out of the body


People talk about being 'out of it'. The phrase hints at real out-of-body experiences. I had my first around the age of fourteen, when I ‘floated’ through the bottom of my bed and encountered a coffin-sized amber crystal, which I immediately recognised as 'me'. I had a number of subsequent experiences, including trying (successfully) to pass through walls, see myself in a mirror while disembodied (unsuccessful), and one experience where I watched my brother's dreams appeared like a cloud of images around his head. Around 10% of the population have out-of-body episodes, including near-death experiences. I was recently interviewed for a qualitative study on the subject.

There are a few current theories about out-of-body experiences. Psychologist Susan Blackmore maintains that we can temporarily deconstruct the sense of self to reconstruct it at a personal location outside - rather than within - the personal image of the body. This 'extreme depersonalisation' can be triggered by intolerable experiences - we simply remove our 'selves' from the physical reality of the unbearable. I favour other more recent research in consciousness studies (such as that conducted by anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff and mathematician Roger Penrose) that suggests the mind may be produced by quantum processes that use the sub-atomic structures within brain cells, a theory that allows for the possibility of consciousness existing both inside and beyond the physical brain. Philosopher David Chalmers even hints at a theory revisited after years in the wilderness - that the mind could be a separate entity in its own right. In the UK, the Horizon Research Foundation set up a study across 25 hospitals to explore near-death phenomena. Although they feel very real, I'm uncertain whether out-of-body experiences are evidence of life beyond physical existence or a product of physical processes. Maybe both are true.

Occurrences are now less frequent; the last - around 1997 - was triggered during extreme anxiety. Usually, they are pleasant and exhilarating, and often happen at the borders of sleeping and waking. There is no break in consciousness between exiting the body and returning to it, and I remain acutely aware throughout.

For a related experience, which I used to call 'small seeing', I was taken to a doctor who said there was nothing wrong with my eyes. But apparently, something neurological was happening and I found out it has a great name: Alice In Wonderland Syndrome (personal account from illustrator Johanna Basford).

Finally, I recently saw a diagram shown by someone giving a talk (a vague phrase, I know, but it'll do) that looks exactly like what I used to see 'behind my eyes' as a child either side of sleep. It consists of a series of complex, round geometrical symbols. As a child I called this experience 'reading from the wise book', as 'pages' of these geometric symbols would pass before my eyes.