Astral Travel

(Investigator 50, 1996 September)

The idea of an astral body is not new, it is mentioned in ancient Indian writings which claim that a supernatural power described as "flying in the sky" can be acquired through a type of yoga called Pranayama. The Western idea of astral travel appears to have originated in classical Greek philosophy independently of oriental influences.

Astral travel, according to accounts given by those who claim to have experienced it, liken it to a physical waking state with a feeling of well¬being and buoyancy in which there is a general sensation of floating and looking down upon the world. A widely held belief is that a fine silver cord links the physical and metaphysical bodies during astral travel, and a person can view their own body from a vantage point above. These occurrences are frequently reported during operations, serious illness, while under the influence of hallucinatory drugs and during meditation. They are often called "out of body experiences."

There have been reports of people who through the agency of their astral body, have been able to read messages written on pieces of paper placed beyond their reach and who have given descriptions of places visited during their astral travels. Distance appears to be no problem when it comes to astral travel, psychic Ingo Swann claims to have made an out of body exploration of the planets Mercury and Jupiter.

Astral travel is taught by organizations such as the Inner Peace Movement and belief in it was given a boost by Shirley MacLaine in her book and TV mini series Out on a Limb.

The idea of leaving one's physical body and travelling unconstrained by time and space is certainly fascinating and appealing, but what evidence is there to support the claims of those who purport to have done so? Until recently, the evidence relied solely on a priori speculation and anecdotal evidence. Today, although the evidence still remains anecdotal, it is possible to investigate the claims more thoroughly using scientific methodology.

One case where it was possible to check the claims of astral travel against the known facts was in 1978, when an article appeared in the April edition of the American Psychic News. In the article, US astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, and astronomer, J. Allen Hynek, claimed that Ingo Swann had proven that he had astrally travelled to Jupiter. Mitchell said Swann "described things and gave details which were not known to scientists until the Mariner 10 and Pioneer 10 satellites flew by the planets and got the information." Hynek concluded that, "these are matters which Swann couldn't have guessed about or read. His impressions of Mercury and Jupiter cannot be dismissed."

When Swann's claimed observations were compared with scientific determinations however, a different picture emerged. Of the 65 revelations 30 were wrong, 2 were probably untrue, 11 were fact but the information was obtainable from reference books, 7 were fact but obvious, 9 were unverifiable due to vagueness, 5 were probable fact (that is, in accord with scientific speculation), and only 1 was fact not obtainable from reference books, even giving Swann the benefit of the doubt his accuracy was only thirty seven per cent.

To travel the 438,000,000 miles from Earth to Jupiter and return at 32,000 mph (the same speed as the Voyager II space satellite), would take just under four years and in the absence of a sophisticated navigational system, protection from radiation and the problem of an astral body obtaining an escape velocity of 37.1 miles/sec to free itself from Jupiter's gravitational pull would, I suggest,  present a few problems, not to mention the deterioration of the physical body left behind in a comatose state for such a long period of time. The improbability of this feat is further compounded by the "cord" which allegedly connects the astral body to its physical body and which was graphically portrayed in Shirley MacLaine's TV mini series, Out on a Limb. Some claim that the cord is invisible, others that it is silver in colour. Either way, no plausible explanation is ever offered to explain the mechanics of such a ludicrous concept.

The part that breathing plays in allegedly projecting oneself astrally is borne out by the importance attached to it by America's best known astral traveller and author Sylvan Muldoon (1971). First, the building into the subconscious a strong desire to be conscious in the astral body;  next, attention is to be centered on the heartbeats, which through mental suggestion should be slowed down. Muldoon's experiments hinged on his abnormally slow heartbeat and his general frail health. He emphasises that it is the feeling of suspense in the mind, not the actual projection of the astral body that is unpleasant. He says that a really intense study of, and a desire for astral projection, will always bring results because the force built up in the subconscious will inevitably express itself.

A medical explanation for the phenomenon can be found in a basic understanding of the function of the human brain. Joseph Barcroft, (1914), in The Respiratory  Function of the Blood, states: "There is no instance in which it can be proved that an organ increases its activity under physiological conditions without also increasing its demand for oxygen."

The oxygen requirements of the brain even when at rest, is high. Although the brain only comprises about two per cent of the body weight, it uses approximately twenty five per cent of the oxygen taken up by the body under conditions of complete mental and physical rest. When the brain's oxygen requirement is reduced by a decrease in the arterial blood pressure caused by a slow heart beat, or the cerebral vessels are constricted by hyperventilation (overbreathing), it causes among other conditions mental confusion, loss of consciousness, and transitory disturbances of vision.

It can be seen therefore, that when a person has psyched themselves into believing that their  "other body" can leave its physical home and travel the cosmos,  it takes only a little imagination embellished with prior knowledge and an induced change in cerebral blood circulation to produce the illusion of astral travel – it's all in the mind.

From: Skeptoon an illustrated look at some New Age Beliefs 1994, Harry Edwards, Published by Harry Edwards Publications.


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