By Lisa Autz
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Between the polar ends of being alive and dead come the paranormal experiences that hurtle us into another realm. Out-of-body experiences (OBE), or sometimes known as “astral” projections, are one of those enigmas that are nearly beyond scientific explanation.
The term itself is used to describe the sensation of having consciousness somewhere outside of the physical body. We come to learn about such transcendental episodes only by hearing the stories of those that live to reveal them. Usually, they sound like a Stephen King novel to those who hear them, but these experiences remain a life altering moment for those who survive them.
Zach Schepis, staff writer and host of BTR’s Scotch and Cinema, reveals to BTR his experience of consciousness outside of his body after a car struck him one late evening walking home.
“It was so overwhelmingly stressful and traumatic,” says Schepis. “All of reality pulled out from under me like a rug.”
Schepis continues to interpret the jarring event as being in a “formless state” tethering over his body momentarily before dropping back into it. He explains that the former structures of time were eliminated and time and space were stretched out like elastic.
For only a few minutes he had traveled outside of the planes of existence that he once knew. The boundlessness, however, also left him with a sense of fearlessness and understanding once he returned to his bodily form.
“It’s such a powerful feeling of returning back to everything that you know,” says Schepis. “I feel a lot less afraid of anything, especially death… What was I so afraid of?”
These types of near-death experiences (NDE) contain profound psychological affects which usually ignite strong images, emotions, and sometimes terrorizing despair. Over 700 NDEs occur every day in the US according to the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation. However, numerous statistical surveys done on OBEs have been much more difficult to quantify.
In the past century, over 60 million individuals (or 1 percent of the population in seven countries where such incidents have been reported) have experienced a type of lucid projection of consciousness at least once in their lives. Other studies reveal the number to be closer to 14 percent of the population.
However, an OBE does not solely occur when on the brink of death. The general phenomenon of OBE is reported to be induced through sleep, acute illness, traumatic accidents, or meditation.
The idea of “astrally” projecting one’s self stems from late 19th Century Theosophy that postulated an astral world in which the soul travels through celestial spheres on its way to being born and after dying. Though the term was then transferred into the popular notion of out-of-body experiences, astral projections have little to do with the science of the OBE phenomenon themselves.
Gerald Woerlee, an anesthesiologist and author of Mortal Minds: The Biology of Near-Death Experiences, spoke with BTR on his attempt to understand OBEs scientifically. After many years regulating people’s level of consciousness during otherwise painful operations, Woerlee reveals practical insights into such paranormal encounters.
“What people are experiencing is an abnormal brain function combined with abnormal muscle spindle movement,” says Woerlee. “This can also be induced through the process of electoral stimulation.”
Woerlee adds that these affects create an illusionary projection of the body in movement while also stimulating a sensory visual affect of being outside of the body. The abnormal brain function is usually associated with a heightened activity in the visual cortex of the brain.
The experience can be so closely tied with a physiological exertion that many people claim to be able to consciously train their muscle spindles to induce a type of “astral travel,” according to Woerlee. There has become a whole industry of audio, video, and written tutorials on performing the task of traveling outside of your body on command.
The strong distinction that should be made, however, is the difference between visualizing yourself outside of your body and actually having consciousness leave the body. Much of the self-induced OBEs are said to be the former, however the scientific study of both levels of consciousness have sparingly been researched.
Take it from Dr. Jimo Borjigin from the University of Michigan who lead a study released last year that focused on the neurological functions of dying rats. Dr. Borjigin explains to BTR that there is little support for her research or the research of OBE.
“A lot of people are very skeptical,” says Dr. Borjigin. “Many people still believe it is pseudo science.”
Though Dr. Borjigin has faced criticism, her work paved the way for finding a unique method for understanding the brain’s activity as it experiences the process of death. The results of her research recognizes a heightened level of consciousness during the dying process where the visual cortex experiences a cross frequency of alpha and gamma waves–a signature usually found when someone performs a visual task, according to Dr. Borjigin.
Though she stresses that this is an extremely early stage in the study of understanding an animal’s brain activity and consciousness near death, she believes that it is a beginning step towards gaining a neurological basis for OBE.
“At least, now we have a method and now there needs to be more funding and research,” says Borjigin. “Hopefully, as more hard scientific reports come out we can have this type of support.”
As for those few who claim to have explored an unbounded plane of existence, like Schepis, the experience is as real as anything else and has made a lasting impression on his life.
“There was a moment when I returned to my body and realized, ‘I am Zach becoming a new form’ while having the knowledge of where I had returned from.” says Schepis. “It made me think a lot about fear and that if you can come from an experience so mystifying and still have courage, it can teach you a lot.”