[From NIGHTLIGHT 3(2-3), 1991, Copyright, The Lucidity Institute.]
by Lynne Levitan and Stephen LaBerge, Ph.D.

"Out of body" experiences (OBEs) are personal experiences 
during which people feel as if they are perceiving the physical 
world from a location outside of their physical bodies. At least 
5 and perhaps as many as 35 of every 100 people have had an OBE 
at least once in their lives (Blackmore, 1982). OBEs are highly 
arousing; they can be either deeply disturbing or profoundly 
moving. Understanding the nature of this widespread and potent 
experience would no doubt help us better understand the 
experience of being alive and human.

The simplest explanation is that OBEs are exactly what they 
seem: the human consciousness separating from the human body and 
traveling in a discorporate form in the physical world. Another 
idea is that they are hallucinations, but this requires an 
explanation of why so many people have the same delusion. Some of 
our experiments have led us to consider the OBE as a natural 
phenomenon arising out of normal brain processes. Thus, we 
believe that the OBE is a mental event that happens to healthy 
people. In support of this, psychologists Gabbard and Twemlow 
(1984) have concluded from surveys and psychological tests that 
the typical OBE experient is "a close approximation of the 
'average healthy American.'" (p. 40)

Our conception, also proposed by the English psychologist 
Susan Blackmore, is that an OBE begins when a person loses 
contact with sensory input from the body while remaining 
conscious (Blackmore, 1988; LaBerge - Lucidity Letter; Levitan - 
Lucidity Letter). The person retains the feeling of having a 
body, but that feeling is no longer derived from data provided by 
the senses. The "out-of-body" person also perceives a world that 
resembles the world he or she generally inhabits while awake, but 
this perception does not come from the senses either. The vivid 
body and world of the OBE is made possible by our brain's 
marvelous ability to create fully convincing images of the world, 
even in the absence of sensory information. This process is 
witnessed by each of us every night in our dreams. Indeed, all 
dreams could be called OBEs in that in them we experience events 
and places quite apart from the real location and activity of our 


So, we are saying that OBEs may be a kind of dream. But, even 
so, they are extraordinary experiences. The great majority of 
people who have had OBEs say they are more real than dreams. 
Common aspects of the experience include being in an "out-of-
body" body much like the physical one, feeling a sense of energy, 
feeling vibrations, and hearing strange loud noises (Gabbard & 
Twemlow, 1984). Sometimes a sensation of bodily paralysis 
precedes the OBE (Salley, 1982; Irwin, 1988; Muldoon & 
Carrington, 1974; Fox, 1962).  

To the sleep researcher, these strange phenomena are 
remarkably reminiscent of another curious experience, called 
sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis occurs sometimes when a person 
is waking from or falling into REM sleep, the state in which most 
vivid dreams occur. During REM sleep, the muscles of the body, 
excluding the eye muscles and those responsible for circulation 
and respiration, are immobilized by orders from a nerve center in 
the lower brain. This prevents us from acting out our dreams. 
Occasionally, this paralysis turns on or remains active while the 
person's mind is fully awake and aware of the world.

Some of the experiences people have reported during sleep 
paralysis are: "I feel completely removed from myself," "feeling 
of being separated from my body," "eerie, rushing experiences," 
and hearing "hissing in the ears," and "roaring in the head." 
These events appear to be much like the OBE sensations of 
vibrations, strange noises, and drifting away from the physical 
body (Everett, 1983). Fear has also been described as a common 
component of sleep paralysis (see the "Question and Answer" in 
NightLight, Vol. 2, No. 1 for a discussion of overcoming fear in 
sleep paralysis.)


So, it seems possible that at least some OBEs arise from the 
same conditions as sleep paralysis, and that these two terms may 
actually be naming two aspects of the same phenomenon. As a first 
test of this idea, we should ask how many OBEs actually occur at 
times when people are likely to experience sleep paralysis -- 
that is, do OBEs happen when people are lying down, asleep, 
resting, or while awake and active?

Researchers have approached the question of the timing of 
OBEs by asking people who claim to have had OBEs to describe when 
they happened. In one of these, over 85 percent of those surveyed 
said they had had OBEs while they were resting, sleeping or 
dreaming. (Blackmore, 1984) Other surveys also show that the 
majority of OBEs occur when people are in bed, ill, or resting, 
with a smaller percentage coming while the person is drugged or 
medicated. (Green, 1968; Poynton, 1975; Blackmore, 1983 )

Survey evidence favors the theory that OBEs could arise out 
of the same conditions as sleep paralysis. There is also 
considerable evidence that people who tend to have OBEs also tend 
to have lucid dreams, flying and falling dreams, and the ability 
to control their dreams (Blackmore, 1983, 1984; Glicksohn, 1989; 
Irwin, 1988).

