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.
The Venerable Michael Perry
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
spiritual monistic theory of
has just returned from two years’ VSO in Papua New Guinea, where he taught,
completed a small hydro-electricity scheme, and carried out parapsychological
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
A lot of contemporary non-Western cultures have their own variations of CAP
too (Shiels 1978, McIntosh 1980).
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.
Merits of CAP and Psychological Theories
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
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.
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
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.
Monism and the OBE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
thus have a theory which fully incorporates the sound psychological theories of
OBEs, yet treats the ASC as a spiritual phenomenon.
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.
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
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.
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
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
S., Parapsychology and Out-of-the-Body Experiences (U.K.,
Society for Psychical Research and Transpersonal Books, 1978).
R., The Study and Practice of Astral Projection (U.K., Aquarian Press,
The Techniques of Astral Projection (Aquarian
Intimations of Immortality (U.K.,
James Clarke, 1965).
The Interpretation of Cosmic and Mystical Experiences (James Clarke, 1969).
C. E., Lucid
Dreams and Out-of-the-Body Experiences (both U.K., Hamish Hamilton, 1968).
A. I., A Commentary on the “Christos” Technique (Appendix to Glaskin,
G. M., Worlds Within, U.K., Arrow
Books edition only,1978).
“Christos” Procedure: a Novel ASC Induction Technique (U.K.,
Journal of Psychoenergetic Systems, Vol. 3, 1979).
Experience, Hallucination and Belief in God (U.K.,
THE CHRISTIAN PARAPSYCHOLOGIST, Vol. 3, No. 1, December 1978).
About Out-of-the-Body Experiences Amongst the Elema, Gulf
Kamea and Rigo Peoples of Papua New
Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 50, No. 785, September 1980).
J., The Out-of-the-Body Experience: a Psychological Theory (U.S.A.,
Parapsychology Review, Vol. 9, No. 5, September-October 1978).
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
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.
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
are at least five major types of OBE theory. The CAP theory referred to by McIntosh
varies considerably and spans the first three.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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
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.
S. J., Parapsychology and Out-of-the-body Experiences (SPR
and Transpersonal Books) London 1978.
“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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