The Strange 'Science' And History Of Out Of Body Experiences

Astral projecting, remote viewing and out of body experiences take you to some pretty strange places - in your mind. Lassedesignen/Shutterstock.com

There's a community on Reddit that appears to believe people can astrally project themselves into top-secret locations to have a bit of a snoop around. The group, Astral Army, exists to talk about methods of achieving out of body experiences and to discuss what happens afterward. 

Among the more outlandish posts made in the group are people who claim they have visited the Pentagon while astrally projecting only to be met by some sort of psychic defenses and people who think they've gone inside the Sphynx and met the Babylonian god Marduk. There are even requests for somebody with "experience and knowledge of protection" to "please go to Wuhan and get the real scoop on wtf is going on over there".

We know what you're thinking (sounds legit) but let's explore their nonsense claims anyway. There's a long, strange history of out of body experiences, and plenty of astral projection research, conducted in both a scientific and extremely unscientific way.

Project Stargate 

Claims of "out of body" experiences (OBEs) have been around for centuries. Ancient Indian scriptures refer to the idea of "Turiya," a meditative state where people were said to be able to leave and return to their bodies. In Victorian times it was known as "traveling clairvoyance" in spiritual circles. 

Many so-called out of body experiences have been reported by those who have been near-death, but there are also people who claim they can view locations elsewhere in the world ("remote viewing") on cue, which would obviously be quite handy if it were to be proven true. Enter the military, salivating at the mouth. 

In 1978, the CIA set up what would become known as "Project Stargate" to investigate and develop psychic abilities in soldiers. As well as exploring telekinesis and trying to kill a goat by staring at it for a long time (at best mildly confusing the goat, which has no real military applications), they also explored remote viewing. Though at the time some success was reported, in 1995 when the project was disbanded the CIA concluded that the evidence had been doctored.

The extremely strange CIA documents (which you can read for yourself here) claim that remote viewing is "a talent which is inherent to every human to some degree." Listed among the benefits of the technique is that there is "no known defense" against it, which is like saying there is no known defense against Cthulu, largely due to the fact that it's fictional, and that it's cheap, which is undeniable.

Miss Z

One study that got paranormal enthusiasts particularly excited in the late '60s was that on "Miss Z". Psychologist and "parapsychologist" (a gigantic red flag) Charles Tart conducted an OBE "study" on a woman claiming to be able to have OBE without the hassle of nearly dying to induce it. To test this, Tart had "Miss Z" placed in his sleep laboratory, attached to an electroencephalography machine (EEG), which records brain activity. A randomly generated number was written and placed on a shelf above her bed while she slept. 

The idea was that if she had an OBE, she would be able to float up and read the number, then report it to Tart, thus proving that the laws of physics as we know them are completely and utterly wrong. During the four-night study, she reported three experiences of floating where she "partly" left her body, but had no success with the number on the first three nights.

"On the fourth night, at 5:57 am, there was a seven-minute period of somewhat ambiguous EEG activity," Tart wrote in his study, published in the Journal of Near-Death Studies. Miss Z reportedly called out the correct number, and thus the existence of the soul was proved. I am, of course, kidding. Though the number was correct, there were numerous opportunities for Miss Z to read the number on the shelf without sending her ghost up there, and many have debunked it. 

"If she had held a mirror with a handle in her right hand, by tilting the mirror and looking up she could have seen a reflection of the paper on the shelf," magician Milbourne Christopher claimed. "The woman had not been searched prior to the experiment, nor had an observer been in the sleep chamber with her — precautions that should have been taken."

In fact, that's probably too complex a solution, as Tart admitted he occasionally nodded off during the experiment, giving Miss Z ample opportunity to get the number through the extraordinary power of having a quick glance. "If Miss Z had tried to climb up, the brain-wave record would have shown a pattern of interference," skeptic Susan Blackmore wrote in her book The Adventures of a Parapsychologist. "And that was exactly what it did show."

More scientific explanations

No research with proper scientific controls has ever shown evidence that there is any supernatural element to OBEs. If it had, you would have heard about it by now because it would be all over the news that physics as we know it is completely broken. If you do have such evidence, you'll win both James Randi's $1million prize and, I assume, several Nobel Prizes.

In short, the Redditors aren't visiting the Sphynx and seeing Babylonian gods. Remote viewing and "astral projection" are likely just lucid dreaming, something you can teach yourself to do.

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However, out of body experiences have been the subject of proper scientific review, given how many people report them. One study found that OBEs were reported by around 17 percent of those who recovered from near-death experiences. So what is it that they are experiencing?

A 2014 study looking at cardiac arrest survivors found that 46 percent of the cohort were able to describe parts of what happened before their heart was beating properly again, and 2 percent described explicit awareness, including "seeing" and "hearing" events prior to their resuscitation.

Dr Sam Parnia, who led the study, told Live Science in 2017 that people can experience some consciousness in the first phase of death, and even recall it later (should they survive, of course). "They'll describe watching doctors and nurses working. They'll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them."

Another study on women who experienced OBEs during childbirth suggested that it could be a coping mechanism for trauma potentially related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which could go some way to explaining reports of out of body feelings in people going through near-death experiences.

In healthy people, OBEs have been induced by stimulating the right angular gyrus in the brain, the area responsible for integrating visual information and feedback from limbs about their position, essentially creating in the mind a representation of the body. By using electrodes to stimulate the area during an operation, researchers in Switzerland triggered the phenomenon in one patient undergoing brain surgery. A subsequent patient hoping to be cured of tinnitus in 2007 experienced several out of body experiences when the same area was stimulated. 

This brain area also appears to be involved in some OBEs that occur naturally. In 2011, a 10-year-old boy with epilepsy suffered a seizure followed by a full OBE, reportedly viewing the room from above. According to the study, an EEG showed right temporal lobe hypermetabolism, and a follow-up MRI scan showed a lesion in the right angular gyrus, the same area shown to stimulate out of body experiences in other patients. 

Clearly, further study is needed to understand more about the strange and full range of out of body experiences, but we do know this: Whatever the cause, it's going on in your brain, not 2 meters above it. 

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