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A Spiritual Monistic Theory of OBEs

A Spiritual Monistic Theory of Out-of-the-Body Experiences

 

by Alastair McIntosh, with a critique by Susan Blackmore and introductory contextualisation by the editor, Michael Perry, Archdeacon of Durham

 

Published in The Christian Parapsychologist, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1981, pp. 2-11. Michael Perry's editorial is particularly interesting, because it records how public awareness of OBEs (OOBEs) was in transition at the time when this, and other related OBE research, was then being undertaken. To undertake empirical work now (year 2000) would be very much more difficult than it was in the 1970's. Few members of the public now have not heard of near death experiences, OBEs, etc., and whilst pleasing, it adds a confounding factor to new research. 

 

Editorial

The Venerable Michael Perry

The Times published the results of its questionnaire on the paranormal on 20 December 1980, with a comment by Brian Inglis. Admittedly, the respondents were a self-selected sample, but their views give grounds for hope that scientific scepticism about paranormal events may at last be on the wane. Significantly, it is the “hard” scientists such as physicists who seem the more open-minded. Psychologists as a group remain notably sceptical.

“Ten years ago”, writes Brian Inglis, “few readers would even have heard of ‘out of the body experiences’; now, more than half of the sample believe them to exist”. In view of this, we are pleased to offer two articles in our present number which explore the implications of that strange phenomenon of observing one’s own physical body from an external vantage-point. Alastair McIntosh offers his own explanation, whilst Susan Blackmore paints a somewhat wider canvas and shows that (as so often in parapsychology) the possibilities of understanding are more numerous than many people think.

Meanwhile, Dr Karlis Osis of the American Society for Psychical Research is reporting, together with Donna McCormick, on “Current ASPR Research on Out-of-Body Experiences” (ASPR Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 4, October 1980). The ASPR’s main research goal is to understand the processes involved and, if possible, to find irrefutable physical evidence for what Dr Osis terms “the out-of-body translocation of consciousness”. Three basic questions were asked. (1) What happens in the brain when consciousness appears to be projected elsewhere? Answer: brain-wave amplitudes are modified. (2) How does the person see when out-of-body? Answer: Vision appears to be sharply localized at the spot to which consciousness has projected, and lack of eye movement in the physical body of the “projector” suggests that the OBE is not simply a waking dream. (3) What happens at the spot to which consciousness has projected? Sensor detectors of the electrical field were placed in a shielded chamber to which a projector “sent” his “other body”, and these plates were found to be significantly more active when the projector was scoring a hit on the visual target than at times when he was scoring a miss.

This is only the first of a planned series of experimeiits, and it is too early yet to claim that any conclusions about the nature of the phenomenon are justified. Parapsychology is strewn with the wreckage of theories framed prematurely on insufficient empirical evidence. If the results of Dr Osis’ experiments accumulate, they will favour a physicalist rather than a psychological explanation for the OBE. For the present, however, we do well to keep our options open, and in this, Mr McIntosh and Ms Blackmore will be helpful guides.

To return to The Times and Brian Inglis, we note that people were introduced to psychic phenomena by a variety of routes, but that literature from scientific studies accounted for 36% of the present sample. Even if scepticism is on the wane, however, a conviction of the importance of parapsychology is still rare. Yet to those who do come across psychic experience, says Inglis, “it clearly often matters a good deal. Many of them would welcome advice and reassurance of a kind they clearly have not had”. In other words, serious scientific parapsychology is important; and people want a framework within which to understand it. Those are our beliefs too, and THE CHRISTIAN PARAPSYCHOLOGIST will continue into its fourth volume on the assumption that we best serve the cause of truth by careful investigation, and that faith still seeks understanding.

 

A spiritual monistic theory of

out-of-the-body experiences

 

Alastair I. McIntosh

 

Mr McIntosh has just returned from two years’ VSO in Papua New Guinea, where he taught, completed a small hydro-electricity scheme, and carried out  parapsychological research.

