Out of Body Experiences and the Astral Hypothesis

May 2003
by Robert Novella

Out-of-body experiences are interpreted by many believers as profound and telling events. These experiences are thought to provide compelling evidence or at least powerful testimony that our personalities and memories are not bound up in the matter of our brains but in an ethereal or astral substrate. Once freed, we are told, this body can temporarily take flight, travel the world and come back to reintegrate with its physical counterpart. This belief is held the world over, but is it a tenable interpretation of these experiences?

An out-of-body experience (OBE) is a perception that one’s self or consciousness has somehow left the physical body, which can then view it and the world from a perspective that is outside its normal confines. The duration of this experience is usually brief, typically lasting only seconds although they have been known to endure for minutes or even hours. The occurrence of this phenomenon is more common than is generally known. In one of the most comprehensive such surveys ever done, researcher John Palmer showed that 14% of the townspeople of Charlottesville, Virginia have had at least one OBE (Palmer ’79).

The events during and preceding OBEs are highly variable, but many common elements have been identified. The latter includes a sense of energy, feeling vibrations, snapping and cracking sensations in the head and strange loud noises. The OBE itself often involves not only a view of one’s body but also a disembodied observation of the world itself. Many describe traveling the world in this form and even sharing adventures and sexual escapades with other similar beings. The world itself has been described dichotomously as somewhat odd or unusual and by others as indistinguishable from reality. The clarity of this external environment has likewise been described as either vibrant and detailed, or transparent and lacking in detail. Somewhat less frequent occurrences, yet important to this discussion, include body paralysis and the existence of a silvery cord anchored between the physical body and the non-physical ethereal body.

Theosophy

The primary filter through which OBEs are almost universally (and often unknowingly) interpreted is a philosophy/religion/science called theosophy. Whenever you pepper an OBE discussion with words like “astral body” and “silver cord” you are talking theosophically. The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in New York by Russian noblewoman Helena Petrovna Blavatsky1 (1831–1891). The goal of this society was “…to reconcile all religions, sects and nations under a common system of ethics, based on eternal verities” (Blavatsky 1889). Helena, usually referred to as Madame Blavatsky, was obviously very well-read and charismatic and was considered by her followers to be a saint and a genius. Her most vociferous critics, however, thought her to be “one of most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history” (Carroll ’02). She apparently was not above using trickery to convince her flock that she had paranormal powers. This includes faking the materialization of a teacup and saucer and mysterious messages from her psychic teachers.

Madame Blavatsky traveled extensively throughout India and elsewhere and was deeply inspired by Hinduism, her Tibetan teachers, and the “channeled” messages from ascended masters or mahatmas. These ethereal mahatmas are believed to have almost god-like psychic abilities, but they are not seen as divine, just more “evolved” than normal people are. She believed that the “knowledge” these beings imparted to her was some sort of ancient and divine wisdom; in fact theosophy means “divine wisdom.” The result was, among much else, the conception that people do not simply consist of one mind and body but that there are many different coexisting layers of being. Our physical bodies and minds represent the grossest and least subtle manifestation. Kind of like a new-age, Russian nested doll.

Theosophists believe we are comprised of a grand total of seven bodies, which correspond to the seven great “planes of reality.” These bodies and planes are called the Physical, Astral, Mental, Buddhic, Nirvanic, plus two others that are apparently so far beyond our ken that they are rarely discussed. Humans therefore are ultimately composed of nested or concentric bodies, each one being distinct yet still representing us as a denizen of these seven planes. As the bodies progress inward (or is it downward?) from the physical to the astral and then mental etc, they become less dense and increasingly subtle and fine. Further, each of these bodies can act as “vehicles of consciousness”, separating from the others and journeying through its plane. The mind and body that we all know and love are merely vehicles of consciousness for the lowly and unrefined physical plane.

Astral Interpretations

The astral body and astral plane are of primary interest to us in an OBE context because most people, borrowing from theosophy, interpret OBEs as projections of the astral body from the physical body. These two ideas have become so intertwined that they frequently appear together, seemingly taking each other for granted. This astral doppelganger is supposed to look just like us even down to the hairstyle and underwear. It does have some special qualities however. (It is astral after all, isn’t it?) This includes claims that the astral body is the primary locus of human desires, feelings, and passions. It also has an aura, which has been described as an energy pattern caused by the “vibrations” of the astral body. (Hefner ’02) (Where would “New Age” concepts be without words like “energy” and “vibrations”?) The astral body also has the ability to pass through walls and travel at incredible speed, so fast in fact that you would find your astral body in any location moments after merely thinking about it. Finally we have the silver cord. This cord, said to always connect an astral body to a physical body, is yet another theosophical contribution to the OBE phenomenon. Frequently described as silver in color, the astral cord is said to be very elastic and very strong. It is further held that should the cord break, death would invariably ensue2.

