A Pilot Study in ESP, Dreams, and Purported OBEs

Stanley Krippner

ABSTRACT: In 1966, we conducted a 4-night pilot study at the Maimonides Medical Center Dream Laboratory in Brooklyn, New York. The subject was a male student who claimed to have frequent out-of-body experiences (OBEs) at night. We used a telepathy and a clairvoyance target (art print) each night, the latter having been placed in a box attached to the ceiling of the sleep room. The subject was asked to attempt discerning the clairvoyance target if he had an OBE, and to attempt dreaming about it even if he did not have an OBE. Outside judges observed few correspondences between the transcribed dream reports and the telepathy targets, but several correspondences between the reports and the clairvoyance targets. The most provocative dream report was on the final night of the study when a print of Berman’s “View in Perspective of a Perfect Sunset” was randomly selected; the subject dreamed about a sunset, a content item that appears in fewer than 1 out of every 500 male dreams reports according to Hall and Van de Castle’s normative data. The subject reported having had an OBE that night, and the EEG record disclosed an unusual pattern of slow brain wave activity interrupting REM sleep shortly before he was awakened for the dream report in which he mentioned the sunset. It is recommended that sophisticated brain scanning devices (e.g., CT, PET, MRI) be used with subject in an attempt to identify brain activity during purported OBEs. The expense and discomfort of these procedures have delayed their use by parapsychologists, but the advantages of these procedures outweigh the disadvantages.

A “dream” can be thought of as a series of images that occur during sleep; when it is recorded or reported, it usually takes a narrative form. It is important to note that scientists who work with dream content inevitably work with reports which might or might not accurately represent the dream as originally experienced. Sigmund Freud (1953) collected cases of purported telepathy in dreams, feeling that psychoanalysis could assist in unraveling the puzzling aspects of telepathic messages and insights, concluding that “Sleep creates favorable conditions for telepathy.” If Freud was the first major figure in psychiatry to attach scientific importance to ESP in dreams, the credit for being the first psychiatrist to devise a method to test for it experimentally belongs to Montague Ullman (1969). As a radical departure from the repetitious card-guessing procedures, Ullman used art prints as targets, especially those with emotional content. In 1962, a dream laboratory was established at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center where Ullman initiated formal experimental work (Ullman & Krippner, with Vaughan, 1989). I joined him in 1964, and we conducted 13 dream and ESP experiments over the next decade.

In 1966, while designing a 4-night pilot study, we decided to use both a clairvoyance and a telepathy target (Krippner & Zirinsky, 1971). The research participant (James U.) was told about the clairvoyance target but not the telepathy target. It was reasoned that if the research participant was oriented to the clairvoyance target, his dream reports would show a greater congruence with the target picture than with the telepathy target. If, on the other hand, the intent of the telepathic agent was salient to a greater degree than the orientation of the research participant, the congruence between dream reports and the telepathy target would be more robust.

The telepathy target and the agent were located in a room that was about 100 feet from the sleep room. Four laboratory staff members rotated as agents. The research participant was a student who had contacted the laboratory to discuss his personal involvement with altered states of consciousness. As a result of his immersion in Rosicrucian teachings, he claimed to have occasional “out-of-body” experiences (OBEs). Therefore, in an adaptation of a procedure originated by Charles Tart (1968), the clairvoyance target was placed in a cardboard box attached to the ceiling of the room. He was told to attempt to discern the target if he should have an OBE during the night.

Both the telepathy and the clairvoyance target were randomly selected from a large collection of art prints, each of which had been enclosed in sealed envelopes. The agent was given an envelope and waited until he reached his private room before opening the envelope. In regard to the clairvoyance target, another staff member took the sealed envelope, entered the sleep room, climbed on a chair, held up his arms, opened the envelope, and let the target picture drop into the box. In this way, no one at the laboratory had conscious knowledge as to the identity of the clairvoyance target.

The research participant went to bed with electrodes attached to his head, and was awakened about 10 minutes after the onset of each REM period. His dream reports were recorded on tape and transcribed later by a secretary who was not present at any of the sessions.

On 30 June 1966, the first night of the study, the telepathy target was a print of Manet’s painting, ‘The Guitarist.” James U. had no dreams about musicians or musical instruments. The clairvoyance target was a print of Matisse’s painting, “Details from the Red Studio.” James U. reported several dreams about houses, rooms, and the color red.

On 28 July 1966, the second night of the study, the randomly selected telepathy target was a photograph, “Equipment of the Civil War.” James U. had no dreams about weapons or war. The clairvoyance target was a photograph of Abbot Suger’s chalice — a silver goblet rimmed with precious stones. James U. dreamed about antiques, a bowl, and a turquoise ball.

On 11 August 1966, the third night of the pilot study, the telepathy target was a copy of Charbot’s painting, “Angel Weathervane”; James U. had no dreams about angels or the weather, however one of his dream reports mentioned a meteorite shower and shooting stars. The clairvoyance target was a copy of De Chirico’s painting, “Anguish of Departure” which portrays a coffin-like box with mountains in the distance. Several correspondences appeared in the dream reports for that night, e.g., a hearse, a “shriveled-up body lying in a bed,” and a mountain scene.

