The following article has been reprinted from the PJSA. It is old and although checked for accuracy (using spelling in British English!) it is possible that reference numbers or other typographical errors have arisen. Nevertheless, as this paper reflects the pioneering work in the area of subjective anomalous experience in relation to clinical psychiatric frameworks, it may be of enormous importance to phenomenologists and researchers and it is reprinted here for academics.

The Out-of-Body Experience: a Phenomenological Categorization

Vernon M. Neppe BA, MB, BCh, MMed (Psych), PhD (Med), DPM, FF Psych (SA)

Dept of Psychiatry, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.


This editorial comment evaluates the new phenomenological classification of anomalous experience - Neppe's Anomalous Multiaxial Evaluation Schemaa I (NAMES I) in the context of Irwin's phenomenological analyses of the out-of-body experience. These suggest a revision of NAMES (NAMES II). Axis C becomes Content. Correspondences are included under Axis J - Judgment, special characteristics, context, and environment under Axis G - Gestalt and demography and prior knowledge should always be considered as adjuncts.

Key Words

Out-of-body experience Context NAMES Demography Anomalous experience classification Prior knowledge Phenomenology Irwin's perspectives Content and form

* (At that stage) Department of Psychiatry, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and President of the SASPR

PJSA 1985, 6:2, 100-110


Brief reviews of detailed theoretical treatises which cover numerous different areas are necessarily selectively personal: I was particularly pleased with Irwinís major attempts at classifying the out-of-body experience (OBE) in his book Flight of Mind: A Psychological Study of the Out-of-Body Experience. Irwin's phenomenological / classificatory attempt is spread over many chapters. This paper attempts to integrate it into my own recently published multiaxial classification of anomalous events2.

OBEs can be categorized at numerous different levels:

  1. Celia Green conceived of parasomatic and asomatic OBEs. In the former there is the subjective impression of exteriorisation of consciousness at a spatial level, in the latter this is not so. Irwin points out a third possibility: consciousness exteriorised from both the physical and parasomatc (astral body). This group, unnamed by Irwin, could be called aparasomatic Greenís classification therefore emphasizes form.
  2. Robert Crookall categorized the OBE on the basis of its broad circumstances of induction - enforced or natural. Enforced OBEs are precipitated by intoxication, anaesthesia, trauma, hypnosis and other special triggers. This contrasts with the natural OBE reflecting a more gradually developing or chronic condition - sleep, exhaustion, illness, near death experiences, relaxation, meditation and purely spontaneous events are examples. Crookall sees the specific precipitators of enforced OBEs as catalyzing agents. The details of induction techniques are also relevant.
  3. Harvey Irwin subdivides the content of the OBE into three: asensory, naturalistic and supernaturalistic. This broad content categorization seems particularly valuable and, in my opinion, may, in fact, be a worthwhile conceptualization for other delta afferentation phenomena such as the contents of the various kinds of so-called extrasensory perceptions.
  4. Irwin's naturalistic OBE consists of impressions from normal (earthly) sources (realms) even though they may be from unusual or unfamiliar environments. This contrasts with OBEs that subjectively seem to derive from another plane of existence - the experients may, for example, believe they have visited "astrally" a spirit realm, paradise or heaven. These are supernaturalistic OBEs. Irwin would classify subjective "visits" to other planets like Mars as "naturalistic" if the subject's conviction is that it was natural, not supernatural. Irwin does consider OBEs with both naturalistic and supernaturalistic components. A convenient term. I suggest for such an experience would be the metanaturalistic OBE. Finally Irwin points out that perceptual impressions are often completely lacking which he calls the asensory OBE.

    PJSA 1985, 6:2, 100-110


  5. Irwin also subdivides "content of the OBE" into primary (common) and secondary (less common) percepts of the exteriorised self. In my opinion, the consistency of the primary pattern may allow easier confirmation that the experience described conforms to laid down criteria for OBEs such as "OBE in the neighborhood of the physical body" and "looking down at one's body" Amongst the secondary experiences are those that resemble the NDE - the tunnel experience, the supernaturalistic OBE and contact with discarnate entities.
  6. Form leads naturally from content. Whereas spatial distinctions such as asomatic /parasomatic/aparasomatic can be valuable, Irwin analyses the form of OBE in a manner similar to my own analysis of déjà vu, namely:
  7. The psychological processes that have occurred are important. How alert is the OBE-er? What emotional state and cognition were concomitant to feeling out of the body? Did time sense alter? What expectations did the subject have and what were his needs?
  8. A further subdivision to the OBE is the perceptual concomitants at the onset and termination of the OBE. Irwin cites four types, in isolation or combination: "percussive or other noises" e.g. buzzing or music; "vibrations of the physical body"; "awareness of severance of body control and feeling"; and a momentary experiential "gap in the stream of consciousness." Termination phenomena include strong emotions like fear, contempt or revulsion; stimuli such as being touched, called or otherwise distracted; and finally deliberate efforts to return. In my opinion, it is interesting that these experiences may have links to the temporal lobe of the brain.
  9. PJSA 1985, 6:2, 100-110