Because of the strong connection between OBEs and lucid 
dreaming, some researchers in the area have suggested that OBEs 
are a type of lucid dream (Faraday, 1976; Honegger, 1979; Salley, 
1982). One problem with this argument is that although people who 
have OBEs are also likely to have lucid dreams, OBEs are far less 
frequent, and can happen to people who have never had lucid 
dreams. Furthermore, OBEs are quite plainly different from lucid 
dreams in that during a typical OBE the experient is convinced 
that the OBE is a real event happening in the physical world and 
not a dream, unlike a lucid dream, in which by definition the 
dreamer is certain that the event is a dream. There is an 
exception that connects the two experiences -- when we feel 
ourselves leaving the body, but also know that we are dreaming.

In our studies of the physiology of the initiation of 
lucidity in the dream state, we observed that quite of few of the 
lucid dreams we collected contained experiences like OBEs. The 
dreamers described lying in bed, feeling strange bodily 
sensations, often vibrations, hearing loud humming noises, and 
then rising out of body and floating above the bed.

Those studies revealed that lucid dreams have two ways of 
starting. In the much more common variety, the "dream-initiated 
lucid dream" (DILD), the dreamer acquires awareness of being in a 
dream while fully involved in it. DILDs occur when dreamers are 
right in the middle of REM sleep, showing lots of the 
characteristic rapid eye movements. We know this is true because 
our dreamers give a deliberate prearranged eye-movement signal 
when they realize they are dreaming. These signals show up on our 
physiology record, so that we can pinpoint the times when 
lucidity begins and see what kind of brain state the dreamers 
were in at those times. DILDs account for about four out of every 
five lucid dreams that our dreamers have had in the laboratory. 
In the other 20 percent, the dreamers report awakening 
from a dream and then returning to the dream state with unbroken 
awareness -- one moment they are aware that they are awake in bed 
in the sleep laboratory, and the next moment, they are aware that 
they have entered a dream and are no longer perceiving the room 
around them. We call these "wake initiated lucid dreams" (WILDs).

A casual look at the dream reports and physiological 
records led us to think that the OBE-type dream content was 
happening mostly in WILDs. So, we analyzed the data 
scientifically in the experiment described below.


The data we studied consisted of 107 lucid dreams from a 
total of 14 different people. The physiological information that 
we collected in conjunction with each lucid dream always included 
brain waves, eye-movements, and chin muscle activity. These 
measurements are necessary for determining if a person in awake, 
asleep, and in REM sleep or not. In all cases, the dreamer 
signaled the beginning of the lucid dream by making a distinct 
pattern of eye movements that was identifiable by someone not 
involved with the experiment.

After verifying that all the lucid dreams had eye signals 
showing that they had happened in REM sleep, we classified them 
into DILDs and WILDs, based on how long the dreamers had been in 
REM sleep without awakening before becoming lucid (two minutes or 
more for DILDs, less that two minutes for WILDs), and on their 
report of either having realized they were dreaming while 
involved in a dream (DILD) or having entered the dream directly 
from waking while retaining lucidity (WILD).

Alongside the physiological analysis we scored each dream 
report for the presence of various events that are typical of 
OBEs, such as feelings of body distortion (including paralysis 
and vibrations), floating or flying, references to being aware of 
being in bed, being asleep or lying down, and the sensation of 
leaving the body (for instance, "I was floating out-of-body").


Ten of the 107 lucid dreams qualified as OBEs, because the 
dreamers reported feeling like they had left their bodies in the 
dream. Twenty of the lucid dreams were WILDs, and 87 were DILDs. 
Five of the OBEs were WILDs (28%) and five were DILDs (6%). Thus, 
OBEs were more than four times more likely in WILDs than in DILDs.

The three OBE-related events we looked for also all 
occurred more often in WILDs than in DILDs. Almost one third of 
WILDs contained body distortions, and over a half of them 
included floating or flying or awareness of being in bed. This is 
in comparison to DILDs, of which less than one fifth involved 
body distortions, only one third included floating or flying, and 
one fifth contained awareness of bed.

