A Quest for an Out-of-Body Experience

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By Katie Heaney I have not, to my memory, had an out-of-body experience, but I remember watching one on TV. I was a big fan of the X-Files-lite Disney drama So Weird. One episode centered on a teenage girl who repeatedly left her body to wander a local carnival. If she was grounded, it didn’t matter; her body stayed in her room, but her spirit could go out and play. It could not, however, talk, and I remember thinking this made it pretty much worthless. Still, when I recently came across a book called Astral Travel for Beginners, written by Richard Webster, I was sold immediately. (Astral travel and out-of-body experience, or OBE, are used fairly interchangeably by people who believe these experiences to be supernatural.) Maybe it was competitiveness: It had not occurred to me that I wasn’t traveling astrally because I was bad at it. I needed to know more. Like many modern mysticisms, astral travel has roots (some deeper than others) in a wide variety of ancient beliefs and practices—Webster cites the bible, Aristotle, Tibet, ancient Egypt, and the Druids, among others. Popular interest in astral travel grew in late 19th-century Europe, at which time it was studied in a number of scientifically questionable experiments. (Often, the low-stakes requests made of spirits were not unlike what you might see today on an episode of Ghost Hunters: One study asked a subject to prove he’d left his body by having his spirit make noise on the opposite end of the table from which his body sat.) Stateside interest was piqued in 1929 with the publishing of a book called Projection of the Astral Body, co-written by American author Sylvan Muldoon and the made-up-sounding British investigator Hereward Carrington. Modern science holds that out-of-body experiences are dissociative, and can arise from a number of psychological and/or neurological factors. One study, published in Brain in 2004, argued that OBEs were symptomatic of “paroxysmal disorders of body perception and cognition,” or a failure to correctly organize perceptual, tactile, and visual cues with regard to one’s own body. This is not to say that everyone who has ever had an OBE has some form of physical disorder; there are many people who believe they have had an OBE and are perfectly healthy. Other research has suggested OBE-like dissociation occurs in people with a preternatural capacity for psychological absorption—or, in other words, the fantasy prone. The exact figure is a bit nebulous, but survey data suggests between 10-25 percent of people report having had at least one out-of-body experience sometime in their lives. Most people who say they’ve done it describe the experience positively and say it’s something they’d like to do again. According to Webster, a researcher named Dr. Stewart Twemlow presented a talk on this topic at the 1980 American Psychiatric Association in which he stated that 43 percent of the people who reported having traveled astrally said it was “the greatest thing that had ever happened to them.” More via Pacific Standard: The Science of Society.

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