It has long been accepted by many that man is made of two components – a material body of flesh and blood, and a soul. The existence of a third component has been suggested by philosophers and occultists, that of an astral body capable of separating itself from the physical body and travelling about unrestrained even by solid barriers.
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. Dr Ian Stevenson, a University of Virginia parapsychologist and a renowned expert and prolific writer on the subject, claims to have experimental evidence for the existence of a body other than the physical one, which even during life, can separate from the body of flesh and blood.
Another 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 and during meditation.
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 have given descriptions of places visited during their astral travels. A French journalist and occultist Anne Osmont for example, described how she projected herself out of her body, passed through a wall and into a friend’s flat where she took note of the colour and style of her nightclothes and accidentally knocked over a glass.
Distance appears to be no problem when it comes to astral travel. Psychic Ingo Swann, who claims to have made an out of body exploration of the planets Mercury and Jupiter, reported finding that Mercury had an atmosphere and a magnetic field three weeks before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mariner 10 spacecraft made its fly by of the planet. Swann also predicted what the spacecraft would find when it swept past Jupiter. J. Allen Hynek, once called the “world’s foremost authority on flying saucers”, commented, “These are things that Mr Swann couldn’t possibly have known about. His impressions of Mercury and Jupiter cannot be dismissed.”
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? On the metaphysical, philosophical and occult planes, the belief in astral travel has been held since antiquity, but until recently the evidence relied solely on anecdotal evidence. Today, although the evidence still remains predominantly anecdotal, it is possible to investigate the claims more thoroughly using scientific methodology.
One case where it was possible to cheek 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 claimed, and astronomer J. Allen Hynek concurred, that Ingo Swann had proven that he had astral traveled 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.” When Swann’s claimed observations are compared with scientific determinations however, a different picture emerges.
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. (Randi 1992)
For the astral body to travel the average distance from Earth to Jupiter (approximately 774,000,000 kms) and return at 51,200 kms per hour (the same speed as the Voyager 11 space satellite) would take just under four years. In the absence of a sophisticated navigational system, protection from radiation and the problem of an astral body obtaining an escape velocity of 59.36kms/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.
Even assuming that an out of body spirit could travel at the speed of light (400,000 kms per second) the return trip to Jupiter would still take several hours. The improbability of this feat is further compounded by the “cord” which it is alleged connects the astral body to its physical body. In addition to the emphasis that America’s best known astral traveller and author Sylvan Muldoon places on the existence of this cord, it 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.
Dr Francis Lefebure in his book, Experientes Initatiques, explains the technique he uses for astral travelling – yoga exercises involving more and more extended intervals of suspension of breathing. He describes one incident during World War II, while serving as a doctor in a prisoner of war camp in Algeria, where he was told by a lieutenant that he had seen his double the night before despite the fact that it was verified that Lefebure had not left the camp all night. A more prosaic explanation would have been one of mistaken identity.
The part that breathing plays in allegedly projecting oneself astrally is borne out by the importance that Muldoon (1971) attaches to it. 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 prosaic explanation for the phenomenon of astral travel 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’s 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 prior
embellished with imagination and an induced change in cerebral blood
to produce the illusion of astral travel. It’s all in the mind.
Barcroft, Joseph. 1914. Respiratory
the Blood. Cambridge University Press.
Blackmore, Susan J. 1982. Beyond the Body. William Heinemann Ltd.
Brant (Ed). 1963. Strange Powers of Unusual People. Ace Books Inc. NY. 10036.
Muldoon, Sylvan, and Carington, Hereward. 1971 The Projection of the Astral Body. London.
Randi, James. 1982. Flim Flam. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY. Sagan, Carl. 1975. Other Worlds. Bantam.
Edwards, H. A
Guide to the New
Age, Australian Skeptics.)