What are near-death experiences and are they some kind of OBEs?
Much publicity has recently been given to research on near-death experiences (NDEs), experiences of those who survive a close encounter with death. More people now survive close brushes with death. The near-death experience has been defined as the ‘experiential counterpart of the physiological transition to biological death’ [Sab82]: it is the record of conscious experience from the inside rather than the outside, from the point of view of the subject rather the spectator.
Raymond Moody [Moo75, 77] interviewed many people who had been resuscitated after having had accidents and he then put together an idealized version of a typical near-death experience. He emphasized that no one person described the whole of this experience, but each feature was found in many of the stories. Here is his description:
A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.
After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still has a ‘body,’ but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before — a being of light — appears before him. This being asks him a question, non-verbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love, and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives. Later he tries to tell others, but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience affects his life profoundly especially his views about death and its relationship to life.
The parallel between this kind of account and many OBEs is clear. There is the tunnel traveled through as well as the experiences of seeing one’s own body from outside and seeming to have some other kind of body, and the ineffability is familiar. One is tempted to conclude that in death a typical OBE, or astral projection, occurs, and is followed by a transition to another world, with the aid of people who have already made the crossing, and that of higher beings in whose plane one is going to lead the next phase of existence. Although Moody’s work gave a good idea of what dying could be like for some people, it did not begin to answer questions such as how common this type of experience is. After Moody there have been studies by cardiologists Rawlings and Sabom.
The most detailed research has been carried out by Kenneth Ring, a psychologist from Connecticut [Rin79, 80]. From hospitals there he obtained the names of people who had come close to death, or who had been resuscitated from clinical death. Almost half of his sample (48%) reported experiences which were, at least in part, similar to Moody’s description. Of Ring’s subjects, 95 per cent of those asked stated that the experience was not like a dream (the same result appears in Sabom): they stressed that it was too real, being more vivid and more realistic; however some aspects were hard to express, as the experience did not resemble anything that had happened to them before.
One of Ring’s most interesting findings concerned the stages of the experience. He showed that the earlier stages also tended to be reported more frequently. The first stage, peace, was experienced by 60% of his sample, some of whom did not reach any further stages. The next stage, of most interest to us here, was that of ‘body separation,’ in other words, the OBE. Thirty-seven per cent of Ring’s sample reached this stage and what they reported sounds very similar to descriptions of OBEs. Not all the ‘body separations’ were distinct. Many of Ring’s respondents simply described a feeling of being separate or detached from everything that was happening.
Ring tried to find out about two specific aspects of these OBEs. First he asked whether they had another body. The answer seemed to be ‘no’: most were unaware of any other body and answered that they were something like ‘mind only.’ There was a similar lack of descriptions of the ‘silver cord.’ We can see that an OBE of sorts forms an important stage in the near-death experience. After the OBE stage comes ‘entering the darkness’ experienced by nearly a quarter of Ring’s subjects. It was described as ‘a journey into a black vastness without shape or dimension,’ as ‘a void, a nothing’ and as ‘very peaceful blackness.’ For fifteen per cent the next stage was reached, ‘seeing the light.’ The light was sometimes at the end of the tunnel, sometimes glimpsed in the distance but usually it was golden and bright without hurting the eyes. Sometimes the light was associated with a presence of some kind, or a voice telling the person to go back.
Finally there were ten per cent experiencers who seemed to ‘enter the light’ and pass into or just glimpse another world. This was described as a world of great beauty, with glorious colors, with meadows of golden grass, birds singing, or beautiful music. It was at this stage that people were greeted by deceased relatives, and it was from this world that they did not want to come back. A completely different kind of analysis was applied by Noyes and Kletti [Noy72, NK76] to accounts collected from victims of falls, drownings, accidents, serious illnesses, and other life-threatening situations. They emphasized such features as altered time perception and attention, feelings of unreality and loss of emotions, and the sense of detachment. They found that these features occurred more often in people who thought they were about to die than in those who did not. This fitted their interpretation of the experiences as a form of depersonalization (i.e., the loss of the sense of personal identity or the sensation of being without material existence) in the face of a threat to life; that is as a way of escaping or becoming dissociated from the imminent death of the physical body.
Two other aspects have yet to be dealt with. First, there is the absence of any trips to ‘hell.’ Neither Moody nor Ring obtained any accounts of hellish experiences. However, cardiologist Maurice Rawlings [Raw78] has suggested that the reason for there being no such reports is that although patients may recall such hellish experiences immediately afterwards, they tend to forget them with time. In other words, their memories protect them from recalling the unpleasant aspects. According to Rawlings it is only because they have been interviewed too long after the brush with death that all the experiences are reported as pleasant. It does seem to be the ‘good’ side of experiences which makes the greater impact.
