Can Out-Of-Body Experiences Improve Mental Well-Being?

Researchers Jade Shaw and Sam Gandy discuss their new paper on the psychology of out-of-body experiences and how they can be transformative.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 8, 2023

A new study published in Psychology of Consciousness describes eight core themes that can transform the life of a person who has had an out-of-body experience.

I recently interviewed Jade Shaw and Sam Gandy, co-authors of the study, to understand why this is an important finding and how we may start using out-of-body experiences in the field of mental health treatment in the future.

What motivated you to study the psychological after-effects of out-of-body experiences, and why do you think this area of research is important? 

The out-of-body experience is a fascinating research subject due to being an extraordinarily rich, interesting, and under-researched human experience. The after-effects or transformative potential of out-of-body experiences and the meaning people derive from these experiences have been particularly underexplored. Early research tended to associate out-of-body experiences with pathology, and neuroscientific research has sought to explain the experience through certain aberrations in brain function.

However, it is important that this experience should also be assessed by its potential fruits rather than by its roots alone. In this study sample, out-of-body experiences closely resembled near-death experiences with regard to the attributed psychological changes, of which an out-of-body experience is often (but not always) a central component. This suggests that some of the psychological shifts associated with near-death experiences may be made accessible via out-of-body experiences, with the added benefits of safety and potential repeatability.

In this study sample, out-of-body experiences appeared effective at diminishing the fear of death among all participants. This study suggests that the power of out-of-body experiences in transforming fears around death could potentially be harnessed in palliative care contexts or therapeutically with other forms of mental illness linked to death anxiety. Even a single out-of-body experience was associated with catalyzing sustained life changes, such as influencing career, relationships, lifestyle, and creative expression. While the out-of-body experiences in this study occurred spontaneously, an out-of-body experience can be induced through hypnosis or other methods, and some or all of the benefits associated with spontaneous out-of-body experiences may be accessible via out-of-body experiences induced with intent.

Further research on out-of-body experiences is warranted, as it appears their transformative effects can elicit a number of important psychological benefits while providing a wider lens view into what it means to be human.

Can you describe the selection process for the eight participants in your study who had undergone spontaneous out-of-body experiences?

The study recruited participants through online groups and workshops and used a screening process to identify those who had one or more spontaneous out-of-body experiences. The screening questions were designed to rule out other phenomena that could be confused with an out-of-body experience, such as visions, lucid dreams, or near-death experiences. The screening process focused on specific symptoms of the experience (e.g., feeling vibrations and a sense of separation from the body) and considered the context (e.g., not fully asleep). The study included out-of-body experiences that occurred during meditation, hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, and states of relaxation, which are the most common conditions for spontaneous out-of-body experiences. All participants were in good health and had no clinical diagnosis at the time of their out-of-body experience. Participants who had experiences induced by drugs or near-death experiences were not included because of the external influence of substances or extreme circumstances such as cardiac arrest. Similarly, people who induced their own experiences were not chosen due to underlying intentionality that may influence the nature of the event and the level of impact. The study also excluded specialists, such as published authors on the topic, to avoid potential bias. 

How did you ensure that the interviews with the participants were semi-structured and qualitative in nature, and what kind of questions did you ask them? 

The semi-structured interview questions focused on themes related to attitude, personal change, relationships, spiritual beliefs, purpose, and life meaning. Core interview themes were derived from previous literature on out-of-body experiences and broader literature that explored the perceived transformative effects of transpersonal experiences. During the interview process, participants were informed that the transformation attributed to the out-of-body experience could be positive, negative, or neutral.

Notable statements, sentences, and quotes that informed understanding of how participants experienced the out-of-body experience were sought, from which clusters of meaning were compiled to form specific themes. Consecutive transcript readings were necessary and sieving and scrutinizing streams of data was required to yield a wider lens view that could be applied to encompass broader elements of the experience.

What were the commonalities you found among the experiences of the eight participants of the study? 

There was a broad overlap in the transformative after-effects that people associated with the out-of-body experience, as reflected in the eight core themes of transformation revealed by the qualitative interviews. The out-of-body experience:

  1. Served as a motivational catalyst
  2. Reduced fear of death
  3. Enhanced inner peace
  4. Generated new life perspectives
  5. Increased self-awareness
  6. Cultivated a sense of individuality
  7. Reassessed relationships
  8. Strengthened existing or developed new spiritual beliefs

However, it should be emphasized that out-of-body experiences are deeply personal experiences, and the content can vary widely between different experiences reported by the same individual. 

Could you elaborate on the concept of "quantum change experience" and how an out-of-body experience fits into this framework? 

Quantum change experiences encompass those that are sudden, deep, benevolent, and profoundly meaningful, potentially leading to transformative effects, impacting an individual's emotions, cognition, and behaviors in the wake of them in an enduring way. Such experiences have been associated with an enhancement of prosocial disposition and a reduction in egotistical attitudes. The qualitative accounts reveal that the kind of shifts people report following out-of-body experiences align with these kinds of changes.

Quantum change experiences may be classified as being either mystical or insight-oriented, although out-of-body experiences may feature both aspects. The definition of quantum change suggests that such change may not occur repeatedly, and there may be a limit to the degree of quantum change an individual can experience. This was suggested by the qualitative accounts, with more powerful transformative changes tending to be more commonly ascribed to a single experience, or the first few experiences among those with recurring experiences. 

Do you think that the benefits of decreased fear of death and increased inner peace associated with out-of-body experiences are lasting, or do they tend to fade over time? 

Given the sample size and nature of the study, we have to be cautious when making general inferences about the longevity of out-of-body experience after-effects, but qualitative assessments did suggest that the shifts people reported including the decreased fear of death were enduring in the wake of the experience.

This shares an overlap with the after-effects of an near-death experience, where a reduction in the fear of death can be sustained far beyond the experience. We hope to shed more light on the degree to which such shifts are sustained in the wake of an out-of-body experience in follow-up longitudinal research.

In what ways are out-of-body experiences similar to mystical experiences, and how could the induction of out-of-body experiences be utilized in clinical contexts? 

Out-of-body experiences are similar to mystical experiences in that both can occur spontaneously (although unpredictably and uncommonly), but also be induced intentionally through different means, and both have been associated with positive psychological after-effects.

In the case of mystical experiences, psychedelic substances such as psilocybin appear to reliably elicit such experiences in the appropriate context. Out-of-body experiences have been induced via hypnosis, and through intention and the practice of certain techniques.

Figuring out ways to more reliably induce out-of-body experiences could facilitate greater access to some of the psychological benefits associated with them. This could be applied in clinical contexts, including the reported reduction in the fear of death, with death anxiety linked to general psychopathology, and to some depressive and anxiety disorders

What is the relationship between psychedelic use, particularly DMT, and out-of-body experiences, and could further research in this area help us better understand the transformative potential of out-of-body experiences?

There is certainly some experiential overlap between out-of-body experiences and psychedelic experiences such as those induced by DMT, in addition to other experiences such as mystical and near-death experiences. Experiences of deep awe and interconnectedness are commonly tied to all of these experiences, and having meaningful encounters and visiting other realms also shares overlap with psychedelic experiences.

While there is phenomenological overlap shared by psychedelic experiences and out-of-body experiences, there are also notable differences. Out-of-body experiences and psychedelics can both deeply impact the sense of self, but in different ways, and the types of landscapes people report encountering under DMT often appear more 'alien' than the often more familiar environments people report encountering through out-of-body experiences.

However psychedelic use on occasion may be associated with triggering what we might consider more typical (or classical) out-of-body experiences.