More on hallucination

Brain Decoder has a good short piece on the hallucinations which come with sleep paralysis, and the cultural priming thereof. As a narcoleptic who experiences sleep paralysis multiple times a week, I feel I can speak with some authority on this matter. There are, in my experience, four levels of sleep paralysis:

  1. Fuck it, I can’t move.
  2. I can’t move, and ordinary but inconvenient things are happening.
  3. I can’t move, and WTF is going on?
  4. The Terror.

Level one is simply the paralysis, which is annoying and frustrating enough in itself, but lacks any hallucinatory content. Level Four—which you really, really do not want to experience—also lacks detailed hallucinatory content: it is simply the paralysis accompanied by a sensation of blind terror, lacking cause or meaning.

But the interesting levels with respect to hallucination are two and three; and whilst level three certainly manifests culturally-ingrained concepts, level two is equally interesting because of the incredible specificity of the hallucinations: specific not only to what I consider plausible, but actually to the particular circumstances of the attack.

It’s worth pointing out here that the hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis are almost always discomfort-inducing to some level. This annoys me, partly because it’s frightening, and partly because the one thing really, really good at getting under my own skin and playing on my particular fears is my own brain, which is exactly the organ doing the hallucination. As posted many times here, I don’t believe in free will, souls, non-material sources of consciousness, or any of that bull. The brain is simply a thought-crunching machine and in my case one with a structural fault in it; but it does irritate me that this fault seems to make it determined to put the willies up itself. Dumb brain.

The level three hallucinations, in which my brain seems set to deliberately induce full-blown fear, not only track cultural norms, but my credence thereof. When I was younger, and a more credulous individual, they were frequently supernaturalist, as described in Brain Decoder’s post. Nowadays, they very rarely are; indeed the fact that I still have any demons sitting on me (or worse) rather vexes the sternly intransigent atheist in me, as it would seem to be evidence that somewhere deep down I still can give a level of acceptance to these nonsenses. However they are, by and large, outside the paranormal but implausible for the actual circumstances.

Physical attack, alas, crops up regularly, rather horribly occasionally extending to rape. It’s worth noting that the one muscle which contracts rather than relaxes as you sleep is your anal sphincter, for reasons which it does not take a genius to work out. Occasionally, in the oddly prolonged process of falling asleep that is one of my many parasomnias, I feel this happening (you don’t want to experience this, either). Given the presumptions that the hallucinations of sleep paralysis are in part your brain’s attempt to explain to itself the peculiarity of its current experiences, it is worth noting that a common explanation for alien abduction experiences is sleep paralysis (again, a regrettably prevalent cultural trope; but one I have never experienced because I quite simply have never been close to believing that They Are Here). A much joked-about feature of the alien abduction experience is their great fondness for anal probes; and in this I see a direct corollary with my hallucinated rapes: in both cases I think it is the brain trying to explain to itself the really unwelcome sensation currently going on in the butt area.

Level two hallucinations, however, are equally astonishing: not for their linkage to cultural tropes, but to the dull and prosaic, to the ordinary detail of life around me. They seem carefully and precisely calibrated by my rebelling brain into fooling itself into irritation and worry, but highly short of heart-pumping fear. Because, at this level, my brain is working for maximum credibility, they are almost always auditory or tactile. I can’t move, my eyes are usually shut, and if I happen to be able to force them open (the paralysis is not always total) I often do not have my glasses on and, when I do, the control does not seem to extend to being able to focus. But it is incredible what my brain can achieve with this.

I’ve posted before on related matters, notably the sheer ordinariness of the level two hallucinations, and how perfectly they fit my circumstances. I’ve woken up paralysed in an airport to hear the last call for my plane only to find when I finally break out of it that they’re not yet even boarding. I’ve heard delivery men come and go from my house, only to find them turning up half an hour later. And, in the most icky but (in retrospect, at least) amusing instance, I’ve had an over-affectionate but somewhat incontinent cat fart noisily on me (possibly genuinely), and follow through. I lay there, immobile feeling in detail the discontents of Bear’s accident oozing into my jeans; as always, to come round and find a clean and perfectly happy feline curled up on me purring innocently away.

