To primitive humans, a dream was an actual experience enacted by the soul as it wandered about during sleep. Today a great deal is still unknown about the mysteries of sleep and dreams, but electroencephalograph records of brain waves and the study of rapid-eye-movement patterns have convinced psychologists and dream scientists that the action of a dream (for most people) takes place within the individual dream machinery and is confined within the brain. However, some individuals have experiences in which they feel certain that their soul, their mind, truly did leave the body during sleep or an altered state of consciousness and travel to other dimensions or other geographical locations on Earth. Are such out-of-body experiences (OBEs) actual journeys of the soul or are they only vivid dreams or hallucinations?
Dr. Hornell Hart's investigation of out-of-body experiences (also known as astral projection) and psi phenomena led him to theorize that the brain was but an instrument by which consciousness expressed itself, rather than a generator that produced consciousness. Hart contended that the available evidence strongly supported the testimonies of those individuals who claimed that their personal consciousness had observed scenes and acted at long distances away from their physical bodies.
Dr. Eugene E. Bernard, professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, who studied astral projection extensively, stated that he found it highly improbable that so many people who were apparently psychologically healthy were having hallucinations of leaving their bodies. Bernard estimated one out of every 100 persons has experienced some sort of out-of-body projection and stated that his study indicated that such projections occurred most often during times of stress, such as undergoing natural childbirth or minor surgery, and at times of extreme fear. In addition to these kinds of spontaneous instances, Bernard stated he also had encountered a number of individuals who seemed to be able to have out-of-body projections almost at will. Acknowledging that there was still much that remains unknown about the mind and its abilities, he expressed his opinion that the astral projection theory can be proved and controlled.
In Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, his classic work published in 1903, psychical researcher Frederic W. H. Myers (1843–1901) believed out-of-body experiences to be the most extraordinary achievement of the human will. What, he wondered, "could be a more central action—more manifestly the outcome of whatsoever is deepest and most unitary in man's whole being—than the ability to leave one's body and return to it?" Such an ability, this self-projection, Myers said, was the most significant of all vital phenomena. And, even more wondrous, astral projection "appeared to be the one profound act of the spirit that one might perform equally well before and after physical death."
Here are some of the most common types of out-of-body experiences, or situations in which OBEs might occur:
In addition to these spontaneous, involuntary experiences, there are also those voluntary and conscious projections during which the subject deliberately endeavors to free his or her mind from the physical body.
Dr. Robert Crookall, the British geologist and botanist who was also a pioneer in the study of out-of-body experience, stated in the introduction to his More Astral Projections (1964) that the astral, the etheric, body "is normally enmeshed in, or in gear with the familiar physical body" so that most people are not aware of its existence. "But many people have become aware of it, for . . . [their] Soul Body separated or projected from the physical body and was used, temporarily, as an instrument of consciousness."
Crookall perceived this "Soul Body" as consisting of matter, "but it is extremely subtle and may be described as 'super-physical.'" In his view the physical body is animated by a semi-physical "vehicle of vitality" that bridges the physical body and the Soul Body and is the "breath of life" to which the book of Genesis refers. Crookall suggests that some projections "involve the Soul Body only; others merely represent an extrusion of part of the vehicle of vitality; most are a combination of the two— the Soul Body goes out accompanied by a tincture of substance from the vehicle."
Many individuals who have undergone out-of-body experiences have made mention of a kind of cord of silver color that seems to attach their soul or mind to the physical body. Such glimpses of the silver cord have prompted those experiencers and researchers of a religious orientation to recall the verses in the book of Ecclesiastes which refer to the time of death when "the silver cord is loosed and the golden bowl be broken.…Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (KJV Ecclesiastes 12:5–7). In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, out-of-body experiencers have also long observed that a strand exists between the astral double and the physical body. In diverse cultures, many individuals who have undergone out-of-body phenomena have noticed that their "silver cords" were highly elastic. In the oft-cited case of the Reverend Bertrand, the French clergyman saw that his etheric double was attached to his physical body by "a kind of elastic string." An American student of OBE, Sylvan Muldoon, reported "an elastic-like cable" linking his two bodies.
