Devils and Douthats

Have you ever had a devil or visitor in your room or bed while dreaming? If this sounds weird, it is. I have a neighbor, whom I really like and is normal in most ways, who seriously tells me that he is often visited at night, at the house next door, by aliens. The grey ones. On a few occasions I’ve tried staying up all night to watch for them, but alas I have yet to see them near his bedroom window or hovering overhead in a ship or beam of light. This could be because I tend to nod off during these Mulder-like vigils. But it could also be because my neighbor experiences sleep paralysis and dreams of greys. While he finds these experiences pleasant and describes the encounters in lascivious ways, dream paralysis can also manifest in dreadful ways. Carla MacKinnon has artfully captured this sense in her mesmerizing short film, “Devil in the Room.”

While watching, I was reminded of the fact that these experiences, much like near-death experiences and spirit encounters, are culturally patterned and specific to time and place. Those who have them, in other words, always tend to experience them in ways that accord with dominant or widely available cultural materials. While those living in Christian-dominant cultures will often experience these things in Christian kinds of ways, those who have not been exposed to Christianity and are not enmeshed in Christian cultures have quite different experiences. With this in mind, we know that hunter-gatherers never had near-death experiences that took them to Christian heaven and they were never visited by grey aliens while sleeping. There are many ethnographic reports, however, of them journeying to ancestral hunting grounds and being visited by animal spirits.

Given these and many similar facts, one might think that these sorts of things are all in the head (and locally available cultural materials). But not Russ Douthat, erstwhile believer in the ineffable-indescribable numinous Catholic god. Douthat is predictably peeved by Barbara Ehrenreich’s mature plea for a science that investigates what are often called “mystical” experiences:

If mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter, as they have commonly been described, is it possible to find out what they are encounters with? Science could continue to dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena, internal to ourselves, but the merest chance that they may represent some sort of contact or encounter justifies investigation. We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are “wired” for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?

Fortunately, science itself has been changing. It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

This is precisely the kind of expansive and humble view of science that moves knowledge forward. It is also the kind of expansive and humble view of science that New Atheists almost completely lack. They seem especially deluded when it comes to what is known, or rather not known, about the brain, mind, and consciousness. Cognitive science is in its infancy.

Douthat, of course, construes this as warrant for the supernatural truth of mystical or religious experiences. Like so many other believers, he claims that if one just tries hard enough and practices long enough, this reality will become manifest. To this, I can only say it surely will: if you try and practice anything long and hard enough, you will eventually have experiences and thoughts that are “real.” With enough practice and desire, we can make ourselves believe just about anything.



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7 thoughts on “Devils and Douthats

  1. Rebecca Trotter

    You would be shocked at how little success science has had calling near death experiences into question. Every so often a near death experience makes news and people think they know something about them. Or they see a documentary about them and think they’ve heard both sides of the story. But the truth is that there is far more evidence for near death experiences being true than there is science calling them into question. And if you read through actual near death accounts, from the brief out of body experience to long, complicated accounts of experiences with various life forms, the variety and cultural norms which typify the more involved experiences makes sense. It’s not just our brains playing tricks on us, it’s ue having an experience which has been custom made for us. Often people report being told during the experience that they will not remember parts of their experience. We even know that heart attack patients who report having a near death experience are significantly more likely to die in the next year than those who did not.

    This article is in no way comprehensive, but does a good job explaining the strength of the evidence for the reality of near death experiences vs how pathetic the scientific case against them is. It’s kind of weird, actually to see that sort of role reversal. Usually it’s the pro-supernatural side that’s relying on weak, easily refuted arguments.

    For the record, the universal skeptics response to that article was to call it silly. Yet, anyone whose knowledge of the subject goes deeper than a Salon article and skeptic accounts, could respond to the arguments raised with ease. Contrary to some people’s assumptions, not knowing something yourself isn’t actually evidence that the knowledge doesn’t (or can’t) exist.

  2. Cris Post author

    I probably would not be shocked by it, given that I’ve been studying the scientific and non-scientific literature on the issue for years and have written about it extensively on this blog. One of my more recent posts on the subject can be found here.

    There are several additional posts on “near death,” which actually means “not dead” and “did not die,” experiences. I have no doubt that such experiences are “real,” but I am having a hard time understanding what evidence supports your assertion that these are “custom made” for each person.

    I know they have been custom made, and lucrative, for Christians like Colton Burpo and Eben Alexander, but this is not saying much. I have also done posts on Burpo and Alexander, in case you are interested.

    Suffice it to say, I think the science has been successful.

  3. Gyrus

    I’ve not watched that film yet, looks intriguing. Sleep paralysis and related experiences are fascinating, and I wondered if you’d come across what I’ve found to be not only the most interesting book on this topic, but one of the most interesting studies of belief and non-ordinary experience: The Terror That Comes in the Night by David J. Hufford. He studies the folklore around experiences of being “hag-ridden” in Newfoundland. Besides coming up with a very useful breakdown of the differences between nightmares, sleep paralysis, etc., he draws attention to (though draws no conclusions about) the remarkable cross-cultural similarities between the specific experience of feeling as if one is awake, usually paralyzed, and often with a distinct “presence” close by. His research shows this kind of experience to manifest for a pretty similar proportion of the population across cultures, and shows no real correlation to pathological conditions.

