Out of Body Experiences — Half A Century On

Out of Body Experiences — Half A Century On

About half a century ago – have I really been me, doing my stuff, that long? – I had an amazing stroke of luck.

obe depiction

As part of trying to make sense of life, particularly reconciling the religion I was raised in and modern science, I had read extensively in books about psychic research while still in my teens.  Psychic research was a very small, but I believed very important field of inquiry, launched in the 1880s by intelligent people who had also been having difficulty reconciling religion and science, and who had the brilliant idea that science was a method, much more than just its contemporary findings.  So why not apply the method of science (observe, theorize, test theories, share) to human experiences that had religious/spiritual implications and see what was real, as opposed to what was, as many fervent devotees of science proclaimed then (and now) that religion was all superstition and nonsense? This has been a major theme in my scientific career ever since reading about it.

One of the human experiences which struck me as very important in forming religions was the out-of-the-body experience (OBE), where a person unexpectedly finds themselves located somewhere else than where they know their physical body is, but their mind is fully clear and conscious.  They can reason logically about how what is happening to them, floating up near the ceiling, e.g., while looking at their unconscious physical body below them in bed, is impossible — and yet there is no doubt it is happening! The typical aftereffect of having an OBE is the person saying something to the effect that “I no longer believe that I will survive death — I know I will, I’ve been alive and awake outside my body!”  This is a conviction which usually lasts the rest of their life.  Clearly OBEs happening to some people are a major source of the idea of a soul.

But aside from an occasional trustworthy person reporting OBEs, that was about all we knew about them, with one major factor added:  in some cases, the person acquired by observation (seeing it) correct information about what was happening at a distant place they felt located at, when there was no reasonable way for them to otherwise know about it.  Without that, OBEs could be thought about as merely an altered state of consciousness (ASC), something like a dream but with full and clear consciousness rather than the fuzzy state typical of dreams.  And indeed there is a relatively rare kind of dream, the lucid dream[1], in which the dreamer feels their mind is awake, but they classify their experience as a dream.  In practice some apparent OBEs are probably misclassified lucid dreams and visa-versa, but that some OBEs involve clear ESP functioning intensifies the question:  “Is it really possible for a person’s mind to be elsewhere than their physical body, sensing that distant place?”  I would have liked to have studied OBEs, but aside from one experiment while I was still a college student, had little opportunity, and with unclear results.  No one else was studying them.  Indeed, OBEs were taboo.



My wife and I had become friends with a young woman who occasionally baby sat our children.  When she knew us better, and it became clear that we were people who could be talked to about unusual experiences, she began telling us about the OBEs which she had been having since she was a child…

This was the beginning of my luck.  Not long after receiving my PhD, I also met and became friends with Robert A. Monroe who had also experienced many OBEs by then.  His three books have been of great help since then to many people who have had OBEs but didn’t know what to make of them.  I was able to do three studies with him over several years.

monroe book covers RAM

And also I was lucky because I carried out several years of research on using hypnosis to influence both the content and the process of nighttime dreaming, and the grant supporting that allowed me to have a sleep laboratory that was also useful for investigating OBEs.

Overall I have published six studies of OBEs.  They can be studied with the increased precision of laboratory work (although that’s not the only way), not just be memories of spontaneous experiences, e.g., and I found out some things about the physiological state in which they may occur – you don’t have to be near death, as in near-death experiences (NDEs), e.g. – and sometimes it does indeed look like the OBEr’s mind really is perceiving physical reality from a different perspective than that of their physical body.  You can read an overall summary of my research at


and if you want more details, you can go back to the original journal articles.  The comments below will be richer if you read the above article first…


Fifty Year Karma?

Being young and naïve, I thought the scientific world would be electrified that OBEs could be studied in the laboratory, but almost no one followed up any of my research for many years, and I myself became involved in many, many other research projects.  For better or worse, I’m interested in so many things, I don’t specialize well.

Yet for those fifty years I have always gotten occasional inquiries about my studies, so the OBE, an archetypal experience of “soul,” remains of great interest to many.  Here’s the most recent inquiry and my response to it.  I described myself as naïve above, perhaps idealistic would be a better term, as I still hope that what little I’ve been able to do will stimulate others to research OBEs and related areas!


The Inquiry:

I have some questions on OBE’s with your studies.  

The main question is that do you have a logical explanation why some of the results were “not the best”. (I’m implying that they actually were out of their body) For the first one, what do you exactly mean by “occasional resemblances” and what you do mean by the comparison was too subjective exactly?  I’m a little confused about the results exactly for the third one.  The fourth one I’ve heard that Robert described your house correctly but not the things you were doing.  I find that weird.  Do you have any explanation for the sixth one? (Why none of them described the target right)  I find this whole thing incredibly strange.


And my response:

I picked up on the enthusiasm in your email, and was pleased by it.  So many people claim to be curious about psychic phenomena, but actually already have fixed opinions, just want to argue, and are not interested in what the facts were.

As to actual facts, you’re asking me about studies that I carried out and published  decades ago, and I consider the accounts I wrote of them, particularly the original articles which are more extensive than this review article you’ve read, to be the authoritative description.  Like any scientific study, I did the best I could trying to accurately describe conditions and outcomes.  Recollections evoked many years later are probably true, my memory is pretty good, but I wouldn’t give them as much status.

Without actually taking the time to reread the studies—I’ve got a chapter for someone’s book on transpersonal psychology to edit—let’s see if I can answer your questions.