On many occasions, out-of-body experiencers have commented that the silver cord appeared to be luminous, like a beam of light. Others state that it was not really any kind of actual physical cord, but a stream of light that continued to connect them to their physical bodies. Crookall mused from his gathering of accounts of OBE that the so-called silver cord corresponds "to the umbilical cord in childbirth (where an old body gives birth to a new body)"; and if such is the case, its severance may mean death.
Dr. Alexander Cannon saw the various strata of physical and nonphysical human beings a bit differently. In his Sleeping Through Space (1938), Cannon related the view of the Master-the-Fifth of the Great White Lodge of the Himalayas, Kushog Vogi of Northern Tibet, who believed that the astral body surrounds the physical body "like an eggshell surrounds the egg within it and is linked up with the physical body by invisible vibrations on the ether in the air being carried to the mind centers on the plexuses of the involuntary nervous system." In Cannon's view, the astral body is the scriptural "golden bowl" and the etheric body is the linking "silver cord."
"The astral body," he wrote, "is mainly the emotional body and has to do with emotions, moods, and feelings. The astral body is not only linked up with the physical body through the solar plexus, but also linked up with the etheric body through vibrations passing from it through the physical body between the eyes…to the top of the etheric body."
Cannon compared the etheric body to a "streak of light running down the front of the spinal cord of the physical body but independent of either the astral or physical body, whereas the physical body is dependent, through the involuntary sympathetic nervous system, on the astral body, and in turn the astral body is dependent on the etheric body."
According to Cannon, the East has long believed that when the physical body dies, the astral body containing the etheric body separates from the physical body after three days, and that after years, perhaps centuries, the astral body dies and leaves only the etheric body to become a spirit. The Eastern schools of initiation, Cannon informed, teach the chela (student) how to withdraw his or her astral body under the direction of a master. To achieve such control of the spirit, the student must subject himself or herself to a rigorous and prolonged period of highly intensive and specialized training. Such esoteric knowledge, Cannon reminded his readers, had been acquired by centuries of effort and experimentation by Eastern adepts. The Western world is only beginning to be made aware of the existence of the spiritual self.
Students of astral projection, bilocation, and OBE have frequently commented on the phenomenon of dual consciousness, i.e., having complete awareness of one's body, its functions, and the room in which it is lying at the same time that one is traveling astrally to visit a faraway person or place. The lines between out-of-body travel and other psi phenomena are nebulous and may overlap a great deal.
In 1951 Sylvan Muldoon, who was accomplished in seemingly leaving his body almost at will, collaborated with Hereward Carrington (1880–1958), a psychical researcher of international reputation, to produce The Phenomena of Astral Projection. In this book, the authors felt confident that they had presented a considerable number of case histories that proved beyond reasonable doubt that astral projection is a fact, that humans can leave their physical bodies spontaneously and project to considerable distances at will. Muldoon and Carrington were certain that such a fact represented an important truth to all humankind: individuals are not their material brains, nor are they a product of their brains' functional activities. Muldoon and Carrington argued that if humans are here and now spiritual entities, then the prospect of another life in a spiritual world becomes not only a possibility but nearly a certainty.
There is nothing new about the belief in immortality and in humankind's possession of a nonphysical capacity that remains aloof to the physical considerations of time, space, and matter. But just how could science go about proving out-of-the-body experiences? Can an astral, or soul, body be weighed and measured? Can it be seen as it rises from the host body of a laboratory volunteer? Certainly it cannot be followed to determine the validity of the experience, nor can it disturb carefully arranged flour dusted on the floor.
Dr. Charles T. Tart (1937– ), a core faculty member of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California, is responsible for pioneer work in bringing the soul out of the body and into the laboratory. His books Altered States of Consciousness (1969) and Transpersonal Psychologies (1975) are considered classics in the field of consciousness studies and scientific parapsychology. The first of Tart's experiments with OBE were conducted in the electroencephalography laboratory at the University of Virginia Hospital during the early 1960s. At that time, Tart was primarily concerned with spontaneous OBEs during the sleep state, as this appears to be the most common state in which such projection occurs. His two subjects, a man and a woman, were individuals who claimed knowledge of leaving their bodies in sleep. To test the validity of the out-of-body experience, the two subjects were asked to read a five-digit numeral placed on the shelf of the equipment room in the laboratory. The number was so placed that the subjects would be unable to see it under normal conditions, but in a state of conscious disengagement from the body, they could supposedly read it off with ease.