The concept that all humans have a double that can separate from us before death was not new when Blavatsky conceived of the astral body. This notion goes at least as far back as the ancient Greeks. In Plato’s dialogue “Phaedrus” he wrote: “…we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell.” (Plato, 360BC). He believed that our inner spirit body was a prisoner of our gross physical body and if released would be able to see things more clearly and commune with the dead. The Egyptians, as well, believed that we all have an invisible twin which they called a ka. They believed that each person’s ka is created when his or her physical body is created and that it could also move around independently at will. The food and earthly items left in tombs were specifically for the ka to use. The Tibetan book of the dead discusses a Bardo-body which is an exact duplicate of us, made of matter but in an invisible and ethereal state. This body can pass through normal matter and travel instantly to its desired location. Body doubles also inhabit the popular mythology of many cultures throughout the world today. In Norway, many stories are told of vardogers or doubles who often arrive at a traveler’s destination before the traveler does. In Scotland, the taslach, serves a similar purpose, often knocking on a door and being let in well before the original arrives. You may have heard of the English fetch or the German doppelganger, which has long since insinuated itself in the English language as a common term for double or duplicate.

The Plane, The Plane

The plane that the astral body travels through during an OBE is a little hard to pin down. For some experiences the astral plane hypothesis clearly does not apply. The astral body is described as simply moving through our physical plane like an apparition observing things. Occasionally there are claims of physical matter being affected by astral “matter,” such as objects being moved or people being communicated with. If an astral body is somehow manipulating physical objects, it seems to me that it would need to actually be in the physical plane to do so. For many other OBE cases there is the explicit belief that the environment being traversed is not physical but absolutely astral. This place is commonly perceived as indistinguishable from our plane because everything in it is a perfect astral duplicate down to the dust under our beds. This belief has become more common primarily because it removes the problem of astral stuff interacting with material stuff. Still there are some who believe that the astral plane is quite different. While researching this article, I was amazed at how intricate and fleshed-out (so to speak) believers have made the astral plane with many separate “vibratory” levels, their own communities, concert halls, museums, flowers, and mountains all more splendid and beautiful than anything our paltry plane of existence offers (Marc ’95).

In a sense theosophy has been successful in interpreting out-of-body experiences because its concepts are so pervasive. I suspect that many average people, if asked about OBEs, would mention astral projection and silver cords or at least be able to describe them. This influence has also affected many researchers of OBEs whose subjects have found many theosophical ideas and terms, like astral projection, useful in describing their experiences. I, however, do not like this interpretation. OBEs by themselves seem like fairly bizarre phenomena. Explaining or interpreting them with even more bizarre and unverified theories is a classic pseudoscientific maneuver that might sound cool, but it is not part of the scientific process.

Astral Shmastral

So what’s wrong with the astral interpretation or hypothesis? One key problem is the fact that many accounts of OBEs are simply not amenable to some of the key tenets of theosophy. OBE researcher Celia Green has amassed a number of cases in which there is no mention of any external body (astral or otherwise). Instead there is mention of points of light, blobs, or nothing perceptible at all. Nor is there a significant reference to a silver cord (Green ’68). Celia’s very thorough and widely known case studies surprisingly showed that only 20% of her subjects reported an astral-like body or double. Further, only 3.5 percent reported a visible connection like an astral cord (Blackmore ’82).

There are, of course, workarounds for these problems. Astral vision could be clouded which prevents one from noticing an astral body. Perhaps the silver cord was stretched so spider-web thin that it was imperceptible or just unnoticed. If you could not make your astral-self visible to a friend then there obviously wasn’t enough etheric matter to do so. This leads to another problem with the astral hypothesis; it is far too malleable and adaptable. If a theory can be deformed without limit to fit around any set of observations then it is just good science to regard the theory as weak and probably untenable. Why even test a theory when it can adapt to any possible experimental outcome? When a theory becomes increasingly complex to account for troublesome data a red flag should be raised indicating that it’s time for Occam’s Razor to draw some blood.

