In the 2016 blockbuster "Doctor Strange," among the titular superhero's powers (as the "Master of the Mystic Arts") is astral projection, or the ability to separate his physical body from his spiritual one. This is done in spectacular fashion onscreen, enhanced by cutting-edge computer generated effects featuring an extended fight scene between two people in spirit form. (Of course, fights usually involve physical force such as punches and kicks, so how exactly two immaterial entities could affect each other remains a bit of a mystery.)
Astral projection is fun and fascinating — but is it real?
The idea that humans can leave their bodies during dream states is ancient. Countless people, from New Agers to shamans around the world, believe that it is possible to commune with cosmic intelligence through visions and vivid dreams experienced during astral projection, also known as out-of-body experiences. Surveys suggest that between 8 and 20 percent of people claim to have had something like an out-of-body experience at some point in their lives — a sensation of the consciousness, spirit, or "astral body" leaving the physical body. While most experiences occur during sleep or under hypnosis, some people claim to do it while merely relaxing.
Though originally a private, quasi-religious meditative practice it has — like many New Age beliefs — been commercialized. Astral travel can be big business, and there are many books, seminars, DVDs and other materials that promise to teach students how to leave their physical bodies and access other dimensions. Do they work? Who knows?
It may be a profound experience, but the fundamental problem is that there's really no way to scientifically measure whether or not a person's spirit "leaves" or "enters" the body. The simplest and best explanation for out-of-body experiences is that the person is merely fantasizing and dreaming. Because there is no scientific evidence that consciousness can exist outside of the brain, astral projection is rejected by scientists.
Why hasn't astral projection been proven scientifically? Some claim it's because mainstream scientists are closed-minded and refuse to even look at evidence that doesn't fit their narrow worldview. However, in science those who disprove dominant theories are rewarded, not punished. Proving the existence of psychic powers, astral projection or alternative dimensions would earn the dissenting scientists a place in the history books, if not a Nobel Prize.
Scientifically testing the validity of astral travel should be quite simple; for example, you might hide 10 unknown objects at different locations and then ask a person to project their consciousness to each place and describe exactly what's there. Either the descriptions match or they don't.
We need not resort to such artificial tests, since the real world provides countless opportunities for astral projection to be demonstrated beyond any doubt. If proven, astral travel would be incredibly useful to the world. There would be no need to send humans into very dangerous conditions — such as nuclear disasters — to determine what the situation is. People whose consciousnesses can fly and move through walls would save lives during natural disasters such as earthquakes, easily moving through rubble and collapsed buildings to locate survivors and direct rescue workers to them. Astral projectors, like psychics, would be invaluable to police during mass shooting and hostage situations, describing exactly how many suspects there are, where in the building they can be found, and other crucial details. The absence of these individuals during life-or-death situations is revealing.
Practitioners of astral travel insist that the experience must be real because it seems so vivid, and because some of the experiences are similar, even for people from different cultures. But it's not surprising that many people who try astral projection have similar experiences — after all, that's what the term "guided imagery" is: when an authority (such as a psychologist or astral travel teacher) tells a person what they should expect from the experience.
According to researcher Susan Blackmore, author of "Beyond the Body: An Investigation of Out-of-the-Body Experiences," people who experience astral travel "have been found to score higher on measures of hypnotizability and, in several surveys, on measures of absorption, [a] measure of a person's ability to pay complete attention to something and to become immersed in it, even if it is not real, like a film, play, or imagined event." Out-of-body experiencers are more imaginative, suggestible, and fantasy-prone than average, though have low levels of drug and alcohol use, and no obvious signs of psychopathology or mental illness. [Related: Out-of-Body Hallucinations Linked to Brain Glitch]
Though astral projection practitioners insist their experiences are real, their evidence is all anecdotal — just as a person who takes peyote or LSD may be truly convinced that they interacted with God, dead people, or angels while in their altered state. Astral projection is an entertaining and harmless pastime that can seem profound, and in some cases even life-changing. But there's no evidence that out-of-body-experiences happen outside the body instead of inside the brain. Until the existence of an astral plane can be proven — and made accessible — there's always the continuing adventures of the Sorcerer Supreme.