To commemorate the tenth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut's death in 2007, the website Literary Hub posted excerpts from advice he offered writers over the years. It is wise and sensible advice, well worth reading if you have any interest in the craft.
For me, Vonnegut's most important point, which he repeats for emphasis, is this one:
When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.
It seems like such a simple thing, yet it's so easy to overlook. Many aspiring writers seem to think that telling a story consists of saying that first this thing happened, and then this thing happened, and then the next thing happened ... But a mere sequence of events is not compelling. It gives the reader no reason to keep turning pages. What's needed is a motivation, a desire, a need. Our characters must yearn for something – something they can't get, at least immediately.
Nor is it enough to introduce this want or need later in the story. It has to be there from the beginning. Consider the typical "cozy" mystery of the type perfected by Agatha Christie. The characters' major need, ultimately, is to solve the murder. But the murder ordinarily doesn't take place until the book is well underway. How to hold the reader's interest in the meantime? Give the characters a variety of other, lesser wants and needs.
Sir Reginald Fotheringay wants desperately to marry the chambermaid, but knows his elderly Aunt Edna will disinherit him if he does. Aunt Edna's butler, Soames, is in desperate need of 100 pounds to replace the money that he stole from her purse and lost at the dog track; if she finds out it's missing, Soames will be sacked and ruined. Heyward Graspinghard, Edna's upwardly mobile neighbor, wants desperately to acquire Edna's property so he can expand his home into the showcase he craves, but the old girl sturbbornly refuses to sell.
And so on.
These mundane motivations are sufficient to carry the story forward until the bigger issue of Aunt Edna's murder is introduced. They also serve the ancillary purpose of providing the various characters with possible motives for doing away with poor Edna.
As a general rule, if a story is boring or seems to be going nowhere, it's because the characters don't have any urgent desires or needs.Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut also makes this related point:
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.
It has become fashionable for sophisticates to disparage plots as formulaic. The late Siskel and Ebert both chronically complained about standardized Hollywood plots and how boring they were. One reason they waxed enthusiastic for My Dinner with Andre was its absence of a plot. Their favorite scene in Fargo was a dialogue exchange that had nothing to do with the plot; they singled it out for this very reason. And I can understand their frustration with predictable plots. I've gotten mighty tired of "the hero's journey" as the basis for pretty much every action/fantasy/sci-fi/historical movie of the last twenty years.
But in fact, plots really do serve a legitimate purpose. They give the reader (or viewer) some sense of where the story is going and therefore an additional reason to stick around. If the reader can't figure out where the story is headed, she may very well decide it's headed nowhere and give up.
Recently I did just that – gave up, I mean – on the TV series Better Call Saul, because as it begins its third season, it still seems to be heading nowhere in particular. The show is a prequel to Breaking Bad, and it features the attorney who, in that series, represented criminals and was essentially a criminal himself. The idea behind the prequel is that we meet this guy before he went over to the dark side.
I liked Better Call Saul when it started, because I thought I knew the general structure it would follow. In the first season, as I saw it, the main character would try to make it as a legitimate attorney, fail, and decide to pursue a shadier path. And in fact, the first season did seem to play out this way. When season two began, I expected to see the beginning of his transformation into the darker and more interesting character we'd come to know in Breaking Bad.
But it didn't happen. In season two, our character was still trying to make it as a legitimate attorney. No transformation yet ... Now it's season three, and guess what? He's still basically the same guy he was in season one. As Milhouse on The Simpsons might say, "Aren't we ever going to get to the fireworks factory?"
By this point in Better Call Saul, I have no idea what the structure is, and I suspect there is no structure, no master plan. Some will call the show "subtle" or "nuanced" or "realistic," but to me, it's just dull.
A story can tread water for only so long before sinking. If there's no destination in sight, the whole thing begins to feel like a pointless exercise. That's why plots – yes, even formulaic, generic plots – are usually necessary. And if you don't like formula, you can play with it. You can surprise the reader by upsetting his expectations. You can kill off the protagonist halfway through, as Hitchcock did in Psycho, to the great distress of the audience in 1960, who were totally unprepared for it. You can upend the stupid "hero's journey" by changing the rules. You can be creative and think outside the box – but first you've got to have a box, a plot. Without some kind of plot, you are likely to lose your reader very quickly.
I don't agree with everything Vonnegut says. There's this, for instance:
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I think I know what he's getting at here. Some writers have a tendency to withhold so much information that the reader is left at sea, unable to figure out who the characters are or what situation they're mixed up in. The trouble with Vonnegut's advice is that it could lead the unwary writer to make the opposite mistake – to dump a big pile of exposition into the story right at the start, when the better approach is to deftly weave background material into the story as it goes along. Excessive exposition in the early stages of the story is one of the most common and most easily avoided errors that inexperienced writers commit.
And naturally I have nothing against suspense as such. I write suspense novels, after all. Not all writers employ suspense as a technique – Shakespeare didn't – but most do, because most of us aren't Shakespeare.
Of course, most of us aren't Kurt Vonnegut either.
I also have nothing against semicolons, when used judiciously. Vonnegut seems to have despised them for idiosyncratic reasons. I've used a couple of them in this post, and I have no regrets.
Vonnegut was a world-class writer and, if I can judge by these excerpts, one hell of a teacher as well. Read his advice and take it to heart. Maybe you'll never write Slaughterhouse-Five, but your next letter to the editor will pack a punch!
First, I want to thank the many readers who contributed ideas on my last post about the future direction of this blog. Right now my inclination is to follow Bruce Siegel's suggestion and post less often, while still keeping the focus on the paranormal. I also think Roger Knights had a good idea about reposting older material, though I don't plan to do so on a regular basis. Julie Baxter had good thoughts about Leslie Flint and other psi phenomena that have not been treated thoroughly, or at all, in this forum. I think Eric Newhill is right in saying that political discussions become too contentious; and there are plenty of political sites already.
I'm no doubt overlooking a lot of other people who made valuable contributions. The bottom line is that I appreciate all your input.
And yes, I am open to guest posts. This has been my policy for a while, so please don't be shy about taking me up on it.
This new post is on a subject that I admittedly know little about. Until recently the only thing I'd read about Zoroastrianism was Gore Vidal's historical novel Creation, which takes place during the so-called Axial Age and features Zoroaster's (fictional) grandson as the narrator. It's a good book, but I read it years ago and don't remember it very well. Recently, however, I did some online research into Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, and the religion he founded, which predates Christianity by at least 500 years and which was a major belief system in the ancient world. Zoroastrians practice their faith to this day, though in greatly reduced numbers.
Two things in particular interest me about Zoroastrianism. The first are certain obvious similarities to Christianity, and the second are parallels with modern spiritualism, including some of the speculations that I've offered right here.
The mark of Zoro ... aster?
I'll start with the Christian parallels. I should point out that I'm deriving most of this information from the Wikipedia entry on Zoroastrianism, which seems to be well-sourced. As always when dealing with Wikipedia, some skepticism may be advisable, since the quality of the entries varies tremendously, and the content is constantly changing.
According to Wikipedia, Zoroaster was drawing water from a river for use in a ritual when a spiritual being appeared to him and allowed him to see God. In Matthew 3:16, Jesus was undergoing baptism in a river when the spirit of God descended on him like a dove.
Afterward, Zoroaster encountered six other spiritual beings who taught him the rest of what he needed to know; only after this did he begin his ministry. After his baptism, Jesus is said to have gone off into the desert for an extended period, during which he saw visions and overcame temptations, before commencing his ministry.
