Late last year, the internet was crackling with plans to stage a million-strong raid on the supposed alien stronghold, Area 51. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing everyone to quarantine at home, venturing farther than the local park seems like a dream from a lost reality.
But what if there was a way to explore our planet that didn't put us in harm's way and was more stimulating than scrolling through Google Earth? And what if, while we were at it, we could storm Area 51 too?
According to a group of paranormal enthusiasts on Reddit, astral projection could be the vehicle we need.
Falling somewhere between a lucid dream and a near-death experience, astral projection is the sensation of separating from your physical self, keeping your mind awake while your body is asleep. Early records of the practice trace back to the Roman Empire. Experiences feel profound, and astral travelers have even claimed to learn things they otherwise couldn't have known.
Today, thousands of practitioners not only trade success stories for consciousness-expanding cosmic exploration, but have built a network to share techniques for traversing time and space using a toolkit available to everyone—the human mind.
Reddit's /R/AstralArmy is a focal point for the psychically curious to embark on out-of-body “missions” to off-limits locations, including military bases, Wuhan, the Pentagon, and supposed hives of paranormal activity like Skinwalker Ranch. The idea is intriguing: if you could go anywhere at all, what secrets could you learn?
A nineteen-year-old Wisconsinite who goes by Commander XXX told Motherboard via voice call that he started the subreddit (motto: “projection for protection”) because he was intrigued by the possibilities of group astral projection.
Here's how he says it works: the traveller creates an “astral scape” by visualizing a location in great detail. How do you visualize somewhere you've never been? Well, you use your imagination.
Then, you connect this visualization to a “sigil,” an occult symbol that is energized with a certain intent. By meditating on this sigil and recalling it in the out-of-body state, you can use it as a shortcut to the desired location, mirroring fast-travel in a video game. There's even a sigil for hanging out together, like an astral group DM.
There is a long history of out-of-body experiences (or OBEs) as religious events, with biblical explanations concerning the soul, or more recently, 19th-century new-age spiritualism. Today, there's reams of discussion on faith forums about whether astral projection is real, allowed within a religious framework, or simply total nonsense.
One group that took OBEs seriously was the US government’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
In 1995, the CIA declassified details of the DIA's nearly two decades of psychic research, the $20 million Stargate Project. From 1978, the program investigated the potential for psychic spying during the Cold War. Some of the wildest accounts of “remote viewing” entail visiting civilizations inhabiting the red rocks of Mars.
Skeptics ultimately lambasted the project. But the archive continues to fascinate parapsychology researchers, and clearly inspires Reddit's astral travelers.
"Most people are pretty basic astral projectors," Commander said, amid a baffling explanation that their missions are not necessarily representative of physical locations, but could be muddied by the interplay of how thoughts impact reality. His argument is that you never know if anything is objectively true anyway, a concept about competing forms of perception that is not as far-fetched as it first appears.
"We choose to believe what we want to believe for the most part," he said. "I don't think astral projection is any less a question of being real, as the physical."
Some of the Redditors who had claimed to infiltrate the Pentagon or the White House reported running up against barriers that prevented them from exploring further, feeling physically drained, or in one case, encountering astral Green Beret-esque guards.
Others made even more extraordinary claims, including encountering a moon base protected by a gigantic bubble, and speaking to nautical folk legend Davy Jones aboard the ghost ship, The Flying Dutchman—a conjoining of myths pioneered by The Pirates of the Caribbean. Some of this, I felt, stretched the realms of believability, and I wondered if this was an elaborate form of crowdsourced role-playing.
A sigil enabling astral travel to the Flying Dutchman, the infamous ghost ship of legend
But the group isn’t setting out to convince anyone, including me: they just wanted to discuss their experiments in consciousness undisturbed. Commander didn't care whether people believed, and would rather mainstream science did not investigate.
Some scientists are interested in out-of-body experiences, however.
Jane Aspell, a cognitive neuroscientist at Cambridge's Anglia Ruskin University, told Motherboard that one of the first studies was led by Olaf Blanke, who sought to determine whether people who had undergone these experiences had anything in common—say, brain damage.
Blanke discovered a shared abnormality among five patients—four with epilepsy, and one who suffered frequent migraines—in the temporal parietal junction (TPJ), a part of the brain which deals with cognitive function and perception.
Suggesting a link between the TPJ and OBEs is a 2007 paper about a 63-year-old man who had intractable tinnitus and was implanted with electrodes to alleviate his condition. Instead, the researchers found they were able to consistently induce OBEs in the patient by stimulating these regions with the electrodes.
But the very nature of OBEs—that they tend to occur erratically, if at all—means they're incredibly difficult to study in a lab.
"We think this area is not functioning correctly, either because of damage, epilepsy, migraine, a stroke—or all kinds of reasons," said Aspell. "Or by stimulating it you can cause it to behave abnormally, so any kind of abnormal activity in this area can give rise to an out-of-body experience."
Whatever is happening, there's still much that's unknown.
"What they see can be very detailed," said Aspell. "They can see objects in the room, maybe people in the room, and obviously they're not really seeing it from there. But what's in this person's brain knows what's in the room because they've looked at it at some point. The brain is somehow reconstructing how that room would look from above. It's as if you had to draw a picture of your office or your bedroom for a bird's eye view—you could do that mental transformation consciously.”