For 18 August 1966, the final night of the pilot study, the telepathy target was a copy of Hokusai’s painting, “Cranes,” but James U. had no dreams about birds. The clairvoyance target was a copy of Berman’s painting, “View in Perspective of a Perfect Sunset,” depicting a lone figure watching a brilliantly colored setting sun. On that night, James U. reported a dream about a sunset. According to Hall and Van de Castle’s (1966) table in The Content Analysis of Dreams, sunsets appear in fewer than 1 out of every 500 dream male dream reports. Excerpts of the dream follow: “It was dark outside and light inside…. It was dusk…. It was just getting dark. Sunset. Very hazy. It was hazy. It wasn’t a clear day. It wasn’t either foggy or cloudy. It was sort of muffled. It wasn’t a clear sunset…. It reminds me of a chilly or cold winter’s day which is coming to an end. A day which has been cloudy all day long and the sun is just beginning to go down.”

In the morning, James U. reported having had an OBE. An inspection of the EEG record for that night disclosed an unusual pattern of slow brain waves in the theta and delta frequencies, interrupting REM sleep shortly before he was awakened for his fifth dream report. The EEG records were shown to several sleep and dream researchers who concluded that the interruption of REM sleep by slow brain waves is unusual, but not unknown (Hobson, 1988, pp. 135-137). Indeed, Hobson (1988) admits that “while the EEG is a valuable tool, it is theoretically problematic, because we still do not really know the origin of the voltages that are measured.” He points out that “each electrode applied to the surface of the scalp is distant from the possible signal sources in the brain and… the EEG must be considered a relatively remote and probably pale copy of the underlying neural activity” (p. 135).

Since this experiment was conducted, a number of more sensitive indicators have been identified that may contribute more definitively to an OBE “signature” during REM. Among these are heart rate deceleration, the suppression of eyeblinks, relaxation of musculature around the mouth, inhibition of the postural musculature, and changes in pontogeniculo-occipital (PGO) waves (Kuiken & Sikora, 1993). No data exist connecting these changes to OBEs during sleep, but these may be crucial parameters for further study. Kuiken and Sikora (1993) have identified four clusters of unusual dream experiences, one of which contained some OBE reports (p. 436) and the psychophysiological correlates of these clusters could be investigated in the future.

The three outside judges who matched the dream transcripts with the pool of 8 target pictures on a 100-pont rating scale attained only random results with the telepathy targets (ANOVA F=0.01). Their matching of the dream transcripts with the clairvoyance targets attained greater accuracy; there was only 1 chance out of 10 that the results could have been due to chance (F=4.13). Although these data do not attain statistical significance, they are at least provocative given the small number of nights in this pilot study. James U. was willing to participate in a formal experimental study at the Maimonides laboratory, but was admitted to medical school. As a result, he terminated his participation and a similar research participant with a history of OBEs never surfaced.

Further research studies of this nature would do well to run a research participant on at least 8 nights in a dream laboratory, and to use a single agent (to decrease the variance from night to night based on interpersonal relations and expectancy effects). Such a study need not be limited to dreams; provocative results have been obtained in waking conditions with such research participants as Ingo Swann (in Mitchell, 1981).

In recent years, a number of sophisticated brain scanning devices have been developed (e.g., CT, PET, MRI) (e.g., Kalat, J.W., 1988; Lewine, Sanders, & Hartshorne, 1995; Posner & Raichle, 1994). Any one of these could be used in an attempt to identify the portions of the brain that are active during OBEs, their major disadvantages being expense and discomfort. CT (computed tomography) translates relative tissue densities into a structural portrait, providing a 3-dimensional representation of a brain region. Each picture is actually a composite image, crafted from thousands of x-rays taken by a scanner that revolves around the skull. PET (positron emission tomography) draws on the principles that blood rushes to the most active areas of the brain to deliver oxygen and nutrients to neurons. By injecting a subject with radioactive glucose, then scanning the brain for the gamma rays emitted as the solution metabolizes, researchers can detect active neuronal sites. For mapping both structure and activity of the brain, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is often used. MRI extracts clues from hydrogen atoms that are associated with water molecules in the blood.

In structural MRI, a subject’s head is immersed in a strong magnetic field and then subjected to several pulses of radio waves. The hydrogen atoms’ nuclei respond to by emitting signals that can be translated into an exceptionally precise 3-dimensional representation of the snapped region. To map brain activity, researchers use a process called functional MRI which detects variations in the response of hydrogen nuclei when oxygen is present in the blood By deducing which parts of the brain are being replenished by oxygen, scientists can target and then scan specific sites of neuronal activity. Superimposing EEG data over an MRI-generated blueprint of a subject’s brain yields a map that combines the speed of EEG with the precision of MRI.

