February 2014 issue

Date:22 January 2014 Tags:, , , , ,

It’s time to get real. Our brains are lying to us

This month’s cover story reveals the fascinating science behind strange and occasionally creepy phenomena that have haunted us for centuries, deconstructing them to show how our brains generate extraordinary experiences that are entirely imaginary. Writer Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and executive director of the Skeptics Society, makes it clear that the visions some of us describe are indeed not of this world – but neither are they real.

Do you believe you’ve seen a ghost? You haven’t. Are you convinced you were abducted by aliens and subjected to all manner of invasive experiments? You were not. Did a winged being visit your room last night and convey an important message about the imminent destruction of our planet? Nope.

Says Dr Shermer: “They are in our minds. All experience is mediated by the brain, which consists of about a hundred billion neurons with a thousand trillion synaptic connections between them. No wonder the brain is capable of such sublime ideas as evolution and Big Bang cosmology.”

Full disclosure: As a teenager, I had a fleeting encounter with what might be described as “paranormal activity” in the form of a supposed poltergeist. The afflicted family included a pubescent child, apparently a well-known prerequisite for this kind of activity. The invisible entity, I was led to believe, would drop stones in front of people for no explicable reason, increasing the speed of delivery if they began to run.

Sadly, my 16-year-old brain – distracted by girls, motorbikes and yet another damn pimple – was ill-equipped to analyse what was happening, so the phenomenon remains unexplained to this day. I don’t think it had anything to do with ghosts, though, because ghosts do not exist.

My cat is a different story. During his lifetime, I have arrived home in literally scores of different test vehicles, and on most days, I’ll see him start walking towards the car as I round the corner into my street, fully 50 metres away. He cannot possibly know which car I’ll be using on a particular day, and with the sun shining on the windscreen, he’s unlikely to recognise my face or shape – so how does he know it’s me? Close as we are, I do not believe I have a telepathic connection with my cat; nor do I believe he sees my approaching “aura”. My pursuit of a rational explanation continues…

A final word from Michael Shermer, who cites a book by Harvard professor Eben Alexander on his “near-death experience” (NDE): “There’s a reason they’re called Near Death Experiences: the people who have them are not actually dead.” Exactly.

– Alan Duggan (aland@ramsaymedia.co.za)