Zoroaster acquired only one follower in his homeland and found success only after traveling abroad. Jesus acquired no followers in his home village and reportedly said (Mark 6:4) that a prophet is without honor in his own town.
Zoroaster taught that there is only one God, that God is entirely good, that the various pagan gods are inferior heavenly beings (many of them demons), and that man's free will is (at least partly) responsible for his pain and suffering in what would otherwise be a paradise on earth. All these views are consistent with Christianity and also with Judaism, which was developing into its modern form during the Axial Age.
Zoroaster taught that the forces of chaos and order were perpetually in conflict, and that our free will allows us to choose which side to take. It is the individual's responsibility to choose rightly. The darker forces will eventually mount a final assault at the end of days, but will be decisively defeated by a savior-figure who will be born of a virgin. After their defeat, the dead will be raised and restored to earthly life, this time with immortality. Needless to say, all of this is strongly reminiscent of Christianity.
The parallels I've selected may make it seem as if the two belief systems are virtually identical, but that's only because I have cherry-picked the most interesting similarities. I could have selected other details highlighting notable differences between the two faiths. For instance, Zoroastrianism emphatically rejects asceticism and monasticism, insisting that the purpose of life on earth is to participate in life and gather experiences, not to shut oneself off in a monastic cell or to deprive oneself of any experience, including physical pleasure. Zoroastrianism also rejects spirit-body dualism, conceiving of both earth and heaven in similar terms. In these respects, Zoroastrianism is arguably similar to Gnostic Christianity, but not to Christianity as generally practiced today.
Still, it would be hard to argue that even orthodox Christianity was not, at the very least, influenced by Zoroastrianism in its formative centuries.
What about modern spiritualism? Zoroastrianism holds that the individual soul preexists earthly incarnation. During this pre-birth phase, the soul is joined with its guardian spirit. While incarnated on earth, the soul is separated from its guardian, which watches over it and attempts to protect and guide it when possible. After death, the soul is reunited with its guardian spirit, achieving wholeness again.
This is pretty similar to the spiritualist idea that the individual soul is an extension of a higher self or oversoul, from which it detaches during its period of earthly incarnation and to which it returns after the incarnation is complete.
After death, Zoroastrianism tells us that souls are judged according to their thoughts, words, and actions while on earth. Souls that pass the test will enjoy paradise, but with the caveat that continuing spiritual struggles can be expected even in postmortem existence. The ongoing battle between order and chaos is apparently not limited to this physical plane.
Souls that fail the test of judgement are relegated to a hellish sphere of existence – but not for purposes of punishment and not for all eternity. Instead, the sojourn in hell is temporary, and the purpose is to reform the soul. Ultimately this process must prove successful; it is the destiny of every soul to be reunited with its guardian spirit (= higher self) and with God.
The Zoroastrian concept of God transcends gender. God is called Ahura Mazda, a name that connotes both male (Ahura = Lord, masculine) and female (Mazda = Wisdom, feminine). It can be translated as Wise Lord. Yet God, for all his/her power, is not omnipotent. This idea of a less-than-omnipotent God has led some commenters to classify Zoroastrianism as a form of pantheism in which God/consciousness emerges from a self-creating universe, although this seems to be a later interpretation and probably not the original idea.
I find it interesting that as we go back in time to a comparatively early stage of religious development, we find a number of ideas that match up quite well with spiritualist teachings today: a pre-incarnational existence for the soul; separation from and reunion with a higher self; a division of the spiritual world into heavenly and hellish spheres, with the hellish spheres intended as temporary way stations for the moral improvement of the soul; a God that is neither male nor female, is not omnipotent, and may be immanent, not transcendent; a universe that is still a work in progress, with the balance between systemic order and chaos determined by the choices of individual incarnated beings.
Again, I don't want to exaggerate the parallels. There are certainly differences. For example, many people in the spiritualist community embrace reincarnation, but Zoroastrianism rejects reincarnation except in the limited sense of the resurrection of the dead after the final judgment.
Even so, the similarities are at least worth looking at.
Oh, and for the dog lovers out there: the dog is sacred in Zoroastrianism. This in itself strikes me as a pretty good recommendation of the religion.
I haven't posted much new material lately, in part because I've been busy, but also in part because I'm not quite sure what this blog should be about anymore. When I started blogging back in January of 2005, I unimaginatively titled my space Michael Prescott's Blog because I had no idea what subject matter I would end up discussing. I definitely didn't anticipate homing in on evidence for life after death and its implications. If anything, I probably figured I would talk mostly about fiction writing, movies, and current events, with the paranormal as only a small part of the mix.
But over the years, the reactions I got from readers were usually most positive when psi and afterlife issues were under discussion. As a result, in classic stimulus-and-response fashion, I gravitated toward this material. I've written in the last year or two that I'm not quite as interested in this subject as I used to be; I've read and written so much about it that, for me, it feels kind of played out. A few times in the past year, I've put up a post on politics just for variety, but in almost all cases I've gotten many negative responses.
What's been most apparent recently, however, is that even when I put up a nonpolitical post, the discussion can turn heatedly political in short order. This was most obvious with regard to my post "A World of Hurt," which concerned different theories of evil and their spiritual implications; the comments thread has spiraled down into a free-for-all about Donald Trump, Brexit, and other hot-button issues that have very little to do with the original topic.
My impression is that many readers, like me, are starting to get bored with rehashing paranormal and spiritual issues, and are looking for a different direction. This is fine by me. The problem is, I'm not quite sure what direction to take. I don't want to turn this blog into a political forum, because the arguments can become so contentious, and because there are already a huge number of political websites pushing every conceivable point of view. Besides, who wants to think about politics all the time?
I do, however, have other interests – for instance, the Shakespeare authorship question, classic and contemporary movies, fiction-writing techniques and practices, the history of Christianity as reconstructed by modern New Testament academic studies, special visual effects in cinema, and money management. I can probably think of other things, but that's a start.
I'm wondering if perhaps the blog should become more eclectic and deal with some or all of the above issues on a regular basis, along with the occasional paranormal post as necessary. Or would it be better to stick with paranormal stuff and simply have fewer posts? Or do you think it's time for me to shut down the blog, while leaving all the earlier posts and comments threads archived indefinitely?
I'm open to any suggestions and ideas. I'll be traveling tomorrow, so I may not be able to approve comments right away.
Since I never go to movie theaters anymore, I didn't watch the highly acclaimed science-fiction drama Arrival until last night, after I rented it from one of those supermarket vending machines.
It's a good movie, with strong performances and a compelling storyline – though I thought the method selected for establishing communication with the aliens was a bit disappointing, given the enormous technology that presumably would be marshaled for the task. Some of the story elements work better than others, and there are probably plot holes if you think about it really hard, but that's true of most movies.
I mention Arrival here because it provides an interesting angle on the whole Flatland idea that we sometimes explore on this blog – the idea that our current perception of reality is dimensionally limited, and that, from a higher-dimensional perspective, our experience would be radically different. Not that the movie ever mentions Flatland or extra-dimensionality as such, but you can read those ideas into it.
The appearance of this film, along with Interstellar, virtual reality technology, and the popularizing of the holographic universe notion, may suggest that a new paradigm is slowly forming in the public mind.
Or maybe not. Anyway, I liked the movie enough to sit through it twice last night. It made me curious to see the director's earlier effort, Sicario.
The Atlantic offers a brief, interesting article on apeirophobia, the fear of eternity. Writer Bobby Azarian explains that he's had this fear since he was four years old.
