An out-of-body experience (or OBE) is the subjective perception that one is no longer in one's body, while (generally) being able to perceive it from the outside. It is sometimes associated with near-death experiences, dream states, mystical trances or occult phenomena, and psychoactive drugs, mainly dissociative hallucinogens such as ketamine, DXM and PCP.
An OBE may be contrasted with astral projection, which does not require the perception of one's own body from the outside, and which does not typically posit that one's consciousness or soul is actually travelling through our day-to-day physical reality.
An OBE may also be contrasted with dreaming, lucid or otherwise, by the intense perception of being awake and of the reality of the experience.
Not every OBE has exactly the same features, and it may be that there are several different types of OBE that have different causes and meanings. Based on collections of firsthand accounts of "spontaneous" OBEs, (those were not part of a planned program to induce the experience), such as those collected at , some observations can be made:
- These people have really had the experiences they describe; they are not "faking" them.
- They weren't in general "trying" to have the experience through auto-suggestion, hypnotic trance, etc. A lot of these people seemed frightened and/or confused by the experience; some even to the point of doubting their sanity.
- There is no question that they really believed they were physically "out of body", and that this is a key feature of the experience. Even though other features of their experience might be self-described as dreamlike, the OBE part was experienced "lucidly", and was very real to the experiencers. Several described their subjective state as "very awake", "more awake than usual", etc. Some quotes:
- I knew that these were not dreams, I can now tell the difference and that's what frightened me, a dream you can ignore but not an experience like these it made me want to try and find out why are these things happening to me.
- Consciousness was as clear and lucid as any wakening experience.
- I was very alert. It was exactly as if I was awake.
- In the great majority (55+) of these 66 cases, the experiencer reported being asleep, on the verge of sleep, or having been asleep directly previously. A fairly large percentage of these cases refer to situations where this sleep is not particularly deep (due to illness, noises in other rooms, emotional stress, exhaustion from overworking, frequent re-awakening, etc.).
- In most of these cases, the experiencer then feels themself "wake up"; about half then note a feeling of physical paralysis:
- I soon realized that I was capable of moving only my eyes. Neither my head nor fingers would budge. I remember desperately trying to move even a toe to no avail.
- Suddenly I could no longer move or even lift a finger. As I was struggling to move, there was a sudden jerk and I was pushed out of my body and was floating upwards.
- I had gone to bed, woke up suddenly and found that although I was fully conscious I couldn't move a muscle.
- I lay paralyzed, unable to move or blink.
- Then my mom woke me for school and I felt sensation slowly return to my limbs (before that I couldn't move anything).
- In some cases, the feeling of being outside the body is something that is suddenly realized after the fact; they see their bodies almost by accident. In other cases, they either will themselves out of their bodies or find themselves being pulled from their bodies (these are usually preceded by the feeling of paralysis).
- The OBE is not generally long; on the order of a minute or so. The experiencer may note that the subjective experience is much longer than the objective time passing.
- The OBE may or may not be followed by other experiences which are self-reported as being "as real" as the OBE feeling; alternatively, they may fade out into a state self-reported as dreaming, or they may wake completely.
- The OBE is sometimes ended by a fearful feeling of getting "too far away" from the body.
- Many of these OBEs end with a feeling of suddenly "popping" or "snapping" back into their bodies.
- I was lying in bed and I felt myself rising. This freaked me out, so I slammed back into my body.
- As soon as I noticed myself still lying on the couch I was instantly shot back in my body.
- I reached the floor and touched my bed in a sitting position. I whooshed back into my body.
- I realized that I was floating and became very frightened. In that instant of revelation I felt a sense of great speed and an impact as though I had smashed into a brick wall. I "woke up" crumpled up at the bottom of my bed in the hotel.
- I was pulled violently back into my body and I jerked.
- The next moment I was fully awake and in my bed, no journey upstairs, nothing, I was back in an instant.
