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Out-of-Body Experience (OBE) "Detection" Studies

Out-of-body experiences (or OBEs, for short) are subjective experiences which carry the strong personal impression that people have somehow left the physical confines of their own bodies and taken up a position somewhere outside of the body. From this position, people have been able to see their own bodies from a distance and view their immediate surroundings as though they were separate bystanders. Research surveys indicate that the prevalence of OBEs among the general populace is relatively small, with an estimated 10% of the population reporting such experiences.[1] But even though they tend to be small in number, personal accounts of OBEs suggest that the experience can often be quite detailed, vivid, and expansive. A typical example of such an OBE can be found in the following account, received by Dr. William Roll from a 47-year-old woman in the early 1970s:

All my life I have been able to leave my body while asleep…The most unusual experience …occurred in August 1971. I knew I was asleep and it was time to get up and that I must return to the body to wake it up. I came through the air, hovered just under the ceiling, went through my kitchen and hall and into the bedroom where I saw my own body sleeping on the stomach in a familiar position, face turned to the west. What a shock to look down on one’s self and see one’s own face and hair. I quickly came down and entered the body from the back. It is even a greater shock to make contact with one’s own body. It takes a few seconds for the flying body to fit into the same position as the sleeping body, then the intelligence tells the body to move its hands and open its eyes. I woke myself up and found myself in the same position I had seen from the air.[2, p. 150]

An important issue regarding OBEs is whether they are purely subjective experiences (i.e., whether they are "all in the mind" of the people having them), or whether they really do involve something actually leaving the body. If the latter possibility were the case, then OBEs would certainly have value in exploring the question of life after death.

To see whether or not there might be something external to the body in OBEs, some parapsychologists have conducted experimental studies designed as attempts to "detect" any tangible environmental changes occurring at a certain target site that a person is trying to "visit" in an out-of-body form.[3] In other words, these studies were aimed at determining whether it would be possible to notice any changes occurring at the site in response to the supposed “presence” of a person’s out-of-body form (or “astral body,” as it has sometimes been called [4]).

In continuing this line of research, the Psychical Research Foundation is currently conducting an OBE "detection" study in collaboration with the Rhine Research Center in North Carolina and the Monroe Institute in Virginia. The aim of this study is to try and detect any measurable changes in body weight occurring in select participants who are reportedly able to have an OBE at will through training received at the Monroe Institute. At the times when these participants are attempting to go out of their bodies, electronic scales are monitored to see whether a corresponding change in body weight occurs (presumably in response to the out-of-body form leaving the body). The scales are also monitored to see if a similar weight change occurs at the times when the participants attempt to return to their bodies. (NOTE: A news article on this PRF weight-based "detection" study that was published in June 2012 can be found on our Media page.)

Previous Research

The design for the current PRF study has its basis in two prior experimental approaches. The “detection” aspect was inspired by an OBE detection study previously conducted by the PRF in the 1970s with a selected participant, Keith Harary, who claimed the ability to have an OBE at will (which he reportedly developed through extensive personal training).[5] Referring to his own OBE efforts, Harary once stated:

To me, [the OBE] was a familiar state of mind I had practiced since childhood. I just relaxed my body as deeply as I could and imagined how it would feel to be someplace else. The more I relaxed, and the more intensely I focused, the more I felt as though I were no longer in my body but mentally present in that other place.[6, p. 78]

In the previous PRF study, Harary was asked to try and leave his body at randomly determined times and “project” himself in his out-of-body form to designated target sites located elsewhere. Various people, animals, and/or physical instruments were placed at the target sites to see if they could possible sense or otherwise "detect" the times when Harary was trying to “visit” the sites in his out-of-body form. Most of the people, animals, and instruments performed no better than chance, although there was one animal which seemed to show promising results: a nine-week old kitten belonging to Harary, named "Spirit."

