Thursday, 11 April 2013

How 'glitches in reality' hint at the paranormal

Consciousness is a word used a lot in paranormal circles. But what exactly IS it? I think that the scientific understanding of consciousness (let's call it SC), related to a person's awareness of their surroundings and themselves, is not the same as what is often talked about in paranormal discussions. I suspect that the 'paranormal consciousness' (call it PC) is not simply awareness but also personality and life memories. In other words, it is the psychological essence of what makes one individual different to another. It is often speculated that PC may exist, either occasionally or continually, independently of our physical bodies. Ironically, it is the way SC works that gives rise to many apparent paranormal experiences which give rise to such speculation.

So what is the scientific understanding of consciousness - SC? Well, suppose someone asks you to raise your right arm. Your brain actually starts operating, to comply, even before you are consciously aware of it. Clearly, this means the unconscious part of the brain is the bit that does the real work, only informing the conscious bit afterwards. Most things our brains do are unconscious, including perception, motor control, etc. Consciousness is, in effect, the tip of an iceberg, the small bit of brain processing that we actually experience. Most decisions are taken by the unconscious part of our brain. Many, such as motor control of muscles, we are completely unaware of. Some, like deciding to move an arm, we are told about only after the action has started. A few, executive decisions like what to wear, we make consciously.

As animals, we need consciousness to make executive decisions about what to do. Otherwise we would spend all our time simply reacting to external events. Consciousness is, however, an illusion. We only see the edited highlights of what our unconscious brains brain is doing, to help with those executive decisions. We may think we are deciding consciously what to do all the time but, in most cases, we are rationalizing about decisions already taken for us by the unconscious. When an insight pops into consciousness, it has not come from nowhere or 'the universe' but from our unconscious brain which 'thinks' every bit as much, if not more, than the conscious bit. It may feel like telepathy but it's just one way that thoughts traverse the conscious / unconscious boundary.

It is our tendency to believe absolutely in the illusion of consciousness that can lead to apparent paranormal experiences. For instance, we may sometimes catch our visual perception system making incorrect guesses at poorly-seen objects. Such misperceptions may be taken for ghosts, UFOs or other anomalous phenomena. Or we may take an understandable error in the way we interpret sounds as human speech as real words. Thus sounds that share important characteristics with human speech, like formant noise, can giving rise to some EVP type experiences. Or when we occasionally enter the unfamiliar borderland where conscious and unconscious brain states overlap, we may have near sleep experiences, a rich source of hallucinations, easily mistaken for such things as ghosts or aliens.

As I said, SC is essentially an illusion, to give us the impression we have total control over our bodies. If we happen to notice glitches in that illusion, they can appear as paranormal experiences. Of course, one cannot hope to discuss the massive topic of consciousness (which is still little understood) in a short blog post. But I just thought I'd point out that our increasing scientific understanding of the subject is serendipitously illuminating how some of our weirder experiences occur too.

PS: Please mentally insert a picture of a brain in this article, by way of illustration. I'm afraid I was a bit pressed for time ...

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