How common are out-of-body experiences? Are there other experiences we don't normally think of as OBEs that nevertheless might fit into the same general category?
What got me thinking along these lines was the book Abduction by John Mack, the controversial study of people who claim to have been abducted by extraterrestrials. Right off the bat, I should say that I'm no expert on this subject; in fact, I know very little about it. So far I haven't even read all of Mack's book, just the opening and closing sections.
I should also say that I'm not convinced that Dr. Mack, though he was undoubtedly well-meaning, was entirely able to separate his duties as a psychological therapist from his duties as a scientist. As George Hansen notes in an article on a famous, but badly flawed, abduction case:
The outside critic who is not directly involved in such activities almost never recognizes how difficult it is to serve as both a therapist and as a scientist. Those persons trying to help abductees emotionally need to provide warmth, acceptance, and trust. The scientist, however, needs to be critically open minded and somewhat detached and analytical. The two functions are not altogether compatible.
Even so, as Hansen notes in the same article, it seems apparent that there is something to many of these claims, even if they are not necessarily evidence of contact between human beings and space-traveling ETs. But if they are not events of this kind, then what are they?
What I found interesting, and rather unexpected, about Mack's book was how closely the so-called "abduction experiences" resemble OBEs, at least in many important respects. Mack's patients reported that their experiences often began with a humming or buzzing sensation; they then found themselves floating out of bed and through the house while perceiving strange new sources of light around them. If they tried to rouse the person sleeping in bed with them, they would find the person unresponsive. Often they would float through a solid wall in order to get outside. Frequently they reported heightened senses, the feeling that the experience was more real than ordinary reality. When they encountered the so-called aliens, they perceived some of them as luminous beings, creatures of light. Their communication with these "aliens" was telepathic. In some cases they reported becoming aware of a lifelong relationship with an alien who had served the kind of role ordinarily assigned, in a more overtly spiritual context, to a "spirit guide." Moreover, some of these "abductees" remembered seeing flashes of past lives during their experience, while others felt they were being given a glimpse of omniscient knowledge. Some of them reported seeing Earth from space, or having visions of impending global catastrophe, usually of an ecological kind.
All of this strongly reminds me of a mixture of astral projection and an intense mystical experience -- the sort of events reported by Sylvan Muldoon, Robert Monroe, and other accomplished OBErs. To me, the "abduction experience" does not sound like a physical event at all. It sounds as if the person's astral body left the physical body, moved around on the physical plane for a while, and then (maybe) entered what Monroe calls Locale II -- essentially a realm of alternate universes or parallel realities. Perhaps it was in Locale II that the experiencers entered "spaceships," were subjected to invasive surgery, learned about human-alien hybrid breeding experiments, and encountered reptilian creatures and small gray aliens with bulbous heads. It all sounds pretty crazy, but if Monroe's reports are accurate, some of the stuff going on in Locale II is a lot stranger than that.
Or perhaps it would be more reasonable to assume that some of the more exotic details of the experience were the product of misinterpretation or fantasy. Throughout history there have been stories of people who were abducted and carried away to a secret realm of fairies, sprites, pixies, elves, leprechauns, etc, where they were subjected to various indignities before their release or escape. Could these stories have their origin in OBEs in which the experiencer encountered another plane of reality, which he was able to interpret only in terms of folklore familiar to him? Extraterrestrials and spaceships, after all, are part of our modern folklore, just as forest nymphs and flying chariots were part of the folklore of an earlier age. It is interesting to note that so many of these folkloric figures are small, even miniature, and that the most commonly reported "aliens" today are the "grays," which are said to be small in stature.
I admit that other elements of the "abduction experience" are less suggestive of OBEs. Mack's patients sometimes claimed that there was physical evidence of their experience, such as bits of metal inserted under the skin, or strange lesions or nodes on their bodies, or marks on the ground indicating where the UFO landed. And there have been reports of so-called "abductees" going missing during the time when their experience was taking place, and of UFO sightings that were reported around the same time by people who were not "abducted."
Trouble is, I don't know how reliable such reports are. Many of them seem to depend on the investigative work of Budd Hopkins. George Hansen, in collaboration with Joseph Stefula and Richard Butler, has written an entertaining account of an "abduction" that Hopkins looked into; it's the same article I quoted earlier. To put it mildly, the account does not show Hopkins in a favorable light, and I urge all interested readers to take a look at it. The three authors raise serious questions about Hopkins' investigative skills and even his basic contact with reality. (The fact that Mack relied pretty heavily on Hopkins as an authority is another reason to approach Abduction with caution.)
