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Levels of awareness during out-of-body experiences? A critical analysis of experiencers' accounts

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

Descartes, the famous French philosopher, established the notion that all beliefs are uncertain apart from the fact that "I think therefore I am", which he claimed to be essentially certain and irrefutable: cogito ergo sum. If all beliefs could be false, Descartes claims that at least his existence could not be, to be deceived. That even if one doubts its own existence, then one must exist at that moment to believe so, inferring that it is impossible to doubt without existence. That principle was established as a foundation for how to find other truths that are certain. Descartes proposes that the Cogito is undeniably true because it is clear and distinct.

In 2015 I proposed a model of Out-of-Body Experience (OBE) awareness published in my book: "Out-of-Experiences: an experiential anthology". The aim was similar: to address the issue of metacognition and lucidity during such experiences. Mostly tackling the need for clarifying the varying levels of clarity of perception expressed by experiencers during their OBEs but also to qualify such experiences to scientists that were oblivious to their experiential nature. Mostly the fact that heightened awareness in OBEs is very similar to the waking state. And as a matter of fact, from an experiential point of view, those who have experienced such a level of awareness during their experiences know they are very similar phenomenologically to "normal" sensory experiences of the waking state. But let's dig deeper.

The model expressed the notion that lucid OBEs, to be called so, need to convey the same levels of metacognition one has during the normal waking state. More so, such experiences must express a clear and insightful awareness of one's own consciousness. Such concepts are related but distinct. While metacognition is the process of thinking about one's own thinking and involves the ability to plan, monitor, and evaluate one's own cognitive processes and willingly control them, lucidity refers to the level of clarity and insight an individual has at any one time. As such, heightened levels of self-awareness in OBE would need to express such qualities of awareness and lucidity. Meaning they should convey an unalterable uniformity of thoughts without the interference of oneiric imagery, – which differentiates them from lucid dreaming – allowing experiencers to achieve a level of critical judgment, coherence, control and objectivity similar to the standards encountered in the waking state [1]. In essence, a distinctive clarity of perception.


Of course, it does not mean that such a level of awareness is the topmost expression of consciousness one can experience during an OBE. On the contrary, such a scale was meant to provide a measure of the minimum level of lucidity one should achieve to experience a more objective state and allow subsequently, or not, more self-critical analysis of the experience. A level of self-awareness without which one cannot an OBE lucid. In fact, self-awareness and lucidity are considered in such a scale as the basis from which one could extend the range of perceptions one can have during OBEs. A metric establishing a basis by which other states, phenomena, and perceptions can be better assessed and qualified, experientially speaking. As well as a measure of the objective quality of one's experience generally heightened by the nature of the out-of-body state. A primary level that can lead to states of super-awareness and absolute and ineffable expansion of our perceptions, as they are accounted for in states of universal non-dual awareness in Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) and OBEs.


The question is: is self-awareness with such a level of lucidity often experienced in OBE accounts? Not in my opinion. They are the rarest of things. Indeed, looking at the increasing commonness of OBE reports on the internet, one may be surprised by the sharp contemporary trend showing such accounts tend to make descriptions without details. If not repeating what is already known in romantic edulcorated terms. Please, bear with me. I'm not necessarily inferring that such experiencers did not have the experiences they described. Much less that they are ill-intentioned. Still, such accounts often lack the depth associated with such a level of awareness. In essence, although interesting OBEs, such accounts often lack the knowledge of the fact that such experiences were not experienced to the referred level of metacognition and lucidity—which in some instances would make these exceptional. By itself, metacognition allows individuals to plan, monitor, and evaluate their own cognitive processes. A condition that would, if expressed in OBEs, necessarily lead to increased perceptions out-of-the-body. This inevitably means an increase in discovery – specifically considering how little we know about such experiences. But these insights are hardly expressed in such accounts. They hardly articulate any such depth of perception. For example, how can one qualify the type of perception with the astral body? What are the specific characteristics of vision in such a state? (To name only one example). To the same extent, increased lucidity, or the ability to have clear and insightful awareness of one's own consciousness, should allow an experiencer to provide nuanced details about their own thought processes during such experiences. Such an understanding could lead to new insights and ideas, even if only hypothetical. Still, again there are seldom any such perspectives in these reports. This is the reason why understanding the degree of expressed OBE awareness is so important for experiencers. Increasing self-awareness necessarily means increasing expertise and understanding. If one simply states the obvious – what has been known and repeated for 50 years – bringing no new knowledge from their experiences, then such one person necessarily expresses a low level of awareness during said experiences. It doesn't make the experience any less important for the person or even less exemplary for another. These experiences, in fact, often are either way. And they may still be transformative and lead to a new understanding for the person, but that does not mean the person was fully aware or objective. I'm not saying either that there is no commonality of experiences – even consensus can be reached regarding those – but the depth of detail regarding such experiences is often amiss. An indication of a lack of lucidity. One should assume that OBE accounts expressing increased novelty are a factor of increased awareness. Indeed, if you have met the little grey during an OBE and cannot fathom any relevant perception about the specificity of their anatomy beyond what has been said hundreds of times, then one could say it is all in your mind. If one experienced OBEs since a young age, as often claimed, then it would necessarily mean an exponential increment of OBE knowledge. But it is not the case. Knowledge evolves. Awareness necessarily means to deepen the concepts, the notions one has related to such experiences, evolving ideas and our understanding of those. Above all, critically. Last but not least. The term 'conspirituality' was defined by Ward and Voas (2011) as a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology rooted in New Age beliefs. Beliefs often ideologically engrained and propagated without self-critical knowledge by groups scoring high in schizotypy traits (i.e., traits ranging from non-pathological imaginative states to dissociative disorders and more pronounced conditions associated with psychosis, all expressed without self-criticism). Indeed, schizotypy is associated with an attenuated capacity for generalization and pattern separation, making such individuals more likely to have difficulty grasping the quality of their overall state and the particularities of their perceptions. The growing community of out-of-body experiencers on the internet need to avoid self-deception by becoming more self-critical, constantly evaluating with more reason the expression of their lucidity during their experiences. So how do we become part of the solution and not the problem? Questioning is essential: Which level of detail has your last experience expressed? To which degree was it fantasized? To which level was it remodelled in your mind upon recalling it on awakening? What was the phenomenological depth of your experience? Applying true self-criticism means avoiding traps of condescending and egocentric certainty specific to schizotypy. As such, becoming a community of experiencers more credible to scientists – today more than ever – willing to study such experiences in a new light with open-minded criticism.

MSc. Neuroscience,

Sleep Consciousness Researcher,

PhD Candidate.

[1] In that sense, we still remain prone to subjectivity, our biases, and seeing the world through the lenses of our own beliefs.

REFERENCES


Cottingham, John, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 2. Cambridge University Press (2012)

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

Ward, C. and D. Voas (2011). "The Emergence of Conspirituality." Journal of Contemporary Religion 26(1): 103-121.

Vass, Á., et al. (2022). "Positive schizotypy is associated with amplified mnemonic discrimination and attenuated generalization." European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience.

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