Friday, December 3, 2010

Yes, You Imagined It (07/24/2010)

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.


  1. And yet eyewitness testimony along with circumstantial evidence convicts people and deprives them of their liberty on a daily basis. Excellent blog.


    Firstly, this whole blog is a subjective perspective based on a somewhat subjective subject. Secondly, it makes very general and sweep generalisations and assumptions. That is my raw comment.

    This blog also makes some great (all be them, weak) points. Points of interest in this blog were ~ “All recalled memories are imagined, by definition” ~ Yes, “imaged” in the mind to one's best abilities, yes, BUT, no two memories are equal. Memories are prioritised. Different people are different (a very true cliché). The term "imagine" is not a simple word with just one simple meaning, as this blog would imply, and the meaning I get from this blog of the word "imagine" is "made up" or "wishful thinking". When it comes to religious beliefs, inter-galactic aliens and ghosts, etc., I would tend to agree; however, such an implication cannot be applied so judiciously and universally. Ask. This is, of course, my personal observation and opinion, but that's how it came across to me.

    Another great comment that I personally like is, "I believe that we’re remembering the last time we remembered the event."

    ^ That is a DAMN cool comment, I don't care who you are; I had to take a moment to pause at how awesome that comment was before I could even take time to consider it. But, once I settled myself down, and really grappled with that phrase I realised that, even though it makes a great point, it is very inaccurate. It's inaccurate because it makes massive assumptions based on sweeping generalisations. Generalisations on more than just one level. It assumes that we have NO frame of reference that helps us to remember, to remember better, to remember accurately or even nearly perfectly. It also assumes that all memories are equal AND equally prioritized; they’re not. It assumes that we are carbon copies of each other, and therefore, since one person’s memory recall is imperfect or crap, that must also mean that everyone’s memory is equally imperfect and equally crap; wrong (fallacy of composition). It again assumes that just because we are remembering a “remembered event” that it MUST therefore “degrade” the same way a copy, of a copy , of a copy, of a VHS video would. Blind assumption AND generalisation. This generalisation (a fallacy) precludes the possibility of more accurate “visceral memories”, prioritization, personal differences and abilities to remember, and that frequent recalling of memory, and when in the company of others, reinforces its accuracy. Yes, Edward makes a great point, and we SHOULD question our own memories boldly, but the way in which it is applied and implied in this blog is inaccurate; I will never distrust myself to the point of relying on others for my viewpoint; that is what leads to dictatorships, oh and, religions... a slippery slope, but historically true.

    ~ D.E.

  3. Before I continue, I think I get why E.C. posted this topic; he is, to employ an aphorism, "raging against the machine"; the machine of religion, incoherent ramblings of scripture and "blind faith" beleiefs (no, we should not just “take her word” for it). I have to defend that because I "feel" exactly that way myself. BUT, I also, at the same time, must oppose this because of it's intensity and for the same type of reason, but from a different rationale.

    Lately I've noticed that far too many "kids" on-line use this same rationale to dismiss anything and everything that can't be "googled", conducted in a poll, or sited by a "popular authority" *cough* Noam Chomsky *cough*, or to dismiss any and every personal experience. A personal experience is a subjective one, yes, but that does not automatically preclude it from being reasonable, valid, tangible, true or accurate. Just because it is not immediately and empirically "perfect" and objective does not automatically mean it is therefore wrong. And using this own blog's words, "and therefore, the veracity of one person’s eyewitness account ... must be considered accordingly." I agree 100%, which is why we have this thing called credibility, which is also why no two witnesses, memories, or even memory recalls can be hard-cast into one firm and sweeping generalisation the way this blog thinks we should.

    "...All recalled memories are imagined, by definition..."

    Generalising, by definition, is considered a blatant fallacy, but hey...

    Just as is the fallacy of composition, but whatever...

    My point in this post (should it not have its 1st Ammendment Rights rescinded) is NOT to "debunk" Edward Current; because HE MAKES MANY VERY SOUND POINTS in his rant, but it is to make a little rant of my own against people who just summarily dismiss any and all personal accounts as wrong or invalid, even when they are good, true and valid.