Gazzaniga (1992) has pointed out the advantages of MRI in allowing researchers to learn about interhemispheric communication by monitoring the commissural areas that connect the right and left hemispheres. Before the advent of MRI, it was necessary to rely on surgical notes to determine the extent and effects of commissural surgery and many errors were committed. MRI permits more accuracy and has led to some surprising findings, e.g., the transfer of visual information from one hemisphere to the other occurs easily in monkeys and chimpanzees but not in humans (p. 101). Brain lesions in humans have been found to produce serious defects in intelligent behavior (p. 104) and speech and language areas in the left hemisphere (for right-handed persons) “are under greater genetic control than homologous regions in the right hemisphere” (p. 102). These issues are pertinent to parapsychological experiments that investigate the purported “right-hemisphere location for psi ability” (Stokes, 1987, p. 179). Because MRI scanning depends, in part, on determining those brain areas which are being replenished by oxygen, the technique may also be helpful in determining “carriers” and “facilitators” for psi information, especially if it is mediated (as some literature suggests) by geomagnetic factors (e.g., Spottiswoode, 1990).

PET (positron emission tomography) scans of readers revealed that brain activity shifts from one area to another depending on whether someone is reading words or hearing or speaking them. In another PET study, schizophrenics have been observed to have less activity in the forward-lying cognitive centers than is true of non-schizophrenics. Another investigation with PET scans demonstrated more right hemisphere activity in response to musical tones on the part of subjects untrained in music, while musically knowledgeable subjects demonstrated more activity in the left hemisphere of the brain. This equipment has never been used in OBE research, and might provide important psychophysiological correlates of the experience. PET images were found to differentiate the brains of skilled computer game operators from novices; the former utilized less energy than the latter, suggesting that learning is more a function of increased neuronal activity than of effort. Indeed, people with high IQ scores show a precipitous drop in mental exertion while learning computer games (Conlan, 1993, pp. 12-17). Kalat (1988) cites other examples, concluding that “PET scans enable researchers to answer some questions that could not previously be addressed with human beings” (p. 111). One of the questions not addressed by Kalat is brain activation during putative psi phenomena.

The expense and the discomfort of these brain scanning techniques has delayed their utilization by parapsychologists studying OBEs, but their advantages may be found to outweigh their disadvantages, especially as the technology becomes less expensive and more user-friendly. Once this occurs, and once it is determined that the danger from radiation is minimal, potential OBE subjects could go through a period of accommodation to the devices before formal experimental work is inaugurated. The equipment would not have to be bought, only loaned or borrowed. In addition, an apparatus might be built that is simple, portable, and that would still provide continuous on-line recordings of physiological events. The investigation of both the psychophysiology and the phenomenology of OBEs has become a necessity. Once regarded as symptomatic of severe mental illness, the OBE has now moved into the mainstream of psychological investigation. Although not a parapsychological phenomenon per se, the OBE often serves as a vehicle for presumptive psi, just as the dream often serves a similar purpose. It is likely that there are several exceptional human experiences that qualify as OBEs; certainly the dream OBE is one of them and deserves attention from investigators interested in the paradoxes of mind, brain, and body.


Conlan, R. (Ed.). (1993). Mind and brain. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books.

Freud, S. (1953). Dreams and telepathy. In G. Devereux (Ed.), Psychoanalysis and the occult (pp. 69-86). New York: International Universities Press.

Gazzaniga, M.S. (1992). Mind matters., The biological roots of thinking, emotion, sexuality, language, and intelligence. New York: Basic Books.

Hall, C., & Van de Castle, R.L (1966). The content analysis of dreams. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Hobson, J.A. (1988). The dreaming brain. New York: Basic Books.

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Krippner, S., & Zirinsky, K. (1971). An experiment in dreams, clairvoyance, and telepathy. The A.R.E. Journal, 6(1), 12-16.

Kuiken, D., & Sikora, S. (1993). The impact of dreams on waking thought and feelings. In A Moffitt, M. Kramer, & R. Hoffmann (Eds.), The functions of dreaming (pp. 419-476). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Lewine, J.D., Sanders, J.A., & Hartshorne, M.F. (1995). Functional brain imaging. St. Louis: Mosby.

Mitchell, J. (1981). Out-of-body-experiences: A handbook. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Spottiswoode, S.J.P. (1990). Geomagnetic activity and anomalous cognition: A preliminary report on new evidence. Subtle Energies, 1, 91-102.

Stokes, D.M. (1987). Theoretical parapsychology. In S. Krippner (Ed.), Advances in parapsychological research (Vol. 5). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Tart, C.T. (1968). A psychophysiological study of out-of-the-body experiences in a selected subject. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 62, 3-27.

Posner, M.I., & Raichle, M.E. (1994). Images of mind. New York: Scientific American Library.

Ullman, M (1969). Telepathy and dreams. Experimental Medicine and Surgery, 27, 19-38.

Ullman, M., & Krippner, S., with Vaughan, A. (1989). Dream telepathy: Experiments in nocturnal ESP (rev. ed.). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.


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