Another feature which needs mention is the ‘life review.’ It has often been found that a person close to death may seem to see scenes of his past life pass before him as though on a screen, or in pictures. Ring found that about a quarter of his core-experiencers reported a life review, and that it was more common in accident victims than others.
The general effects of undergoing an NDE are of two kinds: philosophical and ethical. The main philosophical changes are in attitudes towards death and afterlife. Sabom’s figures are extremely interesting in this respect: he asked those who had and those had not had an NDE when unconscious whether there was any change in their views of death and the afterlife. Of the 45 who had not had any conscious experience, 39 were just as afraid of death as before, 5 more afraid and 1 less afraid; while of the 61 with an NDE none were more afraid, 11 just as afraid and 50 less afraid.
The patterns were similar concerning belief in an afterlife: of the non- experiencers, none had any change of attitude; while of the experiencers, 14 found their attitude unchanged and 47 stated that their belief in the afterlife had increased [Sab82]. Ring found a correlation between loss of fear of death and what he called the core experience, broadly that with a positive transcendental element in it. Moody comments that there is remarkable agreement about the ‘lessons’ brought back from NDEs: ‘Almost everyone has stressed the importance in this life of trying to cultivate love for others, a love of a unique and profound kind’ [Moo75]. And he adds that a second characteristic is a realization of the importance of seeking knowledge, of not confining one’s horizon to the material.
A number of reductionist physiological explanations have been advanced to account for NDEs: the two most common are ‘cerebral anoxia’ and ‘depersonalization’. Cerebral anoxia accounts for the experience by saying that it is a hallucination due to an oxygen shortage in the brain. We have seen that such ‘hallucinations’ frequently turn out to correspond to the physical events actually occurring — can the NDE therefore be labelled a hallucination? Perhaps it can, but certainly not as a delusion.
Ring and Moody both point out that patterns of experiences are no different when there is clearly no shortage of oxygen. Noyes starts by pointing out that none of the subjects can really have been dead if they were resuscitated, so that their reported experiences cannot be taken as ‘proof’ of survival of consciousness. Moody never actually states such a position, but rather confines himself to asserting that the experiences have a suggestive value; even if for the subjects themselves the experience is proof.
The common factor underlying all the physiological explanations of the NDE is the attempt to avoid the prima facie interpretation of the experience as an OBE. Sabom concludes that this hypothesis is the best fit with the data, while Ring concludes that ‘there is abundant empirical evidence pointing to the reality of out-of-body experiences; that such experiences conform to the descriptions given by our near-death experiencers; and that there is highly suggestive evidence that death involves the separation of a second body — a double — from the physical body’ [Rin80].
Just as many different interpretations have been presented for all aspects of the near-death experience. The most important of them have been usefully summarised by Grosso [Gro81]. Most people seem to agree that the near-death experience presents remarkable consistency varying little across differences in culture, religion, and cause of the crisis; what is in dispute is why there should be such a consistency. Rawlings steeps all his findings in the language of Christianity, involving heaven and hell and the possibility of being saved. Noyes interprets NDEs in terms of depersonalization; Siegel in terms of hallucinations, and Ring, within a parapsychological-holographic model. But broadly speaking there are two camps.
On the other side are those who see the near-death experience as a sure signpost towards another world and a life after death; on the other, those who have, in various different ways, interpreted the experience as part of life, not death, and as telling us nothing whatsoever about a ‘life after life.’
Is the OBE some kind of mental illness? If the OBE is to be seen as involving psychological processes, rather than paranormal ones, we need to look at what those processes could be.
Let us begin with a psychiatric approach and ask whether the OBE, or anything like it, is found in any mental illness. Noyes and Kletti likened near-death experiences to the phenomenon of depersonalization. Related to depersonalization is derealization, in which the surroundings and environment begin to seem unreal and the sufferer seems to be cut off from reality.
Depersonalization is the more common of the two, and involves feelings that the person’s own body is foreign or does not belong. He may complain that he does not feel emotions even though he appears to express them, and he may suffer anxiety, distortions of time and place, and changes in his body image, and the subject may seem to observe things from a few feet ahead of his body. His conscious ‘I- ness’ is said to be outside his body.
The patients characterize their imagery as pale and colorless, and some complain that they have altogether lost the power of imagination. This description does not sound like that of someone who has had an OBE or a NDE. There are distortions of the environment and alterations in imagery in OBE and NDE experiences, but it seems that imagery typically becomes more bright and vivid, colorful and detailed, rather than pale and colorless. There are changes in the emotions — but rather than a perishing of love and hate, many OBEers report deep love and joy and positive emotions.