Yet another problem with the “astral body” interpretation of OBEs lies in the perception of light emanating from the material plane. Contravening well-understood principles of optics and biology, we are to believe that a floating, transparent, undetectable eye is intercepting light and transmitting it to our material brain. The first requirement for light perception is a medium that focuses the light, such as a lens. This needs to be a different density than the surrounding air, just like the lenses of our eyes. These astral eye lenses would then cause unusual distortions in the air not unlike the hazy shimmering seen above hot objects or even the twinkling of stars. I have been looking, but I’ve not yet read about nor come across any unexplained, moving, eye-shaped distortions. The bottom line is that a substance not made of matter (or anything else that science could recognize) could not interact with the material world. Since vision, by definition, needs such an interaction, sight would not be possible (nor, for that matter, would any of the other senses).

I believe that it is this “interaction problem” that has caused theosophists to postulate that the astral body is interacting only with the astral plane and all its astral facsimiles and not the physical plane at all. This is specious, however, since the astral body would still need to eventually interact with the physical body, if at least to communicate with it. Perhaps the astral “reality” does, after all, have some physical properties that would permit some type of limited interaction between the two planes. Alas, all attempts to reveal this since the last century have turned up nothing. Experimenters have tried to take pictures of astral bodies and even weigh them, all to no avail. They have set up sophisticated sensors sensitive to infrared and UV radiation. They have even used magnetometers and thermistors to ensnare them. In all cases any trace of astral bodies or objects failed to materialize (Morris et al. ’78).

Lucid Dreams

The primary problem with the astral interpretation of Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs) is twofold. Too many accounts are not easily seen through an astral lens, i.e. there was no perceptible astral body or silver cord. More damning is the interaction problem in which a non-material world is said to communicate or otherwise interact with our material world. There is, however, another immaterial and fantastic world that we all interact with on a nightly basis, the world of dreams. It might seem absurd to propose that people are mistaking a dream for a realistic appearing OBE phenomenon but there is a very unusual and relatively unknown type of dream that was once considered as supernatural as OBEs themselves; this is a lucid dream.

Lucid dreams are not dreams that are logical, consistent, and make sense like our waking lives (to the extent that they do). They are not like normal dreams in which the experient is lost in a fugue and uncharacteristically unfazed by the bizarre happenings occurring around him or her. During lucid dreams, the dreamer, by definition, realizes that the environment and experiences around him are constructs created entirely by his mind. He realizes that he is currently in bed asleep and all the people around him are not separate individuals but creations of his sleeping brain. The lucid dreamer has, in effect, woken up while still asleep.

This might sound like a bizarre and suspect phenomenon but it is recognized as real by the mainstream psychological and dream research communities. I have, in fact, experienced many lucid dreams myself and I can attest to their intriguing characteristics. My comments and conclusions are not, however, derived from my experiences but from controlled experiments that have been conducted for years in many labs around of the world.

Historical Lucidity

The term “Lucid Dreaming” was coined in 1913 by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden. The concept itself, I suspect, goes back millennia; probably as long as we’ve had a word for “dream”. The first recorded account however, is from the 4th century B.C.. In his “On Dreams” Aristotle wrote: “When one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream.” (Aristotle)

In 415 AD St. Augustine provided the Western world with its first written account of a lucid dream. This was in the form of a letter describing the dream of Gennadius, a physician from Carthage. These sparse and unenlightening writings over the centuries are in stark contrast to the accounts written by Tibetan Monks between seven and eight hundred AD. They perfected a form of yoga that allowed them to maintain full consciousness as they entered a dream state. This allowed them to experience lucid dreams of the highest order, controlling their dreams with exquisite finesse. More importantly, this ability engendered an understanding of the true nature of the dream world that was centuries beyond other cultures. They were the first to realize that dreams were purely a product of the mind.

Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas made a passing reference to Aristotle’s acknowledgement of a special type of dream in which the senses were relatively undiminished. Ideas such as this, however, in medieval Europe were frowned upon. This was due to the persistent and pernicious belief that dreams were caused by external agencies such as demons or other supernatural entities. This was about to change however. During the nineteenth century it finally dawned on the western world that dreams were products of the mind and not the bowels of the underworld. This was the first crucial step required if dreams were to be approached in a scientific manner by psychologists and physiologists.

One of the early pioneers of esoteric dream research was professor of Chinese literature and language Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys. A meticulous and dedicated researcher, he documented twenty years of his dreams in his 1867 book “Dreams and How to Guide Them”. In this book he describes how he sequentially learned to improve his dream recall, then how to “awaken” in his dreams, and finally how to exert limited control over them. This was a key demonstration that would influence researchers in the future that it was possible to learn how to have a lucid dream.