... every time I thought I had a grip on eternity, it slipped further away. The largest number of years I could imagine failed to make a dent in infinity. My primitive brain filled with an existential angst. The idea of living forever was even more unsettling than the idea of no longer existing after death.
He still feels the same way, although "rather than trying to comprehend eternity, now I just avoid the thought altogether."
The condition is not listed in formal psychiatric manuals and apparently has not been the subject of any research studies, but for those who suffer from it, it can be extremely intense. An anonymous online commenter is quoted:
Now I’m in my 30s, and the thought of eternity still freaks me out. It usually hits at night when I’m trying to sleep. I’ve learned to push it out of my mind, but sometimes I can’t, and when that happens I start pacing the room and thinking that I might have to go to the emergency room or else I might kill myself.
Cognitive scientist Martin Wiener thinks the phobia may arise from the brain's own limitations. Azarian summarizes his view:
Maybe human brains, as finite instruments with limited cognitive and computational capacities, are flat-out not hardwired to have a conception of something completely absent from sensory experience. Evolution has done just fine without organisms that contemplate infinity, after all. Doing so wouldn’t have likely offered any survival advantages to pre-modern humans.
Wiener also suggests that fear of eternity is simply a variation on fear of death. Whether death is seen as eternal existence or nonexistence, it remains the unknown. And people do fear the unknown.
The article got me thinking. First, I wonder if some if the anxiety and anger exhibited by militant Skeptics regarding life after death is, in certain cases, grounded in a fear of eternity. I'm not saying that all skeptics, or even all uppercase (dogmatic) Skeptics, have this fear, but perhaps some do.
We often hear Skeptics say, "Naturally we'd all love to believe in eternal life, but there's simply no evidence for it." But maybe some of them would not love to believe it. Maybe the idea actually fills them with dread, which could explain why they do their best to dismiss the evidence out of hand.
Second, I don't doubt that Wiener is correct in saying that the human brain (whether it is the originator or only the mediator of consciousness) is too limited to grasp eternity. It's a Flatland thing. Mr. A. Square, while living in his two-dimensional world, simply cannot conceive of a third physical dimension. After being lifted into Spaceland (the three-dimensional world), he experiences a disorienting change of perspective and is able to perceive the vertical dimension, though he is not able to explain it in words to his Flatland friends.
People who have undergone NDEs, OBEs, certain kinds of psychedelic trips, vision quests, and other transcendent experiences often lose their fear of death and, apparently, any fear of eternity. Perhaps the best treatment for apeirophobia would be the medically supervised induction of "cosmic consciousness." (We are told that patients are currently treated by "medication and cognitive behavioral therapy," with mixed results.)
Third, I think the idea of eternity is improperly understood by many people, and this misunderstanding may be partly responsible for apeirophobia. Look again at Azarian's account of his first experience of the phobia at age four: "The largest number of years I could imagine failed to make a dent in infinity.... The idea of living forever was even more unsettling than the idea of no longer existing after death."
The mistake lies in thinking of eternity as a succession of years, rather than as a timeless now. The word "eternal" literally means "outside of time." The idea is not that time goes on forever, but that there is no time, or at least no time as human beings understand it.
If we look at mediumistic accounts, we find that the newly deceased report themselves existing in an earthlike world where time passes, lessons are learned, and new experiences are enjoyed. But this so-called Summerland environment is not the be-all and end-all of afterlife realms. It is more like a way station, a place to rest and recuperate after the rigors of incarnation. We are consistently told that higher realms await, and that these realms are progressively less earthlike.
The highest realm, our ultimate destination, is indescribable, but apparently it has none of the properties we associate with earthly life, including physical space and sequential time. It is the eternal now. In this state we are not marking off years like a convict in a cell. We are not seeking to "make a dent in infinity." Boredom, repetition, and other issues associated with lengthy time periods are irrelevant to a state of existence in which time does not exist.
Here is a story I've told elsewhere on this blog. A few years ago I was wondering how anyone could exist "forever" and not go crazy with boredom. That night I had a vivid dream in which I was a bodiless awareness in a humming void. I was suffused with feelings of peace and contentment; perhaps "bliss" would be the better word. All around me was a golden orange field of pure light.* I had the sense that this state of existence would continue indefinitely.
When I woke up, I felt that the dream had answered my question. That's how you can exist "forever" without becoming bored with it all. In that unchanging state, there is no past, no future, no time, no measurement, no desire, no frustration. There is only total unquestioning acceptance. Everything simply is.
If we think of eternity as merely a timeless moment, maybe it seems a little more friendly and a little less unknown.
- - -
*P.S. The few times in my life that I've had anything remotely similar to an experience of cosmic consciousness, I've seen (subjectively) a bright orange field of light. I have no idea why. I don't even like the color orange!
Why is there so much suffering in this life? The question has plagued human beings for millennia, and no worldview can call itself complete without offering an answer.
Unfortunately, it's hard to find an answer that's really satisfying. Historically, four major answers have been proposed.
God is punishing us.
There are many variations on this answer, which is fundamental to the Judeo-Christian theology. According to this view, suffering is ultimately the result of free will. Because we have free will, we are free to behave badly. Suffering is the price we pay for freedom of choice. And because all of us are prone to behave badly at times, we all deserve to suffer.
So then, why would anyone say God punishing us? It turns out free will is not a sufficient explanation. For instance, why do innocent babies suffer? The answer is that they have inherited Original Sin, a stain on their character passed down from Adam and Eve. In effect, God is punishing them for the sinful choices of their distant ancestors.
There is also the question:What about natural disasters, diseases, and other ills not directly related to free choice? Again, the answer is that Adam and Eve, by disobeying God, brought sin into the world, and this sin has now corrupted all of creation, leading to a "fallen" world in which such calamities are possible. God, therefore, is punishing all of us for the "sins of the fathers."
The Hebrew prophets were even more explicit in attributing human suffering to God. In their view, the Hebrew people, who were the chosen people of God, had broken the covenant that their ancestors made with God, and as a result, God was punishing them for what amounted to a violation of their contractual obligations.
In the Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible, a more individualized and pragmatic version of this same position was explicated. Here, the idea was that any individual who prospers and enjoys good health and happiness must be "right with" God, while anyone who suffers and enjoys ill health and misery must have disappointed God in some way.
God is not God.
An alternative view is that the very God worshiped by conventional religions is not the true God at all. This view is most closely identified with Gnosticism in its various forms.
Gnosticism holds that the God recognized by most people is an inferior deity (the Demiurge, or Craftsman) who created this world but botched the job. His incompetence accounts for all our suffering and pain. The true God exists only a higher plane and is accessible only to those with secret knowledge (gnosis). Only by pursuing higher truths while maintaining aloofness from this debased world can we maintain equanimity in the face of inevitable suffering.
Suffering can be overcome by the right mental attitude.
Somewhat related to the gnostic view is the Buddhist position – namely, that enlightenment brings with it detachment from the things of this world. As long as a person desires certain outcomes and fears others, he will be prone to suffering, as his desires are frustrated and his fears are realized. But if he extinguishes his ego and becomes indifferent to the world, he will be immune to suffering. The ultimate goal is to escape from the wheel of rebirth altogether, leaving physical reality behind.
Other mystical traditions hold that suffering is merely an illusion, because all of life is only a momentary dream. When we wake in the next life, we will look back on this one as a few moments of disturbed sleep, which we will quickly shrug off.
If suffering doesn't matter, does anything matter? Maybe not. Which leads us to ...
Suffering is an unavoidable feature of a meaningless, random universe.
