“Am I Crazy? Or Is Something Weird Going On In My House?” — Our Broken Approach to the Paranormal

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s story The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr. Watson himself announces to his friend Sherlock Holmes, “We are men of science!” He declares this as a benediction and a tonic for his nerves on the cusp of departing solo for the moors upon which will play out the famed detective’s most notorious (and only?) paranormal case.

Dr. Watson also says his line by way of a rallying cry — there is no character in modern literature who more embodies the hope of logical positivism and, indeed, scientific method: that a well-formed set of first-principles can and will yield up all mysteries to understanding. All things can be understood by means of what we already know.

And yet, there is much we don’t speculate upon, because it is not efficient. Doctors are trained to look for horses, not zebras. Yet, a lot of you — a lot of you — are seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, sensing zebras.

Scan the internet forums, the Reddit discussions, the web-pages of ghost-hunting groups, and you will find more reports coming in by the hour (truly!) of strange sounds, shadow figures, objects moved, prophetic information shared by strange entities in dreams, details that could not be known by others. These stories are shared by the thousands, from all quarters of society.

These accounts are usually considered too “anecdotal” to provide proof of anything, but the sheer number of experiences earnestly reported, and their shared similarities, make it foolish to dismiss them.

And this is where things get strange on multiple levels.

The internet community of paranormal aficionados group these experiences into like types and etiologies. Roughly speaking, you’ve got your spectres, your mimics, your demons, your elementals, your shadow people, your shadow beasts and shadow animals. (Not just phosphor-painted dogs, you notice.) And what are their intentions? Paranormal sleuths largely agree that simply getting the attention of the living is a major goal of ghosts. Evidently, one of the most difficult aspects of the afterlife is the ennui.

Conversely, the paranormalists affirm that elementals, mimics, demons, and beasts often (always?) have a much more aggressive intention in plan. They want a foothold in tangible reality by which they can exert ever-more influence. An escalating sequence of intrusions has been identified: starting with infestation (mild poltergeist activity), they proceed (if unchecked) to oppression — that is, intimidating and cornering the witness through more overt signs of supernatural presence and dominance posturing. Then comes obsession, taking over the mental activity of the witness, commandeering their thoughts; and, finally, possession — full control of the witness, now a slave to the paranormal agenda.

Actually, the more we read these accounts and categorizations, the more we recognize in them a familiar tone: that of insect exterminator company brochures. Their offered remedies read the same: these entities mean you no good…do not engage them one-on-one…cast them all out with substances noxious to them and a strong banishing verse…follow up by spiritually sanitizing the house. If done well, at the appropriate time of day, and with a dose of good luck, your infestation should be cured.

In other words, the expert advice is to treat them all as demons, spirit vermin, don’t tangle with them, get rid of them efficiently and stringently.

A question — which one would be more truly horrifying to stare down: the vague and menacing form of a shadow figure, or the utterly black and all-absorbing maw of a gigantic black hole?

There are things too difficult or frightening for scientists to consider fully. If it had not been that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity provides a framework of explanation and predicts the existence of black holes, it is unlikely that astronomers would have peered through the skies for a darker dark against the blackness of space, invisible monsters of obliteration drifting the void. (It’s only two years ago that the first images of an enormous black hole, billions of times more massive than the sun, were captured — and really, what’s to be seen is only a ring of atomic cataclysm as objects annihilate on the brink of no returning.

How much more difficult is it to really account for the existence of a black hole — what it means for the Universe —than to bring shadow people into the light of comprehension?

We would probably have ignored black holes, too, or considered them “anecdotal” if theory didn’t require them.

There is a curious and important parallel between the advice of online paranormalists and the experimental paradigm of genetic researchers — and, as we shall see, the cognitive scientists as well…until very recently.

Cell nuclei are full of what has been called junk DNA, genetic material that does not code meaningfully for usable proteins in the cell. At first, it seemed an inexplicable mystery why cells would contain so much meaningless genetic code (far more junk DNA than organized genes), but researchers assumed that its presence was an accident of evolutionary events. And so, it was ignored. Junk DNA was treated like the spam folder in your email account — or, more aptly, like the broken bits of old files hiding on your hard-drive before you run a de-fragmentation program. In other words, fix them or delete them.