The phenomena of derealization and depersonalization do not in the least help us to understand. Any small similarities are outweighed by overwhelming differences.
One syndrome specifically involving doubles is the unusual ‘Capgras syndrome.’ A person suffering from this illusion may believe that a friend or relative has been replaced by an exact double. Since this double is like the real person in every discernible way, nothing that the ‘real person’ says or does will convince the patient otherwise. In this way the patient can avoid the guilt he feels at any malicious or negative feelings towards a loved one. From even this very brief description it is obvious that this illusion bears no resemblance to the OBE.
More relevant may be the kinds of double seen in autoscopy, literally ‘seeing oneself.’ Although the OBE is rarely distinguished from autoscopy in the psychiatric literature, other distinctions are made instead. The main distinction is that OBE involves feeling of being outside the body while autoscopy usually consist of seeing a double. Some people see the whole of their body as a double; some see only parts, perhaps only the face. There is an internal form in which the subject can see his internal organs; and a cenesthetic form in which he does not see, but only feels the presence of his double. There is even a negative form in which the subject cannot see himself even when he tries to look into a mirror.
An entirely different way of looking at autoscopy is through the physical problems with which it is sometimes associated. One of these is migraine, the most obvious symptom of which is the debilitating headache. During, before or after the pain some migraine suffers apparently experience autoscopy.
In any case, a number of examples of people who have suffered both migraine and a simultaneous experience of either autoscopy or an OBE, does not prove any particular kind of connection between the two.
Are people who have greater imagery skills more likely to have OBEs?
OBEs might be expected to be more frequently experienced by people with the most highly developed skills of conceiving mental images if the experience is one constructed entirely from the imagination. Irwin [Irw80, 81b] was interested in whether OBEers differ from other people in terms of certain cognitive skills or ways of thinking, including imagery.
He found 21 OBEers and to these he gave the ‘Ways of thinking questionnaire’ (WOT), the ‘Differential personality questionnaire’ (DPQ) and the ‘Vividness of visual imagery questionnaire’ (VVIQ). For each he compared the scores of the OBEers with those expected from studies of larger groups of the population.
The imagery questionnaire a self-rated measure of vividness of just visual imagery.
The scores of these few OBEers were unexpectedly found to be lower than normal, and significantly so. It seems that they had less, not more, vivid imagery than the average.
The next test, the WOT, aims to test the verbalizer-visualizer dimension of cognitive style. Irwin’s OBEers obtained scores no different from the average. So there was no evidence that OBEers are either specially likely to use visualization or verbalization.
Although not directly relevant to the subject of imagery, the results of the DPQ were interesting. One of the various dimensions of cognitive style which it measures is ‘Absorption.’ This relates to a person’s capacity to become absorbed in his experience. For example, someone who easily becomes immersed in nature, art or a good book or film or a computer game, to the exclusion of the outside world, would be one who scored highly on the scale of ‘Absorption.’ Irwin expected OBEers to be higher on this measure and that is what he found. His OBEers seemed to be better than average at becoming involved in their experiences.
Are Out Of Body Experiences some kind of hallucination?
There is no single accepted definition of hallucinations and it is not clear just how they relate to sensory perception, illusion, dreams and imagination. However, let us define an hallucination as an apparent perception of something not physically present, and add that it is not necessary for the hallucination to be thought ‘real’ to count.
Into this category come a wide range of experiences occurring in people, not suffering from any mental or psychiatric disturbance. Visual imagery may occur just before going to sleep (hypnagogic), on first waking up (hypnopompic) or they may be induced by drugs, sensory deprivation, sleeplessness, or severe stress. They may take many forms, from simple shapes to complex scenes. Although it is possible to have an hallucination involving almost any kind of imagery, it has long been known that there are remarkable similarities between the hallucinations of different people, under different circumstances.
Hallucinations were first classified during the last century during a period when many artists and writers experimented with hashish and opium as an aid to experiencing them. In 1926 Kluver began a series of investigations into the effects of mescaline and described four constant types. These were first the grating, lattice or chessboard, second the cobweb type, third the tunnel, cone or vessel, and fourth the spiral. As well as being constant features of mescaline intoxication in different people, Kluver found that these forms appeared in hallucinations induced by a wide variety of conditions.
In the 1960s, when many psychedelic drugs began to be extensively used for recreational purposes, research into their effects proliferated. Leary and others tried to develop methods by which intoxicated subjects could describe what was happening to them. Eventually Leary and Lindsley developed the ‘experiental typewriter’ with twenty keys representing different subjective states. Subjects were trained to use it but the relatively high doses of drugs used interfered with their ability to press the keys and so a better method was needed.
