Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
Eugène Osty was an important figure in French psychical research who distinguished himself in many areas, among them studies of ESP. The article discussed here, entitled “La Vision de Soi” ([Visions of the Self] Revue Métapsychique, 1930, No. 3, 185-197), is part of a long history of attempts to explain OBEs using psychological concepts such as hallucinations.
In the introduction to the article Osty commented about the numerous reports published in the psychic literature of apparitions of living persons. These have been denominated in various ways–“apparitions, doublings, telepathic hallucinations, etc.,”– according to specific theoretical ideas. Osty thought these apparitions should be compared to cases of visions of the self.
He started with cases of autoscopy, an experience in which a person sees an apparition of themselves from the perspective of their physical body. Cases of this sort were described in previous publications in the French literature, among them Paul August Sollier’s Les Phénomènes d’Autoscopie (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1903). Osty presented various cases and his discussions depended considerably on Sollier’s influential book on the subject.
But Osty also presented cases in which the experiencer’s perceptions took place from a position in space out of the physical body, or out-of-body experiences, a term Osty did not use. These cases took place under anesthesia and heart trouble (two cases with the same individual), weakness produced by gripe, depression, and while reading (the last two cases taking place with the same person).
The case under anesthesia was reported to physiologist Charles Richet by M. L. L. Hymans in a letter dated 1928. As Hymans wrote describing the experience:
“While I was anesthesized, I had the sensation of waking up and feeling I was floating at the top of the room, from where I saw, with the greatest astonishment, the dentist caring for my body, and the anesthetist next to him. I saw my inanimate body as distinctly as any other object in the room. Everything gave me the impression of a living picture. It did not last but a few seconds. I lost consciousness again and I awoke on the chair with a very clear impression of what I had seen.”
Another case was reported to Osty by Mme. Nathalie Annenkof in 1930. She was in a cemetery sitting on the corner of her daughter’s tomb feeling sad and depressed. Next she started having feelings of lightness:
“My first impression was that my legs and arms did not weigh much, then the stomach and then the chest. Suddenly I found myself on top and aside of my body which I saw sitting on the edge of the grave. I saw my face tired. I even noticed that my coat was stained with dirt. And I had the feeling of hovering above my body in complete bliss. I had the sensation of a large and bright love of life, as if I lived thousands of lives at the same time, and a complete tranquility.”
“I could not move and did not feel the need to. But I could see, understand and feel an inner and happy life. My body looked like a rag, like an abandoned thing. I thought: “This is death.” And yet I had the joy of living.”
“I saw the cemetery caretaker approach my body, touch it, feel it, talk to me, and left running. He told me, later, that he had gone to ask for an ambulance, and that my hands and my face were beginning to get cold.”
“When I saw him leave, I realized that he believed me dead, and suddenly I was afraid. “It is death, I thought. How my husband will live without me?”
“But I felt so alive that I said to myself: “I must go back to my body.” I tried to come back and was afraid of not being able to.”
“I started feeling the weight, then the pain, the small discomforts which we are so accustomed to that we do not notice them anymore. Then came sadness and the desire to cry.”
Soon after she returned to her body. This lady also wrote that she had a similar experience two weeks later. This one took place while she was reading in bed.
Although Osty realized that in some cases the self was felt to be located in the physical body and at other times outside of it, he believed they were all of the same nature. Osty followed Sollier in the idea that loss of body sensitivity produced the feeling that the thinking self was exteriorized from the physical body. He wrote using Sollier’s ideas that visions of the self started with a bodily sensibility problem in which the person “does not feels very alive in his body as it is ordinarily.” This lack of sensibility, he wrote, could lead the person to perceive the body as a foreign thing, which in turn produced the feeling that the “thinking self is exteriorized in some degree.”
This illusion of exteriorization of the self was completed by means of the “objectification of the visual mental representation of the body; the phantasmal hallucination of the self can remain at the cenesthesic stage, but it can be tactile, auditive, visual . . .” This combined loss of sensibility with visual imagery.
In evaluating the ideas of Sollier in terms of the OBE cases he presented, Osty argued that the autoscopy cases had in common a “lessening of consciousness and as a consequence problems of sensibility.” This, he felt, was consistent with the observation that the OBE cases took place “during general anesthesia, or in syncopal or cataleptoid states, during numbness, while reading in bed, in a possible brief sleep.” Osty also argued for similarities between autoscopy and OBE cases in terms of features such as feelings of lighteness, well-being, and other things, but his comparisons were not systematic nor detailed.
Furthermore, Osty said he was aware of an important difference between the cases of Sollier and his own. In Sollier’s autoscopy reports “things take place as if the subjects saw with the ordinary use of their eyes the double of the bodies, which brought surprise or fear.” But in his cases “it was the doubles who saw the bodies.” The latter was a very event that led these persons to believe “themselves to be dead and among them two derived from these events proof of the existence of a thinking principle capable of living without matter, and the firm conviction that their soul had lived for a time out of their bodies.”
Osty was not convinced about ideas about the soul, stating that both groups of cases were identical in nature, basically consisting of a “hallucination of the self due to momentary problems of sensibility, of judgement and of imagination.” For him the joint work of sensibility problems and imagination explained the cases. The sensation of being out of the body was seen as an illusion, a confusion of the mind, and not as a real exteriorization.
In the paper Osty admitted that there were complications. In some cases of OBEs the experiencer did not see only their own physical body, but sometimes saw other individuals and the surroundings. This led to the modification of Sollier’s initial idea, which accounted only for the hallucination of the self. He suggested that the hallucination in question could have been informed by sensory perceptions of what was taking place around them. That is, the person could have seen or heard without conscious awareness things in the scene where the OBE took place that were incorporated in the hallucinatory experience as, for example, the presence of other individuals, such as the anesthetist in Hyman’s experience.
Osty also wondered, invoking the concept of telepathic hallucinations develop before him, if “paranormal knowledge” could also provide information that could be incorporated in the hallucinations of the self. He asked: “Is it not logical . . . to think that the human psychism may at any favorable occasion manifest its properties of knowing without the use of the senses ordinarily used . . . ” He speculated that the same subconscious elaboration processes seen in dreams and in imagination could combine with paranormal information to inform the veridical content of OBEs. But in essence, these experiences were “creations of the imagination,” “marvelous illusions.”
As mentioned before, the idea that OBEs were hallucinations was discussed before Osty published his paper in 1930. But a more general context is that of psychological and physiological aspects of hallucinations, such as a discussion of “ecstatic affections” in which withdrawal from perceptions and active imagination were seen as the causal agents (Prichard, J. C. (1837) A Treatise on Insanity and other Disorders Affecting the Mind. Philadelphia: Haswell, Barrington, and Haswell, 1837).
While my purpose in writing this note is limited to remind current students of OBEs about Osty’s views, it is interesting to see that in recent times others have discussed autoscopy and OBEs under the assumption that they are the same hallucinatory phenomenon with slightly different features, but proposing a different etiology from Osty’s (e.g., Blanke, O., and Mohr, C. (2005) Out-of-body experience, heautoscopy, and autoscopic hallucination of neurological origin. Implications for neurocognitive mechanisms of corporeal awareness and self consciousness. Brain Research Reviews 50, 184-199).
These comments first appeared as: Eugène Osty on Out-of-Body Experiences [Letter to the editor]. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 2016, 80, 121-124. Its writing was funded by the Society for Psychical Research.