A thickness in the air

Why is it attainable to really feel a presence with out sensory cues? | Aeon Essays

Sarah was in her late teenagers when it first occurred. A standard Thursday, it was early morning and pitch-black exterior. The wind rattled the timber, branches rapping the windowpanes like a nervous customer on the door. She may really feel it was practically time for her to stand up, and heard her dad and mom transferring round downstairs.

As she opened her eyes for the primary time, one thing modified. A darkish realisation two, the truth is.

She couldnt transfer her physique. And he or she wasnt alone.

One thing within the nook of her bed room was ready there. It was watching her. One thing very outdated, virtually primal. It emanated a significant sense of malice.

Later that day, she sat her father down on the kitchen desk. OK dad, I want you to inform me about ghosts.

What Sarah (not her actual identify) skilled that morning was sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that impacts about 7 per cent of adults. It occurs as a result of, once we awake, our muscle tissue arent at all times prepared even when our minds are aware and alert. It’s a pure consequence of the muscle paralysis most of us expertise when in fast eye motion (REM) sleep, within the shallow waters of our sleep cycles within the early morning. With out sleep paralysis, we would act out goals and nightmares (folks for whom that does happen these with REM sleep behaviour dysfunction usually have poor well being as a consequence).

Estimates range, however about half of everybody who experiences sleep paralysis could have hypnagogic hallucinations on the similar time. Hypnagogia refers to uncommon experiences across the boundaries of sleep: the shout of a reputation, a flicker out of the nook of your eye, or perhaps a sudden contact as you drift off. The most typical hypnagogic expertise in sleep paralysis is that this mysterious feeling of presence: the feeling that somebody is there, with none clear sensory proof and even any enter from the skin world. And the presences that come throughout sleep paralysis are sometimes of the worst form pure malevolence, as if one thing had simply stepped straight out of a nightmare and into your bed room.

Emotions of presence (FP) are, at their core, simply that: emotions. Whereas we routinely consider hallucinations as auditory or visible in nature, the FP expertise includes the mere sense that another person is current with out a visible, auditory or sensory cue. This isnt about listening to or seeing somebody, nor does it contain a contact in your shoulder. Folks land on this time period presence as a result of they dont know the way else to explain the feeling. One thing primary and invisible, a sense you understand if youve had it, however battle to place into phrases for another person.

Regardless of the problem of describing presences, theres rising consciousness that they could really be comparatively widespread throughout a variety of various contexts. For instance, emotions of presence are reported by numerous folks with Parkinsons illness, alongside other forms of hallucination. FP reveal themselves in an enormous variety of survival tales, notably for mountaineers, climbers and polar explorers, through which they’re often called the third man impact. And for people who find themselves grieving, the lack of an individual can usually be related to an ongoing sensation of presence.

I first got here throughout the phenomenon of the unseen presence by working with individuals who hear voices (what some would possibly name auditory verbal hallucinations) as a part of a undertaking at Durham College. We might usually be informed a couple of notably uncanny feeling: voices that could possibly be there with out talking as in the event that they carried a presence of their very own.

I needed to know extra about what that actually meant as a result of it didnt match with most fashions for the way we perceive hallucinations. Hallucinations are perceptual experiences with none corresponding sensory enter from the world exterior. They’re often distinguished from different phenomena like illusions, in which there’s an enter that you simply misread; haze on the horizon that creates a mirage is an instance of an phantasm. However a sense of presence isnt imagined to contain any perceptual content material. It lacks the stimuli on the skin, however its not even clear what the sensation is on the within.

How are you able to hallucinate one thing with none sensation in any respect? That is the paradox on the coronary heart of felt presence.

There are a couple of other ways you possibly can strategy this query. It could possibly be that folks dont actually imply they will really sense another person there. For instance, some folks swear that they know when they’re being watched, as if they’d eyes behind their head. Its most likely truthful to say that many researchers wouldn’t take into account this an precise phenomenon, however it could possibly be that FP and the sensation of being watched replicate the identical factor: folks feeling uneasy in new or unsure environments. Heightened anxiousness, a chill down the again of your neck, a way of paranoia every of those may contribute to one thing like a presence.

One other risk is that felt presence could also be a secondary interpretation, prompted by different uncommon experiences. Take listening to voices for instance. When you had been used to listening to a disembodied voice on a regular basis, you would possibly come to count on or consider that an individual is there, even when silent. It wouldnt take a lot to present somebody that feeling. Many people would possibly hear a noise in one other room and go and verify in case somebody is there, with a imprecise and uneasy feeling that the noise may have been made solely by an individual. For a fleeting second, a sensory cue similar to a sound would possibly give rise to the distinct feeling that an unseen particular person is there.

