Dr Susan Blackmore, SPR Xmas Lecture 2014

On 4th December I had the good fortune of being able to attend the SPR Christmas Lecture with special guest speaker Dr Susan Blackmore discussing the topic of her research into the Out of Body Experiences.

I would probably regard myself as being on the fence regarding as to what OBE’s actually are but it’s clear from attending the lecture that there are two main positions. The first being that these experiences are result of some neurobiological effects within the brain, and there is some evidence to suggest this may be the case. The second is position is that being OBE’s experiences occur when the soul or spirit of the individual leave the body to explore the physical and on occasions the astral or etheric realms. The second position requires the acceptance of the incarnate soul or spirit and that it’s possible for this soul to leave the physical body.

Susan Blackmore on explaining some of the problems she had with the second position pointed out that during her late teens when she experienced an OBE (drug induced) all the things she saw during the OBE e.g. floating above the university campus etc did not accurately reflect what was really there, when she later went back and checked. During the 37 years Susan has been looking into this topic (although she admitted she hasn’t been actively involved since the early 1990s), she has conducted a number of experiments with individuals pertaining to be able to induce an OBE at will. To put this individuals to the test Susan requested that they travel to her home and to look into the kitchen where she will place a simple object, photo and a word on to the door of her fridge. If these individuals were able to induce an OBE experience and leave their bodies, all they needed to do was to tell Susan what this object, photo and word were.

Susan reported that no one has ever been able to successfully pass the test.

Other research with electro-stimulation and trans cranial-magnetic stimulation of various brain regions have also showed that the stimulation of various cortical areas results in the individual reporting experiences akin to OBE’s e.g. dissociation, leaving the body, floating etc. The cortical area of particular significance was the junction of the Temporal and Parietal lobes of the right hemisphere.

Susan also commented that if the soul really does leave the body how does it see? It has no physical eyes to allow the photons of light to excite the optical nerves.

Although Susan’s presentation explaining her skeptical position on OBE’s was compelling I found myself a little disappointed that she hadn’t continued her work in this field since the 1990’s. And it seemed to me that the much of the basis of her skepticism relied upon (1) the inaccuracies reported by OBE’ers (2) the cortical stimulation permitting similar OBE’s experiences to be reported by individuals and (3) the absence of physical sense. All of which I feel do not explain every case of OBE, and as such therefore does constitute an appropriate theory of explanation. For example many cases of OBE’s were involuntary and certainly do not include the use of equipment to stimulate the TP junction, yet these individuals still report these experiences.

For me the lecture was interesting in that it showed clear weaknesses in the assertions of both positions and that there is still plenty of scope for more research to be undertaken in this fascinating topic.

Chris Connelly 2017