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Can Out-of-Body Experiences change our morality? A case study

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

The fascinating field of human cognition and personality has unveiled surprising connections that shed light on the pillars of our individuality. Research has shown that if our cognitive abilities greatly influence our actions, emotions, and thoughts, it also shapes our personalities. Whether we are extroverted or introverted, polite or blunt, persistent or easily discouraged, curious or sceptical, anxious or calm – there is large-scale evidence that these characteristics are shaped by our cognitive abilities, including our level of neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness, determining who we are and how we interact with the world around us. If understanding these links can provide valuable insights into our behaviour, we may ask ourselves if and what type of personality changes occur post Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs).


In psychology, the relationship between life experience and personality is complex and dynamic. Both genetics and environmental factors contribute to the development of personality traits. Life experiences, which encompass a wide range of events, interactions, and circumstances, can shape and influence personality in several ways. Life experiences, particularly during childhood and adolescence, play a significant role in socialization processes contributing to personality development, while learning processes shape personality by modifying behavioural patterns and cognitive schemas. And there is no doubt that life experiences, including significant life events and transitions, can influence the development of identity and self-concept, integrating personality components and shifting those. This influence is striking in the case of OBEs that often lead to notable personality changes.


The research into personality–ability relations suggest that the interplay between cognitive abilities and personality can influence how individuals process and integrate life experiences into their personality development. At the same time, life experiences can also shape cognitive abilities by providing opportunities for intellectual stimulation, learning, and the development of cognitive skills. Thus, if this reciprocal relationship between life experience, cognitive abilities, and personality is true, and each factor influencing and being influenced by the others, one may further ask how OBEs can drastically change personality through one single experience, as often reported in the literature. More specifically, how one such experience would lead to moral changes?


Let's dive deeper. Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus (Λούκιος Μέστριος Πλούταρχος) known as Plutarch of Chaeronea (AD 46 – AD 119) was a Greek Platonist philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, explores various philosophical ideas related to the nature and existence of the soul. In "On the Soul", Plutarch recorded the account of Aridanaeus of Soles of Silicia, a Christian without moral predicates, which according to the prevailing opinion at the time, led a life of vice and fraud—a person whose morality was such that he "did not back down from any dishonourable act, as long as such act provide pleasure and gain". Despite such orientation and his reputation as dishonest, Aridanaeus's wealth was mediocre. This condition led him to question the Oracle of the time, asking if the rest of his life would be better, to which the oracle replied that he would be better off when he was dead. Remarkably, this is how circumstances unfolded.


Plutarch indeed reports that, taking a fall from a certain height, Aridanaeus landed on the back of his head and, despite not being injured, lay there in a state of shock, passing for dead. Aridanaeus related in detail to Protogenes and other friends, equally worthy of faith, his lucid OBEs, which Plutarch registered in a description in agreement with current OBE accounts:

"(…) his thinking soul left his body, his first impression was similar to that of a diver who is projected outside of his boat in the abyss (…). Emerging a bit, it appeared that his whole being breathed freely, and that he could see in all directions at once, his soul being open like one singular eye (…)".

Plutarchus's Out-of-Body Experience Account

Three days after the accident, exactly when he was going to be buried, Aridanaeus comes back to life. From this time forward, Aridanaeus became a highly virtuous man and even changed his name to Thespesios [1]. Quickly revitalized and restored, and according to the testimony of his contemporaries, Aridanaeus made unbelievable changes in his way of life post-experience, so much so that many Sicilians of the time testified he became scrupulous in his engagements, pious towards deities, unrelenting to his enemies, and benevolent to his friends. The personality changes reported by Plutarch (see some passages of Plutarch's report below in Greek) were such that all wanted to know the reason for this conversion, considering his radical character transformation could not be the work of chance. So why such experiences, like many other OBEs, lead to profound personality changes?

If "On the Soul", Plutarch discussed the nature of the soul and its potential existence beyond the physical body, exploring the notion that the soul possesses certain qualities and abilities, speaking of the separation of the soul to support his philosophical ideas, can these abilities, including the state of expanded consciousness, perception, and sense of freedom lead these personality changes? More specifically, to respond to our question, how do these types of experiences in OBEs change our morality?