Whenever you have a look at accounts of felt presence, its shocking what number of contain some sensory content material across the edges. Survival tales are literally rife with this. A presence that leads somebody again from the sting of the ridge may need the visible define of a determine or a shout into the tent wakes somebody simply in time and from that, folks really feel a presence with them. These encounters are sometimes described as presences as a result of the sense of a customer lingers, however they may begin in a extra tangible sensory means.

The third man comes from Shackletons account of being joined by a phantom companion

If this was the case if, the truth is, all presences had been simply these secondary emotions, responses to uncommon sensations then there could be no paradox. Folks wouldnt simply really feel it, or simply know; they’d be having the feeling as a result of they’ve already sensed one thing else. Case closed.

But when that was what was occurring, its debatable that there would even be a time period for the expertise. When folks describe presence, they dont linger on the sights or the sounds; they give attention to the hidden particular person, the unknown different. The purpose of the story usually isnt that they heard one thing odd and thought somebody was there the crux of the matter is that the sensation may simply be there, by itself. If we take into consideration why folks trouble to explain an expertise as uncommon as this, we’ve to contemplate that one thing else is happening; one thing past the extraordinary senses.

Ernest Shackletons trans-Antarctic expedition within the HMS Endurance, c1914-17. Photographed by Frank Hurley and courtesy the State Library of New South Wales

And pure presences can exist. The unique third man itself comes from Ernest Shackletons account of being joined by a phantom companion when crossing the island of South Georgia in Might 1916, on the finish of the ill-fated HMS Endurance expedition to Antarctica. Shackleton and two different males Frank Worsley and Tom Crean all described feeling joined by one different. It appeared to me usually that we had been 4, not three, wrote Shackleton. The presence didnt converse, and wasnt seen. It was simply there.

If presences can happen with out different sensory content material, one other risk is that this isnt an interpretation, however it’s nonetheless a form of perception specifically, a delusional perception. Since presence was first documented clinically, there was a query about whether or not this sort of expertise displays a type of notion, or a perception; a sense or a figuring out. There’s a custom within the examine of psychosis that numerous uncommon beliefs are methods of constructing sense of bizarre perceptions, similar to voices or visions. We may name this the catch-all rationalization for presence: if its not perceptual, it have to be a mistaken perception.

There are good causes to take perception severely once we take into consideration accounts of presence. Together with the clear overlaps with issues like paranoia, emotions of presence are sometimes interpreted by way of the lens of perception. The presences of grief and bereavement are intently associated to peoples expectations, hopes and longings, whereas the presences of survival conditions are sometimes given religious explanations. It wasnt by mistake that Shackleton and Worsley described their companion as Windfall.

However for a variety of causes, a belief-only account doesnt appear to suit. Presences can happen with none uncommon beliefs: FP in Parkinsons, for instance, can happen in relative isolation from unusual beliefs or interpretations. And even when folks do have sturdy expectations of FP, the presences that arrive dont at all times match. Ive interviewed long-distance rowers who hope for one customer and get an nameless ghost, and spiritual folks with sleep paralysis who get visited by demons, however dont see their night-time guests as being a part of any religious realm they recognise. Presences are sometimes shocking.

In the end, many accounts of presence simply dont sound like beliefs. Folks would possibly oscillate between the language of feeling or figuring out, however they usually go on to explain our bodies and sensations: mirror folks, phantoms within the room, figures stepping out of the self. One particular person with psychosis described it to me like the sensation when somebody steps over your grave, and one other merely as a thickness within the air. That is an expertise that folks really feel viscerally, of their bones, with each fibre of their being. Its a felt presence the clue is within the identify.

That brings us again to the place we began, with the presence paradox. How do you hallucinate one thing with out the 5 senses?

Ever Felt A Ghostly Presence? Now We Know Why: this New Scientist headline accompanied the publication in 2014 of a examine led by the cognitive neuroscientist Olaf Blanke on the cole Polytechnique Fdrale de Lausanne in Switzerland. The analysis relied on a robotic matching ones actions and apparently inducing presences experimentally in wholesome folks. The paper additionally included a brand new principle about the way it labored; how the sense of an unseen different would possibly emerge from thoughts and mind by perturbing our very personal sense of self.

In December 2022, I travelled to Geneva to go to Blankes lab. It was time to fulfill a presence of my very own.

