Thursday, 1 December 2016

Doppelganger?

Crows in tree A strange thing happened to me recently. I was at a meeting and went outside briefly. There, in a corridor, I passed someone who said hello to me. I didn't realise who it was until it was too late to say hello back. I hoped the person, who I know slightly, wasn't offended by my apparently ignoring them. I returned to the meeting.

Then something odd happened. I discovered that the person I'd seen in the corridor was not actually at the meeting at all, even though I'd expected them to be there. So who had I really seen - a doppelganger maybe? Looking round the room I saw someone there who resembled my acquaintance and might have been the person I really saw in the corridor. But the face, in particular, was quite different.

I was definitely convinced, at the time of the sighting, that I'd seen the person I know slightly. So much so that I was afraid I'd inadvertently offended them. But if it was someone else entirely, how could I have been so mistaken?

Though the obvious way to recognise someone is by their face, other aspects of a person's appearance or behaviour work too. One method of recognition is called gait analysis - recognizing someone by their walk - and it is surprisingly accurate (see here). It can work even when you don't get a good view of someone. Then there is a person's size and shape (see here). Again, it can work when you don't get a good view. I only saw the person in the corridor's face for a second or so but noticed their body for longer. Did I unconsciously, and incorrectly, 'recognise' them from things other than the face? If so, I believe I have an excuse.

I think there are two key points to consider with this incident which I believe was a misidentification of a real person, rather than a doppelganger sighting. Firstly, the person said 'hello' which started me thinking I knew them. This stranger may simply have said hello because we were both in the same meeting and so had a common interest. Secondly, I was definitely expecting the person I know slightly to be at that meeting. I think these factors may have biassed me towards 'recognising' an unfamiliar face.

Though I don't think it was a doppelganger, I think this incident is relevant to witness testimony of anomalous phenomena. There are anomalous incident reports, some ghost sightings for instance, where the witness may apparently recognise a human figure they see. In my experience of ghosts caused by misperception I've never recognised the figures. I have speculated that this is because our brains use an archetypal figure, rather than a specific remembered person, from visual memory in such incidents. But the features of misperceived figures are also determined by the shape of the actual object being misperceived. So maybe, on occasion, a misperceived figure might be 'recognised' as a specific person by a witness using such factors as perceived body shape and size. Obviously, with misperception there is no real figure to recognise but if it is 'identified' by a witness this reinforces the idea that it is a paranormal ghost.

I had previously thought when a ghost is positively identified by a witness that rules out misperception. I no longer think that. Also, I'm hoping that, in future, I might see an identifiable ghost myself, caused by misperception.

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