The reports from the five DILDs that we classified as OBEs 
were actually much like those from the WILD-OBEs. In both the 
dreamers felt themselves lying in bed and experiencing strange 
sensations including paralysis and floating out-of-body. Although 
these lucid dreams sound like WILDs, we had classified them as 
DILDS because the physiological records showed no awakenings 
preceding lucidity. However, it is possible that these people 
could have momentarily become aware of their environments (and 
hence been "awake") while continuing to show the brainwaves 
normally associated with REM sleep. The science of the EEG is not 
sufficiently advanced that we can tell what people are 
experiencing by looking at their brainwaves. Anecdotes from dream 
reports indicate that people sometimes become aware of sensations 
from their sleeping bodies while dreaming -- for example, the 
dream in which you are trying to run while your legs become 
heavier and heavier, perhaps because you are feeling their true 
immobile condition.


Our laboratory studies showed us that when OBEs happen in 
lucid dreams they happen either when a person reenters REM sleep 
right after an awakening, or right after having become aware of 
being in bed. However, we wondered if this relationship would 
apply to OBEs and lucid dreams that people experience at home, in 
the "real world."

Not being able to take the sleep lab to the homes of hundreds 
of people (the DreamLight may soon give us this capacity!), we 
took a survey about OBEs and other dream-related experiences, 
somewhat like the past studies referred to earlier. The 
difference between our survey and previous ones is that in 
addition to asking if people had had OBEs, we asked specifically 
about certain events that we know to be associated with WILDs, 
namely, lucid dreaming, returning directly to a dream after 
awakening from it, and sleep paralysis.

A total of 572 people filled out our questionnaire. They 
were either students in an introductory psychology course or 
readers of the NightLight. About a third of the group reported 
having had at least one OBE. Just over 80 percent had had lucid 
dreams. Sleep paralysis was reported by 37 percent and 85 percent 
had been able to return to t a dream after awakening. 

People who reported more dream-related experiences also 
reported more OBEs. For example, of the 452 people claiming to 
have had lucid dreams, 39 percent also reported OBEs, whereas 
only 15 percent of those who did not claim lucid dreams said they 
had had OBEs. The group with the most people reporting OBEs (51%) 
were those who said they had experienced lucid dreams, dream 
return, and sleep paralysis.

We would expect people who can return directly to dreams 
after an awakening to be prone to having WILDs, and therefore 
also to have frequent lucid dreams. Indeed, in this survey, 
people reporting frequent dream return also tended to report 
frequent lucid dreams. Thus, we believe that the fact that dream 
return frequency was linked with OBE frequency in this study 
gives further support to our laboratory research finding that 
WILDs were associated with OBEs.


Our two studies have compared the frequency of OBEs in the 
two types of lucid dream, and surveyed the relative frequency of 
OBEs and dream-related events in a large number of people. We 
have thereby learned that when OBEs happen during lucid dreams, 
they generally happen in lucid dreams that arise from brief 
awakenings in REM sleep, and that people who have certain special 
dream experiences are more likely to have OBEs that people who do 
not. These dream experiences include returning to the dream state 
after an awakening, lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis.
    Above we described our operating theory that OBEs occur 
when people lose input from their sense organs, as happens at the 
onset of sleep, while retaining consciousness. This combination 
of events is especially likely when a person passes directly from 
waking into REM sleep. In both states the mind is alert and 
active, but in waking it is processing sensory input from the 
outside world, while in dreaming it is creating a mental model 
independent of sensory input. This model includes a body. When 
dreaming, we generally experience ourselves in a body much like 
the "real" one, because that is what we are used to. However, our 
internal senses in the physical body, which when we are awake 
inform us about our position in space and the movement of our 
limbs. This information is cut off in REM sleep. Therefore, we 
can dream of doing all kinds of things with our dream bodies -- 
flying, dancing, running from monsters, being dismembered -- all 
while our physical bodies lie safely in bed.

During a WILD, or sleep paralysis, the awake and alert mind 
keeps up its good work of showing us the world it expects is out 
there -- although it can no longer sense it. So, then we are in a 
mental-dream-world. Possibly we feel the cessation of the 
sensation of gravity as that part of sensory input shuts down, 
and then feel that we are suddenly lighter and float up, rising 
from the place where we know our real body to be lying still. The 
room around us looks about the same, because that is our brain's 
best guess about where we are. If we did not know that we had 
just fallen asleep, we might well think that we were awake, still 
in touch with the physical world, and that something mighty 
strange was happening -- a departure of the mind from the 
physical body!

