Dear Straight Dope:
I was wondering if a person can really do astral traveling or have an out-of-body experience while sleeping. If it is possible, how can one develop this supernatural ability? Or have I been watching too many Richard Simmons tapes (he is after all a supernatural manifestation)?
SDStaff Doug replies:
Yippee! Someone posted a question on this! I may get long-winded, but there’s a good reason: I have engaged in “astral projection” on dozens of occasions myself, and have a pretty good handle on the phenomenon.
The story is supposedly that one sends one’s astral self soaring out and away from the body, either into real space, or onto an alternate plane of existence. Pretty cool stuff, huh? Well, what it actually turns out to be is a rather natural and common form of hallucination that can be best described as the exact opposite of sleepwalking.
The sleep cycle of higher vertebrates, people included, is a complex physiological process that requires coordination between a number of bodily systems, with fairly well-defined “stages” in the cycle. One essential part of this process is the serotonin-mediated control of a part of the brainstem sometimes called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). This little region acts primarily to paralyze our voluntary muscle movements when we sleep. Sleepwalking is what happens when this setup doesn’t work right. Instead of being paralyzed, the commands given by the brain get acted out by the body. They’ve done experiments with cats that show this: destroy the RAS, and the cat will run around, hiss, snarl, and pounce on imaginary things while in REM sleep–the same sort of stuff a human sleepwalker might do (if they acted like a cat, of course).
They’ve also done experiments on cats where they alter the serotonin levels so that the reverse takes place: the cat is awake, but the RAS is functioning, so the animal is paralyzed. This is pretty obviously the counterpart to the common human phenomenon of “sleep paralysis.” What isn’t commonly appreciated is that sleep paralysis often is accompanied by visual/auditory sensations known as hypnagogic hallucinations. Added to that are related sensations from the body due to the body’s attempts to supply feedback from paralyzed systems. So, your wide-awake brain tells your body “Okay, I’m getting up now,” and sometimes you will actually feel the sensation of getting up and see appropriate images even though you haven’t budged an inch or opened your eyes.
Most of the time these hallucinations are brief and mundane — the feeling of sitting up in bed and answering a ringing phone, for instance, and about 10 seconds later waking up completely and realizing, “Oh, wow, that was weird!” Well, that sort of brief, mundane sensation can be prolonged and elaborated upon, and if it gets longer and more complex, it’s called an “out of body experience” (OBE). Ever read Edgar Rice Burrough’s “John Carter of Mars” books? This includes one of the earliest and best descriptions of a classic OBE in Western literature.
In essence, it’s just a trick of the brainstem, and can lead to absolutely amazing, intense, and realistic sensations of about anything you can imagine — by far the most incredible things you can experience without recourse to drugs. It’s not all that hard to induce the state, though most of the time, like I said, it’s very transitory, on the order of a few seconds to one or two minutes once the paralysis has set in. It’s more common when you are in the process of falling asleep rather than waking. Personally I get the best results if I get up when I wake up normally, eat a leisurely breakfast, and go back to bed. The body doesn’t need more sleep, but you trick it — the RAS kicks in but the sleep cycle does not. BINGO! I feel myself rise out of my body, pass through the walls, and start soaring through space (or whatever I choose to do).
I’ve experimented quite a bit trying to succeed in “remote viewing,” and like every other scientific test of the phenomenon, failed to produce any statistically significant correlation between things I viewed and reality. As much as I would love to be the person to win the Amazing Randi’s million-dollar prize for demonstrating a real OBE, as much as I would love to believe in an astral plane and possible life beyond the confines of the body, I haven’t been able to find any proof that this is anything but a quirk of human physiology. An entertaining quirk for sure, but nothing as mystical as most people who experience it claim.. It’s too bad, in a way, that people should attach religious or quasi-religious significance to it, because that makes it hard to educate people about it, or do any legitimate scientific research about the phenomenon. Too dang bad those cats can’t talk.
SD Staff Doug, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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