Materialistic Accounts of the OBE
Copyright © 2012 by Frederick Aardema
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The OBE as a Lucid Dream
Materialistic accounts provide a more sobering account of the OBE than those proposed by mystical and popular contemporary approaches. For example, one of the more well-known scientific theories proposed by the neurophysiologist Stephen LaBerge claims that the OBE is a lucid dream.1,2,3 In other words, you are not really out of body during the experience. Rather, everything you perceive during an OBE is no more than a dream environment-a replica recreated from your memory and your own expectations. It holds no objective reality whatsoever.
The term lucid dream originates from Frederik Van Eeden, who defined it as a dream during which mental clarity is very similar to that of waking consciousness.4 Stephen LaBerge expanded on these observations by differentiating between two forms of lucid dreaming according to the particular way each is induced. The first type of lucid dreaming he refers to as a Dream-Induced Lucid Dream (DILD). During a DILD, you usually notice some kind of oddity or impossible event in the dream, which reminds you of the fact that you are dreaming. As a result, you will be completely awake and alert inside of the dream, seemingly located elsewhere than in your physical body, much like during an OBE.
Moreover, it is also claimed that lucid dreaming can occur straight from the waking state, or what is also referred to as a Wake-Induced Lucid Dream (WILD). During a WILD, you actually begin to dream straight from the waking state while remaining lucid in the process. You may even experience floating sensations, feeling yourself separating from the physical body in the process, eventually moving around in your own bedroom-the dream environment. Not surprisingly, a WILD is almost impossible to differentiate from the OBE.
One of the arguments seemingly in favor of the "dream hypothesis" is that those who experience OBEs tend to experience the more typical DILD as well.5,6 For example, LaBerge reports that only 8% of his experiences were wake-induced, while 92% resulted from becoming lucid within a dream. Likewise, Donald DeGracia reports that 43% of his experiences were wake-induced, while 57% were induced from within a dream. A count of my own journal in one particularly active year (72 in total) showed 83% of my experiences to be wake-induced, while 17% were dream-induced experiences. So while there appears to be a great deal of variance in these numbers between individuals, they do indicate that the OBE and lucid dreams tend to co-occur.
Another argument is that many people are unable to distinguish between lucid dreams and OBE. The environments encountered in either state can be virtually identical, and a high level of mental clarity may characterize both. It is also not uncommon to lose lucidity during an OBE, in which case the experience will closely resemble the typical non-lucid dream. Or alternatively, an OBE can be initiated from within the dreaming state, which may even include leaving the dream body in yet another nonphysical body.7
So are the OBE and lucid dreaming entirely identical experiences? Is the person always dreaming during an OBE? Quite frankly, as convincing as the proposition might be, especially given the phenomenological similarities, the empirical evidence simply does not support it.
Firstly, it is well known that the OBE occurs in wide variety of circumstances completely unrelated to sleep, such as physical trauma, extreme sports, stress, and drug use.8 It seems difficult to claim that all these experiences involve dreaming. Secondly, even if the OBE occurs under circumstances related to sleep, the available psychophysiological data goes against the idea that the person is dreaming during an OBE.
In an overview, Susan Blackmore discusses several cases of adepts who subjected themselves to psychophysiological measurements while in the out-of-body state.9 In all of these cases, the OBE did not occur during REM sleep, as measured with an electroencephalograph (EEG), an objective indicator of dreaming. The EEG revealed a variety of complex patterns, but nothing that could easily be classified as dreaming. In fact, in some instances, the EEG even showed an alert and awake mind.10 Scott Rogo concludes: "…while LaBerge is correct in pointing out the many similarities between OBEs and lucid dreaming, objective EEG criteria suggest that these resemblances are purely superficial or artifactual."11
The finding that the OBE is not associated with a distinct psychophysiological profile does not bode well for the hypothesis that the OBE is a lucid dream. Of course, one could make the point that not all dreams occur in REM sleep. However, this widens the scope of dreaming to such an extent that the "dreaming hypothesis" no longer has any explanatory power. In fact, for the argument to remain coherent, any definition of dreaming would have to include waking life as well.
Let me also reiterate that the OBE is first and foremost an experience. It is defined as an experience in which one finds oneself in a location that is incongruent with the location of the physical body. Dreams fall within the scope of that definition. So rather than designating OBEs as dreams, it is far more accurate to refer to dreams as a form of OBE.