The unusual feeling of leaving the body is exciting and 
alarming. This, combined with the realistic imagery of the 
bedroom is enough to account for the conviction of many OBE 
experients' that "it was too real to be a dream." Dreams, too, 
can be astonishingly real, especially if you are attending to 
their realness. Usually, we pass through our dreams without 
thinking much about them, and upon awakening remember little of 
them. Hence, they seem "unreal." But waking life is also like 
that -- our memory for a typical, mundane day is flat and lacking 
in detail. It is only the novel, exciting, or frightening events 
that leave vivid impressions. If we stop what we are doing, we 
can look around and say, "Yes, this world looks solid and real." 
But, if you look back and try to recall, for instance, brushing 
your teeth this morning, your memory is likely to be vague and 
not very life-like. Contrast this to a past event that excited or 
alarmed you, which is likely to seem much more "real" in 

Lucid dreamers often comment to themselves in dreams, "I 
know this is a dream, but it all seems so incredibly real!" All 
this goes to show that the feeling that an event is real does not 
mean that it is happening in the physical world that we all share 
when we are awake. This is not to deny that that inner 
experiences are real, in that they have deeply profound effects 
on our lives. However, as lucid dreaming so amply demonstrates, 
we can learn to distinguish between our personal dreams and 
events in the consensus dream we call physical reality. When we 
do, we find that what we thought was one thing -- the waking 
world -- is actually another -- a dream.

Proof that some or even most OBEs are dreams is not enough 
to allow us to say that a genuine OBE is impossible. However, in 
the interests of lucidity, if you have an OBE, why not test to 
see if the OBE-world passes the reality test? Is the room you are 
in the one you are actually sleeping in? If you have left your 
body, where is it? Do things change when you are not looking at 
them (or when you are)? Can you read something twice and have it 
remain the same on both readings? If any of your questions and 
investigations leave you doubting that you are in the physical 
world, is it not logical to believe you are dreaming?

Another point to consider is that a dream doesn't always 
have to happen in REM sleep. Most do, but there are probably 
quite a few other conditions in which people can lose touch with 
sensory experience and enter a mental world. Some such states 
that we know of are hypnotic trance, anesthesia, and sensory 
isolation. OBEs have been reported from these states (Nash et 
al., 1984; Olson, 1988). Thus, the argument that an OBE cannot be 
a dream because the experient wasn't asleep doesn't hold water.


To end this discussion of the origins of the OBE, an event 
considered unbelievable by many and metaphysical by others, let's 
consider the state of affairs that is considered normal: the "in-
the-body" experience. What does it mean to be in a body? Saying 
that one is in a body implies that the self is an object with 
definite borders capable of being contained by the boundaries of 
another object -- the physical body. However, we do not have any 
evidence that the self is such a concrete thing. What we think of 
as "out-of-body" in an OBE is the experience of the self. This 
experience of being "in" a body is normally based on perceptual 
input from the senses of both the world external to the body and 
the processes within the body. These give us a sense of 
localization of the self in space. However, it is the body, and 
its sense organs, that occupy a specific locus, not the self. The 
self is not the body or the brain. If we think that the self is a 
product of brain function, even this does not make it reasonable 
to state that the self is in the brain -- is the meaning 
contained in these words in this page? It may not make any sense 
on an objective level to say that the self is anywhere. Rather, 
the self is where it feels itself to be. Its location is purely 
subjective and derived from input from the sensory organs.

Putting aside the question of the essential nature of the 
self, perception is undeniably a phenomenon tied to brain 
function. So, when we find ourselves experiencing a world that 
seems much like the one we are used to perceiving with our usual 
equipment -- eyes, ears,  etc., all things linked to our brains, 
it would be logical to assume that it is our usual brain creating 
the experience. And, if we were to really leave our bodies -- 
severing all connection with them -- it would be illogical to 
assume that we would see the world in the same way. Therefore, 
although no amount of contradictory evidence can rule out the 
possibility of a real "out of body experience," in which an 
individual exists in some form entirely independent of the body, 
it is highly unlikely that such a form would utilize perceptual 
systems identical to those of the physical human form.

Spiritual teachings tell us that we have a reality beyond 
that of this world. The OBE may not be, as it is easily 
interpreted, a literal separation of the soul from the crude 
physical body, but it is an indication of the vastness of the 
potential that lies wholly within our minds. The worlds we create 
in dreams and OBEs are as real as this one, and yet hold 
infinitely more variety. How much more exhilarating to be "out-
of-body" in a world where the only limit is the imagination than 
to be in the physical world in a powerless body of ether! Freed 
of the constraints imposed by physical life, expanded by 
awareness that limits can be transcended, who knows what we could 
be, or become? 


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