One particularly interesting feature is when I try to speak. As stated, I have some minimal control sometimes, and I often try to speak to get those around me to shake me out of it. This rarely succeeds, because the resultant vocalisation is incoherent: I lack the fine control needed to produce understandable speech. Yet to my ears, the speech sounds a bit slurry, but basically fine. It has taken me many years of people insisting to me that I was merely making inarticulate grunts indistinguishable from ordinary sleep sounds to accept how inaccurate my perception of my own voice in this circumstance is: my brain is hallucinating comprehensiblity where there is none.

As I said in my previous post, all this gives me great doubt when considering the naive realist idea that, in normal functioning, the brain simply manifests perception data directly as percepts pre-cognitively. That is, the idea that our experience of the world is a simple trajectory of sense data to full and accurate mental representation thereof to cognitive processes thereupon does not seem to match my experience. I believe that our brains are somewhat lazy: they do not process all and every sense datum and produce a perfectly representative percept before getting to work on thinking about that percept. They make up a great deal of the percept, using rules of thumb but also existing cognitive categories, even fairly high-level ones such as cultural tropes and knowledge of current circumstance. They start thinking about the content of the mental representation as they are constructing it and their specific credences and beliefs are input to our perception, not simply posterior to it.

Interesting stuff, having a malfunctioning brain. Though now I have the benefit of these insights, it’s quite welcome to start functioning properly any time it likes.

On hallucination

When I was about twelve or thirteen—and there is no way I can relate this without sounding like the kid from The Sixth Sense—I started seeing dead people.

Well, I presumed they were dead. They were usually a bit fuzzy around the edges, and didn’t have much respect for the laws of physics. I would only see them for a short period after waking up at night, they’d just be wandering around the room and not really interacting with anyone. Sometimes I would, also, find myself totally paralysed during this experience. I didn’t tell anyone. Being a child psychic is unlikely to be much approved of, and I would likely be laughed at or sent to a psychiatrist—and you know how that would have turned out. But the apparently irrefutable evidence that I could see people who should not have been there caused a serious dent in the stern disbelief in which I had been brought up: I was seeing ghosts.

Then, aged seventeen, I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that, amongst other things, causes hypnagogic hallucination and sleep paralysis—the continuation of the dream state and the associated auto-paralysis outside of sleep. Suddenly, all my silly ideas about being psychic or the existance of ghosts seemed really rather well explained by this simple, but unfortunate, orexin-shaped hole in my brain. I returned, almost gratefully, to rationalism and scepticism.

These hallucinations continue—I will not take any medication for narcolepsy, because to me the side-effects are worse than the condition—and, at the point of hallucination, I still cannot help but believe them, even though my rational mind knows I am hallucinating. I’ve never taken any hallucinogenic drugs (not least because my own experience with hallucination is such that I see absolutely no attraction in doing so), but I presume the experience is much the same. The hallucinations normally, though not exclusively, conform to what I consider plausible—indeed they are often nowadays extremely specific to my circumstances, and I have learnt to simply not rely on anything I experience in the first few minutes after waking up as actually having happened.

We largely operate, even when we may intellectually know differently, under what philosophers call “naive realism”: the presumption that our percepts directly manifest the external world; yet it does not take much to show that this is not the case. Dreams and hallucinations of any type show that external input is not necessary for the construction of percepts, and furthermore, at least some strands of cognitive research suggest that your cognitive categories are used in the actual construction of these percepts (and not simply in the post-perceptual processing), and anyone who has experienced (as I also do, presumably unconnected to the narcolepsy) phantom phone vibration can probably sympathise with this.