In this view, there is no higher meaning or purpose to life, which is a purely biological phenomenon driven by evolutionary imperatives. Living creatures survive by killing each other. Carnivores eat other animals. Herbivores eat plants. Parasites infest hosts. Viruses infect healthy organisms and make them sick. Cellular reproduction, essential to maintain and repair the body, sometimes goes wrong and produces cancer cells. Genetic diversity, essential to maintain a species' viability, sometimes produces crippling birth defects. All of this drama is played out against a backdrop of earthquakes, floods, droughts, asteroid strikes, and the other random calamities.
According to this view, there is no "problem of pain" because there's no reason why life should not be painful.
Personally, I don't find any of these answers entirely satisfying, though there may be some truth to all of them. Here is my own viewpoint, for what it may be worth.
My personal view
Suffering, in part, is a way of teaching us lessons or nudging us in the right direction when we've gone off track. And in part it is simply random, a result of the unscripted or improvisational nature of the universe.
As an example of the first point: When I was fresh out of college, I moved to Los Angeles with the intention of working in the movie business. For several years I devoted all my energy to this goal. Time and again I was frustrated. Other people remarked on my amazing run of bad luck. A crucial meeting would be canceled literally as I was on my way there. A producer would go bankrupt just as he was about to start production on a movie I wrote. My own body rebelled against me; I started experiencing digestive problems and other issues. A doctor told me I needed to choose between my career and my health.
Of course, breaking into showbiz is hard. Perhaps my situation was not that much out of the ordinary. But I certainly felt that it was. In fact, my motto at the time became "sometimes you just can't win," the title of a then-current song. I was depressed a lot of the time, and felt my life was going nowhere.
Eventually, in frustration and facing a serious need of cash, I thought of writing a novel. It seemed like a long shot, but I had nothing to lose, and I was pretty desperate. In contrast to my movie experience, this new venture proved immediately rewarding. My book proposal immediately netted me an agent (I'd had little luck attracting Hollywood agents over the previous four years), and within a month I'd received three offers for publication. This was the beginning of a lifelong career in publishing, and while it certainly has had its ups and downs, I never again experienced the chronic rejection and failure that marked my foray into the movie business.
In retrospect, I can see that I was ill-suited for Hollywood and would never have been happy in that field. I love watching movies, but actually working on them — and working with producers and other highly ego-driven, control-oriented, Type A personalities — was not something I was cut out for. Writing books is, I feel, what I was meant to do. In my youthful ignorance I'd gotten off on the wrong track, and something was intent on nudging me back in line. Every setback, every failure, every dramatic reversal, even the signals of my own body, all combined to send me a message, so loud and clear that my friends heard it, my doctor heard it, and eventually even I heard it: You are doing it wrong.
My life in that period was not very pleasant. I would not relive those days for a million bucks. One of the reasons I don't much care for the idea of reincarnation (even though, in some form, it's probably true) is that it may oblige me to go through something like that again.
Nevertheless, the many disappointments and personal hurts that I experienced during that time did serve a purpose. They shoved me back onto the path I was meant to take all along.
Now, it's certainly true that my small example of personal suffering pales before the horrors of famine, genocide, civil war, Ebola, etc., etc. Obviously there are countless people who have gone through — and are currently enduring — far worse things than being frustrated in the early years of their career. This kind of thing is inevitably relative. It's always possible to find a worse example of human misery, and then an even worse one, and so on, ad infinitum. But this isn't a competition. And pain is pain, even if it varies in degree. For me, at least, the painful parts of my life have generally served to push me in what I believe, in retrospect, to be the right direction.
I'm not saying it's "God" who gave me the push. I'm inclined to think it was my higher self, the oversoul that designed my life plan for this incarnation and wants me to follow through on it.
Okay, but what about those greater horrors I mentioned? Surely no one can claim that being eaten alive by Ebola or being murdered by the Khmer Rouge is some kind of life lesson, right?
Right. I would not claim that. This is where the other part of my answer comes in. Contrary to the New Age maxim, not everything happens for a reason. Some stuff is just random. As bumper stickers tell us with admirable concision, s--t happens.
There may be a master plan for an individual life, as designed by an oversoul or a group soul or what-have-you. It does not necessarily follow that there is a master plan for the universe as whole. It does not necessarily follow that no sparrow falls except by God's explicit intention. It does not even follow that there is a God, in the sense of an omniscient, omnipotent master of ceremonies who controls everything and knows where it is headed.
Instead, the universe may be a work in progress. An improvisational performance, not a scripted recital. It may be roughly analogous to a sports event, like the Super Bowl. The rules are set down, and the players are sent into the arena. What happens after that is unpredictable.
Moreover, not all the players will follow the game plan. Some will ignore the path chosen for them by their oversoul, as I tried to do when I persisted in banging my head against the closed door of the movie industry for several years. Had I been even slower on the uptake, I might still be banging my head against that wall today.
And who is to say that all life plans are benevolent, or that all oversouls are equally evolved? Every religious and spiritual tradition agrees that some spirits are "lower" than others. I see no reason to doubt this. For a low-level, malign spirit, the life lived by Adolf Hitler may very well have been the plan all along. Hitler's sense of personal destiny may not have been misplaced. But it was an evil destiny, engineered by a malevolent higher power. (Indeed, it is remarkable how events seemingly conspired to keep Hitler alive and in power, against considerable odds. There is something eerie about his many close calls and narrow escapes from death. For a powerfully provocative discussion of this whole idea, see James Hillman's book The Soul's Code.)
We can posit, then, that much of what happens in the universe is random and accidental. It is not part of any master plan.
Beyond this, some things we see as bad may be no more than necessary consequences of certain fundamental rules. Without gravity, no one would ever fall to his death; but without gravity, no planets would be formed and no life would be possible in the first place. What we appear to have is not "the best of all possible worlds," but a trade-off, a compromise — like an automobile built with lightweight materials that afford increased fuel efficiency at the cost of some degree of safety in a crash.
We can add to this the likelihood that many of us don't fulfil our life plans, and maybe none of us are able to do so with perfect faithfulness. Finally, we can take into account the possibility that not all oversouls (or the Powers That Be, whatever they are) are equally well-intentioned, and that some are actually malignant.
This approach lacks the comforting simplicity of any of the single answers listed at the start of this post. Instead, it can be seen as incorporating parts of each.
If we stray from the life plan laid by our higher self, then our own choice (free will) is responsible for the suffering we experience as the oversoul nudges us back into line ("God" enforces the terms of the contract). We are born into a world where good and evil coexist, a world that was imperfectly designed (gnosticism) or corrupted (original sin). We can minimize suffering by recognizing the fleeting nature of all earthly things and by striving for spiritual union with the oversoul (detachment and enlightenment). Still, unpredictable calamities will sometimes strike because of the improvisational nature of the ongoing performance we call reality (randomness). But not to worry too much — life is short, and immortality is long (life is a dream), so in the end, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
I admit that this is something of a hodgepodge — one from Column A, one from Column B. It is not a testable hypothesis, not a "scientific" proposition at all. It's a belief system, like all the ones I listed above (and yes, even materialism is a belief system). I find it broadly satisfactory, though I would prefer it to be simpler and more aesthetically pleasing.
But, like everything I write on this blog, it is merely a work in progress, subject to future improvement. For now, it's the best I can do.
NDE researcher Titus Rivas posted a link 0n Facebook to an interesting article called "Split Brain Does Not Lead to Split Consciousness."
