From Abracadabra to Zombies
reader comments: out-of-body experiences
30 Nov 2000
Hello, First of all you have an awesome website, it's amazing how much people allow themselves to be diluted [deluded?] by things they wish were true.
There is something I heard that is pretty interesting about how people who have near death or "life after death" experiences that think they see a "white tunnel of light to heaven." A professor at USC told me that people see that when there is a lack of oxygen to the visual cortex (V1). The fovea, or center of our vision corresponds to the neurons in the visual cortex closest to the spinal cord. As you move out towards the peripheral of our visual fields, so move the corresponding neurons out towards the edges of the visual cortex. So when the brain is deprived of oxygen, the outside neurons "turn off" or go black first. The "dying" patient experiences a blackness encroaching upon his visual field that starts at the edges and contracts towards the center of the vision. It's not so much a white tunnel, but a black surrounding area. There is also weird stuff going on with perceived contrast, and the dilation of the pupils, so instead of seeing the ceiling of the operating room, you might just see bright, white light, surrounded by darkness. Essentially you get tunnel vision, in high contrast. My professor suggested this as an explanation for why people report that they flew into a tunnel of white light. This is only his theory, but he is a professor of neurobiology at USC.
I think the scientific explanations for things are almost always much cooler than the mystical and magical ones.
6 Apr 2000
I read the reader comments about OBE, and I wanted to add something...
When I was rather young (about 5 years old, I'm guessing), I had the same physical experiences that another reader mentioned: physical paralysis, electrical tingling, loud, high-pitched rushing/humming sound, sensation of weightlessness... I had no idea that they were supposedly related to out-of-body experiences until 10 to 15 years later when I read a book on the subject that mentioned when you have those sensations, you're very close to dissociating. The only other time I've had those sensations again was just a few years ago when I dreamed I had an out-of-body experience. As soon as it started occurring in the dream, I became completely conscious and had those strange sensations again. When I was young, it scared me quite badly and it happened fairly frequently. I never "left my body" or had an experience of another entity being present. (I completely understand, though, why people who don't know better might think aliens or demons are involved.) As far as I know, those sensations merely result from a slight glitch in the mechanism that disconnects your brain from the rest of your body when you fall asleep. If you are not unconscious when it happens, you have some really odd sensory information (or a lack thereof) to deal with. This neural disconnection is what results in those strange sensations.
Something I would like to see mentioned is the supposed gathering of information by people during an OBE that they could not have otherwise known.
Thank you for maintaining such a fantastic sceptical resource! It's too bad
healthy scepticism doesn't spread like scientific ignorance does (check out http://www.alexchiu.com/
for complete details on how to live forever! *ha*).
reply: Mr. Chiu sells magnetic finger and toe rings that allegedly make one immortal. He claims "the fingers and toes are the negative (-) and positive (+) terminals of your body. When placing the magnetic devices, the magnetic pole on the right side of the human body is opposite to the left side. With a opposite pole on each side of the human body, blood circulation and electric current of the body are enhanced. The enhanced blood circulation and electric current increase metabolism in order to fight the aging process." Last August, I wrote him and asked: "If I go to Brazil or New Zealand in the southern hemisphere, will I need to repolarize my rings to account for the different pull on my cells in other side of the world? Or do I just put the left hand ring on the right hand and vice versa?"
Someone named Richard wrote back for Alex and told me "You wear the rings the same way everywhere in the world." I figure that this answer got me as close as I'll ever get to an out-of-body experience.
05 Nov 1998
Being a skeptic myself, I loved reading through your no-nonsense articles. But when I got to the section on OBEs, I noticed that you left quite a bit of really interesting info out. Perhaps you haven't fully researched the subject.
A lot of people commonly regard OBEs as purely mental experiences. "Hmmm... the book told me to sit in lotus position, forget about my body, and visualize flight... yeah, this is sort of nice."
Any real research into OBEs would have dug up a whole list of violent PHYSICAL symptoms that occur before going "out of body". They include:
- The sensation of weightlessness
- Feeling like your body is shaking uncontrollably, as if with a seizure or extreme hunger
- Hearing loud, insistent noises such as the rumbling of freight trains, or gunshots, directly between your ears
- Feeling a painless, undeniable shocking sensation, as if your entire body has just completed a huge, powerful electric circuit, that lasts for minutes at a time
Can I give you any sources? No, since I did all my research at least a year ago. But these symptoms were reported by almost everyone who claimed to have had an OBE, so it wouldn't be too hard to find now.