During the experimental sessions, Spirit was placed in a small wooden enclosure and allowed to roam freely. Along the floor of this enclosure was an array of individually numbered squares. The researchers closely monitored Spirit's behavior throughout the session, noting the number of squares that the kitten walked across and how many times the kitten "meowed." At the same time, Harary relaxed in a room located in a distant building, and at random times, he was asked to try and astrally "project" himself in his out-of-body form to the room where Spirit was located.

The outcomes of the experimental sessions with Spirit were quite striking. Throughout the sessions, Spirit had meowed a total of 37 times. However, at the random times when Harary was trying to "visit" the kitten in his out-of-body form, Spirit became noticeably quiet, not even meowing once! Spirit was also found to be significantly less active during these attempted "visit" periods, crossing an average of only 0.21 squares in the enclosure, as compared to an average of 3.5 squares at other times. The indication that Spirit became much quieter and much less active suggests that the kitten was responding to something at the times when Harary was actively trying to “project” himself to the target site where the kitten was located.

The weight change aspect of the current PRF study was inspired by early efforts to explore weight changes occurring at the time of death. Two efforts are particularly notable in this respect: In 1907, physician Duncan MacDougall attempted to measure weight changes in six terminally-ill patients. Each patient lay in a bed carefully set upon a system of beam-balance scales. At the time of their deaths, an upset in the balance of the scales was observed for four of the six patients. When MacDougall rebalanced the scales, he found small losses in weight, ranging from 3/8 to 3/4 of an ounce (approximately 11 to 21 grams).[7]

Nearly a century later (in 2001), Lewis Hollander used an electronic scale system to continually weigh eleven sheep and one goat while their deaths were (humanely) induced through asphyxiation. Small weight gains in the range of 18 to 780 grams were briefly observed in seven of the sheep at the time of death. The weight gains exhibited by the animals lasted between one and six seconds.[8]

While it isn’t definitively clear whether the weight changes observed in these two studies are associated with something leaving or otherwise shifting away from the body at the time of death, they do suggest that something of interest may be occurring.

Budget & Project Status

Current Budget Estimation: $150,000

The current initial phase of this weight-related OBE “detection” study by the PRF is still ongoing, and the results are expected to be available in the near future.

Later phases are expected to include monitoring participants using a more sensitive system of electronic scales. A broader search will also be made for additional participants who are adept at willfully inducing OBEs through various techniques.

If a weight change is found to occur on a rather consistent basis in a variety of selected participants, then it would be another step in determining whether or not something really does leave the body and then re-enter it during an OBE. This, in turn, would have useful implications for what – if anything – may survive after death.[9]

If you have any questions about this project, or would like to know more about it, please e-mail Bryan Williams.

References & Notes

[1] This cited value is based on that given on pages 184 – 185 of Alvarado, C. S. (2000). Out-of-body experiences. In E. Cardeña, S. J. Lynn, & S. Krippner (Eds.) Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence (pp. 183 – 218). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, Inc.

[2] Roll, W. G. (1974). A new look at the survival problem. In J. Beloff (Ed.) New Directions in Parapsychology (pp. 144 – 164). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

[3] A review of these past “detection” studies can be found in Alvarado, C. S. (1982). Recent OBE detection studies: A review. Theta, 10, 35 – 37.

[4] See, for example, Muldoon, S. J., & Carrington, H. (1929). The Projection of the Astral Body. London: Rider & Company.

[5] Morris, R. L., Harary, S. B., Janis, J., Hartwell, J., & Roll, W. G. (1978). Studies of communication during out-of-body experiences. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 72, 1 – 21.

[6] Harary, K. (2005, November/December). Mind games: My journey through the psychic labyrinth. Psychology Today, pp. 74 – 85.

[7] MacDougall, D. (1907). Hypothesis concerning soul substance together with experimental evidence of the existence of such substance. American Medicine, 13, 240 – 243.

[8] Hollander, Jr., L. E. (2001). Unexplained weight gain transients at the moment of death. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 15, 495 – 500.

[9] In addition, some mainstream studies have been conducted in recent years that focus on psychological aspects possibly related to OBEs and the sense of self. An article describing this research, published in FATE magazine in 2008, is available to view as an Adobe PDF file by clicking here.