Certainly, while OBEs can be profound and transformative experiences for individuals who undergo them, their impact on behaviour is not yet well-understood or extensively studied, much less a possible impact on morality. However, if the referred groundbreaking meta-analysis establishing connections between cognition and personality is true, and OBEs, as subjective experiences in which individuals report a new and expanded sense of consciousness or awareness, as reported is true, it is possible to infer that it is the cognitive impact of OBEs that lead such changes and could potentially influence morality and behaviour:


1. Expanded Consciousness and Perspective: OBEs often involve a sense of expanded consciousness and lead to a different perspective on oneself and the world. This broader perspective often models a revaluation of one's values, beliefs, and moral framework. It may encourage individuals to adopt a more inclusive and empathetic worldview, potentially leading to changes in behaviour and morality.

2. Transcendence of Physical Limitations: OBEs can challenge our acknowledge boundary of the physical body's limitation and provide a sense of freedom from physical constraints. It could potentially be why OBE promotes personal growth, open-mindedness, and a willingness to explore alternative perspectives and behaviours.

3. Existential and Spiritual Reflection: OBEs often raise existential questions about the nature of consciousness, the self, and the universe. These experiences may prompt individuals to deeply reflect and introspect, contemplating profound existential and ethical questions. This introspective process can lead to re-evaluating one's values and priorities, potentially influencing moral decision-making and behaviour.


Do these explain all such changes? While the research on personality traits and cognitive abilities offers some insights into potential connections by highlighting the intricate relationship between cognition and personality traits, leading one to think that cognitive abilities, such as reasoning, executive functions, and perspective-taking, can influence post-OBE moral decision-making, personality changes post-OBEs are often too radical and immediate to be potentially mediated by their impact on cognition post-OBEs. Such changes suggest a profound shift at the core of one's consciousness—one that would have a profound and lasting effect on the brain to explain the immediate changes in personality following OBEs, which may include the including:


1. Altered Neural Connectivity: It is possible that post-OBE, the brain undergoes temporary changes in neural connectivity, allowing for novel connections to be formed and existing connections to be modified. These changes could lead to integrating new perspectives, insights, and experiences, resulting in a shift in personality traits.

2. Neurochemical Changes: OBEs might involve alterations in the release and availability of certain neurotransmitters or neuromodulators, which can influence brain function and plasticity.

3. Activation of Neural Networks: OBEs might engage specific neural networks, regions or the functional connectivity between networks that are not typically activated during normal waking state experiences. This activation could facilitate and instigate the integration of new information and perspectives, potentially leading to transformative changes in personality traits.


Could these explain changes in morality? Difficult to say. After studying Phineas Gage, a renowned patient in neurology, clinicians have long recognized that ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) lesions significantly change how individuals interact with others and make moral decisions. The case of Phineas Gage is a remarkable example that emphasizes the potential impact of brain injury on moral and social behaviour. Following the accident, Gage experienced significant changes in his personality, including significant moral alterations attributed to the damage to vmPFC and its connections. Can the aforementioned positive brain changes result in positive moral changes through similar alteration of its connectivity? Whether possible or not, the effects of OBEs on morality and behaviour are likely to be highly individual and context-dependent. Certainly, such types of research are just starting, and much more research will be needed to understand and quantify better the potential long-term consequences and influences of OBEs on an individual's ethical framework and behaviour. Certainly, there is no doubt that the OBE potential for personality changes exists in terms of a heightened sense of purpose, increased empathy and compassion and shifts in priorities and values. One might even say those are the real measures of truly experienced OBEs.


MSc. Neuroscience,

Sleep Consciousness Researcher,

PhD Candidate.


REFERENCES:


Plutarch (1974). Œuvres morales Traités 37-41.

Montenegro, R. (2015). The Out-of-Body Experiences – An Experiential Anthology, Imagens & Letras.

[1] A name given to him by his dead Cousin during his OBE.

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