A decade later Siegel gave subjects marijuana, or THC, and asked them simply to report on what they saw. Even with untrained subjects he found remarkable consistencies in the hallucinations. In the early stages simple geometric forms predominated. There was often a bright light in the center of the field of vision which obscured central details but allowed images at the edges to be seen more clearly, and the location of this light created a tunnel-like perspective.
Often the images seemed to pulsate and moved towards or away from the light in the center of the tunnel. At a later stage, the geometric forms were replaced by complex imagery including recognizable scenes with people and objects, sometimes with small animals or caricatures of people. Even in this stage there was much consistency, with images from memory playing a large part.
On the basis of this work Siegel constructed a list of eight forms, eight colors, and eight patterns of movement, and trained subjects to use them when given a variety of drugs (or a placebo) in controlled environment. With amphetamines and barbiturates the forms reported were mostly black and white forms moving aimlessly about, but with THC, psilocybin, LSD and mescaline the forms became more organized as the experience progressed. After 30 minutes there were more lattice and tunnel forms, and the colors shifted from blue to red, orange to yellow. Movement became more organized with explosive and rotational patterns. After 90 – 120 minutes most forms were lattice-tunnels; after that complex imagery began to appear with childhood memories and scenes, emotional memories and some fantastic scenes. But even these scenes often appeared in a lattice-tunnel framework.
At the peak of the hallucinatory experience, subjects sometimes said that they had become part of the imagery. They stopped using similes and spoke of the images as real.
Highly creative images were reported and the changes were very rapid. According to Siegel [Sie77] at this stage ‘The subjects reported feeling dissociated from their bodies.’ The parallels between the drug-induced hallucinations and the typical spontaneous OBE should be obvious. Not only did some of the subjects in Siegel’s experiments actually report OBEs, but there were the familiar tunnels and the bright lights so often associated with near-death experiences. There was also the ‘realness’ of everything seen; and the same drugs which elicited the hallucinations are those which are supposed to be conducive to OBEs.
There have been many suggestions as to why the tunnel form should be so common. It has sometimes been compared to the phenomenon of ‘tunnel vision’ in which the visual field is greatly narrowed, but usually in OBEs and hallucinations the apparent visual field is very wide; it is just formed like a tunnel. A more plausible alternative depends on the way in which retinal space is mapped on cortical space. If a straight line in the visual cortex of the brain represents a circular pattern on the retina then stimulation in a straight line occurring in states of cortical excitation could produce a sensation of concentric rings, or a tunnel form. This type of argument is important in understanding the visual illusions of migraine, in which excitations spread across parts of the cortex.
Another reasonable speculation is that the tunnel has something to do with constancy mechanisms. As objects move about, or we move relative to them, their projection on the retina changes shape and size. We have constancy mechanisms which compensate for this effect. For very large objects, distortions are necessarily a result of perspective, and yet we see buildings as having straight wall and roofs. If this mechanism acted inappropriately on internally generated spontaneous signals, it might produce a tunnel-like perspective, and any hallucinatory forms would also be seen against this distorted background. In drug-induced hallucinations there may come a point at which the subject becomes part of the imagery and it seems quite real to him, even though it comes from his memory.
The comparison with OBEs is interesting because one of the most consistent features of spontaneous OBEs is that the experiencers claim ‘it all seemed so real.’ If it were a kind of hallucination similar to these drug-induced ones then it would seem real. Put together the information from the subject’s cognitive map in memory, and an hallucinatory state in which information from memory is experienced as though it were perceived, and you have a good many of the ingredients for a classical OBE.
But what of the differences between hallucinations and OBEs? You may point to the state of consciousness associated with the two and argue that OBEs often occur when the person claims to be wide awake, and thinking perfectly normally. But so can hallucinations. With certain drugs consciousness and thinking seem to be clearer than ever before, just as they often do in an OBE. An important difference is that in the OBE, the objects of perception are organized consistently as though they do constitute a stable, physical world. But such is not always the case; there are many cases which involve experiences beyond anything to be seen in the physical world.
Consideration of imagery and hallucinations might provide some sort of framework for understanding the OBE. It would be seen as just one form of a range of hallucinatory experiences. But (and this is a big but) if the OBE is basically an hallucination and nothing actually leaves the body, then paranormal events ought not necessarily to be associated with it. People ought not to be able to see distant unknown places or influence objects while ‘out of the body’; yet there are many claims to such an effect.