The point of this ramble is to explain why, despite insisting on my right to mock the institutes and dogmas of religion as freely as I choose, I rarely mock individual believers, and especially avoid mocking religious experience. The casting of religious experience—whether an inchoate sensation of the sublime or the specifics of hearing the voice of God—as necessarily indicative of madness is a lazy and inaccurate trope of intolerant atheism and, quite apart from the unpleasant judgmentalism it carries concerning mental illness, is simply not the case. We all construct our percepts, partly from input, but also using our existing cognitive apparatus. To someone brought up in a religious tradition, or simply one where supernatural phenomena are plausible, their cognitive apparatus—incorrectly, but not culpably—includes such categories as “real,” and I see no reason to declare lunacy or idiocy in them. I will tell them they are wrong—tediously often—but I do not doubt the validity of their experience, or their honesty in relating it.

My own brush with hallucination has, in the end, confirmed and reinforced my atheism: but it has also convinced me that hallucination, in the sense of perceiving things that are not physically present, is far from a remote condition deriving from egregiously failing brain function. I strongly suspect that we all hallucinate reasonably frequently; but those hallucinations are also frequently reasonable, and so go largely unnoticed. To someone who, however credulously, considers hearing the voice of God to be a perfectly normal occurrence, there is no reason why they should not do so, any more than I should feel my phone vibrating in my pocket when it is on the table in front of me.

They are wrong, of course, but not in my view risibly so. If you assert that God is somehow three things and one thing, if you assert that He is all-loving but prepared to condemn a majority of His creation to eternal torture, or if you assert that He is His own son I will freely mock you for the ludicrousness of your propositions; but if you hear His voice, that’s actually OK by me. Unless it tells you to kill people, of course. That’s when you probably should seek some help.

Update

Minutes after finishing this I checked my WordPress reader and, by a coincidence that threatens to undermine all of the above, one of my favourite blogs has today posted on exactly this topic. Perhaps I am psychic, after all.

Whilst we’re on the topic of narcolepsy…

I have the most misnamed illness in history of medicine. Falling asleep a lot is the least of my problems. To be honest I think you’re all damn weird being able to get by in a 24-hour period with just one doze. What the hell do you do in a boring lecture (regrettably in most of the interesting ones too), or on the train (if, of course, you can get a seat)? How do you know that you put in a decent gym session if you don’t fall asleep the minute your arse hits a chair afterwards? (Okay, so the times I fall asleep actually walking away from the gym aren’t so good.)

But it’s the sleep paralysis, the cataplexy, the bizarre semiconscious states I often find myself in when I’m sure sooner or later I will blurt out my most heinous, shameful secrets (I once said no to a gin and tonic, but there may be some even worse than that), and the gosh darned inability to sleep more than an hour at a time at nights that really infuriate me. Seriously, it’s 1.30 in the morning on a school night, I’ve already slept twice, and just spent the last 20 minutes thinking about perception, consciousness, and false positives. Not even from any kind of existential despair (I dealt with all that many years ago, through the regular and enthusiastic application of the aforementioned G&T), but because it’s interesting and my brain has decided to enter fully awake, morning mode. In fact, I was going to be writing a post on that topic, but then I realised would in all likelihood be up all night. You have no idea how many half-finished drafts I already have saved on my various half-arsed philosophical ruminations.

This is in danger of looking like a whinge. It’s not. There will be no whinges on this blog: they are forbidden along with credulousness, discrimination, flaccid thinking, and photographs of dogs (those slobbering bundles of hair, saliva, and affirmation-begging neediness). It’s a rant against a poorly-named disease, and a warning to the next person who upon hearing that I have it says, “Oh is that the one where you fall asleep all the time?” I’m not sure how I will punish you (it will almost certainly involve sarcasm and a few choice words such as would make your silvery-haired old mam’s ears melt off), and if I spend time working it out then I really will be up all night. Just consider yourself warned.