This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.
In a recent online discussion about spiritual matters, a woman wrote about an encounter she’d once had with a supernatural being. She spotted a figure standing about ten feet away, watching her, and suddenly, it moved to more than 100 yards away. “I didn’t imagine it,” she wrote.
I always find these kinds of expressions interesting. Aside from being oddly defensive — like the crazy person who tells you “I’m not crazy,” even though you didn’t ask — it reveals the distorted, almost bizarre way in which we view our perceptions, our memory, and the objective world. The world is like a giant machine that runs one particular course of events “out there,” and we like to believe that through our senses, we take in a perfectly accurate representation of what that machine is doing. We then store that representation in our memory bank, which we assume operates like a video camera: We “record” the event, and when we want to remember it, we “play it back.” Being like a video camera, it always plays back the same accurate representation of reality, or so we think.
Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t work like that. It is a complex biological organ; it doesn’t run mechanically and predictably, like a camera and hard drive. Instead, it has the astonishingly difficult job of sorting through a barrage of light and other stimuli, and producing a coherent internal representation of the world that it perceives — a mental picture. This mental picture must be assembled internally, and then reassembled, again internally, every time an event is remembered, even moments later.
When a person says “I didn’t imagine it” — whether it’s a shadowy figure that zips across space, the ghost of a loved one, or the voice of Jesus speaking through prayer — they are wrong. But they are also wrong when they see a meteor streaking across the night sky, or a hawk catching a field mouse, and they say “I didn’t imagine it.” We all imagine everything. The brain that produces the mental representation of a meteor or a hawk is the same brain that produces the mental representation of a ghost or heavenly voice. Alone, how can any one of us distinguish the difference? We can’t — and therefore, the veracity of one person’s eyewitness account of the laws of physics being broken, or anything else for that matter, must be considered accordingly.
When multiple persons are involved, eyewitness accounts can be taken more seriously, but even then there are exceptions. One of my favorite examples is the Hindu milk miracle, in which thousands of Hindus claimed to see statues of Ganesha taking offerings of milk. Really, the only reliable way to assure that something actually happened is if it was mechanically recorded, preferably on multiple devices — meaning that it holds to the scientific standard of being demonstrated predictably and repeatably, upon playback. In many ways, the common expression of dismissive skepticism, “pics or it didn’t happen,” is correct. (Camera images of Ganesha would have revealed that the milk was being drawn onto the statues’ surface by capillary action, something that believing eyewitnesses probably weren’t looking for.)
Finally there is the huge problem of human memory. All recalled memories are imagined, by definition, so it’s ludicrous to claim any objective authority when recalling an event. Also, when we remember something, we aren’t necessarily remembering the original event. Instead, I believe that we’re remembering the last time we remembered the event. What else in our brain would we be accessing? This is why memories tend to shift and evolve over time. How many times have you noticed this: Re-watching a movie many years later, a scene that you remember vividly is surprisingly different; or, reading an old letter or book, a sentence that you have recalled many times, it turns out, wasn’t worded that way. “I could have sworn it was ...” you tell yourself. Yes, and you would have sworn if given the opportunity, because a vivid memory can seem as real to us as reality itself. But study after study (a review can be found here) have found that the human memory, particularly of eyewitness accounts, is dreadfully unreliable.
By eliminating the purely artificial distinction between perception and imagination, a lot of things make sense — like how a normal-seeming person can believe, with all their heart, that a supernatural or otherwise impossible experience was a real event. (I toyed with this theme in my satire video “How I Know That God Exists”.) So the next time you meet someone who’s had a religious vision or personally witnessed a miracle — and swears they “didn’t imagine it” — tell them, “Yes you did.” But, bear in mind that even if your life revolves around reason and rationality, you imagine plenty of things, too.