Out of Body Experiences for EVERYONE!
OBE and Near-Death Experiences
SCS BOARD INTERVIEW ON OUT-OF-BODY AND NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES WITH DR. RONALD SIEGEL
Dr. Siegel received his B.A. degree in sociology from Brandeis University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from Dalhousie University (Canada). After a postdoctoral fellowship in psychopharmacolgy at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, he joined in 1970 the faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is now research psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. Dr. Siegel is one of this country’s leading experts in the field of hallucinogens and hallucinations and is constantly appearing in the local and national news media to discuss various drug related topics. He has written numerous scientific works, including articles in The American Journal of Psychiatry, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Scientific American, and Omni magazine. He co-edited Hallucinations: Behavior, Experience and Theory (Wiley, 1975), and contributed the chapter on “Life after Death” in Science and the Paranormal Scribners, 1981). In addition to these academic pursuits, Siegel was the technical advisor to the movie “Altered States”, and has won many awards for his poetry. A serious marathon runner, he reports that “the only life after death I know of is when you cross the finish line after 26.2 miles.”
SCS: There has been a recent explosion of popular articles and books stating that life after death is supported by hard scientific data. This evidence comes from survivors of clinical death, deathbed visions of terminal patients, and other sources of data.
SCS: Dr. Siegel, you have investigated the near death experience for many years with great thoroughness. Can you tell us what a near death experience is?
SIEGEL: Our study of life after death is highly dependent on the words, pictures, and other symbols used in description. Many of these words have sensory qualities and describe such properties as sight, sound, taste, and smell. Accident victims who have had near death experiences often report visions of long, dark tunnels or sounds of ringing and buzzing. Surgical patients who are resuscitated following cardiac or respiratory failure frequently report floating out of their bodies and watching the operation from a distant perspective and many of them have an awareness of returning to their physical body. Terminal patients often experience unbidden memory images of long forgotten childhood events and deceased relatives. These images arise with such startling vividness that they often prompt the patient to react by speaking with the image or moving toward it. Many people see a blinding white light and regard it as a higher being or god. Some of these people feel ecstasy in their experience.
SCS: Why did you become involved in investigating near death experiences?
SIEGEL: All of the descriptions of the afterlife bear a strong resemblance to people’s descriptions of drug-induced hallucinations or hallucinations produced by other conditions. I was aware of the popular imagery associated with the near death experience and was struck by the similarity of those kinds of reports with those that I had gathered from my drug subjects and from other subjects who were not even taking drugs.
SCS: What is a hallucination?
SIEGEL: It has to due with a change of attention in a person. Hallucinations mean literally a wandering mind or a wandering in attention. To that extent whenever we are even daydreaming technically we are hallucinating. When the brain is really roaring with LSD or in a state of extreme stress from a life- threatening danger, or in a state of isolation there seems to be a lot of wandering in mind that does not seem to be under volitional control. Attention constantly shifts around. When such a person is given a psychological or problem solving test they do miserably on it, because they can’t focus attention or concentrate. The death bed is a very good place or very conducive to these kinds of experiences. The person is lying down and is quiet. This is the state into which we try to get our subjects. We used hospital beds in a quiet room. The idea being to get the person to shift from the external events to the internal world.
SCS: In many of the reports describing the near death experience the patient was later able to accurately describe the conversations of the doctors and nurses that took place while he or she was unconscious. Is this evidence for an out-of-body experience?
SIEGEL: No. The hearing of voices or other sounds is reminiscent of surgical patients recovering from anesthesia who often recall auditory stimuli that occurred during surgery. This is particularly common with the dissociative anesthetics nitrous oxide, ether and ketamine, which allow sensory input to the brain.
SCS: What about the strength of the subject’s conviction that he or she was actually physically undergoing an out-of-body or near death experience? Shouldn’t that person be able to tell that they are hallucinating?
SIEGEL: You can’t tell anything from the conviction of those reports. I heard similar convictions on the supposed reality of experiences from my own subjects under the influence of drugs and stress. These are very powerful experiences. The imbeddedness, the concreteness, the veracity of the experience is so great that it manifests itself in truthfulness. In our experiments we could regulate the truthfulness of the experience by the dosage of the drug. A low dose of the drug produced a mild image and no one was fooled by that, but a very large dose of the drug produced very intense experiences and people tend to make the transition from what we call pseudo hallucinations to true ones..