One of the most popular arguments against the so-called transmission theory (the idea that the brain serves as a receiver, rather than an originator, of consciousness) involves studies of patients who've undergone a callosotomy — the severing of the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fiber joining the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This increasingly rare operation is used as a last resort in cases of severe epilepsy. It has the effect of almost entirely isolating the two halves of the brain, which remain joined only by a few thin threads of nerve tissue (primarily the fornix and the anterior and posterior commissures) which transmit very limited electrical signals.
Previously, scientists who studied the post-op patients concluded that these people now had two distinct centers of consciousness. In effect, where there had been one mind, there were now two. This was taken by many champions of materialism as strong evidence that the mind is generated by the brain, and that mind-body (or soul-body) dualism is untenable.
The new study, however, reaches a different conclusion. Here's a summary provided by the linked article:
A new research study contradicts the established view that so-called split-brain patients have a split consciousness. Instead, the researchers behind the study, led by UvA psychologist Yair Pinto, have found strong evidence showing that despite being characterised by little to no communication between the right and left brain hemispheres, split brain does not cause two independent conscious perceivers in one brain. Their results are published in the latest edition of the journal Brain.
Pinto, lead researcher on the University of Amsterdam team, writes, "The established view of split-brain patients implies that physical connections transmitting massive amounts of information are indispensable for unified consciousness, i.e. one conscious agent in one brain. Our findings, however, reveal that although the two hemispheres are completely insulated from each other, the brain as a whole is still able to produce only one conscious agent. This directly contradicts current orthodoxy and highlights the complexity of unified consciousness."
Though the article says nothing about the philosophical implications of the study, it appears to me that one of the most commonly employed arguments against the brain as a mediator, not producer, of consciousness may now be obsolete. In fact, we can go further and say that the new study's findings are more consistent with transmission than with production. If the mind remains unified even when the brain has been divided, it would suggest that the mind is primary, the brain secondary — that consciousness originates outside the brain and is merely processed by it or funneled through it.
At the very least, the new findings greatly complicate the case for materialism.
For a few years I've had a book sitting on my shelf called If This Be Magic: The Forgotten Power of Hypnotism, by Guy Lyon Playfair. Originally published in 1985, it was reissued by White Crow Books in 2011, and I probably bought it around that time. But somehow I never quite got around to reading it, possibly because I was a little put off by the prospect of plowing through a fairly long, rather dense book on hypnotism.
Recently, however, I did pick up the book at last, and I found it to be one of the more intriguing items in my parapsychological library. The subtitle notwithstanding, it's not really all about hypnotism. Perhaps a more accurate subtitle would be "The Forgotten Power of the Unconscious Mind." The book concerns itself with the still-unknown extent of psi abilities and their mediation by the right hemisphere of the brain — or, more accurately, the mental states loosely associated with the right cerebral hemisphere.
If This Be Magic does begin with a discussion of hypnotism and the related practice of mesmerism, tracing work in this area from its beginnings to modern times. Along the way, we learn that the (logical) left hemisphere of the brain seems to inhibit hypnotism, while the (intuitive) right hemisphere readily accepts it. Dr. David Pederson, president of the British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis, puts it succinctly: “When we hypnotize a patient, what we are doing is altering their mode of consciousness to the right hemisphere by inhibition of the left.”
Many examples of remarkable experiments and even medical cures are provided, including remission of supposedly untreatable cancers and significant improvement in a case of ichthyosis, a disfiguring skin disease that had resisted all conventional treatment. And there were other experiments, such as one carried out in 1975 by Dr. Léon Chertok, a French psychiatrist. Playfair writes*:
Chertok showed that wounds can not only be healed by suggestion, but also caused by it. He managed to produce a handsome blister on the arm of patient by placing a coin on it and suggesting that it was very hot, which it was not. An intriguing detail was that the patient reported feeling no sensation of heat at all, and yet her skin reacted as if something extremely hot had indeed come into contact with it – on the exact spot where the coin had been placed.… Chertok saw this as “irrefutable proof of the influence of the mind on physiological processes,” and wondered why this was still not fully acknowledged “in spite of the accumulation of data.” [p. 18]
One reason, among others, why the establishment has resisted this conclusion is that the results obtained by experimenters have been inconsistent and unpredictable. The technique may work brilliantly on one occasion and fail utterly on another occasion, for no obvious reason. How can this be? Here we get to the core of the book – the nature of the mental attitude necessary for positive results. The attitude is essentially one of faith, though this word is not quite adequate and has some misleading connotations:
If we believe something, the effect on us is the same whether it is really true or not. As Paracelsus put it in the 16th century: “It is all one whether you believe in something real or something false. They will have the same effect on you. It is always the faith that works the miracle, and whether the faith is aroused by something real or something false, its miraculous power is the same.”
Faith has been cynically defined as a belief in something you know to be untrue. This is only a slight exaggeration; William Sargant defines it as “a profound and non-rational conviction of the truth of propositions to which the unaided intellect can at best accord only a temperate allegiance.” We need another word for this feeling, but until we have one Sargant’s “profound and non-rational conviction” will serve as a description of it; and it is a very good description of what seems to be one of the crucial factors of successful hypnosis.
In all the cases I have mentioned so far, the one common feature is a total and uncritical acceptance by the subject of the hypnotist’s suggestion. This in turn was given with conviction, and whether the conviction was rational or non-rational did not matter. [pp. 43–44]
What appears to happen in the successful cases is that the sheer conviction felt by the hypnotist, and sometimes also by his subject, is enough to bring about extraordinary results. But if the hypnotist's conviction falters for any reason, or if there is some other mitigating factor creating an atmosphere of doubt or disbelief, then positive results are much less likely.
As you might expect, this situation creates a serious problem in the scientific investigation of hypnotism.
The hypnotist, [Ronald] Shor says, faces a … dilemma. A good scientist, in the generally accepted sense, will be careful, well disciplined, methodical and objective, or what I would call highly left-minded. Unfortunately these are not the qualities that make a successful hypnotist, who needs to be adventurous, risk-taking, and above all subjective. Shor defines the [twin pitfalls] of hypnotism as “insufficient caution” and “insufficient conviction.” “The more the scientist-hypnotist tries to avoid one of the two dangers,” he says, “the more likely it becomes that he will succumb to the other.” [pp. 54—55]
The line dividing hypnosis from psi phenomena is pretty thin. Consider experiments performed in the Soviet Union in which a test subject was hypnotically put to sleep by hypnotic suggestions telepathically communicated over a distance of more than 1,000 miles.
Ivanova [the subject, in a laboratory in Leningrad] was kept under observation by a man who did not know what kind of experiment was being carried out. [Ivanova also did not know the purpose of the experiment.] Alone on the promenade at Sebastopol, Tomashevsky began transmitting at 10:10 PM. Ivanova was seen to enter a hypnotic trance one minute later. At 10:40, Tomashevksy sent the “wake” signal, and at precisely that time according to the observer whose watch, like Tomashevky’s, had been synchronized with Radio Moscow she woke up. [p. 145]
Having made the case that hypnosis overlaps psi, and that mental attitude is critical to each, Playfair sums up:
It must be clear by now that what made the Russians so successful in this kind of experiment (and, in my opinion, still does) was their intuitive understanding of the experimenter effect, whereby experimenters [become] part of the experiment, the outcome of which largely depends on how they play their part in it. This applies to all experiments in which a human mind is involved, from sending people to sleep and transmitting images to curing diseases like ichthyosis by suggestion. An experimenter who is not totally committed to success will probably not succeed. This is hard for scientists trained in objective step-by-step procedures to accept, but as I see it, spontaneous phenomena of any kind should be studied with a view to finding out under what circumstances they happen naturally. Expecting them to happen to order under conditions imposed by the “objective” experimenter is a complete waste of time. [p. 143]
For me, the most the richest part of the book is an interview conducted by Playfair with longtime PK investigator Kenneth Batcheldor. Batchelder's observations are so important, they are worth quoting at length. I can't quote everything, though, and I encourage you to buy the book and get the whole story.
