For all of my adult life, I’ve been fascinated with how minds work – human minds, especially, but animal minds as well. I’m particularly interested in how the brain creates consciousness, perception of the external world, and private thoughts and inner experiences.
It’s a bit frustrating that I’m limited to a single mind to experience the world with. Nevertheless, that one mind has done some surprising and interesting things.
Here are a few that I remember from childhood.
The ball in my hand: I had a dream that involved a ball. It was an especially vivid dream in that I had the tactile sense of holding the ball in my hand. As I emerged out of the dream and into wakefulness, the feeling of the ball in my hand persisted, even as I became aware that I was only dreaming it was there. I remember having the thrilling thought that if I continued to focus on the sensation of holding the ball, perhaps I could will it into existence. Alas, though I tried my best to hang onto that sensation, the feeling gradually dissipated, and my hand was empty. Some weeks later, this experience repeated itself.
The expanding room: Once when I had a fever – and I believe my mother had given me some aspirin – I was lying awake in bed with my eyes open. Looking up to the far corner of my room, where the walls met the ceiling, I had the illusion that this corner was moving away, receding, until it was very, very far away. Somehow my room had become a cavernous, empty space. I was aware that this wasn’t real. Even so, it was eerie and unnerving.
Yogi Bear: Another time, while in bed in that same room in the middle of the night, the bedroom door opened and Yogi Bear walked in. He looked exactly as I had seen him on TV – not like a three-dimensional person in a Yogi Bear costume, but like a flat cartoon character. As I watched, Yogi walked over to my closet, opened the closet door, and began rummaging around in there. Then he turned around and walked back out of my room and closed the door. Although it was probably just a dream, it had the quality of a different sort of experience. Maybe it was a dream, maybe it was a half-waking hallucination, maybe it was actually my mother coming into the room and I experienced her as Yogi because I was mostly asleep. In any case, it’s still vivid in my mind although it happened more than 50 years ago.
As a teenager and young adult I had a few experiences with hallucinogenics, and more with marijuana. The hallucinogenic experiences were trippy, as you might expect, and the weed experiences were, you know, weed. Out of all of that, the only thing I feel is worth reporting is something I experienced a couple of times while high on pot: having my consciousness split into two simultaneous but very separate streams. Of course, human minds are usually capable of multitasking pretty well, but this was different.
My most vivid experience of split consciousness occurred while I was camping one summer evening with a friend. After getting pretty profoundly stoned, we met the friendly couple in the next campsite. One part of me proceeded to competently carry on a conversation with the guy about various subjects for quite a while. Meanwhile, the other half of my mind – the half that actually felt like “me” – was just watching this conversation as a third-party observer. This observer part was marveling at the reasonable, intelligent remarks that were coming out of my mouth, from what source I knew not. It felt exactly like watching a conversation between two other people, a conversation I was not participating in myself. And I was quite impressed with how well the conversational half of me was speaking, given that the observer half was totally incapable of coming up with a coherent thought.
Finally, there’s synesthesia: the phenomenon where a stimulus in one sensory pathway evokes a simultaneous experience in a second pathway. I know there are some people, known as synesthetes, who have such experiences routinely: for example, perceiving that numbers or letters have inherent colors or positions in space.
My own synesthesia is pretty mild and infrequent, but I’ve experienced it many times. Sometimes if I hear a sudden loud noise while my eyes are closed, I will “see” a flash of light that coincides with the sound, even though there is really no such flash. I attribute this to neural cross-talk that occurs as part of a startle response flooding my brain. The fact that it only happens when my eyes are closed indicates to me that it’s a fairly weak phenomenon that can’t compete with the real stimulation constantly occupying my visual cortex when my eyes are open.
Brains really are quite amazing in their ability to give us a rich experience of the external world, and an equally rich inner life. Sometimes what’s most interesting is when they get things wrong.
For another strange thing my mind has done, see Waking Up to a Life in Progress