SCS: What is the difference between a pseudo hallucination and a true hallucination?
SIEGEL: Pseudo hallucinations are when I see that little green man out there, but I know that he really is not there because I say to myself “I’ve just taken acid and this is a trip.” A true hallucination is when I see that little green man out there and by God he is really there. Now I’m going to get my gun and protect myself. It is very easy to get carried away by this and some people really do. The mechanism that helps explain exactly what happens in the brain during all these states is fairly complex and is still somewhat of a puzzlement to neurophysiologists.
SCS: Some writers on the near death experience state that many of the dying patients were not on drugs and their consciousness was clear. They say these experiences were not hallucinations.
SIEGEL: It is important to note that hallucinations can occur in states where consciousness is “clear.” People can experience hallucinations in states of sensory deprivation, extreme hunger, cold, or stress. For instance, people can have a hallucination of a dead relative or friend in states of clear consciousness when triggered by emotional states surrounding death, such as mourning. Recently, we did a study with different types of hostages. Some of them were political and some had been kidnapped or raped in cases. We even had a few alleged UFO abductees. All of them had been subjected to some kind of stress, some kind of life-threatening danger, and some kind of isolation. Many of the hostages had visual or physical isolation for periods of time ranging from a couple of hours up to over a year. We noticed some striking similarities in the description of hostages’ experiences to that of the description of the near death experience. The format of these descriptions was the same. There were bright lights, tunnel perspectives; there was a sensation of moving down that tunnel and being out of one’s body.
SCS: Did you do any cross-cultural studies?
SIEGEL: Yes. I lived for a while with a group of Indians in the High Sierra Madres, in Central Mexico, and one particular village that I chose to go to had not been visited by a white team in their three-thousand-year history. In this particular tribe I knew that we were tapping a source of people who were not contaminated, that hadn’t been exposed to Micky Mouse cartoons. They didn’t have any of our cultural biases and we studied the use of their peyote, a cactus extract, which contains mescaline as the active hallucinogen and their reports were virtually identical to the near death experience. We also did some studies with the Indians in the Amazon basin who use ayahuasca, which is a visionary vine that produces lots of imaginary experiences. So we found that there was a cultural consistency too.
SCS: In other words, you had a lot of common states to a wide variety of situations?
SIEGEL: That’s right. It seems to reflect some common wiring in the visual and central nervous system that we all have. While the Indian may see a long dark cave and we may see a long train tunnel the structure and forms of the hallucination were still very similar. We were very pleased with the consistency of this data. We were able to go into the literature and look at other reports and find that with other groups of people and with a mixed variety of situations it was pretty much the same, be they in states of insulin shock or hyperglycemia. Look at the writings of Jacque Monroe, a psychiatrist, who wrote the first book on hashish and mental illness, in which he said the best way to study mental illness and some of the paranormal phenomenon associated with it was to provoke it artificially through the injection of hashish which he went ahead and did. At that time in France his medical colleagues were very reluctant to accept his advice but some of the Bohemian artists of nineteenth-century Paris were much more receptive and all of their writings testified to the kind of experiences that were possible with hashish. There were lots of near death experiences in their writings, some of which I have recently transcribed and published.
SCS: Can you elaborate on this idea that the similarity of hallucinations are due to the common wiring of our visual and nervous systems?
SIEGEL: Given a wide variety of stimulations to the brain, the brain responds in a finite number of ways. The patterns that we have called “hallucinatory form constants,” i.e., the near death experience and archetypical images, are really descriptions of the finite patterns of the way the brain responds to an infinite variety of stimulations. The simple imagery consists of tunnels, bright lights and colors, and geometric forms. This is probably caused by phosphenes, which are visual sensations arising from the discharge of neurons in structures of the eye. They also reflect the electrical excitation of organized groups of cells in the visual cortex of the brain. In other words, although you can shake up the brain by many different methods it still transmits out in pretty much the same way.
SCS How about people who are not wired in the same way. People who are congenitally blind, for instance?
SIEGEL: When we give hallucinogens to congenitally blind individuals we find that they hear the echoes in the room becoming alternatively farther away or closer. This is the same dimensional shift that we find in another modality for the sighted person who would see images becoming very small or getting very large.
SCS: What causes the famous tunnel perspective?