“There is an awkward antagonism between the scientific, skeptical state of mind, and the state required for the production of PK,” [Batcheldor] told me. “To achieve a PK effect, you have got to believe one hundred per cent that it’s going to happen, whereas the characteristic attitude of the scientist is to doubt, and to say 'Let’s test this thing and see if it really is what it claims to be.' But for PK, you must not think 'Is it?' You have to think 'It is.' You’ve got to suspend your scientific attitude if you want it to occur. You can be as critical as you like after you’ve got it, but not while you’re doing it.”
This was not easy for scientists to accept, he admitted, but it was the approach he had found to work, and to make sense. “If the phenomena are shaped by thought,” he said, “then doubtful thoughts will obviously create only doubtful phenomena, or maybe none at all.” [p. 181]
But how to produce the necessary attitude of faith? It's not something that can just be willed into existence. There is, however, a backdoor approach that works remarkably well – something that has long been known to shamans and has been re-learned by modern investigators.
“It is almost impossible to acquire sufficient faith by deliberate mental effort,” [Batcheldor said]. “For instance, it would be useless to place your hands on the table and say to yourself 'I believe this table is going to levitate.' However hard you tried, you wouldn’t succeed because you’d be bound to experience an element of doubt. An adept might succeed, but most people aren’t adepts.
“Fortunately,” he went on, “there’s something about table-tipping that enables a group of ordinary people to succeed in generating PK without even trying, provided they are reasonably open-minded. It is this: in most cases, the table will start to move due to UMA [unconscious muscular action]. This can give an amazing illusion that the table is moving of its own accord as if animated by some mysterious force. You get the impression you are already succeeding in generating paranormal movements.
“This has precisely the same impact on you as real success would have. It sweeps your doubts aside and produces total faith or at least moments of total faith. This happens automatically, involuntarily and without any mental effort on your part. So you get moments of total faith in which you are able to generate real PK. For a while, these are superimposed on the UMA movements, but later they can occur without them. The table movements gradually become stronger and more varied, and in time may lead to movement without contact and levitation.” [p. 182]
In other words, it may be necessary to help the process along with some initial trickery – whether intentional or unconscious – in order to wear down the left brain's resistance to the very idea of PK. Batcheldor calls this technique "induction by artifact."
“All you need [Batchelder said] is for some set of normal events artifacts to be mistaken for paranormal events. This creates sufficiently intense faith to enable you to generate the real thing. Such artifacts can be either accidental or deliberate. In table-tipping, for instance, movements due to UMA arise quite accidentally. But if somebody gives the table a deliberate push, and keeps quiet about it, this will probably have the same effect.
“You mean that cheating can lead to real PK?” I asked. I felt he was adding yet another booby-trap to an already overcrowded minefield.
“Well,” he replied, “deliberate artifact-induction is equivalent to cheating, yes. But the development of PK in a group can and should take place entirely on the basis of artifacts of the accidental kind. Cheating would only lead to confusion even if theoretically it should work. And of course shamans have known for centuries that it does work.” [pp. 182–183]
This isn't just armchair theorizing. The hypothesis has been tested.
[Colin] Brookes-Smith designed and built a number of special tables … wired up in such a way that any normal mechanical force exerted by sitters’ hands could be recorded and printed out on chart paper. He then had his sitters draw lots before session to see who would be “joker”. The joker was allowed to cheat now and then, and the study of the recording would later reveal exactly when he had….
“The interesting thing [wrote Allan Barham, a participant in the experiments] was that this method of deliberately stimulating an upward force did help to induce a genuine paranormal effect.” The chart recording, he said, showed when the joker had done his joking, and it also showed the table continued to levitate after he had stopped it. “Our unjustified belief that something paranormal might be taking place released the PK force, which always tended to be repressed by our conscious or unconscious doubts.”…
Batcheldor reckons that almost anybody can produce PK who really believes and decides that it is possible. Anybody can also inhibited by believing consciously or subconsciously that it is not possible. [p. 185]
The role of the unconscious mind may also account, at least in part, for phenomena associated with what I've called the dark side of the paranormal. The Ouija board, for instance, is often noted for seemingly malicious and destructive communications.
“As soon as it spells something a bit strange, you get frightened, and then you’re in trouble,” Batcheldor explained. “The main danger of dabbling with psychic forces is that if you get frightened of them, you shape them into some frightening event – you create what you’re frightened of. If you know this, and exercise some control over not getting unduly frightened, by constantly reminding yourself that you’re creating this stuff by PK, and it’s going to do what you believe, you can keep things under control. I don’t allow my sitters to talk about apparitions of the devil or anything like that. We don’t know what we might create if we start thinking along those lines.”
As for poltergeist cases, he believes that in some cases the incidents that start them off can be seen as artifacts that arise accidentally. “I don’t go along with the idea that poltergeist outbreaks are the expression of repressed tension and aggression. Mental hospitals are full of people who have tremendous repressed aggression, but they don’t explode into poltergeist phenomena. It’s a bit naïve to think that aggression gets so strong when it’s repressed that it bursts out by throwing cups by PK. I prefer to think that if you have a tense family that interprets an accidental event like a cup falling off the shelf by accident as ghostly, then they can use it for the expression of some of their psychological needs. If you believe there’s going to be hostility, then you probably create it.” [p. 183]
What about the well-known difficulty of getting macro-PK effects recorded on video? Even passive infrared systems that operate in darkness rarely obtain results. Playfair notes that "audio tape, however, has no inhibiting effect at all."
This has reinforced Batcheldor’s belief that it is not light that inhibits PK, but sight, or the full awareness of the observer.…
“In darkness,” he told me, “the mind can be calm, because you are not witnessing paranormality in a clear-cut form. Also, certain kinds of spontaneous artifacts needed to stimulate belief tend to be prevented in light.” He believes that at some deep level we need a “loophole” in the evidence, to reassure ourselves that PK might not be taking place after all. An audio tape provides such a loophole, because it only contains part of the record – the sound. A videotape contains a more complete record, and while seeing may be believing, hearing without seeing is not.
“PK seems to cover its tracks whenever it can,” he added, “even to the extent of sabotaging cameras or video recorders to destroy the evidence, or of making sure that there is a scapegoat on hand to whom apparently paranormal activity can be attributed.” [p. 186]
In short, Batcheldor has come up with a sophisticated, meticulously thought-out explanatory system that covers much of the phenomena associated with PK and, by extension, hypnosis, mesmerism, and ESP.
And what of life after death? Playfair recounts a case of apparent spirit communication in response to spoken questions, and writes:
It is very tempting on such occasions to assume that you are in the presence of the spirits … The impression of an independent intelligence at work is very strong … And it has led me to feel justified in regarding PK-agents as independent entities. Some would call these spirits, and assume that they are driven by the intelligence of somebody who has died.
However, there is excellent evidence against the traditional spirit hypothesis. The Philip group in Toronto certainly conjured up a spirit, but it was one they had invented themselves, complete with portrait and detailed curriculum vitae. Philip had a life of his own, but it was a wholly imaginary one. The fact that this made it no less real in some respects has led some to speculate that reality as we perceive it may to some extent be the result of our imaginations. [pp. 200–201]
The Philip experiments are among the most interesting ever carried out in parapsychology, and they certainly show that it is possible for a group of sitters to "conjure up" a ghost with a distinctive personality and an apparently independent existence, who is nevertheless completely fictitious. How far we should carry the implications of these experiments is an open question, one that I've considered elsewhere.
