Photo: Mike Lindsey / Flickr
It happened precisely at 7:34 am.I fell back asleep and felt my body become paralysed. Then I sat up, and felt “myself” lift out of my physical body. I floated above my bed and melted into the window. I entered the thin pane of the glass and hovered inside its boundaries.
Then I woke up.
What I experienced was an out-of-body experience (OBE). These experiences happen all over the world and their descriptions are similar across cultures. In new age circles, the experience is known as astral projection whereas more indigenous cultures call it soul flight. Some instances are spontaneous while others are initiated through ritual dancing and drumming.
What all these traditions have in common is the insistence that out-of-body experiences are real, and some part of “you” moves away from our material existence, having a life of its own. Having had many realistic OBEs, I can respect that worldview.
But what exactly is an OBE? If they happen cross-culturally, what exactly is going on inside someone during an OBE?
When is a dream not a dream?
Scientific interest in the physical underpinnings of OBEs supports what dream researchers have suspected for years, namely that most out-of-body experiences occur when you are falling asleep or coming out of sleep.
According to my Zeo, at precisely the time when I was floating above my bed, my brain was in REM sleep. This supports what Kevin Nelson MD noticed, namely that OBEs come with REM sleep.
OBE – Zeo caught it
Yet an OBE is not “just a dream.” The realistic sensation of moving out and/or away from the physical body “feels” real because the mind is alert and thinking clearly while simultaneously aware of the sensation of bodily paralysis that normally comes with REM sleep.
Location of the TJP region of the brain
The TPJ essentially acts as a bridge that links body sensations from the vestibular system (your balance and spacial orientation system) with visual information and higher order thinking processes from the prefrontal cortex. When the bridge collapses, our sense of self is untethered from the constraints of the senses. Hence, that “floating” sensation.
No sleep required
While most OBEs are instigated from sleep (I have had dozens of them through my experimentation with sleep paralysis), they can be spontaneously generated as a result of life stresses such as shock, illness, and trauma.
German philosopher Thomas Metzinger believes that the evolutionary origin of the OBE is shock, as part of the paralysis reflex in mammals when attacked by prey. As carnivores don’t like to eat dead animals due to the risk of contamination, animals who “play dead” are more likely to survive a sudden attack.
I wonder if the gazelle has an OBE when being eaten by a lion? It’s a tempting idea.
Gazelle: Think happy thoughts /Think happy thoughts
Perhaps one of the best example of an OBE due to shock or trauma is that associated with a Near Death Experience (NDE). It’s been postulated that those who have NDEs are also more likely to have sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences, with the implication being that REM sleep plays a role in all three.
REM intrusions in Sleep Transitions and Near Death Experiences
However, just like ritualized OBEs in more indigenous cultures, many who have had a NDE report a positive effect, impacting their lives for decades after the event. Far from inducing terror and fear, the experience actually give them extraordinary insight. As such, many Dream researchers (myself included) suggest that OBEs could be integrated into counseling efforts.
Personally, my OBEs have been less sublime (floating in a window, while neat, didn’t yield any mind blowing insight) but the experience is certainly up there with one of the strangest things that might happen while asleep.
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