SIEGEL: This is probably due to the stimulation of the central nervous system that mimics the effects of light on the retina. It can also occur when the electrical activity in the brain is altered in such a way that the threshold for perception of phosphenes (electrical activity in the visual system) is lowered, and bright lights are seen in otherwise dark surroundings. This point can create a tunnel perspective.
SCS: Do you have some simple analogy to help explain the relationship between the near death and out of body experiences to hallucinations?
SIEGEL: The analogy that I have found very useful in understanding this is an analogy that I call the fire in the brain. Picture a man in his living room, standing at a closed window opposite his fireplace and looking out at the sunset. He is absorbed by the view of the outside world and does not visualize the interior of the room. As darkness falls outside, though, the images of the objects in the room behind him can be seen reflected dimly in the window. With the deepening of darkness the fire in the fireplace illuminates the room and the man can now see a vivid reflection of the room, which appears to be outside the window. Now he throws into the fire a couple of logs and the fire roars brightly. He turns around to look out the window. He still can’t see because it’s dark, but he sees a reflection of himself and the furniture in the room on the glass as if it came from the outside. The analogy is that the window is the window of our eyes and ears and senses of the real world. The fire is the degree of electrical excitation that is produced in the brain, so when it’s dark at night and not much is happening, and the fire roars brightly in your brain you’ve got a lot of LSD there. For example, you may no longer see the real world but you see the furniture of your own mind, your memories, images, fantasies, and daydreams reflect as if they came from the outside. The brighter the fire the more vivid those reflections become until some people become sort of like Alice going through the looking glass. They think that all this stuff on the other side is real. Keeping this analogy in mind you can produce those experiences without lighting the fire too much, by just turning off the lights on the outside and using the normal fire in the brain. You can stir up the fire or you can depress it. Drug use is an easy way of manipulating that fire in the brain. There are other ways of doing it, but it is an easy way that we felt that we could control and use very precisely. When you reduce the illumination levels outside you raise the awareness of the internal events. Maybe that’s why the imagery that’s associated with meditation is very similar to the imagery associated with hallucinations. Whether you light the fire within with drugs or turn off the lights from outside. You get the same kinds of events.
SCS: When did you first discover that the near death and out-of- body experiences were related to hallucinations?
SIEGEL: It started in the 1960s when I was a graduate student in experimental psychology. I was working with brain chemistry and changes in animals during learning. I was also clinically studying drugs and testing marijuana. At that time the literature on the subject was very poor. I had made an extract of some marijuana and injected it into a pigeon. The pigeon wouldn’t perform in the Skinner box. It was quiescent. I then injected a homing pigeon with the extract and threw it out the laboratory window. The pigeon did a kamikaze nose dive straight to the street below. I was fascinated by this. There was a little bit of the extract left and I took some of it and did a nose dive straight to the floor of the laboratory. I remained there for about eighteen hours surrounded by a fantasmagoria of imagery and experiences. They reminded me of all the things that I had read about in the history of psychology, including the stuff I had read about concerning the psychical society and their quest into the supernatural world. I had them all. It seems as if I had every experience I had ever read about during those eighteen hours. It was a very strong experience and I am happy I survived it because it was a fairly toxic dose. When I recovered from that I decided that this was a very interesting experience. I wanted to apply the techniques of experimental psychology to the study of this phenomenon.
SCS: What does your research into the near death experience lead us to conclude?
SIEGEL: We end up being able to say that the near death experience or after life experience is uncannily similar to the experiences that are produced by a wide variety of other situations. But similarities are not explanations and they are no proof that they really are the same. We will probably never be able to convince anyone that they are the same until our technology is able to communicate to the other side.
SCS: Do you have any concluding remarks?
SIEGEL: In the past, dying and death were often accompanied by fear and loneliness, as if the individual were possessed by Pan, the Greek god of lonely places and panic. The belief in life after death provided much comfort and security. Through the research and explanations discussed here, investigators have begun to examine the nature of these life after death experiences as hallucinations, as based on stored images in the brain. Like a mirage that shows a magnificent city on a desolate expanse of ocean or desert, the images of hallucinations are actually reflected images of real objects located elsewhere. The city is no less intriguing and no less worthy of study or visitation because it is not where we think it is. With such understanding, we can counsel the dying to take the voyage not with Pan at their side, but with Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom