I’ve been reading Oliver Sacks’ recent book, Hallucinations, and it is jaw-dropping to learn what incredible sights and sounds (not to mention touch and smell) the human brain (or is it mind?) can conjure up.
In 2010, I suffered a mild stroke, and was rushed to hospital. While I was there I began to notice something weird happening with the walls. I would look at a light-coloured, plain surface and watch in fascination as a beautiful and complex reddish-brown arabesque design would softly emerge as if out it until it was as clear and strong as a printed wallpaper pattern. I figured the design originated from the architecture of the blood capillaries in my eyes, but had become somehow greatly embellished into this marvellous arabesque. (There’s more of an artist in me than I realised!) What really got me was that the pattern was not simply projected generally in front of my eyes but appeared stuck precisely on the surface I was looking at and nowhere else, so its distance away from me seemed to vary with how far I happened to be from the wall or cupboard door I was staring at. When I looked away, it disappeared. This hallucinatory phenomenon occurred for over two days when I looked for it. On one occasion, I peered out of the hospital ward’s window at the tarmac-surfaced pavement three storeys below. Sure enough, the red-brown arabesque patterning emerged on the tarmac, contained within the path’s edges.
Another visual phenomenon that appeared over the same period of time was truly bizarre. When I closed my eyes I could somehow (don’t ask me how) focus inwardly on my veins – I assume eye capillaries – and observe blood sluicing through them exactly as if I was looking through a microscope. I was amazed at how fast blood moves around the body. There were tangles of these fine capillaries with blood rushing around within them like traffic at a busy and complex highway interchange. The imagery was vivid, full-colour, and in extreme high definition. Now, hallucinations are supposed to be pseudo-perceptions, sensory perceptions of things that are not really there, but I have absolutely no doubt that what I was watching was actual activity within my body. Of course, I would have enjoyed all these effects – patterns and microscopic vision – a lot more were I not concerned that I might have a major stroke at any moment and drop dead!
Way back in the 1980s, I experienced a more dramatic hallucinatory episode. It was at a bad time in my personal life and friends had come to visit me in my Welsh cottage to help me through it, and they thoughtfully brought large amounts of dope, cannabis, with them. Late in the evening, I lay down on the floor near the open fireplace. The log fire had burned down into bright embers and I stared into their comforting and warming glow. As I gazed at a coruscation of gleaming points of firelight along the edge of one ember, I was suddenly presented with a gold-orange landscape spread out before me. Now, please understand me: we all readily see faces, castles and other forms in glowing embers, but this was something markedly different. As I looked, I saw trees and fields and a country lane. A cottage stood alongside the lane; I saw its door open and an elderly man come out and walk to the garden gate, open it, and start walking up the lane. Apart from the fact that the scene was in reds, oranges, yellows and golds, it was clear and distinct in the most minute, precise detail. It was like a miniature 3D movie, and it was becoming more intensely “real” all the time. Realising I was pretty high, I pulled away from the fireplace and went up to my bedroom where I sprawled on the bed. I lay there and heard the rain falling against the window pane, a sound that transformed into the flawless rendition of singing angelic voices. My entire sensory apparatus was in freeform, and I drifted off into sleep to the sound of a heavenly choir.
Well before this episode I’d become acutely aware that the human mind-brain could mould perceptions in any way it liked. This epiphany had dawned on me almost twenty years previously, when, during an LSD session, someone had brought out a handkerchief which I immediately saw as a dead dove. The person was holding it by the corner and I saw in totally accurate and convincing detail, down to its feathers, the bird being held by its beak. Somehow, the creative elements of my visual faculty had transformed the already suggestive folds of the handkerchief. I understood from that point on that perception is a moveable feast.
But what does this mean? Can we really know the real? As Sacks points out in passing, our perception of normal everyday reality is a hugely complex affair. Many processes have to be brought seamlessly together from various parts of the brain to give us a stable view of the world (a view that is heavily moderated by the worldview of the culture we are in). All the time, every single moment of perception, except in dreams and hallucinations when our sensory faculties are let off the leash. The same brain processes within the darkness of our skulls that are used to create our view of consensus reality are involved in the creation of dreams (especially lucid dreams) and, more so, hallucinations. Let’s take one step further: could our consensus reality be our culture’s shared hallucination?
Some philosophers have suggested that culture could be seen as a hallucination, and at a basic level, physicists now debate whether or not matter is linked to and affected by consciousness in some mysterious way – the “observer effect” for instance – and there are various scientific notions flying around that question the nature and status of matter and our perception of it. Much earlier, the poet Coleridge said: “For all we see, hear, feel and touch, the substance is and must be in ourselves”. We have the modern movie myth of the Matrix, in which the protagonists are entrapped in a virtual reality – even the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom reckons there is a twenty-percent chance that we are in a computerised world created by other entities, perhaps post-humans living in the future.
A number of anthropologists have reported witnessing things when in the field with other societies that would be considered impossible psi phenomena in their home, western cultures. A particularly famous (or infamous) encounter with other worldview reality involved anthropologist Edith Turner, the widow of the eminent anthropologist Victor Turner and editor of the academic journal, Anthropology and Humanism. In 1985, she was invited by the Ndembu people of Zambia to participate in a healing ritual under the leadership of a tribal healer known as Singleton. At the climax of the somewhat dramatic ritual, Singleton’s patient was healed – suddenly, with an entranced expression on her face, she raised her arm. “I saw with my own eyes a giant thing emerging out of the flesh of her back,” Turner reported. “It was a large gray blob about six inches across, opaque and something between solid and smoke. The gray thing was actually out there, visible, and you could see Singleton’s hands working and scrabbling on the [patient’s] back.” The spirit causing the woman’s illness had been exorcised. “It was a small experience, but one which demanded a reorganization of the way I did anthropology,” Turner later wrote.
Are psi phenomena glitches in the otherwise convincing illusion of our westernised culture’s understanding of consensus reality? Blips in the picture, so to speak? In daylight and perfect health, without any form of intoxication, I have seen two apparitions close up, in absolute three-dimensional detail. Were they hallucinations, in the sense of being pseudo-perceptions? I don’t think so. In one of them, someone with me saw the apparition as well. The fact is that many people, a large minority, in our culture have experienced at least one psi event in their lives – be it telepathy, precognition, seeing a ghost, or suchlike – yet because of the power of the hallucination we are embedded within they tend to push it to the back of their minds, telling only a few friends at best, knowing they will not be believed, and even ridiculed, by mainstream society. It is why parapsychology has such a struggle to be accepted by “serious” science, and why it is so poorly resourced.
Reading Sack’s book, I couldn’t help but feel that with the way things are seemingly going in the world right now, maybe it is time for a change in our hallucination.
Daily Grail Publishing has published two books by Paul Devereux, The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia and Lucid Dreaming: Accessing Your Inner Virtual Realities (with Charla Devereux). He is currently rewriting his early classic book, Places of Power, for Daily Grail Publishing. His author page on Amazon is at https://www.amazon.com/author/devereux-books and his website is www.pauldevereux.co.uk.
1. My formal review of this book is slated to appear on the Reality Sandwich website: http://www.realitysandwich.com/reality_sandwich_reviews_home
3. Turner, E. (1994), “A Visible Spirit Form in Zambia”, in Being Changed, David E. Young and Jean-Guy Goulet (eds.). Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.
4. Kensinger, K. (1973), “Banisteriopsis Usage among the Peruvian Cashinahua”, in Hallucinogens and Shamanism, Michael J. Harner (ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
5. Over several years now, I’ve recounted numerous such examples in various lectures and writings. For example: “The Moveable Feast”, in Mind Before Matter (eds. Pfeiffer, Mack and Devereux), O Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84694-057-6.