Images by Luigi Schiavonetti.
One in ten people will experience an out-of-body experience (OBE) at some point in their life. This figure alone makes it no surprise that OBE anecdotes rank among the more pervasive life-after-death myths. Their statistical likelihood along with their root in sheer conscious – in as much as, regardless of the manifold debate of their provenance, people who report them can be proven to have experienced something – gives them a cultural staying power that many other supposedly spiritual experiences will never achieve. Often striking as part of a near-death experience, they catch people at the most vulnerable point between themselves and their mortality – when they would be at their most emotionally susceptible to reassurance that the end isn’t, in fact, the end. Moreover, having experienced one represents a disposition to experience more throughout a lifetime and so, for that one in ten, they are a fact that repeats itself.
Ironically, it is the fallibility of our feeble bodies that make this apparent proof of the afterlife possible. Scientists are learning (psychoactive substance users may have long known) there are a myriad of ways to artificially produce OBEs, including self-induced sleep paralysis*, direct mechanical stimulation of the brain, meditation ¾ tricks that cause the brain to misinterpret sensory data, and, as alluded to, drugs. Ultimately, it is widely accepted that those who experience OBEs, even those teetering on the precipice of this mortal coil, are experiencing a hallucination more akin to lucid dreaming than the genuine evacuation of the soul from the body. This is terribly bad news for eternal-life fantasists taking OBEs as some sort of empirical proof of an immutable soul or human essence that transcends the physical. Particularly those poor souls who have looked death – and they would insist, themselves – square in the face.
Yet the very idea of an out-of-body experience is a logical fallacy. The name in itself is a misleading linguistic trick in as much as it implies the body is the location of experience. Supposedly, under normal circumstances, experiences are “in-body” and so any deviation from that must be “out-of-body”. This is not true, however, because human consciousness is a product of neuronal activity triggered by sensory data and, as such, any and all “experience” is a product of the body. The body is not the venue of experience, it creates it. Experiences are therefore “because-of-body”. As such, an out-of-body experience is not possible because, by necessity, no body means no experience.
Again, the idea that the self can leave its body circumvents the very fact that the conscious mind is a direct product of that body. In doing so it relegates the role of the body as inconsequential to the mind. This is a more profound delusion than any eternal-life fantasy because it is pertinent to life now, as opposed to the afterlife. It trivialises the body as a mere vessel, something that it is not only possible for the self to leave behind and remain intact but that it is somehow ideal to do so. This is the body as shackle, as limitation, as the literal physical manifestation of inconvenience and an obstacle to any real sort of metaphysical experience**. Ultimately it belies contempt for the body and festers ignorance in our understanding of the relationship between human experience and our physical, biological endowment***.
Out-of-body experiences are merely one example of the contempt we hold, as apparently sentient beings, towards our own bodies in favour of spiritual idealism. Though doing so over a hundred years ago, and without the benefit of our scientific understanding of the mind/body duality, Nietzsche writes presciently on the subject: “The enlightened man says: “I am only body and nothing more; and soul is merely a word for something in the body.” The body is a great intelligence, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd. A tool of your body is your lesser intelligence, my brother, which you call “spirit”— a little instrument and plaything of your great intelligence. ”I” you say, and you are proud of that word. But the greater thing— in which you are unwilling to believe— is your body with its great intelligence; it does not say “I”, but performs it. What the senses feel, what the spirit perceives, is never an end in itself. But senses and spirit would like to persuade you that they are the end of all things: that is the extent of their vanity.”
* One famous indulger in self-induced OBEs was Thomas Edison. He would sit in his armchair, cradling a metal bucket in his lap and resting a single silver dollar on the bridge of his nose. As he closed his eyes, drifting slowly off to sleep, he would nod and the silver dollar would crash loudly into the bucket. The result was a form out quasi-wakefulness, his body dead asleep but his mind totally lucid. This was his favourite time to solve problems.
** Note the idea of out-of-body experiences as leisure activity in the form of astral projection.
*** This is not merely a hangover from 2000 years of Christendom: “I know Kung-Fu”, Neo tells us with surprise. Surprise that his body doesn’t ache with a lifetime of dedication, practice and hard-knocks. Without the limitations of the body, augmented by software, the mind is free to achieve what it is apparently truly capable of. The Matrix, however, is it’s own undoing: Morpheus gravely reminds us, “The body cannot live without the mind”. But, as Cypher unplugs Switch and Apoc, we realise that the two are interdependent.