In the experiment, electrodes were attached to each subject's head for electroencephalograph (EEG) readings. (The EEG records brain waves.) Additional equipment was used to measure the subjects' rapid eye movements (REMs). A great deal of study in recent years has indicated that REMs accompany dreams and early sleep stages, but are absent in later stages. Finally, an electrocardiogram was made, recording heart action. Tart hoped, with such equipment, to provide psychophysiological substantiation to each subject's out-of-body projection. He also wished to learn from bodily responses more of the nature of an OBE.
The male subject was tested on nine different nights. Although he claimed he could project himself at will, he was unable to do so, by his own account, until the next to the last night of the experiment. On that evening he reported leaving his body twice within a few minutes. The subject's first OBE found him in the presence of two men and one woman, all unknown to him. He tried to arouse their awareness of him by pinching and touching, but he was unsuccessful in his attempts. The validity of this experience could not be verified. During his second OBE, he reported walking through the doorway into the equipment room. Not finding the technician on duty, he continued on his way to the office section of the building. There he found the technician, talking with a man whom he did not know. Again he tried to attract attention to his presence. When he was once more unsuccessful, he returned to his body, awakened, and called out to the technician. She confirmed that she had been in the office with her husband. The subject's description of her husband was exact.
It was determined by the EEG record within the few minutes before he awakened— which was the time the subject indicated he had been out of his body—that he had been in a state of Stage One dreaming. It is in this state that sleep is lighter and dreams are accompanied by rapid eye movements. Since the subject's experience had occurred not in the later or deeper stages of sleep and not in a state of drowsiness, but totally during the dream state, Tart labeled the experiment "inconclusive." Even though there was objective evidence that the technician was not at the controls when the subject said she was not, and she had been in the office with her husband, whom the subject was able to describe, Tart did not feel he could offer irrefutable evidence that an actual OBE had occurred.
The female subject was tested for four non-successive nights over a period of two months. This woman was subjected to even stricter laboratory controls and physiological response measuring devices. Her efforts were concerned mainly with attempts to read the test numeral Tart had placed on the shelf. On the third night of the experiment, the subject claimed that she had visited her sister in another city, and although this astral flight could not be verified, her EEG pattern sequence was "unusual." On the fourth and final night of the experiment, the subject correctly identified the number on the shelf as 25,132.
Tart termed the experiment a "conditional success," but he refused to call it conclusive. Jumping ahead of the skeptics' disclaimers, Tart said that the subject could possibly have seen the number high on the shelf reflected in the black plastic case of a clock. Although he did not himself believe this to be the case, he deemed it necessary to make due note of it.
Tart, who for 28 years was professor of psychology at the Davis Campus of the University of California, has stated that to him the most significant aspect of his early experimentation was not the tentative findings that they produced, but the fact that such traditionally "occult" manifestations as astral projection, OBEs, can be subjected to scientific study. A considerable number of scientists have become convinced of the reality of out-of-body travel because of such pioneering experiments as those conducted by Tart, but it remains extremely difficult to satisfy the more material sciences' demand for controlled and repeatable laboratory proof. Science is the art of definition; therefore, the intangible must somehow be made tangible.
"Once we rid ourselves of the stubborn and conventional notions that man is separate from his universe, that external reality is separate from internal reality, and that the study of consciousness is a waste of time, the taboos against imaginative investigation in creativity, parapsychology, hypnosis, and the psychedelics will diminish," Dr. Stanley Krippner has observed. "To perceive and understand reality in its totality, we will want to utilize the insights obtained in altered states of consciousness, as well as those available to us in the everyday, waking state."
In the assessment of many parapsychologists, the thousands of anecdotal cases of spontaneous out-of-body projection and laboratory experiments in controlled mind travel demonstrate that the human psyche is not to be held in thrall by the limitations of time and space. Even while humans' physical bodies exist in this physical world, wherein the limitations of mass, energy, space, and time shape and control the environment, the human essence is capable of extending outside of itself.