    There are obvious conclusions for naive materialists in there, about the origins of supposed “spirits” in this phenomenon – which, while unexplained, would by default be assigned to “misfiring” of neural patterns. But I think Hufford is rigorous enough, and wise enough in applying a genuinely scientific attitude to belief, to leave things open to a more sophisticated and confounding view. There seems to be something going on here that eludes naive materialism and naive spiritualism, as well as the idea that everything in this realm is governed by personal or cultural belief.

  4. Cris Post author

    I have not read this book, so thanks for the pointer; the Amazon description looks good so I will get it. I will say that is not surprising to me that a certain percentage of people would have this “presence/paralysis” experience across cultures. He apparently says the percentage is 15; I would have guessed the percentage to be much higher, simply because the presence of other (potentially threatening) agents in our environments is perhaps the most salient and important feature of our lives. That this should carry over to sleep seems right.

    I am surprised that this general form of the experience does not constitute the majority of such experiences, but it seems that only about half the people who have sleep paralysis experience this form of it, with the majority of the experiences being reported as paralysis of movement that is occurring inside an otherwise normal dream, and which does not involve threatening agents.

    I’ve had a few of these experiences myself, with both varieties. It never would have occurred to me that these are pathological, or anything but a probabilistically predictable aspect of sleep, dreaming, and fluctuations of consciousness. The ones that involved some component of fear usually correlated to something that was real enough in my waking personal life.

    The author of this book does seem to note that despite the underlying or structural similarities of this experience, these are construed differently across cultures, so that there are hags in Newfoundland, jinns in the near east, tokoloshe in southern Africa, a large roster of culturally specific spirits in Japan, Christianized demons here in the US, and of course the alien grey visits which are quite popular these days.

    So what do you think is going on, and what do you think is eluding us?

  5. Gyrus

    I don’t know what’s going on – and I think that is what is eluding us! “Mystery”, in its true sense, as an irreducible fact of experience, especially of experience that perturbs our everyday sense of a continuous, rationally explicable reality. In theory this mystery is entirely allowed by the scientific method, but so often in practice it is studiously but naively excluded. I think this is to a great extent a result of modern science’s origins as a reactive formation against ossified religious tradition.

  6. jayarava

    Friends of mine live in a “haunted house” where many people have experienced classic sleep paralysis and also pareidolia.and other such things. There is a heightened sense of expectation of unusual experiences around the house – and more than a little hype about the various stories of “ghosts” felt and seen there.

    But just last night I was visited by a strong sense of supernatural dread which was extremely unnerving. It’s many years since I gave any consideration to supernatural entities or forces. It turned out to be a symptom of migraine onset and cleared up once the headache hit a little later.

  7. Larry Stout

    I was brought up in a household devoid of mysticism. When I was a teenager, I experienced over some time several terrifying dreams, which woke me up, so that I had some immediate recollection of the dreams: in each dream, I was being threatened by what I conceived as “pure evil”, a deadly thing which I could neither fight nor escape. There was no clear visual image of this “evil” in my mind’s eye, just a horrifying aura. I have no theory to explain these dream experiences, beyond the mind’s capacity for unconscious invention.

    Much later in life, I experienced a startling dream that likewise woke me up, and even rose me up to a sitting position. It was a perception of one of my children, about whom I was very worried at the time, consisting solely in a bright, blue aura, with no personal visage or words — yet it was somehow to me unmistakably my child, and my perception was of something “holy” (the only word I could dredge up, though I am not religious). A practicing psychologist of my acquaintance — herself of various “New Age” inclinations, with degrees from “alternative education” institutions — told me casually (not professionally) that I had experienced a “mystic vision”, which always, she said, involved such bright, blue aura, and indicated that my child was tantamount to someone “holy” in being “evolved” beyond the common man. Something never experienced before or since. As far as I can tell, my child grew up to become a “normal” human being. So, again, I attribute the dream experience to the unpredictable fertility of the human brain.

    My recurrent anxiety dreams have historically centered around two principal themes:

    1) Going back very belatedly to some P.O. combination-lock box, having forgotten the combination, but certain that much important mail has accumulated in the box. In these dreams I somehow employed the expedient of seeking assistance from the P.O. staff.

    2) In pursuing an advanced degree (I never got one), I neglect to attend certain classes, forget the class schedule, and search vainly for the rooms where I might finally attend at least a couple of classes attempt the final exam. In this process, I accumulate a surfeit of credits, but not all of the requisite course work for an advanced degree. (Dang! At 71, I have no choice but to rest on my laurel — singular.)

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