More notable believers during this period include Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Unfortunately both only made passing references to lucid dreaming for although dream research was finally on a more scientific footing, there was still much skepticism towards the concept of lucid dreams. In “The Understanding of Dreams” Nietzsche is quoted as saying, “…And perhaps many a one will, like myself, recollect having sometimes called out cheeringly and not without success amid the dangers and terrors of dream life: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on” (DeBecker). Freud was slightly more direct in the second edition of “The Interpretation of Dreams” when he stated:

“… there are some people who are quite clearly aware during the night that they are asleep and dreaming and who thus seem to possess the faculty of consciously directing their dreams. If, for instance, a dreamer of this kind is dissatisfied with the turn taken by a dream, he can break it off without waking up and start it again in another direction—just as a popular dramatist may under pressure give his play a happier ending.” (Freud 1900)

The first serious research into lucid dreaming had to wait until 1913 when Frederik van Eeden coined the term and presented a paper to the Society for Psychical Research. In it he described 352 of his lucid dreams which he collected from 1898 to 1912. He states:

“In these lucid dreams, the re-integration of the psychic functions is so complete that the sleeper reaches a state of perfect awareness and is able to direct his attention, and to attempt different acts of free volition. Yet the sleep, as I am able confidently to state, is undisturbed, deep, and refreshing.” (van Eeden 1913)

The Skeptics

Over the ensuing decades, other researchers began seriously studying lucid dreams but the attitude of the scientific community was skeptical to say the least. They seemed to have a knee-jerk philosophical objection to the very concept of lucid dreaming. To most it was seen as nothing more than daydreaming. Part of this reticence was due to the fact that the parapsychological community was interested in this phenomenon. Studying lucid dreaming was seen as tainted due to its association with ghosts, esp, and flying saucers. Examples of this skepticism were related by psychologists Alfred Maury and Havelock Ellis in the 1900s. Maury was fond of saying that, “these dreams could not be dreams”. The more widely known Ellis stated that “ I do not believe that such a thing is really possible, though is has been borne witness to by many philosophers and others from Aristotle…onwards.”

Even in the late seventies skepticism was the order of the day for mainstream dream researchers. To explain what it was that lucid dreamers were experiencing, many researchers’ fall back position was a French paper published in 1973. It was noticed by the paper’s authors that many people with sleep disorders would experience brief awakenings during REM sleep. It was during these brief moments between sleep and full wakefulness that these experiences must have been happening. These “micro-awakenings”, as they were termed, were thus offered as a possible physiological explanation for lucid dreams.

On the surface, this skepticism might seem unwarranted but it’s important to consider that, at this time, all evidence for lucid dreaming was anecdotal. Science does not and should not advance solely on the basis of someone’s word. The potential for distortion and error are just too high. Even in 1975, when lucid researcher and author Patricia Garfield showed unrivaled success with increasing lucid dream frequency and selecting dream topics, the reaction was mixed. Her presentation to the influential APSS (The Association for the Psychophysiological Study of Sleep) generated excitement and interest but did little to assuage the skepticism of most of the members.

LaBerge and Lucidity

It was at this point that dream researcher Stephen LaBerge entered the picture. Since he was five years old he has had lucid dreams and an abiding interest in dreams in general. Stephen realized that communication directly from the dream world was the missing ingredient if he was to persuade the skeptical scientists. In this he was inspired by researcher Charles Tart who first suggested it. This is as hard as it sounds especially since to be dreaming, one is, by definition, paralyzed.

Evolution instilled an important safeguard in our sleeping brains. Every time we are in REM sleep and we are dreaming, a condition called REM Atonia takes hold, paralyzing all our muscles except our eyes and the muscles responsible for circulation and respiration. If this weren’t the case, we’d all act out our dreams, which could be a problem if we were dreaming about flying, running or even just walking. I seem to remember an article about a cat that had its REM Atonia turned off, so to speak. This cat, while asleep, would stalk around and pounce on unseen animals; apparently he was dreaming about catching his next meal.

Since eye muscles were the only voluntary muscles that were not paralyzed, LaBerge realized that they had to be the key of communication from the lucid dream state. It had been shown in previous studies that there was a direct correspondence between the movement of eyes and the direction of ones dream gaze. The canonical example is from a dream research volunteer whose sleeping eyes were consistently tracking back and fourth horizontally for an extended period of time. When awakened he mentioned that he was dreaming of watching a Ping-Pong match.