This might upset those who wish to make a clearer distinction between dreams and OBEs, as well as those who are unwilling to consider dreams as OBEs, but it is the only coherent conceptualization of the issue. Keep in mind that determining whether you are really out of body during any of these experiences, dreams or otherwise, is a separate consideration.
The notion that dreams are a form of OBE also provides a coherent explanation for the fact that the two experiences can be very similar. Dreaming would simply represent one of many modes of consciousness that a person may adopt in the out-of-body state. To some extent, this has already been recognized in some of the popular out-of-body literature. For example, Robert Monroe designates a specific area of consciousness where dreams occur in the out-of-body state.12 Likewise, the projector Robert Bruce considers lucid dreams to be a valid form of OBE.13
The OBE as an Illusion
Like Stephen LaBerge, others have attempted to link the OBE with brain activity, but without direct reference to dreaming. For example, Michael Persinger found that magnetic stimulation applied to the right temporal lobe of the brain might produce religious and out-of-body-like sensations.14 In a similar study, Olaf Blanke and colleagues found that stimulating certain parts of the brain led to an OBE in an epilepsy patient.15 These included falling sensations, sensations of sinking into the bed, and viewing oneself from above, separate from the physical body.
These experiences are noteworthy, and they strongly suggest an association between brain activity and the OBE. However, the main problem with many neurophysiological accounts is that they also often take the default position that consciousness is a product of the brain. Therefore, these studies often conclude that the OBE cannot be anything other than an illusion or hallucination. But should we assume that consciousness is produced by the brain, and therefore fixated in the body?
Clearly, the brain is related to out-of-body activity in some way. This is recognized by almost everyone. Why else would many OBE enthusiasts use all manner of supplements and brainwave entrainment technology to induce the experience? What is a point of contention, however, is the appropriateness of a neurobiological reductionist's approach to the OBE, including premature assumptions about consciousness being located in the body.
For example, one could interpret the manipulations carried out in various neurophysiological experiments as a disturbance of regular brain activity, as opposed to producing any particular type of experience. In fact, the changes in brain activity observed during these experiments may very well represent an interference with those brain functions that normally keep us positioned and fixated in three-dimensional space. Put in those terms, the brain primarily acts as a restraining influence on consciousness, and without it, you do not cease to be, but instead become more of what you truly are - a mobile, free-floating consciousness.
1. LaBerge, S. (1985). Lucid dreaming. New York: Ballantine.
2. LaBerge, S. & DeGracia, D.J. (2000). Varieties of lucid dreaming experience. In R.G. Kunzendorf & B. Wallace (Eds.), Individual Differences in Conscious Experience. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
3. Levitan, L. & LaBerge, S. (1991). Other worlds: out-of-body experiences and lucid Dreams. Nightlight, 3, 1-5, 1991.
4. Van Eeden, F. (1913). A study of dreams. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 26, 431-461.
5. Blackmore, S. (1984). A postal survey of OBEs and other experiences. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 52, 227-244.
6. LaBerge, S. & DeGracia, D.J. (2000). Varieties of lucid dreaming experience. In R.G. Kunzendorf & B. Wallace (Eds.), Individual Differences in Conscious Experience. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
7. Metzinger, T. (2005). Out of body experiences as the origin of the concept of a soul. Mind and Matter, 3, 57-84.
8. Blackmore, S. J. (1982, 1992). Beyond the body: An investigation of out of body experiences. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, p. 121-132
8. Hartwell, J., Janis, J., & Harary, B. (1975). A study of the physiological variables associated with out-of-body experiences. In Morris, J. D., Roll, W. G. and Morris, R. L. (Eds.), Research in Parapsychology 1974. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.
9. Rogo, D.S. (1985). Out-of-body experiences as lucid dreams: A critique. Lucidity Letter, 4, 43-47.
11. Monroe. R.A. (1985). Far journeys. New York, Doubleday, p. 239.
12. Bruce, R. (1999). Astral dynamics: A new approach to out-of-body experience. Charlottesville, Hampton Roads Publishing Company Inc.
14. Persinger, M.M. (2001). The neuropsychiatry of paranormal experiences. Neuropsychiatric Practice and Opinion, 13, 521-522.
15. Blanke, O., Ortigue, S., Landis, T., & Seeck, M. (2002). Stimulating illusory own body perceptions. Nature, 419, 269-270.