So how good is the physical evidence for abductions? In the Hansen article we are told that well-known NDE researcher Kenneth Ring and his colleague Christopher Rosing carried out a study of "abduction experiences" from the standpoint that something non-objective (in terms of ordinary physical reality) was going on. The article drew an angry response from history professor David Jacobs, an associate of Budd Hopkins. "Jacobs was bitterly critical of Ring and Rosing, saying that they ignored 'cases of witnesses seeing others being abducted while not being abducted themselves.' Surprisingly, Jacobs gave no citations for any of these cases. Hansen wrote to Jacobs requesting such citations but received no reply." Jacobs' apparent inability to substantiate his claims does little to encourage confidence in the "objective" nature of these events.
Indeed, while accepting that "abduction" is typically a genuine subjective experience and not a hoax, Hansen et al conclude:
Because the argument for the "objective reality of UFO abductions" relies heavily on [Budd] Hopkins’ work, our findings call into question this entire theoretical perspective.
In other words, the experience is subjectively real and worth investigating, but there may not be much, if any, reliable evidence to support its objective reality.
If for the moment we discount the purported physical evidence, what we are left with seems to be very much consistent with OBEs. Remember that the "abductees" often said their experience began with a humming or buzzing sensation. Many people have reported that an OBE begins just this way.
Quite a few "abductees" reported a strange glowing light that suffused their environment from the moment they started floating through the air. This reminds me of a case I once read about, though unfortunately I've forgotten the details and cannot cite the source. In this case, a person felt strongly that he was experiencing an OBE; he moved about his house at night and clearly perceived the objects around him, making particular note of the fact that some of them were illuminated by moonlight. However, upon waking, he discovered that there was no moon. Accordingly, he chalked up the whole thing to a vivid dream.
Maybe it was. But if there are sources of illumination apparent to us in an OBE that are not normally apparent in our waking state, then possibly what the person perceived as moonlight was actually some other form of luminescence.
Indeed, many people who have enjoyed intense mystical experiences say they suddenly perceived the world as bathed in a strange new light. And of course people who report near-death experiences frequently talk about a bright light. So perhaps it would not be unusual, during an OBE, to perceive some light that isn't there in any ordinary sense. The "abductee" accounts might shed some light, so to speak, on this aspect of the OBE phenomenon.
Obviously, the "abductee" reports of floating through the air and passing through solid walls are strongly reminiscent of OBEs. Even the fruitless attempts of "abductees" to rouse sleeping persons in their beds have some parallels in OBEs and NDEs. A report of an NDE published in 1917 contains a description of the frustrated NDEr trying to communicate with her sleeping fiancé. Robert Monroe also reported unsuccessful efforts to make people aware of his presence while he was out of body.
Heightened perception and telepathic communication, two other features of "abductee" accounts, are also frequently reported by OBErs and NDErs. Contact with a "being of light" is, of course, a very common feature of NDEs, as is the sense of a deep personal connection with the "being" in question. Scattered memories of previous lifetimes and/or a sense of being immersed in total knowledge of the universe are also reported by some NDErs; a sense or glimpse of all-encompassing knowledge is also frequently reported by people who have undergone transcendent mystical experiences or achieved "unity consciousness." Occasionally NDErs will report seeing Earth from space (see Carl Jung's NDE), and not infrequently they will remember apocalyptic visions (see Damian Brinkley's NDE).
In some cases, two or more individuals claimed to be "abducted" together. Could these be cases of shared OBEs? Robert Monroe would teach his students to meet up while out of the body and then compare notes upon their return; if his research is to be trusted, shared OBEs are not only possible, but rather easy to arrange.
The bottom line is that the OBE phenomenon may be considerably more complex and multifaceted than we might assume at first glance. It may take in not only "ordinary" OBEs, but "alien abductions," as well, and perhaps even the curiously persistent legends of "little folk" of various kinds who have a penchant for carrying off unwary mortals.
Who knows? As I said at the outset, I know very little about "alien abduction" and am certainly not qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject. All I can do is toss out a few speculative ideas. But I doubt that the many similarities between "abduction experiences" and out-of-body experiences are entirely coincidental.