by Lynne Levitan and Stephen LaBerge, Ph.D.
“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. At 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. Thus, we believe that 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 experiment 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 our dreams. 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
WHAT ARE OBES LIKE?
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 occur. 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
paralysis are: “I feel completely removed from myself,” “feeling
of being separated from my body,” “eerie, rushing experiences,”
and hearing “hissing in the ears,” and “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
WHEN DO OBES HAPPEN?
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, 1984) 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;
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
dreams. 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 are dreaming. 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 in WILDs. So, we analyzed the data
scientifically in the experiment described below.
THE LABORATORY STUDY
The data we studied consisted of 107 lucid dreams from a
total of 14 different people. 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
dream. 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 sleep. 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
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 “real world.”
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 sleep paralysis.
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 more OBEs. 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 paralysis.
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 KNOW NOW?
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. We
have 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
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
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 is it? Do things change when you are not looking at
them (or when you are)? 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.
THE “IN-THE-BODY” EXPERIENCE
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 “in-
the-body” experience. 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 sensory organs.
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 way. 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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[From NIGHTLIGHT 3(2-3), 1991, Copyright, The Lucidity Institute.]