One Famous Actor's Out-of-Body Experience

Stephen Graham describes looking down from the gantry watching himself perform.

Posted Dec 02, 2019

Stephen Graham is famous for many roles on TV, perhaps best known for his role as Andrew "Combo" Gascoigne in This Is England as well being in the film Pirates of the Caribbean. Last week he was the guest on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. If you don’t know about DID, it’s been going since 1942, clocking over 3,000 episodes, and each week interviews a guest who has to choose the eight discs he would want when stranded on a desert island. You can listen to his episode; the part where he talks about his out-of-body experience (OBE) is at 15:00.

Talking about his early days as an actor Graham described a particular episode. He was 18 and performing a monologue on stage with his mom and dad in the audience. ‘I don’t mean this to sound pretentious,’ he said, ‘I kind of went—whoa—I actually saw myself outside of my own body. It sounds weird, it’s happened a couple of times.’ ‘I was watching myself stand at the front of the stage talking to the audience, but I was up at the top of the gantry. It was really weird.’

Is this weird? No, not as weird as you might think because this is just the kind of situation designed to provoke an OBE. He would have been very self-conscious and also imagining how he would look to all those people out there in the audience. So he was conjuring up a view of himself from elsewhere which is one of the features needed in an OBE.

There are many accounts like this, of people in exposed situations, feeling that everyone is looking at them. In her famous 1968 collection of OBEs, Celia Green describes the case of a vicar who found himself apparently floating at the far end of the church looking back on himself giving his sermon. Afterward, he asked some of the congregation whether they had noticed anything odd, but they hadn’t.  

One of my favorites of Green’s (1968) collection is from a really stressful situation—a driving test.

" ... as I settled myself, switched on the engine, let in the gear, I seemed to fill with horror because I simply wasn’t in the car at all, I was settled firmly on the roof watching myself and despite a fearsome mental struggle to get back into myself. I was unable to do so and carried out the whole test, (30 mins?) watching the body part of me making every sort of fool of myself that one could possibly manage in a limited time."

The account does not say whether this poor person passed the test or not but I think we can assume that no disastrous crash or accident occurred. Other OBEs have happened to people taking tests or exams, or in other stressful situations (Blackmore, 2017). This all makes sense because being anxious and highly self-conscious means you are imagining how other people are seeing you and … whoops … that’s what you see yourself. Of course, it doesn’t happen too often because the brain is constantly trying to keep its body schema in line with external reality, but these situations do often provoke spontaneous OBEs.

After describing his OBE, Stephen Graham chose his next disc—"Shine on You Crazy Diamond" by Pink Floyd. What a choice! I was instantly taken back to the era in which I had my first OBE—1970s Oxford with my hippy friends and the whole atmosphere of those heady days. I found myself almost crying.

Most important, though, is that Graham was able to talk about his experience in public. If you’ve been following this blog you will know that there is no reason to say it’s weird or embarrassing, other than that the sensations are so different from our usual illusion of being someone who lives inside our head. Every time famous people like him casually mention having OBEs the less worried everyone else will be if they have one—and the better able to chat about it and enjoy having had something a bit special happen to them.

References

Blackmore, S 2017 Seeing Myself: The new science of out-of-body experiences, London, Robinson

Green,C. E. (1968). Out-of-the-body Experiences. London, Hamish Hamilton.