Michael Shermer and Pat Linse published a concise outline in a recent Skeptic titled, Why People See Ghosts (and Gods, Angels, Demons, and Why They Float, Fly, and Travel Out of Their Bodies). You really have to read it so here is the link.
500 years ago demons haunted our world, and incubi and succubi tormented their victims as they lay asleep in their beds. 200 years ago spirits of the departed made bedside visits. More recently green and grey aliens began to molest people in their sleep. What is going on here? Are these mysterious visitors in our world or in our minds? They are in our minds. All experience is mediated by the brain, which consists of about a hundred billion neurons with a thousand trillion synaptic connections between them. No wonder the brain is capable of such sublime ideas as evolution and big bang cosmology. But it also means that under a variety of conditions the brain is apable of generating extraordinary experiences that are not real.
Shermer suggests thirteen scientific reason behind this tendency to see ghosts and other things that are not there:
- Psychoactive Drugs
- Brain Damage
- Sensed Presence Effect
- Natural-Born Dualists
- Right Brain v. Left Brain
- Sleep Anomalies & Lucid Dreams
- Agenticity, or Sympathetic Magic
- Hypnosis & Memory
- Near-Death Experience (NEDs)
I have always been fascinated by Memory. I minored in Psychology back in the 60s and left with just enough understanding of the mind and sexual mechanics to get me through the vast number of years leading up to now. I remember my first epic struggle in the backseat of my 1951 Chevy like it was yesterday. How could I forget? Actually, I knew then that even such a momentous event as my first sexual colloquy would fade away and the memory would be lost. So how do I remember it anyway? According to my undergraduate wisdom, the memory of my first tell-tale stain on the Tijuana Tuck disappeared in only five years or so. The trick was to remind myself of all the lust and pleasure before the five years were up. Then, just like a driver’s license, I got another five years before I had to renew the memory again.
So any memory older that five years is actually a memory of a memory … of a memory of something memorable from the past.
That might be acceptable until you realize that your brain is a good story-teller and the memory of those three girls in the backseat of the Imperial I borrowed on prom night might have been embellished a bit to make for a better story. But even then: have you ever played “Telephone” at a party? The story that starts the game gradually is modified by the tin-ears and vivid imaginations of the game players as it is passed from one person to another. I might start the session by mentioning the touchdown pass I threw in a meaningless game to close-out the season and when the story pops out at the other end, I single-handedly won the State Championship with a record seven touchdown passes and ran for three more.
Funny thing is that it might have been a practice session with the Junior Varsity when I threw that touchdown pass … or was it a first-down pass? What was I writing about?
There is a great deal of literature which explores memory. Look at Marcel Proust and his monumental À la recherché du temps perdu. I have read that first section with la petit madeleine so often I wouldn’t mind forgetting it. But think of all the memories that Proust dredged up from the depths of his fiction. Of yes, it isn’t a memoir: but damned good fiction. Still, I’m trying to recall a novel that deals with memory as science has shown it to work. Help! I can’t think of anything (unless I read something over five years ago and just forgot).
For a good discussion of Shermer’s concepts of Patternicity and Agenticity, take a look at Martin Pribble’s weblog, Attempting To Make Sense.