Friday, 27 November 2009

My body, myself?


One of the most mysterious phenomena from the fringe of the so-called "normal" human experience is the appearance of one's look-alike, also - and better - known by the German name of Doppelgänger (pronounced: dopple-GEHN-gehr).

There is an old belief still going around that supposedly everyone has a "double" or a look-alike somewhere in the world. The concept of the doppelgänger is a more sinister variant of this belief, in that the "double" isn't thought to be a real physical person but a sort of ghostly Self of the person, often interpreted as a harbinger of death of that person.

The term itself -
doppelgänger - first appears in the German novel Siebenkäs (here is an online English translation), published in 1796/97 by Jean Paul. But there seems to be little doubt that the writer was merely harnessing the poetic potential of a belief that was much older than his work.

The exact origins of this belief may be difficult to determine, but it does seem to
be ancient. It appears in the concept of the vardøger (Norwegian) or the etiäinen (Finnish), in Northern European folklore, for example. The main characteristic of this concept is that the apparition (or, sometimes, sounds associated with the person in question) is a predecessor of the person in question, seen arriving or performing any given activity before the real person is seen doing the same things. (A typical case is the well-known story about Emilie Sagée.)

There are many stories about doppelgängers or seemingly related apparitions. Abraham Lincoln reportedly saw a ghostly double of his own image in the mirror, which he interpreted as a presage of both his re-election and his untimely death before the end of the second term as the president of the USA. 
According to his wife (who was, incidentally, the creator of Frankenstein), so did Percy Bysshe Shelley, also shortly before his death. 
Even Elizabeth I of England and Catherine the Great of Russia reportedly saw their own doubles (and feisty Catherine even had hers shot - not that it helped much).

But there is one famous sighting that stands out, not only because it was not followed by the death of the "original", but because it appears to have been a genuine glimpse into what was the "future" of the person who saw it: Johann Wolfgang Goethe.

Goethe's testimony is all the more interesting in this context because he was in possession of a prodigiously perceptive and analytical mind, producing ground-breaking research in various fields, such as optical phenomena.

Here is what Goethe wrote in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit, published in 1811 (the following excerpt is from the English translation by John Oxenford):

I now rode along the foot-path toward Drusenheim, and here one of the most singular forebodings took possession of me. I saw, not with the eyes of the body, but with those of the mind, my own figure coming toward me, on horseback, and on the same road, attired in a dress which I had never worn, — it was pike-gray, with somewhat of gold. As soon as I shook myself out of this dream, the figure had entirely disappeared. It is strange, however, that, eight years afterward, I found myself on the very road, to pay one more visit to Frederica, in the dress of which I had dreamed, and which I wore, not from choice, but by accident. However, it may be with matters of this kind generally, this strange illusion in some measure calmed me at the moment of parting. The pain of quitting for ever noble Alsace, with all I had gained in it, was softened; and, having at last escaped the excitement of a farewell, I, on a peaceful and quiet journey, pretty well regained my self-possession.

It is typical of Goethe, ever the scientist, to try and explain this vision.
But as reassuring as this explanation may have been to him... is that really what happened? How would he explain the sighting of very specific clothes that he had never seen before and was to wear eight years later?

And, of course, there have been many later attempts to explain this sort of perceptual anomaly. However, the most scientific-sounding explanations are often the most treacherous ones, precisely because they sound "sensible". For one thing, they tend to omit any aspect of the phenomenon that doesn't fit into the proposed theory; also, they tend to blur the difference between cause and effect. (Such is the case with the recent experiments with stimulation of the temporo-parietal lobes, to which we will return in the future. See, for example, Is it the fault lines' fault?)

The "eye of the mind", of which Goethe speaks, does not necessarily reside in the brain.
As a matter of fact, the mind itself does not seem to reside in the brain (the brain being more of a processor - not a generator).

But more on that on some future occasion.

Meanwhile, don't miss the posts listed below (one of which will lead you to a complete book - an old one, from way before the internet, when writers on the "paranormal" knew how to research and readers (ironically!) were not as gullible - or ignorant? - as all too many netizens are today. 

I would also recommend reading this article by L. David Leiter:

The Vardøgr, Perhaps Another Indicator of the Non-Locality of Consciousness

The Other One
The Disappearing (and Reappearing) Tibetan

The Scream

If you want to report a perceived dimensional anomaly, please do, but read this first.

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