21.3.13

VIRTUAL BANALITY

I’ve recently been scanning back issues of Magonia for reference use, and have been reminded of a topic which we reported on back in the 1990s, but which seems to have slipped out of sight over the intervening years. I think it’s worth revisiting, as it is a potentially important clue to the origin of many of the phenomena we discuss in Magonia and the books we review.

In an article first published in Magonia 48, January 1994 I commented:

“If any psycho-social explanations of the UFO and abduction experience are valid, then we need to assume that it is fairly commonplace for the human brain to create realistic alternative worlds, in which cognition is replaced by, as Peter Rogerson has called it, a kind of 'virtual experience', We must also accept that this 'virtual' world is, to the percipient, absolutely, totally, completely real, with no doubt whatsoever in their mind as to the physical, real-time nature of the experience they are recalling. And further, we must assume that this dramatic mental phenomenon happens to people who are, in every other respect, completely normal, and not just to a section of the population who can allegedly be distinguished via a few psychological tests or simple-minded public opinion polls.”

People, including writers in Magonia, who have suggested that particular ‘paranormal’ events certain individuals have experienced are due to the internal, psychological processes of the individual’s brain, have been accused of stigmatising witnesses as 'unreliable', ‘mad’, or ‘unbalanced’. The whole point of the psycho-social hypothesis however is that this is not so, and such ‘virtual experiences’ seem to be part of the normal functioning of the human brain.

I started to think more about this as a result of the experience of a colleague at work, who told me of an odd incident that had happened to her. You can find a fuller account of it at the link above, but in brief, she and her husband were woken during the night by a phone call from her husband’s workplace asking him to come out to deal with a computer problem. Although annoying this was not particularly dramatic, as he was often the out-of-hours contact for the company.

After he had left she found it difficult to get back to sleep, so started watching a small television they kept in the bedroom. She then drifted off to sleep, waking later to find that the TV and the bedside light were off and she could not switch them on, presumably because of a power-cut. After a few moments she heard her husband’s car returning, and looked through the window to see the car pulling into the driveway.

But they didn’t have a driveway, just a grassed front lawn!

She then rather perceptively decided that this must be all a dream, went back to bed, fell asleep, waking up at the usual hour in the morning. As I suggested at the time, this must have been the world’s most boring paranormal experience - The Mystery of the Phantom Concrete Driveway.

But of course, it was only because it was so boring that ‘Val’, as she was referred to in the article, realised that it was a dream. At the time, and in her memory, it was a totally real, wide-awake, completely un-dreamlike experience. In telling me the story Val made an interesting point. Her grandmother had died just a few months earlier. If she had awoken to ‘see’ her grandmother sitting at the foot of the bed, she would have been totally convinced that she had seen the old lady’s ghost. After all, the ghostly appearance of a dead relative is far more believable to most people than the overnight appearance of a concert driveway over a neatly manicured lawn!

In the next issue of Magonia, Hilary Evans made some typically astute observations:

“ … that your colleague's experience is essentially identical with the more exotic experiences of Linda Cortile and Betty Andreasson is, I would say, beyond question. The same process is surely at work. Val's story is welcome precisely because these exotic features are absent, because its everyday ordinariness - with its one little splash of extraordinariness - enables us to see the mechanism at work without the dramatic triggerings which distract us from the form to the content.”

After comparing Val’s experience to those of Andreasson and Cortile, Hilary concludes:

“No doubt Val's experience, too, was significant of something; no psychoanalyst worth his £50 an hour would fail discern a profound meaning in that imagined driveway, a symbolic clue to who knows what childhood trauma.. Well, if I were Val I'd let sleeping trauma lie. Though if next time she should see, not just a driveway, but a darned disc parked on it. with these three figures emerging …”

This was exactly the situation with the ‘Miss Z’ case which Peter Rogerson and I investigated in the very early days of MUFOB/Magonia.

I next came across an episode of ‘virtual banality’ in 1999, in issue 20 of the American magazine Strange, where there is a letter from a Johnny Mendoza. He describes an episode five years earlier, at a time that he was collecting Disney memorabilia, and exotic banknotes. Working a nightshift he slept during the day from 8am. On the day in question he was woken by his fiancée and told that a package had arrived for him which contained a set of Disney souvenir banknotes, neatly combining his collecting interest. He looked at the specimens, then still feeling tired put them aside and went back to sleep.

I think you’re ahead of me now. When he woke up in the late afternoon there were no Disney banknotes and his fiancée was adamant that she had not woken him in the morning with any post.