>The main question is that do you have a logical explanation why some of the results were “not the best”<

I assume we’re both taking an ideal point of view here, and the “best” would be to say, e.g., that the participant was asked to describe a location 1000 miles away, that he had never been to or heard about, and he correctly gave the exact street address, a photographically correct description, and the results could be statistically evaluated so you know that by chance the odds would be several million to one of that degree of correctness.  The vast majority of psychological experiments, of course, simply aren’t that good.  They show that under reasonably controlled conditions the experimental group, e.g., scored 10% higher than the control group and that is statistically unlikely, etc., more research is called for.  I stress the latter point, more research is called for.

I considered all my work on out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs) as initial explorations where hardly any exploration had ever been done, and hoped (naïvely – it’s still too taboo a topic) that it would stimulate dozens of other researchers to explore these topics much more thoroughly.  OBEs are one of the main sources of the idea that we have a soul, that’s pretty important to understand better!  That research did not happen.  There have been almost no studies of OBEs until recently, and I find most of them quite disappointing.  They don’t seem to be studying actual OBEs as real people report them, but rather strange distortions of body image mislabeled as OBEs.  Anyway, none of my studies were the “best” simply because when you’re doing something for the first time, there’s things it doesn’t occur to you to control for.  For example, many times when I’ve mentioned in lectures that Miss Z, as part of her reported OBE in the laboratory, correctly reported a 5 digit number, somebody invariably asked if I knew what the number was — and then argued that she probably wasn’t really out of her body, it was “mere telepathy.”  Oh dear!  First time in the world it’s been tried and I forgot to control for “mere telepathy.”…  Or control for possible quantum hyperloops in 14 dimensional chronically dampened strings undergoing stochastic interpolation for that matter… (this last sentence is attempt at humor…)














>For the first one, what do you exactly mean by “occasional resemblances” and what you do mean by the comparison was too subjective exactly?<

The target consisted of some unusual objects placed on a table in a distant basement, with the objects unusual enough that you wouldn’t expect to find them any place in particular, but if a subject said “What I’m seeing is rather unusual…” would you really give that any significance?  I wouldn’t, I think any intelligent subject would assume that whatever the target was, it would be something unusual.  It’s not like the case with Miss Z where we know exactly what the odds of guessing a 5 digit random number are with one try.

Right now I’ll give you a “psychic description” of your house.  “I sense there is an entrance, and a number of openings in the walls, and soft surfaces, not too soft, that you walk and stand on, but seldom sit on.”

Are you impressed?  I’m not.  These are probably 100% correct, but these are generalities, almost all houses have a door, windows, and some rugs, and we walk and stand on the rugs but seldom sit on them.  It wasn’t until sometime later that parapsychologists worked out techniques for dealing with complex targets like this, where you had a number of randomly selected control targets or locations, and the blind judges had to rate the degree of coincidence.  Since the judges were blind as to what description was supposed to go with what target, their prejudices for and against psi balance out, and you can get a statistical figure on how likely the supposed psychic description actually matches the real target locations.  It would’ve been nice if I’d figured out that technique on my own before other people did but hey, I was only a sophomore in college when I did that study…

More generally, if you look around your room right now, do you really see it?  You probably think so, and what you perceive is generally quite adequate for practical purposes of life, but we know enough about the human senses, brain, and mental processes to know that you don’t.  Right now, you, I, every human is actually inside a virtual reality.  Although it feels real to us, it’s not a 100% accurate simulation of the environment around you.  There’s a neural process known as lateral inhibition, for example, parallel to a similar engineering process called edge detection or contrast enhancement, which makes the visual world you see have sharper contrast between different objects than it actually has just in terms of the light rays being reflected from them.  It helps us discriminate one thing from another.  Perception is not simply registration of what reaches our senses, it’s very rapid, automated thinking about sensory input in terms of our previous experience and human nature, so a representation appears in the virtual world, the bio-psycho-virtual reality (BPVR) we live in.

Okay, why assume that in an OBE you’re completely out of a virtual reality and finally perceiving the real world?  Admittedly the OBE is psychologically very impressive: it goes against what you think is possible, so you tend to give it a lot of weight.  “I know my mind can’t leave my body and go somewhere else and look around, but here I am, feeling wide awake and rational, and I know my body is in bed at home!”  But maybe even if you’re “mind” is now doing the perceiving without any assistance from the BPVR circuits of your brain, who’s to say the mind per se doesn’t have some aspects of creating a virtual reality?  That virtual reality may partially reflect the physical reality distant from your physical body that you seem to be in, but only partially.  It might not bother to represent aspects of that distant reality which are not important to the mind, and/or it may accurately represent “non-physical” or “spiritual” aspects of that reality which are not apparent to physical description so you think you’ve imagined things that aren’t there…

As someone who has studied consciousness for my whole life, I would be delighted to know that there is some particular altered state in which you now have a 100% accurate perception of the truth, and while I know that people may think that’s the way it is sometimes, I tend to doubt that it happens.  As to the last study with my deeply hypnotized subjects, one way to describe a deep hypnotic state is that the hypnotist has a great deal of control over the construction of the subject’s BPVR, so it’s quite possible to have a very realistic simulation of an OBE that is not actually an OBE.

>I find this whole thing incredibly strange<

Good!  I find it strange too!  And I suspect when we stop finding anything strange, our mental processes have gotten pretty ossified and life doesn’t have much joyful flavor in it anymore.  Keep thinking!

Charles T. Tart


[1]              Another way I was very lucky was that in my 1969 Altered States of Consciousness book I reprinted material on lucid dreams, which had been essentially totally forgotten as existing by the scientific community, and this stimulated both widespread popular interest and scientific research on lucid dreams.


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