“Oh my God, what is that digging into my leg?….Nooooooooo!”

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the apparent increase in the propensity to embrace secular supernatural phenomenon: Ghosts, horoscopes, fortune telling, crystal energy, vortexes, homeopathy, clairvoyance, spiritual channelling, etc. It almost appears as if the migration away from traditional religious beliefs herds susceptible minds into waiting, trendy cultural niches. While from the religious perspective, this is often seen as the luring away from a proper respect for the supernatural by evil spirits or satanic forces (as made clear by the videos and illustrations.) A more objective observe, however, might suggest that the human mind needs something to believe in.

But if you speak with individuals who are convinced of the reality of ghosts and matterless spiritual energies capable of somehow imparting effect on the material domain (or at least into the minds in a manner that is indistinguishable from action in the real world), you may be quite surprised in what you find. Most of these believers are not essentially a skeptical mind that has whimsically embraced some irrational perspective; in face, you will find that these beliefs are driven by very powerful subjective experiences. A believer in ghosts, for example, often has a first hand account of a ghostly encounter–something he or she is convinced was an actual experience. I’ve seen the amplitude of this certainty in some that is strikingly similar to the certainty many Christians express with regard to being touched by Jesus or an angel.

Importantly, these experiences are certainly common enough where they cannot simply be written off as willfully fabricated tales (intentional untruths). Volumes have been written on the topic, of course, and the psychological intricacies that lead to these experiences cannot possible be adequately addressed in a blog post; however, it is noteworthy that these experiences are definitively tempered by an individual’s cultural context. Much has been written about well understood and surprisingly common sleep states known as sleep paralysis and lucid dreams. These have very predictable effects on those who experience them and researches have observed that the experience itself seems to morph with cultural supernatural beliefs. For example, in the 17th century, those who experienced this condition attributed it to bewitchment–a witch or demon was vividly experienced as a result of this mental experience. In the 20th century, the same condition has been largely the basis for individual claims about alien abductions.

Research in this area has been quite extensive, and scientists know (via direct observation) that an individual can experience hallucinations that cannot be distinguished from reality, but that observers know did not occur. Of course, this doesn’t prove that ever such experience is an hallucination, but importantly, there is a known physiological mechanism that accounts for these kinds of experiences.

Rather than follow this argument into academic detail, I will instead relay my own account of a mysterious encounter. This is not related to sleep paralysis, which (to the best of my recollection) I have never experienced. This involves a hike through the Indiana woods late one fall, very close to Thanksgiving. I remember most of the leaves had fallen. I had recently watched a movie that involved a missing child that had disrupted my psychological well-being (i.e. it creeped me out.) One scene had a group of police with dogs searching the woods, very similar to where I was hiking. As I hiked up the ravine, I was thinking about this movie and the poor little girl whose body they searched for, when up to my right, on the slope of the ravine only about 20 feet away, I saw her. Vividly. Standing there in a dress, holding a little doll, looking down toward me. The experience was very brief, and as I shifted my focus to the little girl, she was suddenly gone. It was as ghostlike as it comes, and it was such a powerful experience that I still remember it vividly, many years later.

But there were a couple problems with this ghost. First of all, these obviously weren’t the same woods as the movie and secondly, as I mentioned, it was a purely fictional story. I stopped in my tracks for several minutes and definitely had that sensation of a presence, like someone was watching me, but as I studied the hillside where I spotted the girl, I noticed that there were a few bare saplings and branches that had a fair resemblance to a small human form. Of course, one wouldn’t ordinarily mistake this brush for a girl, but anyone who knows much about the mind, knows that it is quite capable of rather intricate constructions on a crude framework. One who knows even a little about these mind tricks understands that what I saw was an hallucination; one ignorant of such matters might easily attribute the experience to a paranormal encounter.

Since that experience, two additional ones have highlighted to me the brain’s capacity to construct things that are not there. On my bicycle, I fastened my odometer cable to the frame using a black tie-wrap. The way the tie-wrap was nestled with a bit of bunched up cable I had coiled together the keep out of the way ended up roughly resembling the legs of a spider. When I say roughly, I mean so roughly that it didn’t occur to me at the time that it looked like a spider. Now, I don’t particularly like spiders, but I certainly don’t have arachnophobia; they are just kind of creepy. Shortly after I installed the odometer, I was climbing aboard my bike, and I darn near jumped out of my seat when I saw what seemed like a huge spider right below my handlebar. I vividly remember getting that surge of adrenalin that comes from the fear reflex. After a second, of course, I quickly realized my error. Oh…yeah…that cable kind of looks like a spider. But a moment before it WAS a spider. Now the odd thing about this phantom spider is that I left that cable tied just as it was, and continued to experience the same phenonomenon for several years. It wasn’t every time I climbed on the bike, but once a month or so when I picked up the bike without thinking about it and boom! Spider fear. After the third time, I thought about rewrapping the cable, but I became curious about how long the hallucination would last. Interestingly, the experience would still occur, even after years of fully realizing it was a cable.

“Don’t move!  I got this...”

The second experience was more recent, and occurred during my run. I regularly pass a yard with a tall fence that pins a couple of dogs which will bark as I run past. Since the next house doesn’t have a fence, there is a ninety degree corner at the edge of this yard. One day, an oddly shaped branch had been left there, just behind the corner so that it was not visible until I had passed the end of the fence. As I ran by to the barking of the fenced dogs, my brain built an actual dog out of this branch and I literally veered away from it as if it were jumping out from behind the fence at me. Not only did my brain build a dog, but it manufactured motion as well. The same branch got me one more time before it was hauled away a few days later.

Thus, it is not surprising to me at all that thrill-seeking ghost hunters have memorable experiences as they tour abandoned mental institutions. The brain, I’m sure, is capable of fooling us in many ways and I’m sure many of them are much more amazing than my ghostly girl, phantom spider, and fence-creeping hell-hound; thus, it becomes particularly important to challenge those experiences that seem to defy the bounds of reality. Failing to do so, of course, makes us susceptible to fraud at a massive scale. This can range from huckster faith-healers to fortune-tellers feeding on our gullibility.

And, remember, your psychological state will often determine what patterns you select from the patterns you see. For example…


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