"The brain is able to do it spontaneously, in a very rich and vivid way. We don't know how that can happen," she added.
Astral projection has never been proven in a scientifically controlled way, but Aspell doesn't think most experiencers are lying.
"They're as old as humanity, I think," she said, adding they may not even be limited to our species—chimpanzees might be having them too.
There's also a proposed link between quantum physics and consciousness. While perhaps the most famous OBEr in science, Dr Susan Blackmore, has put distance between her own experiences and these theories, the ideas persist.
Anthony Peake, who authored The Out Of Body Experience: The History and Science of Astral Travel, took me on a whirlwind tour of quantum physics, theorizing that entanglement, where particles are innately linked by some special quality, suggests instantaneous communication at a distance could be possible. If every particle that exists has a single source (the Big Bang) can we perhaps tune into "certain information fields non-locally?" Peake suggests maybe this is what happens when we travel out of our bodies.
But Dr Alastair Butcher, author of Super Smart Science: Astrophysics Made Easy, said that although seemingly instantaneous communication occurs between certain particles, there's no way of externally accessing this information. "These phenomena are extraordinary and throw up questions about the nature of quantum mechanics and, therefore, reality itself," Butcher told Motherboard.
"There are many interpretations of quantum mechanics, each with interesting implications. However, they're not currently provable or, more importantly, disprovable,” Butcher continued. “It's tempting to take one and run with it, especially as an explanatory device for something else not fully understood such as consciousness. However, this is an unscientific and in many cases unprovable approach to determining the nature of things."
Clearly, the only way I'd be able to see if there was something to all this would be to try it out myself.
Short of stimulating my TPJ by jamming a q-tip deep into my ear, I would have to rely on tried and tested techniques to astrally say "hiya" to my target: my cat, Zeus, who I'm cruelly separated from at this time.
I had a head start: a decade ago, I started lucid dreaming regularly during a period of insomnia. Being generally anxious, these perturbations spilled into my dreams, so when I reached the buzzing sensation practitioners associate with bodily separation, I would awake in a panic. Rather than roll out of body and into the cosmos, I'd roll out of my bed and onto the floor.
I tried the "Wake Back To Bed Technique" first. You wake up and go back to bed, holding the intent to astrally separate. The “back to bed” part was easy, but that's all that happened for me beyond better dream recall.
Next, I experimented with a technique an /r/AstralArmy mod outlined for me called “half-projection,” which is a little like remote viewing.
Although I could clearly visualize Zeus, I wasn't convinced I really was using some innate psychic ability to grossly impinge upon his privacy. I could easily have been merely imagining the one activity I know he gets up to day in, day out: waiting between refills of his crunchies bowl.
The author's cat Zeus was the first target of astral spying.
I turned to the organization that had perhaps achieved more than any other in popularizing out-of-body experiences, the Monroe Institute, founded by the guy the Simpsons loosely based Dr Marvin Monroe on. Monroe, a former radio executive and author of Journeys Out Of The Body, was mystified by his OBEs, and financed efforts to better understand them, especially with sound design, using himself as a test subject.
He found something called binaural beats could expedite inducing OBEs, and these would be developed into the Institute's patented “Hemi-Sync” meditations.
According to Luigi Sciambarella of the Monroe Institute UK, binaural beats consist of two separate sine waves played independently to each ear. To square the difference, the brain generates a beat frequency of its own.
For example, if you play 100 Hz in your left ear and 104 Hz in the right, the brain cancels the competing sounds and leaves you with a 4 Hz pulse, not actually in the audio file, but generated by the brain.
Sciambarella claims that with practice, listeners can lull themselves into a "mind-awake, body-asleep state" with relative ease after about ten minutes.
Anyone can try a free sampler. You have to pay hundreds of dollars for more, though—or just look on YouTube.
Sciambarella says that other reasons for using the tools could include personal growth or tapping into the creative qualities of the mind. In the same way that “mindfulness” exercises claim to help us pay attention to our waking lives, he believes OBEs can help us pay more attention to our sleeping selves.
Sciambarella says these “mind awake, body asleep states” occur on a spectrum. While we may think of OBEs as peeling away from your physical body, the Institute views them as "moving out of connection with our physical body to different degrees."
Daydreaming—which comprises almost half our waking life, according to researchers at Harvard University—is somewhere on that spectrum, for example. Sciambarella compares it to a familiar car ride: your body operates on autopilot while your mind's elsewhere.
This all made me feel better about my failure to explore moon bases with a lunar sigil. But I still wasn't getting very far.
Sciambarella offered some advice: Start small with visualization exercises where you engage your imagination in easily repeatable actions, like playing with a door handle. Intention is key, too. And relax.
Even with that guidance, I haven't managed to leave my corporeal self behind. While I'm doubtful I'll be exchanging ripostes with Davy Jones soon, my psychic disembodiment efforts have allowed me to reach states of relaxed stupor I hadn't thought possible.
Given the isolated nature of our current reality, there's hardly been a more opportune time for inward reflection. If that leads to outward psychic adventures, well, that's a bonus.