even cause ourselves to wake up. Stephen LaBerge at the Lucidity Institute found that OBEs can occur within a lucid dream, but that phenomenally these two experiences are rather different and shouldn’t be confused. When we speak about altered states of consciousness, it’s important to arrive at a very precise definition of the state that we’re discussing. Unfortunately, many people continue to regard OBEs, lucid dreams, and “astral projections” as identical or very similar experiences, and they are certainly not.

 An “OBE” refers to an experience of presence outside of one’s body, while “astral travel” or “soul travel” seems to imply a more dream-like psycho-spiritual voyage in which one may forget about the presence of the physical body altogether. The features characteristic of a traditional OBE (i.e., a sense of leaving one’s body and/or the realistic perception of one’s immediate environment) are not present in most “astral projection” accounts.

 

  • What are some of your favourite historical studies or case studies into OBEs?

My book, “Consciousness Beyond the Body” (available to download for free) canvasses a range of historical cases of OBE. As I am an experimental psychologist, I am more concerned with the empirical applications of studying OBEs in the laboratory rather than retrospective accounts. But, there are certainly a broad number of classic cases that are worthwhile investigating. Some of Robert Monroe’s experiences are fascinating to read about, for example. Graham Nicholls’ contemporary accounts of verifiable perception during his OBEs are also well worth looking into. There are many more cases presented throughout the book that readers might find intriguing.

 

  • What got you interested in studying OBEs?

I’m very passionate about investigating the transpersonal dimension of the human experience and altered states of consciousness more broadly. Since I was in my early 20s I took an interest in approaching these topics from a scientific stance. I was interested in exploring phenomena that we can understand rather than those we can merely speculate or ponder about. OBEs lend themselves to scientific testing a lot more easily than many other “parapsychological” phenomena reported in the general population, such as, say, poltergeist activity or UFO abductions. After conducting a brief literature review for my honours project, I settled on OBEs as my topic of choice, as the subject appeared both enthralling and approachable.

The OBE is a good example of a topic that was once shrouded in esoteric belief and myth that now lends itself to critical investigation in the psychological and cognitive sciences. At Monash, I was able to investigate the nature of the experience by exploring the relevant neurocognitive factors in a laboratory setting. As you can imagine, it is not quite as easy to examine many other “psi” phenomena within scientific constraints!

 

  • What has your research been into OBEs and what has the general results been?

I’ve done a lot of work in this field and there is probably too much to detail here. As a starting point, some of the Conversation articles I have written can be found here:

 

Body swapping and out-of-body experiences – a how-to guide

 

Extending the self: some cold truths on body ownership

 

You’ve had an out-of-body experience, but what kind?

 

Some of the research papers I’ve written with my colleagues at Monash University can be found here:

 

Floating sensations prior to sleep and out-of-body experiences

 

Research note: Induced out-of-body experiences are associated with a sensation of leaving the body

 

Auditory hallucinations predict likelihood of out-of-body experience

 

 

  • What are some theories on the explanations of OBEs?

I would like to refer readers to my book here once more, which canvases some of the more well-known theories in much more depth than I could describe in this interview. Chapter 4 by Ryan Hurd in particular covers a range of theoretical explanations. Some of the theories Hurd discusses include the trauma/dissociation model, Thomas Metzinger’s proto-concept of mind, ritual healing theory, ecological stress theory, and others. 

My Ph.D. research centred on neurocognitive theories of embodiment and looked at the following philosophical question: “why do we experience a sense of subjective body ownership in the first place?”. So, I suppose I approached the theoretical issue from a somewhat different perspective. I raised questions such as “what does it mean to own a body?” and “how do we experience the sense of having a body?”, and I explored instances in which body-self integration is transformed or disrupted in some manner, such as in phantom limb or alien hand syndrome. I think if we flip the “why” question regarding OBEs in this manner and look at what it means to have an “in-body experience”, we can come to a better understanding of OBEs overall.

 

  • What do you think causes OBEs?

There are two variations of OBE: induced or spontaneous. Self-induced OBEs can be triggered with meditative practice, visualisation, and with the aid of certain psychedelic compounds such as LSD, ketamine, or DMT. Spontaneous experiences can arise under a number of circumstances, and researchers continue to explore some of the more common triggers. Often, however, OBEs occur with no clear trigger or cause. Therefore, continuing to investigate causal factors would be valuable… and we need more researchers to step forward who would be willing to explore these variables.

 

  • How can one have an OBE and is it safe?