- Some people experience spiritual epiphanies; others experience a general feeling of peacefulness and love; and still others experience fearfulness and anxiety. Finally, some experience only the OBE itself, not as a spiritual experience directly.
- A majority describe the end of the experience as "then I woke up".
On the other hand, the basis for the belief that the experience was real was not primarily external evidence. Very few from this set of 66 considered it needful to verify for themselves that they were physically out of body by, for example, checking on events at other locations. This type of verification was not what caused them to believe that the experience was "real" in the first place. Instead, it was the quality of the experience that drove their perception of its reality, and made it different from a dreaming or illusory experience. Some quotes:
- I can say one thing I remember vividly, I felt no different than in body form. This is what was so unbelievable.
- I could see the details in my room and the ceiling from up close exactly as if I was seeing it in real life.
- The room was bright and I was looking at a dress that was hung on my bedroom wall. My gaze was fixed on this dress taking in all its details. I knew it was not possible to see this dress from the position I was laid in bed, this frightened me again.
- I knew I was asleep on the living room floor when I was floating on the ceiling because, I was in shock in the "dream" how I could feel my breast dangle downward. I was completely aware.
The quality of the experiences which were strictly part of the OBE had no direct bearing on the remainder of the rest of the experience. For example, some described vivid spiritual experiences following the OBE, which continue to influence their lives. On the other hand, others describe a kind of fading into what are self-reported as dreams of no consequence. Conversely, many people report spiritual experiences during sleep or otherwise which are not preceded by an OBE.
A small minority of the OBEs were not accompanied by sleep:
- I can remember walking home from junior school with my friend, and then, I saw myself in the distance walking and talking to her.
- The next thing I knew, I looked straight out in the woods, and I had an OBE. I saw the lights from the back porch, I was about 100-150 feet away from the house looking at me and my friend.
- The doctors did not use any anesthetic at the time because I was too young [two years old]. When they cut me open, I felt severe and intense pain and I left my body because it was too much for me to bear.
- Attempting to fall asleep without losing consciousness. This method is generally believed to be what causes involuntary OBEs. Some who use it consider dreams to be a form of OBE in which the conscious mind is suppressed; alternatively, others believe that an OBE is a form of dream in which the conscious mind is not suppressed.
- Deep trance and visualization. The types of visualizations vary; some common imageries used include climbing a rope to "pull out" of one's body, floating out of one's body, getting shot out of a cannon, and other similar approaches.
- Audio/visual stimulation intended to bring the subject into the appropriate state.
- Chemically induced experiences. OBEs induced with drugs are generally considered to be hallucinations (i.e., purely subjective), even by those who believe the phenomenon to be objective in general. In any event, these chemicals are often illegal and, in some cases, known to be damaging to one's health.
- Electrical stimulation of the brain (see below).
- If it was [a dream] why am I still so affected by it?
- I just don't understand this - how can this happen?
- I realized at that instant my body was just a vehicle, a work horse so to speak.
- The experience changed my life, and was profound
- It has made me want to explore and learn as much as I can.
- This experience is as vivid to me today, as it was the night it actually happened. I will always remember it.
While the subjective experience may be very compelling, most skeptics discount the idea that the phenomenon is somehow linked to an actual physical relocation of consciousness. They note that, in the absence of the typical conviction that the experience is real, these experiences would simply be considered dreams; and that lacking hard evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation would be that the experiencer's sense of heightened reality, however powerful, is a subjective one.
In support of this idea, some neurologists point to experiments in the context of treatment of epilepsy involving electrical stimulus of a particular part of the brain, which produce subjective experiences having all of the hallmarks of an OBE, including the sense of enhanced reality and extreme disembodiment. This evidence, as well as similar results involving use of the drug ketamine, support the hypothesis that at least some OBEs are caused by an unusual but natural brain state in which one's body perception and sense of reality are altered.
Skeptics also point to the increasing body of evidence which ties mental functions such as perception and memory to exclusively physical processes which occur in the brain; and note that no known mechanism would account for how these processes could occur at a distance (the mind-body problem).