by Mark English
Sorting through some personal papers recently, I came across some scribbled notes about dreams and hallucinations. I have never considered dreams – my own or anyone else’s – worth recording or trying to analyze in any serious way, but have always maintained an interest in the various manifestations of consciousness and the functioning – and malfunctioning – of the brain.
Dreams have a special fascination, mainly because they seem to give us a first-hand glimpse into the workings of our brains. Operating outside the normal imperatives of waking life, the brain takes on a (sometimes disturbing) life of its own.
Various kinds of waking experience also give us insights into the workings of our brains. Especially under stressful conditions, unexpected things happen: hallucinations, visions, so-called mystical experiences, devastating waves of fear or dread, unexplained convictions.
With respect to peculiar waking experiences, my own have been (mercifully) few and far between. One such experience was utterly terrifying and occurred in early adolescence. No drugs were involved. I may write about it another time.
A far less harrowing episode occurred a couple of years earlier. It involved a failure of visual processing. Three spatial dimensions collapsed into two. The scene before me decomposed and I could no longer distinguish form, just color, a kaleidoscope of color. Quite beautiful actually. Even (in the context) strangely liberating. Again, no drugs were involved.
As a child, I did not know much about the brain, but this experience gave me a sense of the precariousness and the general nature of the visual system. There were obviously all sorts of complex mechanisms in play, and this brief failure of the system had allowed me to look behind the curtain, as it were, to get a glimpse of the not exactly raw but non-integrated data that lay behind the finished product which the visual system normally presents us with. What was normally integrated had, for a time, disintegrated, revealing not only the precariousness of the system but something of its distributed, layered and constructive nature.
Dreams and hallucinations involve not only visual processing but also a more central feature of the brain, its narrative-generating function. In dreams, the narrative-generating function is given free rein, being largely detached from sensory input and the constraints and imperatives, both physical and logical, that moving around in the real world necessarily entail. In this respect dreams have parallels with hallucinations (where sensory input is overridden or is processed in anomalous ways).
The stories we tell ourselves in our waking hours to orientate ourselves within the social world derive largely from stored information but real-time sensory input is also important. As we all know, there is a tendency for these stories to become detached from physical and social realities. Such tendencies are exacerbated by processing failures in individual brains, brought on by stress, disease, aging, etc..
Take the following example. Late one night my mother was in hospital recovering from major surgery. I got a call from the hospital asking me to come in because she was upset and they thought I might be able to calm her down. It turned out she was sleep-deprived and showing signs of paranoia. She was convinced that the nursing staff were not humans. They were aliens from another planet. But, being a very level-headed and intelligent woman, she was also aware of the silliness of this conviction and in fact embarrassed about it. So it wasn’t too hard for me to reassure her.
Capgras delusions involve integration failures in respect of the various brain processes associated with the recognition of and responses to known individuals, especially close friends or relatives. The sufferer will recognize the face and body in question but, because the usual emotional responses associated with this recognition do not kick in, he or she will have a strong sense that this is not really the person normally associated with that body. In this manner, loved ones may be perceived (for brief or extended periods of time) as hostile intruders. I have had the experience of having to deal with transient episodes of this syndrome in aged relatives. It’s quite common, I believe.
The prevalence of political conspiracy theories based on body doubles is obviously a different kind of phenomenon, but I suspect that there is a connection here, that these kinds of narrative resonate largely because – like the best thrillers – they draw on universal patterns of thought.
In the past many political leaders had body doubles who were deployed for practical purposes (such as ensuring the safety of the actual leader), and this phenomenon naturally led to speculations and fictions of various kinds. Many of these stories came to be believed. I am suggesting that the prevalence – and persistence – of such beliefs calls for an explanation. Why are people so attracted to these stories and why do so many believe in them in such a dogged way?
There are many well-known examples, more or less fanciful substitution conspiracy theories which were believed in by significant numbers of people. The ever-original Kurt Gödel devised his own theory. On the basis of precise measurements he made of facial features in newspaper photographs, Gödel convinced himself (but nobody else as far as I am aware) that the man honored in the massive 1951 ticker-tape parade in New York City was not the real General Douglas MacArthur.
Another case, relating to Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslavian President, I was going to present as a typical example of a fanciful substitution conspiracy theory. But this one may have some basis in fact. A Croatian man I knew years ago was convinced that Tito was not the man he claimed to be. I didn’t take this very seriously at the time, but I have since done a bit of research on the topic and found that a wide range of people had serious doubts about the official story. Moreover, a declassified NSA document lays out what appears to be a strong case, based on a careful phonological analysis of Tito’s speech patterns, that his origins were not Croatian. The Josip Broz whom Tito claimed to be was born in the village of Kumrovec in northern Croatia but Tito’s accent strongly suggested Russian or Polish origins. Accepted opinion (represented, for example, by Wikipedia) continues to ignore or dismiss this evidence of foreign origins. Though now a matter more of historical than political significance, the question of Tito’s origins did constitute a serious issue for my Croatian acquaintance and many of his countrymen who had been hearing for decades the anomalous speech patterns and accent which American security services finally came to analyze – and acknowledge.
As I indicated above, what got me thinking about these topics was coming across some scribbled notes from the past. One document related to a dream which my mother had – and told me about – twelve years ago. It has nothing to do with body doubles or conspiracy theories. It may, nonetheless, be of interest. I quote verbatim from my notes…
Last night’s dream involved the disruption of a church service. In the dream she was a school-aged child, though an adult friend whom she had not known in childhood appeared in the dream and spoke to her. The church in question was specified by name. It was not one she had known as a child but was the church she was married in.
In the dream she sought out and gathered together the noisiest things she could find: tin cans and “a strange kind of metallic vessel” – she wasn’t sure what it was but she was “pretty sure it would make a noise.”
“I tied all these things together and crept up towards the altar where the priest was moving to and fro. The array of objects made a very disruptive noise and the priest swung around and here’s this girl shaking [the objects] madly to make as much noise as possible. There was nothing anyone could do, it was such a surprise. I wanted to irritate him, to stop him doing all the things I hated, worshiping this God who wasn’t there.”
“I walked out [of the church via] the side aisle. People looked the other way. They would see what I was doing as wrong and I knew I was doing wrong – but I had to do it, to try and stop them. I threw the noise-making contraption onto the ground outside the church…”
I am not saying that this dream has any great significance but it is amusing in its way. It also bears witness, I think, to longstanding frustrations and to an independent spirit adamantly opposed to (what was perceived as) obfuscation and mystification.