Like Val, he was clear about the nature of the experience: "I remember being totally awake when I looked at the money. The event did not have a dreamlike quality ... “ And like Val, he muses: “What if I had woken up and seen a little grey alien looking down at me? What if I saw a vision of an Angel and my father coming to visit me?"

Again, this experience has very little emotional baggage, and Johnny was not in any stressed situation or undergoing any personal trauma.

The next episode come in Magonia 67, June 1999, where I print a letter from Brian, the proprietor of a book and comic shop in the USA. Unlike the other episodes this event took place whilst Brian was totally awake and in a crowded environment. It had a bit more drama to it, but was still almost immediately recognised as unreal by the percipient. In this case it was a quite a few years earlier when Brian was in junior high school. Walking down a corridor between classes he comes across a “particularly obnoxious guy I'd had run-ins with before [who] made some remark: to me, and I immediately turned around, punched him and knocked him down, and continued to my next class.”

Arriving at the classroom he expected the “obnoxious guy” to be right behind him, ready to dole out retribution: “There’s going to be a fight” he told a friend in the classroom. But nothing happened. Brian sat down and began to calm down, and soon realised that he could not in fact have hit the guy, as by now he would either be in the room taking his revenge, or else Brian would be getting hauled off to the principle’s office by one of the teachers who must have seen the supposed incident.

Brian concludes: “I can still remember the incident clearly and except for the ‘coming down’ part where I realised I must've imagined it, and the fact that there was never any further mention of it, I'd still swear it happened. And if it had been a saucer or alien or ghost, I'm sure I'd be a true believer today.”

The final episode to come my way, which I record in Magonia 71 (June 2000) brings us back to my workplace. Another colleague, ‘Anne’, was like me a librarian at a suburban public library in south London. A few weeks before the time of writing she was woken by a telephone call from the security officer at the local council offices.. He told her that "People have invaded the main street here and are rioting. It's all under control, but we're just ringing to let you know what's happening.”

Annoyed at receiving such a pointless warning she hung up and went back to sleep. But not for long, she then got another call: "They're moving off in the direction of your library. But it's OK, you don't need to do anything, we've got it all in hand."

Now apparently totally wide awake, and rather annoyed, she decided to go downstairs and make herself a drink. She sat and drank some of it, then retired back to bed. When she woke in the morning there had been no more calls, and dialling 1471 she discovered that the last call recorded was one she remembers from early the previous evening. Needless to say there had been no rioting in the main street.

(Although I feel obliged to mention that eleven years later there was in fact some serious rioting in the main street of Croydon, the location of this incident, so maybe we can count this as a - very - precognitive dream! However the library where Anne worked was on the opposite side of town, and was not troubled by vandalism or gangs of youths).

There’s one small detail in Anne’s story which makes it a little more intriguing. When she got downstairs in the morning, she found the half consumed drink still on the kitchen table. So did she actually go downstairs in a somnambulistic state and prepare a drink? Was this a drink she had made before going to bed and forgotten about, and incorporated into her dream? Did she genuinely wake after the second call? How valid is this as a piece of ‘physical evidence’?

All these strange events, some quite mundane, some with an element of drama attached, happened to people who were totally unstressed at the time; who were in sound mental and physical health and - as far as I know - were one-off events in their lives. And, as in Brian’s case you do not even have to be in bed asleep to have such an experience. So next time someone tells you about their abduction, ghost sighting, or other encounter with weirdness, ask yourself if they have undergone the same kind of ‘virtual experience’ as Val, Johnny, Brian or Anne.

Anne’s account was the last I recorded in Magonia, but if you have had such an experience yourself - one which seemed real but you know couldn’t possibly have happened - we’d be glad to hear of it. The more boring the better! Use the ‘reply’ link below. I won’t publish full details unless you say so. Or if you have any general comments on the topic. -- John Rimmer.

11 comments:

  1. Maybe these "banal," ordinary-seeming virtual experiences offer us the understanding that even our everyday "reality" is merely virtual. Why pick on the "paranormal"? Come to think of it, maybe our paranormal, non-banal experiences are the true, non-virtual reality breaking through.

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  2. In 2009/10 I awoke one summer morning to see a pulsing, misshapen spherical object rolling along the ceiling in my direction. It was partially submerged in the ceiling and cubic tower-shapes somehow rose and fell as it slowly approached.

    I watched in wonder as it reached the architrave and continued down the wall towards me. It was still partly submerged, but around 80& was right there. As it got within arm's reach, I reached my hand out to touch it and it simply went within the wall and vanished from sight - without me touching it.