Then there's the experience of the Rev. C. Hare Townsend, who performed many experiments in mesmerism. As quoted in If This Be Magic, Townsend wrote:
When I first began to mesmerize, I used to consult my sleepwalkers on dark and dubious points, with something of the blind faith of a novice in a new and wondrous science. Their answers to such inquiries were calculated to bewilder me by the pure influence of astonishment; for the simple had become theorists; the uneducated were turned into philosophers. At length I was awakened from my dream of somnambulic knowledge by finding that my patients’ ideas shifted so visibly with my own, and were so plainly the echo of my own thoughts, that not to have perceived the source whence they originated, would had been pertinacious blindness indeed. I was but taking back my own, and receiving coin issued from my own treasury. [p. 211]
There are possible implications here for the work of hypnotherapists who engage in so-called past-life regressions and between-lives regressions. Even if the hypnotist is not intentionally or overtly leading his entranced patient, it is conceivable that hypnosis itself allows the patient to read the hypnotist's mind and tell him what he expects to hear.
Incidentally, very young children are known to be more susceptible to suggestion than adults, and probably find it easier to exercise psi, a fact that perhaps should be taken into consideration when evaluating accounts of spontaneous and veridical past-life memories in children.
Playfair concludes his book by zeroing in on the fundamental attitude that underlies successful production of a variety of hypnotic, mesmeric, and paranormal phenomena:
The only hypothesis that seems to fit all the facts is that somebody must have faith in something. It can be the patient, the healer or hypnotist, or even a third party. The faith can be in God, Jesus, the Great Spirit – almost anything imaginable. It can even be simply in the doctor and his pills and nothing else. Miracles, it seems, can be worked by nothing more than a firm belief in their imminent occurrence. When such a belief is implanted in the right mind of a patient, by whatever method, even by deception, outright lying, or as in Dr. Mason’s classic case [of curing ichthyosis], by mistake, the suggested miracle fulfills itself automatically.
It begins to seem, in fact, that the mere act of acknowledging the existence of some power greater than ourselves, or even just assuming this, is enough to activate it. [p. 255]
*All quotations from If This Be Magic have had their spelling and punctuation altered from British to American standards. The reason is simple: I used a voice-recognition program to dictate this material to my computer, and the program recognized it as American English.
The Atlantic has an interesting article on "post-VR sadness" – apparently a fairly common syndrome, in which people who use high-end virtual-reality devices experience feelings of depersonalization, derealization, and depression after returning to the real world. As the sub-headline puts it, "After exploring a virtual world, some people can’t shake the sense that the actual world isn’t real, either."
As someone who's interested in the idea that the "real world" might be a kind of virtual reality simulation in itself, albeit far more sophisticated and subtle than anything our technology can produce, I found some of these excerpts pretty intriguing (all links in the original):
“[W]hile standing and in the middle of a sentence, I had an incredibly strange, weird moment of comparing real life to the VR,” wrote the video-game developer Lee Vermeulen after he tried Valve’s SteamVR system back in 2014. He was mid-conversation with a coworker when he started to feel off, and the experience sounds almost metaphysical. “I understood that the demo was over, but it was [as] if a lower level part of my mind couldn’t exactly be sure. It gave me a very weird existential dread of my entire situation, and the only way I could get rid of that feeling was to walk around or touch things around me.” ...
Using a questionnaire to measure participants’ levels of dissociation before and after exposure to VR, Aardema found that VR increases dissociative experiences and lessens people’s sense of presence in actual reality. He also found that the greater the individual’s pre-existing tendency for dissociation and immersion, the greater the dissociative effects of VR. ...
While derealization is the feeling that the world isn’t real, depersonalization is the feeling that one’s self isn’t real. People who’ve experienced depersonalization say that it feels like they’re outside of their bodies, watching themselves. Derealization makes a person’s surroundings feel strange and dream-like, in an unsettling way, despite how familiar they may be. ...
In March, Alanah Pearce, an Australian video game journalist and podcast host, recounted troubling post-VR symptoms after the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “I was very fatigued. I was dizzy. And it definitely hits that strange point where the real world feels surreal,” she said. “I’m not going to go into that too in-depth, because it’s something I haven’t yet grasped. But I know that I’m not alone, and other people who play VR feel the same thing, where it’s like, nothing really feels real anymore. It’s very odd.”
The article points out that there's a difference between the better-known effects of VR, such as motion sickness, and the more subtle but often more lingering psychological side effects.
This isn't an altogether new thing. Some people who saw the movie Avatar on an IMAX screen in 3D later complained that the real world paled by comparison. They weren't just kidding around. They seemed to experience a real sense of psychological withdrawal and a degree of difficulty in accepting ordinary reality again.
Help for Avatar withdrawal? Disney is developing a theme-park attraction that brings the planet of Pandora to life.
What struck me as particularly interesting is that the psychological effects described by subjects in the Atlantic piece are very similar to the state of mind often described by mystics or by people who have had intense transcendent experiences, such as NDEs. The feeling that the physical world is unreal, or at least less real than it appears, has been noted by people who contrast the hyperreality of an NDE or a transported mystical state with mundane reality. The intuition that the self is only a construct, something not ultimately real, is the realization toward which many meditative practices are directed.
Incidentally, there been reports that the practice of mindfulness meditation can also lead to feelings of derealization and depersonalization, along with a significant increase in anxiety. This may be further evidence that the mental state that sometimes follows virtual-reality immersion can be similar to the mental state produced by some methods of meditation. The Atlantic article itself notes that one person's post-VR experience "sounds almost metaphysical." Indeed.
And while I'm sure these changes of mind can be disorienting and upsetting to people who are unprepared for them, and may even be dangerous in people with a history of anxiety or depression, it's at least possible that these new outlooks, if creatively embraced and utilized, will prove not so much pathological as liberating.
The Atlantic piece frets:
To what extent is VR causing users to question the nature of their own reality? And how easily are people able to tackle this line of questioning without losing their grip?
A more difficult question, one the Atlantic doesn't ask, is whether or not the newfound perspective reported by these VR users might be valid. Could these people actually be correct in seeing the physical world as less than fully real and in seeing their own personal identity as an artificial construction? Rather than a step into madness, maybe they've taken a step toward greater sanity.
Or maybe not. It's much too early to tell.
But as VR becomes more ubiquitous and more fully immersive, we can expect to learn a lot more about how the mind processes its interaction with an environment that feels real but is only a remarkable simulation. At the same time, we may end up learning more about reality itself.
A fair amount of parapsychological research involves fieldwork and case studies, in which people's personal memories become an issue. In some cases, a subject recounts an episode that he or she remembers vividly, though it may have happened weeks, months, or even years or decades earlier. Usually this testimony is taken as essentially accurate unless there is some reason to suspect fabrication. In other cases, the researchers themselves must rely on their memory when writing up phenomena that they have witnessed (in a séance room, for instance) at some earlier time.
It seems only natural to assume that eyewitness accounts, especially when provided by disinterested parties, are generally reliable. And yet this may not be the case – a point addressed in detail in New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman's intriguing book Jesus Before the Gospels.
As the title indicates, the focus of the book is the way in which Jesus was remembered by various Christian communities in the early years of the religion's development. In the course of exploring this issue, Ehrman discusses modern findings on the nature and limitations of memory. He explains that our memories are often less accurate and dependable than we believe.
