The Gateway Experience: The CIA’s experiments in out-of-body techniques
Robert A. Monroe came to prominence in the 1970s for his work on altered states of consciousness. His book describing his own early experiences: Journeys Out of the Body has become well known amongst people that have tried to follow his research.
His theory around entering this altered state of consciousness required three stages:
- The first stage involves achieving a state of total relaxation in the body, such as a number of meditation systems suggest.
- The synchronising of the two hemispheres of the brain (left and right). He called this ‘Hemi-Sync’ and used audio stimuli to produce what are called binaural beats using resonant frequencies in the 7 Hertz range.
- Finally some stimulation of the right hemisphere of the brain which produces an ‘alertness’ or what is sometimes called ‘hyperfocus’.
In 1978 the US Army took an interest in Monroe’s ideas and sent officers to attend training at The Monroe Institute (TMI). Things must have gone reasonable well as they sent further people in 1983. However they also published a report in 1983 which analysed the techniques they had witnessed. The report does see value in some of the results achieved but stops short of endorsing some of the wilder claims.
Out Of Body (OBE) experiences are more widespread and common than one might first imagine. The term was first coined in a book: Apparitions by G.N.M.Tyrrell in 1943. Most people will associate this kind of experience, sometimes also called ‘autoscopy’ or ‘seeing self’, with sleeping and dreaming or perhaps stories of neardeath experiences. Interestingly it has also been reported by some high-altitude climbers and people suffering extreme states of exhaustion. These are all natural occurrences of OBEs.
Humans have experimented with substances to enhance meditation since the depths of history and likely before. Hallucinogenic drugs have been used widely to achieve spiritual goals in various cultures. Other artificial methods also include something known as ‘Mind awake, body asleep’. This technique was reportedly used by Thomas Edison. He would balance a silver dollar on his forehead, while sat in a chair and holding a metal bucket in his lap. As he drifted off to sleep the silver coin would drop nosily into the bucket and restore some of hia alertness. If this was me I think I would just wake up at that point and be back where I started. Apparently this worked for Edison though. Several other people used this kind of technique, such as Salvador Dali, who used the state to get inspiration for some of his paintings.
Aside from dugs and Dali and Edison’s methods there have also been techniques like the Gateway Experience, binaural beats methods. Using audio or electrical or electromagnetic stimulation. Then there have been tries involving both sensory deprivation and sensory overload.
So what does science make of all this? Psychologists tend to regard OBEs as dissociative behaviours caused by psychological and neurological factors. A modern study of the phenomena by Jason Braithwaite and others in 2011 linked OBEs to:
“neural instabilities in the brain’s temporal lobes and to errors in the body’s sense of itself”.
Jason J. Braithwaite, Dana Samson, Ian Apperly, Emma Broglia, Johan Hulleman
On the other hand there have been many attempts to explain OBEs in paranormal terms. The most common explanation is that of astral projection, the traveling of the astral form (a form of the person separate from the physical body, ‘soul’, ‘spirit’ or ‘subtle form’) to a plane where distant locations can be visited.
As our knowledge of the universe and its wonders increases we begin to see that reality is much more nuanced than we thought. The apparent impossibility of much of quantum mechanics is an indicator of just how mysterious our reality is. Perhaps fortunately we live our lives in the macro world where objects perform in a consistent manner and our environment is familiar and comforting. When we experience something unusual, like a vivid dream in which strange things occur, we are quite happy to wake.