That understanding was upended recently when genetic researchers began to suspect (and then observe) that junk DNA does do important things, even though it is not coding for proteins. As a new article puts it: “Genomes hold immense quantities of noncoding DNA. Some of it is essential for life, some seems useless, and some has its own agenda.” Some theorize that non-coding DNA plays a vital role in generating consciousness.

When cognitive scientists first looked at EEG data of brainwaves, a significant proportion seemed to be random fluctuations, brain activity that has no pattern. Statistical methods and other mathematical tricks were done to “cancel out” these fluctuations, leaving only the wave-forms believed to be correlated with various states of consciousness.

Now, a much more mysterious picture is emerging. It seems that what is actually happening is that millions of tiny fluctuations are constantly arising from the electrochemical baseline; think of small choppy waves on a windy sea. As those wavelets add to and subtract from each other, they will occasionally and spontaneously sum to a waveform which is much stronger — the amplitude higher — than the surrounding waves. These rogue waves are the patterns of our consciousness. Thought does not arise from nothing, it boils up from a sea of constant and subtle excitations that slip beneath the radar of our self-awareness.

(Curiously enough, about a decade ago scientists set out to see if they could observe by satellite even one oceanic rogue wave, fabled but seldom documented. Imagine their surprise when they discovered that there are, on average, ten of these monster waves somewhere on the planet surface at any given moment.)

What has this to do with apparitions and shadows and demons? Well… precisely this, Dr. Watson. Whenever we reject the significance of evidence that we do not understand, we are liable to dismiss details that are in fact crucial to the truth of what is occurring. The fool is not in position to determine what is relevant and what is not. Seeking to banish paranormal entities from an exterminator’s mindset is to preclude the possibility of a Copernican shift in our understanding of the presence that animates all of us.

Then, I heard a knock at the window. Behind the glass pane crouched a dark, faceless figure. A second figure of identical stature entered through the bedroom door and sat at the edge of the bed. The shadow person spoke, “I would be afraid too. This is what nightmares are made from.”

There is good reason to avoid dark experiences. Very frightening events have been witnessed by more people than you might expect. Many are not inclined to share such private circumstances; but, judging by the numbers of people telling anecdotes online and replying with experiences of their own, a lot of you have seen some unforgettable things.

The wisdom of avoiding what you don’t understand is very ancient. Shamanic advice is to never, ever invite attention of powerful entities you are not prepared to encounter. Never acknowledge a creature you don’t want to face. Opening the door to communication not only gives permission to the demons to amplify their physical manifestations, but creates opportunity for “attachment,” wherein a being leaves the premises of its original haunting, and goes with the one who invited them. Famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren have created a gallery of demon-inhabited objects that they — in all sincerity — warn visitors not to touch, not to mock, not to tempt.

On the other hand, the skeptics’ most frequently proffered explanation for these poltergeist infestations and visitations is a suite of psychological phenomena: some that make reasonable sense, some that raise more questions than answers. Sleep paralysis, hypnogogic hallucination, and pareidolia have all been suggested as causes of the paranormal. Yet, all these phenomena (like dreaming itself) remain mysterious facets of consciousness that are largely not understood within the scientific theory. There are multiple contradictory theories for what dreaming and REM sleep are about; what exactly is driving the sea of subconscious electrical activity in our brains? Is it random, or is it shaped by contours of interaction beyond our awareness? We are, after all, constantly perceiving millions of times more information than we can consciously process. Could some of that information be encounters with trans-dimensional beings?

There are good reasons for not fearing what we find in the dark and mysterious. If the paranormal is “all in our heads” then we are dealing with the mystery of ourselves. By engaging the complexity and not running from it, not seeking to dismiss or subtract or ignore it, we are likely to find out more of the truth of what we really are.

We are zebras, not horses — metaphorically speaking. We are not vermin. We are terrifying and powerful celestial objects arising from the rhythms and waves of a living planet drifting in the void of a mystery.

Those who can see the paranormal for what it is are said to be more open, more receptive. We might say that the door is open for them to undergo the unification of the whole Self, as (Carl Jung might describe it). In our upcoming course next fall, we will develop together a new set of rules for safely, respectfully, and boldly engaging the mystery.

Stop running and we’ll see you there.

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