Remember when Donald Trump got in hot water for saying he had seen news footage of thousands of Muslims celebrating in New York City on 9/11? Even though no video was found to support Trump's assertion, he insisted he remembered it clearly. He probably did. A false memory can be every bit as convincing as a real one. One study makes this point via precisely the same phenomenon: people's vivid memories of news footage that never existed.
The study involves a cargo plane that crashed into an Amsterdam apartment building in 1992, killing dozens of people. Ten months after the event, survey respondents were asked if they remembered seeing news footage of the moment when the plane struck the building. More than half of them – 55% – said yes. In a later study, 66% of respondents remembered watching the footage. But there never had been any footage. The crash had not been caught on video.
These striking results obviously puzzled the researchers, in part because basic common sense should have told anyone that there could not have been a film. Remember, this is 1992, before cell phone cameras .… And yet, between half and two thirds of the people surveyed – most of them graduate students and professors – indicated they had seen the nonexistent film .…
Even more puzzling were the detailed answers that some of those interviewed [gave] about what they actually saw on the film – for example, whether the plane crashed into the building horizontally or vertically and whether the fire caused by the plane started at impact or only later .…
Obviously they were imagining [these details], based on logical inferences (the fire must have started right away) and on what they had been told by others (the plane crashed into the building as the plane was heading straight down). The psychologists argued that these people’s imaginations became so vivid, and were repeated so many times, that they eventually did not realize they were imagining something. They really thought they were remembering it. In fact they did remember it. But it was a false memory. Not just a false memory one of them had. A false memory most of them had.
Then there was a study done at Wesleyan University cheekily titled "Do You Remember Proposing Marriage to the Pepsi Machine?" In this study, forty students were escorted around campus and instructed to perform an action, or to imagine performing it, or to watch someone else perform it, or to imagine someone else performing it. Some of the actions were commonplace, while others were bizarre. In one case students were asked to propose marriage to a Pepsi machine.
Two weeks later the participants were interviewed and asked if the action had been imagined or performed. The conclusions were clear. Whether the action was normal or bizarre, participants who imagined it often remember doing it: “We found that imagining familiar or bizarre actions during a campus walk can lead to the subsequent false recollection of having performed these actions.” In this instance the researchers found that imagining the action vividly, but just one time, could produce the false memory. Moreover, imagining someone else performing the action led to just as many false memories as imagining doing it oneself.
In his book Remembering, British psychologist F.C. Bartlett summed up the rather unsettling scientific consensus about memory. Ehrman summarizes:
On the basis of a large number of studies, Bartlett showed that memories are not snapshots stored in some location in the brain later. The brain doesn’t work like that. Instead, when we experience something, bits and pieces of its memory are stored in different parts of the brain. Later, when we try to retrieve the memory, these bits and pieces are reassembled. The problem is that when we reassemble the pieces, there are some, often lots of them, that are missing. To complete the memory we unconsciously fill in the gaps, for example, with analogous recollections from similar experiences .…
The problem is that there is precisely no way to know when your mind is filling in the gaps and when it has retrieved the information from this or that part of the brain.
At every point of this memory process something can go wrong: at the point at which you perceive something (… you may not notice everything, for example); when you store it (as your mind decides which parts to stick away to access later: it may do a very partial job of that); and when you retrieve it (as your mind pieces it all back together: it may be missing lots of pieces and to make the memory seamless it fills in the gaps with other recollections).
The net result of Bartlett’s experiments is that when we remember something, we are not simply pulling up an entire recollection of the past from some part of our brain. We are actually constructing the memory from bits and pieces here and there, sometimes with more and sometimes with less filler. In the process of this construction project, which we are undertaking virtually all the time, errors can happen. There can be massive omissions, alterations, and inventions of memory.
Some people would argue that while this may be true of trivial memories that are easily forgotten, it cannot be true of powerful, vivid memories of dramatic events in our lives. These memories, at least, must be preserved with considerable accuracy. And in fact, this was the prevailing view at one time. But not anymore. Ehrman:
A very famous article published by psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulik in 1977 argued that when we experience a highly unexpected, emotional, and consequential event we have a special memory mechanism that stores indelibly on the brain. It is almost as if the mind says, “Take a picture of this!” And it does so. Brown and Kulik called these “flashbulb memories.” When you recall such memories, they claimed, your mind says “Now print!” and the memory flashes back, as clear as day and as accurately as when you first experienced it ....
There has been an intense research on flashbulb memories since Brown and Kulik first proposed the phenomenon, however, and their original view appears to be wrong. Yes, such memories are highly vivid. But just because a memory is especially vivid does not mean that it is especially accurate. Many of us have a hard time believing that, at least when it comes to our own vivid memories. But it’s true, and has been shown repeatedly .…
The day after the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, [psychologists Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch] gave 106 students in a psychology class at Emory University a questionnaire asking about their personal circumstances when they heard the news. A year and a half later, in the fall of 1988, they tracked down forty-four of the students and gave them the same questionnaire. A half year later, in spring 1989, they interviewed forty of these forty-four about the event.
The findings were startling but very telling. To begin with, seventy-five percent of those who took the second questionnaire were certain they had never taken the first one. That was obviously wrong. In terms of what was being asked, there were questions about where they were when they heard the news, what time of day was, what they were doing at the time, whom they learned it from, and so on – seven questions altogether. Twenty-five percent of the participants got every single answer wrong on the second questionnaire, another fifty percent got only two of the seven questions correct. Only three of the forty-four got all the answers right the second time, and even in those cases there were mistakes in some of the details. When the participants’ confidence in their answers was ranked in relation to their accuracy there was “no relation between confidence and accuracy at all” in forty-two of the forty-four instances.…
Instead, when confronted with evidence of what really took place, they consistently denied [what they were told] and said that their present memories were the correct ones. In the words of the researchers, “No one who had given an incorrect account in the interview even pretended that they now recalled what was stated on the original record. As far as we can tell, the original memories are just gone.”…
Or as a very recent study, by psychologists Jennifer Talarico and David Rubin, has shown, “[Flashbulb memories] are distinguished from ordinary memories by their vividness and the confidence with which they are held. There is little evidence that they are reliably different from ordinary autobiographical memories in accuracy, consistency, or longevity."
This last point may be of particular relevance to parapsychology, since the events described by case subjects are often remembered with extreme vividness and clarity – a fact that naturally leads investigators to assume that the memories are reliable. Sometimes, of course, such memories are reliable; if memory always failed, it would serve no useful purpose, which is hardly the case. But failure is common enough that the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and personal recollection cannot be assumed; and for that matter, false testimony should not be blithely taken as evidence of dishonesty or intent to deceive.
In terms of parapsychological fieldwork, the best results are probably obtained when a person's observations are noted while the event is in progress (for instance, by taking stenographic notes during a séance) or immediately afterward, or when some form of audio or video record of the event itself can be preserved. When dealing with personal recollections of experiences that happened some time earlier, no matter how vividly they may be described, researchers need to maintain at least a degree of skepticism. Even corroborating testimony from other witnesses may not be enough to establish the truth of the story; as we've seen, a majority of people remembered seeing news footage that never aired.
And even when a witness whose honesty seems to be beyond reproach insists on the truth of his or her story despite attempts to debunk it, researchers should still bear in mind that most of the students who were re-questioned about the Challenger disaster not only remembered it wrongly but would not change their minds or admit that their memories were in error even when confronted with the original questionnaires they had filled out.
It has often been remarked that psi is a tricksterish phenomenon – subtle, shape-shifting, hard to pin down. It may well be the case that memory itself is similarly nebulous, frustrating, and elusive.