I arrived on an overcast Tuesday morning and was met at reception by Fosco Bernasconi, a Swiss postdoctoral researcher within the lab. Bernasconis work focuses on Parkinsons illness, and in 2021 he printed the primary examine to make use of the presence robotic with this group of individuals. Folks with Parkinsons had been notably vulnerable to the phenomenon, with the process inducing them to snort out loud, verify over their shoulder or abruptly twitch in shock.

I discovered Bernasconi in a gleaming atrium of glass, metal and climbing crops. The size of it was virtually absurd one thing like Gattaca meets Glass Onion. Bernasconi defined that it had initially been constructed for a pharmaceutical firm, which then deserted it just a few years in the past. A bunch of universities had taken over the house as an alternative, repurposing it for what they wanted. As we walked, he identified the MRI scan facility, and the brand new website the place they had been putting in one other suite of scanners. Out of the atrium and thru a number of units of double doorways, we handed down a sequence of clean, gray corridors, no signal of what was to return subsequent. As an alternative of sunshine in all places, there was a imprecise sense of foreboding, and I used to be reminded of these unsettling first-person laptop video games when you find yourself continually ready for the subsequent soar.

We ultimately emerged from the corridors and moved into the workplaces of the lab, the place I sat down for a chat with Blanke. We bought speaking concerning the labs present work, the place its going subsequent, and what the PhD college students try out. Most of it nonetheless revolves round this specific process: the robotic that may make you hallucinate.

Presences could possibly be induced by electrically stimulating a mind space often called the left temporoparietal junction

It really works like this. Think about you sit with a glove-like handset in entrance of you. You’re informed to close your eyes, place your hand within the contraption and push along with your finger into the air in entrance of you repeatedly, in a random movement, as in the event you had been punching in a endless pin code, however continually forgetting what the numbers needs to be.

To date, so senseless. However if you begin doing this pointing motion, you get one thing else. A contact in your again on the similar time. You contact to the left a bit, and the contact goes with you. Contact to the proper, and its there too.

Earlier than lengthy, you would possibly begin to really feel odd, like its you by some means touching your personal again from behind. This phantasm comes from the synchrony of our sensory and motor cues, and it depends on the identical logic as different well-known results, just like the rubber hand phantasm through which contributors begin to expertise a faux rubber hand as a part of their very own physique.

However then it begins to get bizarre. The contact in your again is barely delayed, falling out of sync with you. Prefer it wasnt you all alongside. Like another person is there.

This was the impact the New Scientist headline was describing. Throughout their sequence of experiments, Blankes workforce demonstrated that this process appeared to conjure presences. They first discovered {that a} subset of individuals would spontaneously describe a felt presence when the asynchronous touches began to occur. Then they requested straight by way of a questionnaire: 75 per cent of contributors confirmed that they felt extra like one other particular person was there. They usually confirmed that it affected peoples quantity estimations, too. If contributors had been informed to trace how many individuals had come into the room throughout a brand new model of the experiment with the quantity continually various throughout trials of the experiment those that felt the presence additionally estimated extra folks being within the room with them.

In 2006, Blanke and colleagues had proven that presences could possibly be induced by electrically stimulating a mind space often called the left temporoparietal junction (TPJ), a gathering level within the mind for 2 lobes: temporal and parietal. This space is notable as a result of its one place the place we’re thought to mix details about the senses, our our bodies and house; the place we really feel we’re, at any second in time. Its the map of us, in different phrases.

The newer analysis with the robotic prolonged that concept to point out that its our integration of contact, motor actions and proprioception the sense of our bodily location that must be disrupted for the impact to happen. When you put these issues collectively, we’re fairly good at holding observe of ourselves. However in the event you disturb that, by way of electrical stimulation or surprising touches, the self appears to go astray. The sensations we count on to occur dont occur; the issues we thought we managed abruptly arent occurring in line with plan. And we begin to really feel that Its not me so it have to be another person.

All through the remainder of the day, I met Blankes workforce. From the neuropsychologist Jevita Potheegadoo, I learnt concerning the phantom boarder a phenomenon in Parkinsons illness that’s intently associated to presence, however subtly totally different. Folks really feel a presence however particular to a spot; often upstairs, at residence, when they’re downstairs. The creeping intruder was one thing transferring round up there. I had come throughout this earlier than when speaking to folks with psychosis; presences would usually be tethered to them, however generally could be tied near residence.