  10. Circumstances of the OBE occurrence prior to the OBE have a further "phenomenological" approach. This analyses antecedent mental processes -cognitive, affective and motivational perspectives to the pre-OBE state. These "short-term factors" may at times reflect "longer-term" constitutional factors. Antecedent physical states are also vital: the actual physical location, e.g. home; the meteorological features; the sensory character of the environment, e.g. light-dark and sensory deprivation and bombardment, state of health of the OBE-er
  11. 9. Demographic characteristics of the OBE-er are also relevant: age, sex, marital status, social and educational background, religion and religiosity, race and culture should be available although there is little evidence of any of these playing major roles in the OBE. Personality factors, if available, should be recorded.
  12. An important direction for analysis is prior knowledge of the CD the role of socio-cultural conditioning to the OBE. Thus, subjects should be questioned as to whether they have heard or read about the phenomenon.
  13. Neurophysiological bases to the phenomenological experience are also important - electroencephalograms, sleep records, pharmacological studies and specific neurophysiological bases (such as temporal lobe features, epilepsy and migraine) are specific areas to be documented if data is available.
  14. Finally, the impact of the OBE (its consequences) on the OBE-er should be noted.

All these factors can be documented separately in order to categorize the OBE adequately. They are here "tried for fit" into NAMES - Neppe's Anomalous Multiaxial Event System - which appears to be the only multiaxial classification schema of anomalous experience. Table IA lists the features from the OBE perspective, Table IB uses NAMES as the starting point and examines how Irwin's cited phenomenological characteristics fit, and Table IC uses Irwin's OBEs as a baseline and applies NAMES to it.

PJSA 1985, 6:2, 100-110


1. Induction
1.1 Induction - occurrence Enforced - natural
1.2 Details of techniques
2. Content
2.1 Content perspective: asensory - naturalistic - supernaturalistic -metanaturalistic
2.2 Content frequency:
2.2.1 Primary (neighborhood, looking down)
2.2.2 Secondary (tunnel, supernaturalistic, discarnate contact)
3. Form parameters
3.1 Spatial form (parasomatic/asomatic/aparasomatic)
3.2 Sensory modalities
3.3 Vividness/clarity
3.4 Experient control
3.5 Information veridicality
3.6 Parasomatic body details
3.6.1 Lateral reversals
3.6.2 Density
3.6.3 Motion
3.5.4 passage/directionality/travel
3.5.5 Astral cord
3.5.6 Sense of personal identity
4. Psychological features during the OBE
4.1 Alertness and consciousness
4.2 Emotionality
4.3 Time-sense alterations
4.4 Subject expectations
4.5 Subject needs
5. Onset and termination of OBE
5.1 Onset: auditory, vibratory, severance, gap in consciousness
5.2 Termination: emotions, stimuli, deliberate efforts to "return to body"
6. Pre-OBE circumstances
6.1 Antecedent mental processes
6.1.1 Cognitive
6.1.2 Affective
6.1.3 Motivational

PJSA 1985, 6:2, 100-110


6.2 Antecedent physical states
6.2.1 Physical location
6.2.2 Meterological features
6.2.3 Environment sensory character i) Light - darkness perspective ii) Sensory deprivation - bombardment
6.2.4 OBE-er's health
7. Demographic characteristics
8. Prior OBE knowledge (heard, read, knowledge)
9. Neurophysiological bases
9.1 EEG
9.2 Sleep records
9.3 Pharmacology
9.4 Symptomatology (possible temporal lobe features)
10. Impact of the OBE on OBE-er

OBE-Irwin Axis
A: Anomaly (Delta)
B: Base (Central)
C: Correspondence Information veridicality
D: Dimensions Time-sense
E: Ego-consciousness Alertness-psychological
F: Focus (Percipient)
G: Gestalt Motivation pre-OBE Expectations, needs
H: Heuristic OBE - spatial form
I: Intention Induction
J: Judgment (Information veridicality)

PJSA 1985, 6:2, 100-110


1. Induction Axis I : Intention beforehand
2. Content not specifically discussed Perspective and frequency important
3. Form not applied specifically Spatial form broadly part of Axis H - Heuristic Information veridicality = Axis J - Judgment and Axis C - Correspondence Control level = Axis I peripherally as control refers to OBE not pre-OBE
4. Psychological features portrayed in Axis E - Ego-consciousness (4.1 Alertness) Axis D - Dimensions (4.3 Time-sense) Axis G - Gestalt (4.4, 4.5 Expectations, Needs) Axis F - Focus (4. Percipient)
5. Onset and termination not in NAMES
6.1 Pre-OBE circumstances: mental n Axis G - Gestalt
(6.1.3 Motivational; to some degree cognitive and affective)
6.2 Pre-OBE - physical - not discussed
7. Demography not discussed
8. Prior knowledge not discussed
9. Neurophysiology not discussed
10. Impact not discussed

PJSA 1985, 6:2, 100-110


I am surprised at how much of Irwin's data is excluded from NAMES. Initially, one feels that Neppe's Axes A - J are quite inadequate for meaningful discussion of the OBE. The problem is a 10 level multiaxial classification of an anomalous event imposing special limits: however, key elements must be included.

