When I was young, I had my first out of body experience (OBE for short). While I did not know about them at the time, I later learned that my experience matched the usual description: I felt as if the center of my awareness and perception had left my body. It seemed as if I could perceive normally from that location, albeit with greater vividness (retrospectively, it seemed like high definition). After that, I had OBEs from time to time, especially when I was under great stress—such as all my years in graduate school.
When I was a kid, I only had two explanations for the experiences. One was supernatural: my soul was leaving my body and looking about. The other was paranormal: somehow, I had sensory capabilities that differed from the normal limits of the sense organs. As I learned philosophy and science, I came up with other explanations. As a bit of light and fun philosophy, I’ll go through some of them.
When I learned about metaphysical dualism in the context of Descartes, I found that I had a theory that would explain my experience. For the dualist, there are two types of stuff: the mental and the physical. The mind is made of mental stuff which thinks, but is not extended in space. The body is made of physical stuff that does not think, but is extended in space. On the dualist view, a person is their mind and this mind somehow interacts (or syncs) with the body. Since the mind is distinct from the body, it could presumably leave and someone still interact (or sync) with the physical world. Roughly put, an OBE would be having the ghost leaving the shell and looking about, but then returning to the still living body.
This account of the OBE does face all the challenges of metaphysical dualism and some of its own. In terms of the usual problems, there is the difficulty in proving the existence of such a mind and the classic mind-body problem of accounting for how the mind and body interact causally. In terms of a specific problem with dualist OBE, there is the obvious problem of how a disembodied mind would still perceive the physical world without its body. If it could do this, then there would be no need for sense organs and people would not lose their senses due to physical damage or disease.
Another approach to the OBE experience is to make use of Occam’s Razor, which can be taken as the metaphysical principle that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. That is, if there are competing explanations for a phenomenon, then the one with the fewest posited metaphysical entities has an advantage. The principle is also applied to the number of assumptions required by explanations and it is sometimes crudely put as the notion that the simplest explanation is best.
In the case of my OBE experiences, an application of Occam’s Razor would cut away the metaphysical account in favor of one with fewer entities/assumptions. In this case, the more economical explanation would be that my experiences were the result of unusual activity in my nervous system that created (hallucination or dreamlike) the impression that my awareness was outside my body. Since such malfunctions do exist and there is no need to postulate a wandering soul, this explanation has the most scientific appeal. It is also a disappointing one; like learning that a magic trick is not magic, but misdirection and deceit. Fortunately, it can be fun to briefly pretend to ignore the most plausible explanation and consider some other philosophical options. After the fun is over, the most plausible explanation should, of course, be reseated on its throne.
One interesting possibility is that the mind has the capacity to receive sensory data in non-standard ways. That is, that our epistemic capabilities extend beyond our sense organs or that we are someone able to pull in sensory data from an unusual perspective. OBE experiences involve, at least in my case, only sight and hearing—which involve energy. It could be imagined that the nervous system is somehow able to shift its perception point by manipulating this energy. The easy and obvious counter to this is that studies of the nervous system would have presumably found evidence of such a strange system. Since there seems to be no biological mechanism for this, this explanation seems rather defective.
To close, it is worth considering the philosophical view known as phenomenology or idealism. This view was most famously held by Berkeley. His view made it into the popular consciousness with the classic question: “if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer, for Berkeley, was that there is always someone there to hear it. This someone is, of course, God. God perceives everything all the time. This might explain why when you shower, you always feel like someone is watching.
Getting back on track, Berkeley’s philosophical view is a rejection of dualism. Unlike the metaphysical materialist who rejects the mind and accepts matter, Berkeley accepted the mind and rejected matter. For him, what we regard as physical objects are collections of ideas in minds. For example, the device that you are using to read this is not a physical machine—it is ideas. On this view, all experiences are OBE—there are no bodies in which to have experiences. However, one could have experiences as if one was outside one’s body.
Another way to look at phenomenology is to think of virtual reality—only reality is all virtual with no physical entities. This provides a way to explain OBEs—they are glitches in perception. To use a video game first person shooter analogy, the game is supposed to have the game “camera” set so that it is as if you are seeing the world from the eyes of your character. This “camera” can glitch due to a software error, causing you to see the game world from a point “outside” your character’s head. This would be a game OBE. If phenomenology is correct, then perhaps OBEs are these sort of glitches—the point of perception is briefly in the wrong place. Since the world is clearly imperfect, such glitches are not inconceivable. Alternatively, it need not be glitch—perhaps this sort of perceptual capability is a feature and not a bug.
While I would like to regard my OBEs as supporting metaphysical dualism (and thus the possibility of existence after death), the best explanation is the least fun—that it is a malfunction of the brain; a strange hallucination.