Great question! Anyone can learn how to induce an OBE and it generally physiologically and psychologically safe to do so. In fact, OBE induction has many therapeutic and personal benefits. Psychologists and hypnotherapists can learn induction techniques to use with patients by reading the work of Patrizio Tressoldi as well as that of Joseph Meyerson and Marc Gelkopf.

Whilst readers will find quite a broad number of OBE induction techniques in the esoteric literature, sadly there are few of these books that are not entrenched in New Age “woo woo” and superstitious belief. Personally, I recommend Graham Nicholls’ “Navigator Course” on OBE induction for readers who are interested in inducing and exploring OBEs themselves. Nicholls is a well-established leader on the topic of OBE induction and takes an active role in research as well as practice. Unfortunately, there are not many other practitioners willing to broach the topic from a critical and ideologically-neutral perspective.

 

  • Are there certain characteristics of an individual or events which increase the ease or probability for individuals to have an OBE?

 That’s a good question… I explored a range of personality-related variables in my honours research at Monash and I didn’t find any significant predictors apart from having a history of fantasy proneness involving mild verbal hallucinations. While people who are prone to fantasy (i.e., daydreaming and/or innocuous hallucinations) may be more inclined to have such as an experience, we should remember that OBEs occur across age groups, genders, and cultures. This observation has led researchers to believe that there is not necessarily something special or unique about personality or cultural factors that causes a person to have OBEs. Yet, in spite of this, the fact that some people seem to have 100s of such experiences in their lifetime while others report none, or perhaps just one or two, is interesting to consider. More work still needs to be done to explore individual differences when it comes to the proneness question.

 In terms of events that increase the ease, we know that clinical hypnotherapy works rather well. Instances of OBE are not uncommon when a person is lying down in bed and beginning to fall asleep, therefore it seems that the pre-sleep hypnagogic state could be conducive to induction. Charles Tart found that marijuana users experience almost three times the incidence of OBE than people in the general population. So, we know that cannabis, along with LSD and other psychedelic substances, also cause more OBEs to come about. As mentioned earlier, meditation, visualisation, and even experimental techniques (e.g., virtual reality induction) can also increase the likelihood of these experiences.

 

  • How do people usually report feeling and are there any changes to them or their lives after having an OBE?

Another great question! Although some OBEs can be disorienting during the experience itself, researchers tend to agree that most of the transformative changes that happen after an OBE are positive, with some negative instances. In Chapter 1 and 2 of my book, Nelson Abreu and Luis Minero review some of the common psychological changes post-OBE. These include: an increase in self-awareness, a decrease of the fear of death, a greater appreciation for life, heightened self-esteem, greater compassion for others and feeling of connectedness or oneness, a heightened sense of purpose and self-understanding, a desire to learn and mature, a greater ecological sensitivity and planetary concern, feeling more intuitive or ‘psychic’ or having a more holistic perspective, changes in self-identity, a sense of existence on multiple dimensions/planes, and a stronger feeling of a grand life purpose (that last point is common in near-death experiences, which can often involve an OBE).

 Although some of the above changes can be explained by the profound experience of stepping outside of one’s body on its own merit, we can begin to understand many of the other lasting effects if we start regarding the OBE as a fundamentally psycho-spiritual encounter. Transpersonal psychologists often speak of the OBE as an “Exceptional Human Experience” which demonstrates, at least personally, that one’s consciousness is not necessarily constrained to one’s physical body. That realisation, from a personal perspective at least, is extraordinarily profound and can lead to numerous existential and spiritual transformations in one’s life.

 

  • Tell me about this light emitting device that you have which can apparently induce an altered state similar to OBEs? How do you explain how it works?

Here we can return to the “astral projection” question and the concept of journeying inward into the depths of one’s mind, a process that the PandoraStar device facilitates. The PandoraStar was developed in 2015 in the United Kingdom by Todd Acamesis and Jimi Simpson. It functions on stroboscopic light patterns which induce altered states of consciousness and produce vivid mental imagery. In a PandoraStar session, patients typically report a visual experience of highly-realistic patterns, colours, and visuals which burst forth from the unconscious mind.

Often, patients also speak about a “no boundary” sensation in which they can no longer delineate their body-self boundaries and report merging with their outer environment. That euphoric “merging” feeling is comparable to deeper states of consciousness common in transcendental meditation. It is often marked by a sense of peace or holistic oneness with the universe. Of course, in TM those sorts of states can take months to achieve with diligent meditation practice, while most clients report profound effects with the PandoraStar in minutes.

