If you’ve ever felt a strange sense of having a presence in the room when you were sure you were alone, you may be reluctant to admit it.
Unless you have an explanation to help you process the experience, most people will struggle to understand what happened. But research is now showing that this ethereal experience is something we can understand, using scientific models of mind and body and the relationship between the two. One of the largest studies on this topic was conducted as early as 1894. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) published the Hallucination Census, a survey of more than 17,000 people in the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe. The survey aims to understand how common it is for people to make seemingly impossible visits that portend death. The Strategic Review Report concluded that more often than not such experiences occurred by chance (1 in 43 people surveyed). In 1886 the SPR (which counted former British Prime Minister William Gladstone and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson among its patrons) published Phantasms of the Living. This group included 701 teleportations, premonitions and other unusual phenomena. For example, Rev PH Newnham, of Devonport in Plymouth, told the story of a visit to New Zealand where Lilly’s presence warned him not to go on a dawn boat trip the next morning. It was later learned that all of those on the voyage had drowned. The census was met with less skepticism, but it still suffered from response bias (who would care to answer such a survey except those with something to say). But these experiences still live in homes around the world, and contemporary science provides insights into understanding them.
Many of the reports collected by the SPR sound like hypnagogia: hallucinatory experiences that occur on the brink of sleep. It has been suggested that many of the religious experiences recorded in the nineteenth century have a basis in hypnagogia. Accidents are closely related to sleep paralysis, which about 7% of adults experience at least once in their lives. In sleep paralysis, our muscles remain frozen but our minds are active and awake. Studies have indicated that more than 50% of people with sleep paralysis report having it. While the Victorian presences documented by the SPR were often benign or comforting, modern examples of sleep paralysis-induced sleep tend to skew malevolence. Societies around the world have their own stories of nocturnal presence – from the “Little Monk with the Pierced Hand” (Fradinho da Mau Furada) who could infiltrate people’s dreams, to the Ogun Oro of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, who believed the product of bewitched victims. But why does an experience like paralysis create a sense of existence? Some researchers have focused on the details of waking up in such an unusual situation. Most people find sleep paralysis frightening, even without hallucinations. In 2007, sleep researchers J. Allen Cheyne and Todd Girard argued that if we wake paralyzed and weak, our instincts will make us feel threatened. If we are prey, then there must be a predator. Another approach is to examine the commonalities between sleep paralysis visits and other types of enlivened existence. Research over the past 25 years has shown that stalking is not only a regular part of the hypnosis scene, but has also been reported in Parkinson’s disease, psychosis, near-death experiences, and bereavement. This indicates that it is unlikely to be a specific sleep phenomenon. We know from neurological case studies and brain stimulation experiments that presence can be triggered by bodily signals. For example, in 2006 neurologist Shahar Arzi and colleagues were able to create a “shadow figure” by a woman whose brain had been electrically stimulated at the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ). The figure seems to reflect the position of the woman’s body, and the TPJ gathers information about our senses and our bodies. A series of experiments in 2014 also showed that disrupting people’s sensory expectations appeared to stimulate a sense of presence in some healthy people. The researchers used a robot to tap the volunteers’ backs at regular intervals. When the touch is then asynchronous, the volunteers may suddenly feel as if someone else is present. Changing sensory expectations of the situation leads to something like hallucinations. This reasoning could also apply to a situation like sleep paralysis. All of our usual information about our bodies and senses is cut off in this context, so perhaps it’s not surprising that we feel like there is something “other” with us. We may think it’s another existence, but it’s actually us. Despite its centuries-old origins, science in this field is only in its infancy. In the end, scientific research may give us a general explanation, or we may need different theories to explain all these examples of existence. If you’ve never experienced something like this, chances are you know someone who has.
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