 

Existing theories of what an out-of-the-body experience (henceforth abbreviated into “an OBE”) is, fall into two chief categories: the psychological theories and the classical “astral projection” (or “CAP”) theory. Much of the early OBE literature embodies CAP theory, the most comprehensive exposition of which may be found in the works of Dr Robert Crookall (1961, 1964, 1965, 1969 et al.). A lot of contemporary non-Western cultures have their own variations of CAP too (Shiels 1978, McIntosh 1980).

CAP theory proposes that the human being has a composite physical and spiritual make-up, consisting of two or more parts. These are the familiar corporeal body, and at least one other non-physical “astral body”, or “double”, which serves as a vehicle of the spirit. In an OBE the spiritual part has separated from the physical part, and is able to move around in a spiritual world, the lower realms of which allow one to remain in the vicinity of the physical world. Reduced to its least complicated level, then, CAP is based on a dualism, in which the body and physical world are metaphysically distinct from the soul and spiritual world.

The simplest of the psychological theories is that the OBE is “all imagined in the mind”. Although this is usually meant as a reductionist statement, we shall see later that a different metaphysical standpoint from materialism can also bring out a transcendental meaning. The most complete psychological theories so far expounded are Blackmore’s (1978) “cognitive map” hypothesis, and Palmer’s (1978) one of “primary-processes.”  Although both these authors stress the metaphysical neutrality of their theories, they readily lend themselves to material monistic appli­cations. I know that Blackmore, for one, would not like to see her theory applied to explain away the OBE at a purely material level without giving thought to other metaphysical possibilities, but it must be said that neither author has suggested ways in which his or her theory might be accommodated by a non-materialistic metaphysic.

{Susan Blackmore’s theory is that the OBE is a (possibly psi-conducive) altered state of consciousness in which the powers of imagination and memory are used to contruct a particularly convincing “other world". According to John Palmer, the ORE is triggered off by a change in the percipient’s body concept or body image, and is a psychological rection to the stress involved in this change. When stress is severe, and the normal flight-or-fight reactions are blocked, the person has to resolve the threat posed by the unwonted body image. The OBE, by producing a new body image, forestalls the anxiety attack and resolves the tension. The state may be psi-conducive, which would explain why knowledge is often gained during an OBE of things with which the percipient could not be sensorily aware—Ed.}

 

Relative Merits of CAP and Psychological Theories

Traditional OBE literature and anecdotal accounts make the idea that a person’s “spirit” has somehow separated itself from the corporeal body an easy conclusion to jump to. However, this view is seriously weakened when careful study is made of what OBE percipients claim to be able to “see” of the physical environment which they think they are in. Blackmore (op. cit.) has shown that such features as errors of addition and omission in OB observed scenes suggest that the OB world has more in common with our “cognitive map”, or memory, of what a particular environment is like, than with what the place was really like at the time the altered state of consciousness (ASC) took place. In her opinion, the OBE is “an ASC in which the powers of imagination and memory are used to construct a particularly convincing ‘other world’ “. ESP may be facilitated in such a state and used to build up the “other world”, thus explaining how the OB percipient can sometimes describe actual happen­ings taking place elsewhere, as if he were present there.

But in fairness to CAP theory, it must be pointed out that Crookall (op. cit.) attempts to account for OB perceptual aberrations in a different way. Drawing on occult sources and the common reports of OB percipients passing through hazy, watery mists, he suggests that the perception of a newly released “double” is enshrouded to varying extents by the “vehicle of vitality”—a rather hypothetical, supposedly quasi-physical “life force”. I would not like to see this idea dismissed out of hand until what evidence there is for it has been examined further, but at this stage the theory lacks sufficient strength to be worth exploring any more in this paper.

To many people, the drawback with CAP theory is that its proponents make it too flexible. Hypotheses of astral bodies, astral worlds, and mysterious mists are multiplied until no discrepancies in the overall schema remain, yet the whole edifice is unstable since none of  It rests on sufficiently strong evidence. On the other hand, the psychological theories tend to be presented and applied in ways which make them seem reduct­ionist, even though this may not have been the originators’ intention. The term “metaphysically neutral” is too easily taken as meaning “unconcerned with metaphysics”, and therefore essentially materialistic. Furthermore, the theories’ own shortcomings encourage this sort of thinking, as they seldom go far enough towards answering questions such as why OBEs feel so realistic, why different people’s experiences share so many cognitive, sentient, and emotional characteristics in common, or why OBEs are often associated with a sense of enhanced “spiritual” awareness and even mystical experience. To people who have had a vivid OBE, such questions often assume far greater importance than the rather trivial matter of whether or not Aunt So-and-so really was watering her flowers at such-and-such a time; yet that is the level at which most serious OBE research and theorising presently concerns itself.