Being a skeptic, I assumed that these sensations were all grossly exaggerated feelings (a lightheaded feeling instead of weightlessness, tingling skin instead of electric shock) until I experienced it firsthand. Then again the next day, the next, and the next.
I'm still having these sensations on a regular basis. And guess what? I'm still a skeptic. But I'm willing to admit that there must be *something* causing this phenomenon, even if it's only medical. You owe it to your readers to offer more info than you have; otherwise skeptics will continue to regard OBEs as optimistic daydreams; while the people who actually experience them will continue to turn into religious fanatics, having no other explanation.
Please consider adding more info.
reply: I understand your concern. I picked up a book on OBEs that promised anyone could have one and discovered that daydreaming counts as an out-of-body experience. This is not a well-defined subject area, to say the least. Some of the characteristics you listed have been used to identify alien abductions. Some are clearly related to medical problems. So much that has been written on this subject has been written by New Age dreamers that I think I will leave it up to others to do more research on the subject.
23 Jun 1996
Dear Mr. Carroll,
I have read your material on OBEs with interest. While I make no claims to be a scientist, I have had an unique experience, which I still can not explain. Perhaps it was a dream, a shared dream.
While asleep one evening in 1981, I thought I left my body and traveled to the foot of my mother's bed (110 miles away). My mother was very ill at the time. As I stood at the end of the bed she asked me if I would let her die. I told her, "No. Not unless you let me help you get better." She agreed to those conditions. Then it felt as if I was speeding back to my own bed. I woke up with the feeling that something inexplicable had happened. I woke my wife and told her of my experience. We said nothing more about it.
Six months later my mother came to live with my wife and me. After she had been with us for about a week she told us the strangest story while we were having our morning coffee. It was the same experience that I had had. However, she said that in her -- dream -- I appeared like an angel at the foot of her bed.
She clarified that she had had her experience the same day that I had had mine.
There is no physical proof that I can provide. Unlike some of the authors you have cited I have no reason to make a profit from having had the experience. To my mother, who is now deceased, my wife and me the experience seemed real. I am curious if there is another explanation.
reply: It could have been an OBE or a lucid dream, but I doubt it.
For a son to dream about visiting his very ill mother, or a very ill mother to dream about her son visiting her, is not surprising or unusual. That two such dreams occurred on the same night under such circumstances does not seem to require an extraordinary explanation. Your mother was very ill but lived too far away for you to be with her as much as you wanted to. She desired her son to be with her during her time of extreme need. Dreams fulfilling such basic needs and desires are common, not uncommon.
On the other hand, when you say that six months after your dreams she told you that she had "the same experience" on "the same day" that you had your dream, I have to wonder. You guys must keep pretty good diaries to be so precise on the dates. How many people can look back six months and remember what they did on a particular day, much less what they dreamed? Even so, it would be very unusual if neither you nor your wife had mentioned your dream to your mother between the time you had it and six months later when she came to live with you. You considered it to be a very unusual type of dream and woke your wife to tell her about it. Even if you did not mention the dream to your mother, it is possible that your wife did. Or, maybe you don't even remember mentioning the dream to your mother. We often fill in our memories of events and dreams after the fact and what we remember as having happened or having been in our dream often happened after the event or dream occurred.
When you say your mother's experience was the "same" do you mean that her dream was identical to your dream except for the angel bit? (By the way, I'd be honored if my mother dreamed of me as an angel! She must have thought you were a pretty good son.) If her dream had the same dialogue in it as yours, my best guess would be that you or your wife had told her of the dialogue and that what she remembered as her dream was actually what you or your wife had told her of your dream. Wives don't always tell husbands everything. We don't always remember what we said to whom and when we said it. Verification later may be erroneous, yet we take it to be certain. Our subjective certainty in these matters is often so strong as to make us prefer an explanation in terms of OBEs or dream telepathy rather than assume that it is more likely that we have cued each other but don't remember doing so. So-called psychic performers, or mentalists, often amaze people with what they "know" about them, when much of what they "know" was revealed by their subjects. The subjects don't remember revealing information about themselves, even though the time lapse between their revelations and the psychic's "reading their mind" is only a few minutes. (See the entry on cold reading.)
Finally, as to the motivation of those who have strange and seemingly inexplicable experiences, I would note that most similar stories are not told by people who are trying to profit by it. They are truly baffled by what seems to them something beyond co-incidence and they seriously seek an explanation. Even though having a profit motive would be good grounds for being skeptical of such claims, not having a profit motive is not a very significant fact in evaluating the nature of such claims.