    It was already daylight as I lay there and wondered about the object and tried to think of ways to describe it. It was most likely a fine example of hypnapompia that transitioned into wakefulness so subtly that it's remained in my memory as a real experience.

    A better example involves a childhood recollection of running away with a girl at age ~6. It's a full-colour memory with vivid details - undoubtedly real. However a few years ago a detail emerged that proved it was nothing but a dream with a coherent narrative.

    I've suspended judgement on abduction phenomena and other encounter reports - they seem mostly historical now anyway. Variations on hypnapompia may very well be implicated yet I feel it's too ambitious to compare one set of subjective claims with another set and assert that we have a match. Nevertheless something related to perception and consciousness is obviously key to discussing reports of apparitions, mundane dreams or wicked alien Mengeles.

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    1. Something related to perception and consciousness is obviously key to discussing everything in the realm of human experience.

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  3. If the hypothesis here is that many if not all paranormal experiences are mind-generated, it becomes a virtually unfalsifiable hypothesis. Anything strange or anomalous could then be considered internally generated.



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  4. Anonymous23.3.13

    What fascinating accounts! The precognitive element in the "riot" story is especially interesting. It's strange that when dreaming we think, "This is obviously real, I'm perfectly awake and exploring an ancient castle in my pajamas." But then we wake and find it was obviously a fantasy, but only because we wake up. Perhaps our core mode of perception--our bare consciousness--does not always differentiate between immediate and distant stimuli. Like using a stick to poke through a muddy pond--you can feel where it's muddy and where you hit a rock just by feeling the stick rather than the pond itself. Perhaps these are just strange instances of hitting a rock and not recognizing the stick?

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  5. > But they didn’t have a driveway, just a grassed front lawn!

    The problem with the human brain is that once an image gets into our head -- whatever the source -- it has trouble distinguishing memories and perceptions from dreams and stories we have heard. Our reality testing is pretty good at helping us out: we know we were never a tiny princess on a spaceship squaring off against Lord Vader because we also recall the boundaries of the silver screen and the popcorn in our lap.

    Your example about the driveway is excellent, because analysis of long-established facts allowed the percipient to realise it was just a dream.

    But this is not always the case with people who have long drives on unknown roads and later dream about it -- and who also have odd notions that hypnosis can sort it all out.

    Abduction proponents who claim to be scientific ufologists should check out the scientific literature about "reality testing" and "source monitoring." That should answer a few questions.

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    1. Yes, "long-established facts allowed the percipient to realise [the banal, mundane driveway incident] was just a dream." What would allow those who experience alien abductions to realise that their experiences are just dreams? Terry the Censor's insistence that their experiences are just dreams?

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    2. > What would allow those who experience alien abductions to realise that their experiences are just dreams?

      You make a good point: since abduction proponents don't propose such tests of their cases, it is left to outsiders to do so.

      I would recommend that abduction proponents remedy this by approaching dream and memory researchers to help design such tests.

      > Terry the Censor's insistence that their experiences are just dreams?

      A non-partisan (i.e. careful) reading of my comment will make clear I was comparing reality checking in a familiar circumstance versus an unfamiliar environment. I insisted on nothing.

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  6. Anonymous27.3.13

    This has happened to me several years ago. I woke in the middle of the night and got up to go to the bathroom. As I stood up beside the bed I noticed the wardrobe seemed to be on the wrong side of the room. Then the door was also on the wrong side of the room. I turned and looked at my wife sleeping on "my side of the bed." I had no vague dreamy feelings. I remember hunting around under my bed for my slippers and feeling the usual detritus of my socks and an old magazine under there. This was weird, then I remember thinking, blandly this must be a dream because the room is completely mirrored, left is right, right is left. There was no panic. I just got back into bed and went to sleep.

    Another time I was on call for our company and arrived at work to see some forms from the security company on my desk for signature. When I enquired about all the systems changes that had been made, apparently in my name, I was told that I had authorized them in a 15 minute telephone call at about 2:45am. The phone records showed the call but I have absolutely no memory, to this day, of that call. I went to bed about 11pm, sober and slept soundly. The incident wasn't unusual. What was very unusual was my lack of memory. That incident frightens me to this day.

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  7. Interesting about the phantom driveway, the inability to turn lights on is a classic sign of a dream. Though is seems odd, that she went lucid and didnt try to exploit it, you can have so much fun in a lucid dream, you control your own dream reality to a certain extent, great fun...

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  8. Of all the cases I find Brian's very interesting, but the rest seem fairly typical dreams to me, I've had countless dreams like that, even dreams about UFOs, but I wake up and log them in my memory as clearly just dreams.

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