It is hard to come down in favour of one or the other group of 0BE theories granted our present knowledge of the subject and of ourselves. Rather than take the debate any further here, I would like to point to a third type of theory; one which blends in well with the psychological theories, but takes spiritual monism as its metaphysical standpoint.

 

Spiritual Monism and the OBE

Spiritual monism, the concept that “Spirit” (Brahman, God, Tao, etc.) is the only true reality and that nothing exists independently of it, and that the Universe is fundamentally a mental entity, and not a discretely physical one, is a system of metaphysic rarely considered in Western culture (Bishop Berkeley with his particular variety of spiritual monism being one notable exception). To most people, the thought of it militates against our commonsense experience of reality as being solid and tangible. But as dreaming, and particularly lucid dreaming, demonstrates, that which feels and looks real and material is by no means necessarily so. The dreamer makes this discovery on awakening; and the mystic proclaims it of normal reality after transcending.

Let us suppose, as does much oriental metaphysic, that all matter, inclusive of our bodies, is a construct in what has rather inadequately been called the “mind of God”. Henceforth I shall refer to this as Brahman—a less anthropormophic Hindu term, meaning the transcendental “ground of all being”. We, as souls or atma, are individualized expressions of that consciousness which is Brahman. We feel that we are leading a corporeal existence in a material world only by virtue of such ideas existing as mental constructs in Brahman, and having been programmed, as it were, into each individual.

Such a view of reality raises the question of whether it is at all meaning­ful to talk of in-the-body experiences, let alone ones taking place out-of­the-body. If corporeal existence is mental, rather than discretely material, we can be no more “in” our physical bodies than we can be said to be “in” a dream body during ordinary dreaming episodes. Rather, our bodies are in us—ideas fixed into our minds—ultimately, creations of Brahman. The way in which we are locked into the idea of being a physical body in a physical world while in the normal state of consciousness (NSC) may be closely compared with the manner in which an actress locks herself into her role in a play.

If this metaphysic is correct, I would suggest that the OBE occurs when for some reason we cease to be bound by the concept of being in a body, in the world. A loss of the conventional body image and a much reduced awareness of physical environmental stimuli are important characteristics marking the onset of OBEs. This demonstrates that the person’s being is no longer so rigidly locked into the NSC concept of identity and place in space and time. Here I shall borrow from Palmer’s (op. cit.) “primary processes” theory, and agree with him that the OBE is one way in which the disconcerted ego tries to re-establish a body image (of sorts) for itself. Lucid dreaming is another way in which the potentially distressing feeling of being without a body might be evaded; an evasion which ASC novices need in order to feel more secure, even though they have never actually been “in” any sort of body in the first place and are now realising their true, inner nature.

Although freed from the notion of being in a physical organism, the atma or soul still has memories of what the physical world mental con­struct was like. Indeed, that construct still exists somewhere at another level within it. From memory, the ego can build up an OBE replica of the physical world—a personal construct based on the temporarily inaccess­ible collective construct—which supports the idea, or wish, that though “out” of the physical body, there is still a body image and “world” with which to identify. This brings us round to Blackmore’s (op. cit.) “cognitive map” theory of the OB world and its idiosyncrasies, in which failures of memory account for discrepancies in the re-constructed world, and ESP is one means of explaining OB “observations” of things which were unknown to the person beforehand.

We thus have a theory which fully incorporates the sound psychological theories of OBEs, yet treats the ASC as a spiritual phenomenon.

 

Discussion and Conclusion

I do not want to assert that the spiritual monistic theory is better than other OBE theories, since that would involve much difficult, if not impossible argument, in favour of the metaphysic on which it is founded. There are, however, some points in its favour which need discussing in greater depth.

