An Out-Of-Body Experience

October 25, 2019

Although I did not know it, this was a mystical experience (James 1902). Everything was perfect, as it must be without a constructed self to give either perspective or desires: the classic experience of nonduality.

My first and most dramatic OBE happened back in 1970 and I have spent much of the rest of my life trying to understand it (Blackmore 1982, 2017). Now, almost 50 years on, I think I can. You may have read my description in the first post in this series, or a longer version in either my book, Seeing Myself, or online. Here I rewrite the same account with references to all the scientific ideas that now make it possible to explain OBEs naturally.

All these discoveries are a joy to me, but not so to everyone. Ken Ring (1980) was a pioneering researcher into near-death experiences, and he and I have been friends since I began research on OBEs. He read both my original description and this one; he did not like this one at all. He wrote “The first is gripping; the second, at least to me, is rather boring. The first experience changed your life; the second seems to have satisfied your quest to understand what happened to you.”

He’s right about it changing my life, but that is true whatever the explanation. And to me, explaining something so weird and strange in terms of neuroscience only adds to the pleasure, and to my enthusiasm to find out more. I doubt I would still be meditating every day were it not for that final mystical experience, and that is surely a lasting contribution to my life even if it can be naturally explained. So here is my new account:

“I was sitting cross-legged on the floor late one evening. Sleep deprivation had disturbed my vestibular system, making me feel drifting or floating, and had especially interfered with my right TPJ and with it my body schema (Chee & Chua 2007, Quarck et al 2006). Nearly four hours of holding out my arm for the Ouija board had confused my body schema even more. My attention kept wandering and my short term memory was reduced by cannabis (Earleywine 2002). REM intrusion threatened (Nelson 2010) and I was on the verge of hallucinating even without that puff of cannabis.

In the near darkness and with my eyes shut, the primary visual cortex, V1, was getting no useful information from outside. With my hyperexcitable cortex (Braithwaite et al 2013) already disinhibited by the combination of sleep deprivation and cannabis, it went into random firing, producing an illusory central light and the form constants of spirals and tunnels (Cowan 1982). Disinhibited motion detectors produced illusory movement and as the light grew bigger I seemed to move towards it. Memories of that day’s cycling through autumn trees intruded.  I was moving through a tunnel of trees.

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