Note: If some of the readers at SoulPsych are based in the south-eastern suburbs, they are most welcome at my clinic room for a free PandoraStar session, if they’d like to give the device a go themselves! My clinic days are on Friday and Saturday at present.

 

  • Are you doing any current research at the moment on OBEs?

I’m doing quite a lot of work into OBEs at present. Recently, I was awarded a Cardigan Fund Grant at the Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research to examine the veridical (i.e., verifiable) aspects of OBEs. I’m working towards developing a conceptual map of perceived OBE environments so that we can arrive at a better understanding of the nature of people’s accounts. I’m also working on a project with Patrizio Tressoldi at the University of Padova. In that research, we’ll be looking at whether hypnotically-induced OBEs share similar characteristics to self-induced or spontaneous experiences.

 

  • What is some future research you’d like to do on OBEs?

In future I’d like to continue the work I was doing on my doctorate at Monash, which focused on perception. Modern technology such as Oculus Rift Virtual Reality and equipment such as the PandoraStar can create the psychological conditions necessarily for a body-self perceptual split to occur. Therefore, I’d like to conduct more research that integrates various uses of technology for inducing OBEs, as well as related perceptual transformations. Formative research into embodied cognition and augmented reality (i.e., as our virtual reality tech becomes more advanced) will shed more light into some of the processes involved in body-self integration and disintegration.

Besides that, of course the proverbial elephant in the room in this line of research is the question of whether one’s consciousness does actually leave the body or not! For many academic psychologists there is comfort in believing that the OBE is a hallucination or illusion, but as countless case reports indicate, there’s much more to the experience than that. Philosopher Thomas Metzinger put it quite well when we wrote: “From an open-minded, rational, and metatheoretical perspective OBEs are not only a problem for philosophy of mind and phenomenology, but for epistemology as well”. The bigger “consciousness” question related to OBEs is not as easy to sweep under the rug as some neuroscientists make it out to be. Scientists must recognise that studying this fascinating experience could indeed unlock some of the most persistent mysteries of consciousness and mind in years to come. On that point, in the longer term future I hope to examine the relationship between consciousness and OBEs in much more depth.

 

  • What else would you like to say about OBEs?

 The OBE is a fascinating and often profoundly transformative experience. As an experimental psychologist, I encourage people to experience the states of consciousness that I write about firsthand, rather than merely reading about the theories and research literature and leaving it there. Thus, I encourage enthusiasts to look into OBEs from an open-minded perspective and to consider the benefits of exploring this unique dimension of the human experience. To quote Lynn Levitan and Stephen LaBerge: “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 vast spectrum of human consciousness is truly incredible, and I think we should all take an active role in exploring it.

 

  • What books have you written on OBEs and how can people find out more information? What are your contact details?

 This topic comprises just one of my many areas of interest. Readers might like to commence with my recent edited volume (“Consciousness Beyond the Body”, 2016, ISBN: 9780646950228) to learn more about OBEs in particular. I have also placed all of my research papers on my website as free downloads. In terms of my other work, my first book “Hearts in Transcendence” was written as a handbook for exploring transcendental states of consciousness firsthand. I’m currently working on a third book, with the draft title “A Spectrum of Human Potential”. In that book, I hope to explore recent advances in clinical parapsychology and transpersonal psychology practice, with a particular focus on how practitioners can assist their patients in working with broader states of consciousness.

Readers are most welcome to visit my website and to download some of the articles and other content I have discussed here. If they would like to contact me, I’ve included my e-mail address and phone number details below. Readers who are based in the south-eastern suburbs are welcome to visit me in Berwick to talk about their personal psycho-spiritual development or to trial the PandoraStar device that I mentioned earlier.

 

Dr Alex De Foe, Ph.D.

Consulting Counsellor @ The Tonic Tree Clinic (weekends)   

13 Blackburne Square, Berwick VIC 3806

Ph: (03) 9796 2745

E-mail: connect@exceptionalpotential.com

Website: http://alexdefoe.com/

 

A final note: At present I am looking to interview individuals who are able to self-induce their own OBEs on a consistent basis. I encourage those readers who fit this criterion to pre-register their interest in this research at The Centre for Exceptional Human Potential, as I’d be interested in speaking with them.

Ever had an OBE experience?  Your account is needed!  Participate in Dr Alex De Foe's latest research by completing a 20min Questionnaire:  Veridical Mind - New OBE Perception Questionnaire

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer : The articles are of the opinion of the author only unless indicated otherwise. They are not written for individual advice. Please use your own discretion and make your own informed decisions about your situation.
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