Our body image—the idea and feeling that we are in a physical body— is a very fickle thing. We lose it if we are soundly asleep or unconscious; we may forget about it if deeply engrossed in certain activities; it can completely change if we happen to dream that we are somebody else, or if we are mentally disturbed; and if we relax sufficiently deeply we can lose all bodily awareness while still remaining fully conscious of our inner being. In ASCs such as can be induced by meditation, “Ganzfeld”, “christos” and psychedelic drugs, the body image may commonly be

distorted, either spontaneously, or at a whim of the imagination. One might feel bloated to the size of the Earth, contracted to a pinhead, flattened to a sheet of paper, or attenuated until standing like a flagpole. Indeed, most, if not all, ASCs are very closely associated with losing, or a loosening, of the usual body image. Yet, it is on such a shaky foundation as the experience of it that materialists will confidently proclaim physical life to be the only mode of being.

All OBE induction procedures incorporate exercises aimed at getting rid of the NSC body image. Typically they start by advocating deep relaxation, followed by exercises with the imagination, designed to transfer attention onto a highly flexible “astral body”. Success is indicated if you feel yourself floating, expanding, shrinking, vapourizing, etc. (Crookall 1964 et al.).

In experiments using the “christos” ASC induction procedure (McIntosh 1978), I have found that many subjects have these sensations spontaneously, and not only when asked to try and produce them con­sciously. Some subjects were able to pass from the NSC into lucid dreaming, from there to a more elevated OBE state, and eventually attaining peak and even mystical experience. Their level of consciousness was closely related to the extent to which they had managed to rid the rt­selves of a body image and the need to be in either a “real” or imagined world. With lucid dreaming, a conventional but often confused physical body image was retained. If the state of consciousness developed into an OBE, subjects became less aware of having any sort of a body for much of the time, but were still in the proximity of what they took to be the physical world. Finally, as they entered higher states of consciousness, all semblance of a body image and notions of being in a fixed physical location within time disappeared. Asked who and what they were, they answered using expressions such as, “just the me”, “a part of everything”, or “a lump of consciousness”.

These other-worldly characteristics of ASCs are very hard .to explain away from a materialist standpoint, but they are easily accommodated by spiritual monistic metaphysic. The experiential evidence suggests that there are many different levels of reality and being. All are within our own minds and Brahman, and all may be experienced by us if we can throw off more restrictive states of consciousness such as the NSC.

Strict dualism has some difficulties with what we have been discussing, as it creates a sharp distinction between mind on the one hand and matter on the other. This forces speculation that in the OBE, or at death, a “something” must leave the physical body behind. The dualist then gets bogged down in further speculation as to what that “something” might be, which results in CAP theory and the lack of firm evidence from which it suffers.

I wonder, though, just how far apart the average dualist is from tht~ spiritual monist? A considerable distance, if the dualist considers matter to be entirely separate from mind or Spirit. But, if she believes that matter was created by Spirit out of nothingness, is that not coming very close indeed to spiritual monism? Perhaps our metaphysical debate has not three main sides to it as first appeared, but only two.

Finally, if anyone were to suggest that the spiritual monistic view is less easily tested than materialistic theories, I would disagree. The study of “higher” altered states of consciousness offers considerable empirical evidence in support of a non-materialistic world view. As I tried to show in an earlier contribution to THE CHRISTIAN PARASYCHOLOGIST (Vol. 3, No. 1, December 1978), the epistemological validity of such evidence is not weakened by the charge that it is based on “abnormal” perceptions, unless, that is, we are to place undue faith in the materialist’s view of “normality”. The trouble with most materialists’ theories is that they either ignore consciousness, or dismiss it as an epiphenomenon. I reject such an approach. It lacks the power which a good theory must have—the power to help understand the nature of experience.

 

Bibliography 

Blackmore, S., Parapsychology and Out-of-the-Body Experiences (U.K., Society for Psychical Research and Transpersonal Books, 1978).

Crookall, R., The Study and Practice of Astral Projection (U.K., Aquarian Press, 1961).

    The Techniques of Astral Projection (Aquarian Press, 1964).

    Intimations of Immortality (U.K., James Clarke, 1965).

    The Interpretation of Cosmic and Mystical Experiences (James Clarke, 1969).