Last of all I met one of many PhD college students within the lab, Louis Albert. Id been informed, if I needed to see the process, I needed to speak to him; he was testing out some cool new strategies utilizing VR to measure the presence impact in numerous methods. I met Albert again on one of many lengthy, gray corridors between the lab and the atrium. We handed room after room, till lastly he opened a big metallic door. As he did so, he mentioned: This room is filled with robots

And he was proper. In a big house concerning the measurement of a squash courtroom, it regarded like a military of half-finished robots had taken over a high-school drama studio. Mechanical arms hung limply, resting on wires and scaffolds, as if they may spring again into motion at any second. I started to marvel which ones could be my companion.

It took a couple of minutes to get arrange, with a VR set wedged awkwardly on my head. Once we had been able to go, a digital Albert appeared on the display screen to elucidate what was about to occur. After which the touches started.

At first, it was easy. I pushed, and bought pushed again. I attempted to be constantly random, transferring my hand to a brand new spot every time. And each time, the robotic prod was with me. It felt like I used to be in management, and I used to be concentrating on being a superb participant.

Then slowly a drag. A delay. A contact not fairly in the proper place. I positioned my finger, and once more it was prefer it didnt hit the goal correctly. The contact behind me felt prefer it bought later and later, as if it was gradual on the uptake. I felt it occur and thought I must decelerate, I’m doing it fallacious, however this made the issue worse. With every course correction, the hole bought larger, as if time itself was slowing down. It was like making an attempt to do one thing on a regular basis and acquainted unlocking your entrance door, possibly however with the finesse of getting a foul hangover. I positively felt totally different, even irritated. The method had been jarring, unsettling by some means.

The candy spot was totally different for various folks; it trusted how they interacted with the atmosphere

However did I really feel a presence?

Reader, I didn’t. To me, it felt like a dance with a foul associate; a joint activity the place the coordination was all fallacious. It did really feel like one thing was distributed past me however it wasnt a physique, it was extra like a accountability. I used to be working with another person, and collectively we had been doing a foul job. It was like a team-building train gone fallacious.

At this level, I’ve a confession to make. I feel I’m the least hallucination-prone particular person ever. I’ve interviewed individuals who have had imaginary associates since childhood, and spoken for hours with mediums, seers, and ayahuasca psychonauts. However completely nothing uncommon has ever occurred to me. I’m the worlds worst hallucination skilled.

So if anybody wasnt going to really feel the presence when encountering this robotic, it was going to be me. However that’s true of different folks too: some persons are massively vulnerable to the impact, however not everybody has this sense. The process isnt a one-size-fits-all factor.

Naomi Lea is a designer who made a sequence of installations on the Bartlett College of Structure at College School London that had been impressed by Blankes work. After I interviewed her, she emphasised to me that each particular person discovered a special set up labored for them: some discovered a presence in some phantom arms below a lightbox, whereas others noticed wind chimes transfer in a room with out wind. The candy spot for presence was totally different for various folks; it trusted how they interacted with the atmosphere round them.

What the work from Blankes workforce reveals is that presences can be conjured by perturbations of the physique. If we lose observe of the place we needs to be, or what belongs to us, one other phantom physique can emerge. That is the primary reply to the presence paradox; feeling one other within the absence of sensory proof could be the misplaced feeling of our personal muscle tissue. Thats why folks really feel it of their bones; its a phenomenon actually of their very own our bodies.

However when and the way that works will depend on our sense of self and our interplay with the house round us. The place we cease and the world begins is a continually negotiated factor. When you begin on the lookout for presence, you see so many various conditions that may problem that boundary: sleep paralysis, survival conditions, psychosis, bereavement. However whether or not a presence emerges doubtless will depend on what an individual brings to a particular scenario.

The important thing query for felt presence isnt how its attainable to really feel one thing with out the senses. Thats simply the primary query. The larger query is whether or not we want one rationalization, or extra. Once we take into account voices that can’t converse, or the presences of survival situations, the problem is to work out is whether or not displaced our bodies are all we want, or whether or not one thing else could be happening too. The presences that hang-out sleep paralysis, that dwell in psychosis or present solace in grief these are phantoms which are stuffed with emotion. Through the artistic course of, characters would possibly really feel like they tackle presences of their very own; persevering with past a story or talking for themselves. And a few sorts of imaginary companions similar to the brand new phenomenon of tulpamancy, the place the conjured good friend has nice company are described as actually being there, as if searching by the eyes of the particular person experiencing them. All these cases present how some presences appear to return from the thoughts, and even the guts, as a lot as they may plausibly come from the physique. We researchers want to know whether or not that is one form of presence, or many. It would require multiple robotic to unravel the true paradox of presence.

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