Referring to Table IC, what excluded features should be included in NAMES?

Content perspective and frequency of special contents are obviously important: they allow an impression of typicality of the OBE. They must be applied to the OBE. Content perspective can easily be generalized to other forms of delta-afferentation. Subtyping of ESP experiences may ultimately lead to "primary" (common) and "secondary (infrequent) classifications - I see this as impractical and unnecessary at present.

Only aspects of Form, namely spatio-temporal components and information veridicality, are conceptualized in NAMES. I have used all the Form components Irwin has extracted for the OBE in my déjà vu work. This implies parameters can be more broadly applied3. I believe NAMES should include sensory modalities, vividness/clarity and level of control of the experience during the experience. Parasomatic details are important in the OBE but cannot easily be applied to other anomalous experiences. Possibly a category "special characteristics" should be added to NAMES. In the OBE this would be "parasomatic features".

Psychological variables are basically covered. At this point it may be superfluous and unnecessary to incorporate emotionality within NAMES as affect during an anomalous experience is generally congruous with the content of the experience.

Features linked to the experient's onset and termination of his experience (be it OBEs or other) can be very valuable information for the appreciation of the broader context of anomalous experience. This can be extended to any psychological, perceptual or cognitive experience during the anomalous event. This was applied very fruitfully in my research on temporal lobe symptomatology and subjective paranormal experience4. I previously believed such analyses of symptomatology not to be part of the core of the experience, hence I did not include them in NAMES. However, they constitute very valuable basic data, and would include antecedent mental processes such as cognition, affect and volition.

PJSA 1985, 6:2, 100-110


Antecedent physical states have been shown to be important in psi research. The atmosphere contributes to the degree of psi-conduciveness. The problem is what factors to include - at what system of the biopsychofamiliosociocultural model does one focus? What location, meteorological, light-dark, perceptual and thermal factors does one consider? For the present, I believe that such conditions must be described or tabulated in detail when they are perceived as unusual, anomalous or abnormal. For example, seances frequently occur in the dark; presences are often described with concomitant thermal coldness; and Faraday cages constitute a special location.

Demographic features should, of course, be obtained. However, they are not fundamental to NAMES and the actual basic description of the anomalous experience.

Prior knowledge of events and the impact these events make are special demographic extensions. They constitute vital information. For example, do subjective paranormal experients with some theoretical knowledge of parapsychology react in the same way as those ignorant of work in the area? I used this comparison very fruitfully in my olfactory hallucinations study5. Finally, NAMES is aimed at description of the subjects' experience in a broad context. Thus whereas neurophysiological correlates have proven valuable in research, there are specific techniques constituting part of a project and far less basic than the fundamental multiaxial parameters of NAMES.

In summary, how can Irwin's detailed analyses of the OBE contribute to the overall descriptions of anomalous experiences? I believe that it emphasizes the limitations of my original multiaxial classification. (I call this NAMES-I). NAMES-II needs to be developed.

  1. It must include a Content perspective which possibly can be the new Axis C instead of Correspondence which can be included under Axis J Judgment.
  2. Special characteristics in form of the experience can be profitably included as part of Axis G Gestalt.
  3. PJSA 1985, 6:2, 100-110


  4. psychological and psychopathological symptoms occurring concomitantly with, preceding or terminating any anomalous experience constitute part of Axis C Content.
  5. Context or physical environment must form part of Axis. G Gestalt characteristics.
  6. Prior knowledge would be included under demographic features.

NAMES-lI is summarized in Table 2.

A: Anomaly
B: Base
C: Content (includes perspective - naturalistic, supernaturalistic, metanaturalistic an asensory; and concomitant symptoms)
D: Dimensions
E: Ego-consciousness
F: Focus
G: Gestalt (includes special characteristics and physical context)
H: Heuristic
I: Intention
J: Judgment (includes correspondence)

NAMES must be described with demography (includes prior knowledge)

No doubt NAMES-l, will shortly develop into NAMES-II. Eventually, however, a workable descriptive phenomenology for multiaxial anomalous events can be developed. Irwin's detailed contribution to the analysis of the OBE encourages such work in other areas of anomalous experience.

PJSA 1985, 6:2, 100-110



  1. Irwin H.J.. Flight of Mind: A Psychological Study of the Out-of-Body Methuen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press. 1985.
  2. Neppe V M. A multiaxial classificatory system for anomalous experience. PJSA. 1985, 6:1, 57-72.
  3. Neppe V N. The Psychology of Déjà Vu. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press. 1983.
  4. Neppe V N. Temporal lobe symptomatology in subjective paranormal experients. J Amer Soc Psychical Res. 1983, 77:1, 1-30.
  5. Neppe V M. Anomalies of smell in the subjective paranormal experient. Psychoenergetics. 1983, 5:1, 11-27.

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