LaBerge realized that a specific pattern of eye movements could be initiated during a lucid dream and recorded by a polygraph. He tried the first part at home and during his next lucid dream he successfully produced a specific pattern of eye movements. This was the first time a communiqué was sent from the dream-world to the waking world. Unfortunately no one was there to intercept it.

He had to prove this in a way the skeptics could not ignore. In September of 1977 he applied to Stanford University for his Ph.D. study of lucid dreams. In the fall of that year he was in his dream lab and ready to dream. The following describes his second attempt in the dream lab on the lucky day of Friday the 13th, January 1978:

“…after seven and a half hours in bed had my first lucid dream in the lab. A moment before, I had been dreaming—but then I suddenly realized that I must be asleep because I couldn’t see, feel, or hear anything. I recalled with delight that I was sleeping in the laboratory. The image of what seemed to be the instruction booklet for a vacuum cleaner or some such appliance floated by. It struck me as mere flotsam on the stream of consciousness, but as I focused on it and tried to read the writing, the image gradually stabilized and I had the sensation of opening my (dream) eyes. Then my hands appeared, with the rest of my dream body, and I was looking at the booklet in bed. My dream room was a reasonably good copy of the room in which I was actually asleep. Since I now had a dream body I decided to do the eye movements that we had agreed upon as a signal. I moved my finger in a vertical line in front of me, following it with my eyes. But I had become very excited over being able to do this at last, and the thought disrupted my dream so that it faded a few seconds later.” (LaBerge 1986)

Finally someone had produced objective evidence that a lucid dream has taken place during REM sleep.

Evidence such as this was still not the panacea that LaBerge had hoped for. He tried to submit his research to the journals of Science and Nature but was rebuffed on multiple occasions. He was able to get printed in the less prestigious journal “Perceptual and Motor Skills”. By the time that June 1981 had arrived however, Dr. LaBerge had compiled more detailed and copious results from many lucid dreams and dreamers in his lab. During the annual APSS meeting that year he submitted four papers on lucid dreaming and the point had finally been reached when his conclusions were undeniable. Even the most diehard skeptics could no longer deny that lucid dreams were a bone fide phenomenon.

Stay tuned for part three of this article in which I discuss why lucid dreams are a better interpretation of Out of Body Experiences than the Astral hypothesis.

Notes:
Here’s an interesting aside; it has been purported that one of Blavatsky’s successors, Alice Bailey, coined the now ubiquitous term “New Age” (Kelly ’90).

If you’ve ever wondered why people believe that one should never awaken a sleepwalker, this might be the reason.

In 1980 Dr. LaBerge discovered that a Dr. Keith Hearne of Liverpool England, had done similar experiments before LaBerge performed his. Hearne, however, kept his research secret and had no effect on the mainstream acceptance lucid dreaming.

References:

1) Morris, R.L.,Harary, S.B., Janis, J., Hartwell, J. and Roll, W.G. ‘Studies of Communication During Out-of-Body Experiences’ (Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1978, 72, pp. 1-22).
2) H.P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, Theosophical University Press, 1889
3) Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptics Dictionary: Theosophy, 2002, http://skepdic.com/theosoph.html
4) Plato, Phaedrus, 360 BC, translated by Benjamin Jowett
5) Green, C. E. Out-of-the-Body Experiences (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1968) [Gre68b] —. Lucid Dreams (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1968)
6) Blackmore, S. J. Beyond the Body: an Investigation of Out-of- Body Experiences (London: Heinemann, 1982)
7) Macy Marc, The Astral Planes and Other Worlds Of Spirit, http://www.spiritweb.org/Spirit/astral-planes-macy.html
Pert Alan, Glossary Entry for Astral, http://www.harbour.sfu.ca/~hayward/van/glossary/astral.html
8) Alan G. Hefner, The Mystica Website, http://www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/a/aura.html, © 1997 2002
9) Kelly, Mary Olson, Fireside Treasury of Light, Simon and Schuster, NY, 1990, p. 23.
10) Palmer, J. (1979). A community mail survey of psychic experiences. “Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 73″, 221-251.
11) Aristotle, On Dreams, from Hutchings, R. M., ed., Great Books of the Western World, vol. 8 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), pp. 702-06
12) deBecker, R., The Understanding of Dreams (London: Allen & Unwin, 1965), p. 139
13) Freud, S.: The Interpretation of Dreams (originally published 1900; James Strachey translation, 1965) (Avon)
14) van Eeden, F., “A study of dreams,” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 26 (1913): 431-61.
15) LaBerge, Stephen, Ph.D., Lucid Dreaming, Ballantine, 1986