Green, C. E., Lucid Dreams and Out-of-the-Body Experiences (both U.K., Hamish Hamilton, 1968).

McIntosh, A. I., A Commentary on the “Christos” Technique (Appendix to Glaskin, G. M., Worlds Within, U.K., Arrow Books edition only,1978).

The “Christos” Procedure: a Novel ASC Induction Technique (U.K., Journal of Psychoenergetic Systems, Vol. 3, 1979).

Mystical Experience, Hallucination and Belief in God (U.K., THE CHRISTIAN PARAPSYCHOLOGIST, Vol. 3, No. 1, December 1978).

Beliefs About Out-of-the-Body Experiences Amongst the Elema, Gulf Kamea and Rigo Peoples of Papua New Guinea (U.K., Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 50, No. 785, September 1980).

Palmer, J., The Out-of-the-Body Experience: a Psychological Theory (U.S.A., Parapsychology Review, Vol. 9, No. 5, September-October 1978).

Sheils, D., A Cross-cultural Study of Beliefs in Out-of-the-Body Experiences, Waking and Sleeping (U.K., Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 49, No. 775, March 1978).

    Tart, C.T. (ed.), Altered States of Consciousness (U.S.A., Wiley, 1969). Watts, A., The Supreme Identity (U.S.A., Noonday Press, 1957).

 

 

 

A psychological approach to 

the out-of-the-body experience

 

Susan J. Blackmore

 

Susan Blackmore is the current Perrott- Warrick Student in Psychical Research, and works at the Brain and Perception Laboratory of the University of Bristol Medical School.

 

Alastair McIntosh has described a “spiritual monistic theory of OBEs” and so drawn attention to the metaphysical bases of all OBE theories. Since it is not this aspect which generally allows the theories to be tested and compared, it has usually been ignored by psychologists. As McIntosh points out I have made no metaphysical commitment. However, every theory of the OBE assumes some world view, and I do prefer some theories over others. So it may be useful to make this clear.

There are at least five major types of OBE theory. The CAP theory referred to by McIntosh varies considerably and spans the first three.

The first theory we may call a physical, or pseudo-physical, theory of the OBE. It holds that we have another body made of matter which can travel around the physical world on its own. This is compatible with any meta­physical position, including McIntosh’s, but concerns itself only with the material world. Its problems are numerous. How could one suppose that we have another body interacting with the physical world, but one that we have not yet detected? How could this body perceive? Would it have a complete replica of the sensory systems? Would it use the brain for sensory processing or have another brain? If so, and we have a wonderfully light, invisible, and fast-travelling double, why on earth need we bother with all the paraphernalia of muscles, nerves, legs and eyes? These are just sonic of the problems and probably few would defend such a theory. Many prefer to think of the double as “non-physical”, as in the second theory.

This suggests that a non-physical or “astral” body travels in the physical world. This theory is fundamentally dualist and is incompatible with McIntosh’s spiritual monism. If “non-physical” is not to mean “physical” in disguise, then it is hard to know how this hypothetical body could interact with the world so as to perceive it. But anyway there is evidence that what we see in an OBE is not the physical world. I have previously (1978) given examples of the types of error made in 08 vision. One traveller saw non-existent chimney pots on her house. Trees tend to look like lollipop trees, people like rnatchstick men, and a dark night can be mysteriously illuminated by lamps, or the sun or moon. Very frequently items are misread or distorted. So this hypothetical body, having no mass or other properties by which to locate it, does not seem to be “in” the physical world at all, but in some distorted version of it. This, among other things. has led some to turn to the third theory.

The third theory suggests that we travel in a “thought-created” world rather than the physical world. This differs from a purely psychological theory in that the imagined world here is in some sense shared, or common to us all. This theory is also dualist, and also incompatible with McIntosh’s. Unlike the first two I find it attractive. It seems to make sense of the traditional “astral world”, of the occult notion “like attracts like”, and of the possibility of survival after the death of the physical body. But

again there are problems. How could this shared thought-world be created? If many people’s thoughts are to be combined, how is my idea of “London” to be combined with your very different one? Do the “strongest” ideas have more weight, or any fleeting image contribute to the confusion? And if we solved these problems how would an astral traveller pick up the required ideas? Because I cannot even begin to answer these questions I prefer to turn to the next type of theory.