    Edward’s main point holds true; that our memories have a tendency towards inconstancy, inaccuracy and will warp over time; great points! But those points do not extend to the point that you should not trust yourself, and then on that basis choose to entrust yourself and your thinking to that of others; that is what leads to enslavement. Regardless, such points, should themselves, be weighted and measured based upon the experience “type” and the ability to remember of the person(s) in question. That is all.

    ~ D.E.

  4. I agree with D.E. here. Dismissing your own experiences and memories sounds more like what an insane person would do. They are the closest thing we have to something reliable on which we can base our further actions. Of course, this doesn't mean they are always 100% accurate, because a lot depends on the sharpness of our sight, audition, and so on.
    Our credibility largely depends on that sharpness, as well as on our neutrality and morals. Scepticism is something that sceptical people don't practice every second of their lives, because if they would, this would drive them insane in a short period of time. Whenever something challenges an idea or belief you have, you'll always be a little more sceptical than you would for other stuff that doesn't go against what you hold to be true.
    For example, if I would see God and he told me "I came here only to prove myself to you this one time, and now I must return to heaven", my first reaction would be to think I must be crazy, even if it really was God and not a hallucination; if new evidence would come that destroyed the theory of evolution, I'd be a little more sceptical about it than if new evidence was found that reinforced the theory of evolution. In judicial practice, eyewitness accounts are sometimes used as evidence because there is no evidence that compromises their neutrality and integrity. If there was such evidence, then the lawyer of the party that would be affected by it would double-check to spot any conflict of interest or factor that can make the witness unreliable.
    Now here's the million-dollar question that goes to what Edward Current was probably thinking when he wrote this blog. Should we trust God's witnesses, or miracle witnesses? I'd say they can trust their own story, but if we don't really know them personally, we won't be able to determine if they are neutral, mentally sane and trustworthy. For all we know, they might just be deliberately telling us a lie so we can give money to their Church (or join their system of belief, which for many people is a reward on itself), or they might be interpreting an actual scientfically-explainable event to make it fit with their belief system.
    However, if I would see God, and I could talk to him and interact with him for a sufficient period of time, and I'd receive something tangible from him that can last for longer than this otherwordly event (just so I can prove myself that I didn't dream this or suffered the first hallucination of my life), I'd believe in his existence without needing to go to see a doctor, and I'd tell other people about what I saw.

  5. I never said we should dismiss our own experiences and memories. I said we need to lose this idea that our eyes and visual cortex are a digital camera, and that our memory mechanism is a video recorder. While we'd all love to believe that our experiences and memories are flawless reflections of objective reality, this is a pleasant delusion (see my post Do You Live in Real Life or Fake Life?). I believe it is healthier to recognize the flaws in these systems, and the ways they can trip us up in everyday life, rather than convince ourselves that those flaws don't exist.

    Years ago I had a good friend who could read people's auras. Now, normally I can't stand New Age BS like that, but she was a completely sane and reliable person who told me she very definitely could see specific colors around people's heads. I had no choice but to believe that she actually did. However, this phenomenon does not necessarily reflect anything about objective, scientific reality. These auras could have been, and probably were, some kind of subjective enhancements occurring in her visual cortex. In other words even if she really saw these things (and I had no reason to doubt her), I cannot bring myself to believe that she was sensing objective, physical realities that other people could not sense. She imagined the colors, just as she was "imagining" the image of the person's head. The alternative view is that my friend was a liar, or routinely saw hallucinations, and that was inconsistent with what I knew about her. My point is that supernatural or paranormal phenomena can happen without the person experiencing them being psychotic or a liar.

