Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Making sense of an out-of-body experience (OBE), spirituality and mental health

When is (or becomes) an out-of-body experience a R/S experience? (How) do people make sense of their experiences and is this related to mental health? Which motives do people have to (not) communicate their out-of-body experiences with regular and/or alternative caregivers? And what does it tell us about how R/S (Religion/Spirituality) concerns are nowadays addressed in healthcare?

Elpine de Boer

Prof.dr. Hans Gerding (Extraordinary professor emeritus of Philosophy, Leiden University)
Drs. Barbara van der Vlugt (neuropsychology, clinical psychology)

A spiritual experience has been regarded as a self-transformation in which the boundaries between self and the environment change. The present study focuses on a particular experience in which the experience of the self clearly deviates from what is usually experiences as one’s normal self: the out-of-body experience (OBE). It is important to note that in the current study an OBE is not a priori regarded (1) as a spiritual experience, and neither (2) literally as ‘leaving’ the physical body.

Specifically, this empirical study focuses on possible meaning making processes as a consequence of the OBE and people’s interpretations of the experience and possible changes in life-orientation.

We conducted a representative survey study (n = 3003, Gerding & De Boer, 2012) and found that one in seven people reported an OBE at least once in their life. Respondents were then asked if they were willing to fill out a Short Questionnaire (SQ) that included questions about the frequency of the out-of-body experiences, consequences of their OBE,  if they had contacted a (regular or alternative) caregiver and questions about religious upbringing and current religiosity/spirituality. This sample, here denoted as the SQ sample, consists of 1118 respondents of which 407 respondents reported to have had (once: 57%  or more than once: 47%) an OBE. A selection of respondents with an OBE also filled out a more extensive survey with in-depth questions (LQ sample) about the OBE, psychological wellbeing, personality, religious belief style and mental health (n = 171).  Using open-ended questions, respondents could also describe the nature of their OBE and if and how they managed to make sense of the experience.