The fourth and fifth theories of the OBE are psychological in character and are based firmly in materialism. They imply, though neither Palmer nor myself has said so explicitly, that all human experience, memory, and consciousness are products of, and dependent upon, the physical body, so that nothing leaves the body in an OBE. Indeed, nothing was “in” it in the first place. The psychological theories provide no hope for survival in relation to OBEs. McIntosh has described Palmer’s theory and I shall add a little about my own.

Something which says “the OBE is all in the mind” is no theory. A psychological theory of the OBE needs to account for the detailed nature of the experience. And here we have plenty of knowledge to help us. The study of hallucinations shows that spirals and tunnels, as well as complex scenes from imagination and memory, are commonly seen in certain drug states, sleeplessness, sensory deprivation and so on. Autoscopy, or seeing one’s double, occurs in epilepsy and migraine, when the brain is in unusual states of excitation. Each of us has an image of our body to use in co­ordinating movement and telling us where, and how long, our limbs are; this body-image can be distorted. For example, amputees often have “phantom limbs” for a long time after the loss of the real limb, and in certain drug states, meditation, or just before falling asleep one may seem to change in size or grow very large or small. Finally we may learn some­thing from the “cognitive map”. We use this private construction of the world in finding the light-switch in the dark, walking the right way to the shops, in fact in remembering what our world is like. This cognitive map is three-dimensional, simplified, flexible, and incomplete. It is even wrong, just as is the “astral world”. Try for a moment to imagine flying along the street towards your home and you may see what I mean. Make your garden larger or smaller and you have a “thought-created world”. You may protest that this is different. As McIntosh asked, why do OBEs feel so realistic? Jean only respond with another question. Why do other hallucin­ations, and insights gained in drug experiences, or religious experiences, seem so realistic? What in fact controls our sense of what is real and what “imaginary”? And wherein lies the difference?

McIntosh asked some other pertinent questions. A psychological theory accounts very well for why the experiences are so similar, because all are the products of similarly constructed nervous systems. And what of the dramatic changes of belief, the loss of the fear of death, and the mystic quality of peace, beauty, and harmony sometimes experienced?

I can only suggest that if the appreciation of “the peace that passeth all understanding” and the love of God are capacities of the material human being, our psychology will one day grow sufficiently to cope with them.

Clearly we have a great deal yet to learn, but it is my contention that we may treat the OBE as a special form of hallucination in which we use our cognitive map to create an “astral world” and our body image an “astral body”. This at least provides a framework for research, and such research has begun. Harvey Irwin, an Australian psychologist, predicted that if OBEs involve imagination those who report them should have more vivid imagery (Irwin 1980). He found no such relationship, but in two recent studies I have found that students who reported OBEs also had more control over their imagery than others. This is only the beginning of testing the psychological theories, but it is a promising start.

You may remark that I have omitted the parapsychological “imagery plus ESP” theory. That is because I believe that the addition of ESP to the psychological theories only weakens them. As they stand they predict no paranormal events associated with OBEs, and so are clearly testable. The addition of ESP, about which we know nothing to help understand the OBE, would only reduce this strength.

I have presented my reasons for preferring a psychological theory of the OBE, with its materialist basis. “Spiritual monism” has its advantages, outlined by McIntosh, but it does not have the power of the psychological theories to provide testable predictions and to relate the OBE to other phenomena, and it is this which provides the impetus for research. In the end though, one theory, or some new one, will win. This will not, I believe, be because of some crucial experiment, or “proof”, but because one theory will be discovered to have more power to help understand the nature of the experience, and people will come to find it more useful. I think it will be one of the psychological theories, in one form or another. That is why I am devoting my time and energy to them, but if they lead nowhere, don’t fit the evidence or don’t make sense, then I won’t be sorry to think again.

 

References

 

Blackmore, S. J., Parapsychology and Out-of-the-body Experiences (SPR and Transpersonal Books) London 1978.

Irwin, H. J. “Out of the body down under”, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 50, No. 785 (1980) pp. 448-59.

 

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