  6. The practical effects of losing this "idea that our eyes and visual cortex are a digital camera, and that our memory mechanism is a video recorder", are none other than dismissing supernatural and paranormal phenomena, whenever our experiences and memories lead us to address them as objective reality. True, our brains are imperfect and our senses are flawed, but is it accurate to say that they're always flawed when they perceive (or make us "imagine") something supernatural? The title of your blog suggests exactly this.
    Regarding your friend, I see three possible truths: (1) Your friend is psychotic or a liar; (2) She actually sees colors around people's heads, though they don't really exist, and she can only see them because she has flawed sense organs; (3) Those colors around people's heads do exist, and they are objective reality that your friend can see for some currently unexplainable reason (this last option is the one you dismiss, and might be a good place to start some scientific research).
    To summarize, adopting your point of view could lead to dismiss something as real as the fact the sky is blue (though admittedly that fact might be "imaginary" due to the way our brain works).

  7. Everybody sees the sky as blue, so I don't think that's a very good analogy. This post is (mostly) about individuals' phenomenological experiences.

    As a guy well-educated in science, I consider possibility (2) most likely. The same physiological systems that produced auras for Jennifer are probably the same ones that produce the feelings of Jesus' presence for Christians. I cannot reject (3) outright, however I provisionally disregard it, pending hard evidence for a physical basis of such things.

  8. I'd provisionally disregard it too, but if I was her I wouldn't, and I'd take some time and effort to show those colors are not just my imagination.
    It's better than to just assume one is plainly wrong after experiencing the supernatural. Such an action would be harmful for both, her psychological stability and the scientific interest of the world at large.
    I've only met one person with dyslexia in my life, and if it wasn't for other people that experienced it as an individual trait and took the time to look for the cause of their condition, we would probably be provisionally disregarding this kind of disorder until we realize it happens to more than just one person. I've heard of many people that can see auras, but perhaps there wasn't enough effort to look for the cause of it. It wouldn't be such a waste of time to look into it (specially if you're the one that sees colors around people's heads), even if we would ultimately conclude that option (2) was correct.

  9. While I get where you're coming from, I don't agree with your use of the phrase "plainly wrong." Even if something doesn't fall under the present description of "objective reality," which includes phenomena experienced by most people and/or that are currently scientifically measurable, an event can be -- and is -- perfectly real to the individual that experiences it. So Jennifer wasn't plainly wrong, she was right, in that the world which she experiences does in fact include people's auras. However, she isn't very capable of distinguishing how universal that experience is, based on appearances alone. Objective reality and subjective non-reality merge into the subjective experience in general, and once that happens, it's difficult to tease them apart.

  10. Since we are "imagining" everything (including what we perceive as objective reality), telling her she "imagines" those auras -- while implicitly categorizing her perception as more flawed than ours -- goes against your claim that she was right about what she perceives as objective. If she was wrong, then the "you imagined it" expression would best describe how she should treat her own experience.
    While her experience might not be universal because it doesn't pass the "pics or it didn't happen" test, I think she shouldn't ignore it just for that reason. Modern neuroscience could explain why she sees auras, and if it can't (though it would be surprising if it couldn't), other scientific fields might explain what is "wrong" with her, or better yet, what is wrong with us.
    Sorry about my "plainly wrong" phrase, I speak English as a second language.

  11. EC - I love your videos and am glad to have discovered your blog.

    Damian - modern neuroscience has probably already explained auras. It's called synesthesia:

    It's a very well-documented condition, and while I don't know if there has been much specific research connecting synesthesia with perception of auras, it's still a great example of how drastically everyday perception can differ from one sane person to the next.

    I'm always surprised at how many people have ghost stories, since I don't have any myself. But when I really sit back and consider what a complex organ the brain is, how intricate and incomplete our sensory processes are, and how strong our desire is to reconcile our sensory perceptions with our mental model of the world, it's really not that surprising after all.

  12. Well Davy, I guess she should see a specialist that can assess if that's her condition. My point was that she shouldn't conform to saying "yes, I imagined it" and do something about it to see if that's really the case (by seeing someone who knows about neuroscience). If everyone with synesthesia would've taken the "yes, I imagined it" approach then we wouldn't know anything about synesthesia.

    While I agree with Edward's take on the limitations of our brain, I don't agree with his dismissive attitude towards direct experience, as it can stop people (both the witnesses and the public) from taking seriously something that diserves further inquiry and scientific explanations.

  13. Maybe seeing auras is a kind of synesthesia.