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mental health mondays :: parabnormal?

for north america and parts of europe, halloween marked the apex of spooky events, where the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its most diaphanous. but if you're a very traditional roman catholic, you'll know that the 31 of october is merely the beginning, and that the entire month that follows is dedicated to remembering and praying for the dead, specifically for those whose souls are trapped in purgatory. if you listen to dante, purgatory isn't especially pleasant. sure, there's the possibility that you'll end up working off your debt to celestial society, but until then, you get to endure things like having your goddamned eyes sewn shut with iron wire. [much like condo developments, it gets better the higher the floor you live on.]

however, the more common view of purgatory among catholics is that the souls relegated there can't do anything to help themselves, and are reliant on the prayers of their living relatives and loved ones to allow them to enter the kingdom of heaven. therefore, november, the "month of the dead" is dedicated to making sure your dearly departed level up in the afterlife.

that intense focus on the dead and the idea of the structured afterlife can seem like madness to non-believers, but those who are invested in their faith don't see it that way. and truthfully, a lot of the somewhat less than faithful don't see it that way either. it's just that they strip away the hierarchical aspect and characterize their relationships with the dead as two-way affairs- between them and entities we call ghosts.

do you believe in them? if so, you're not alone, not by a long shot: 75% of americans and 52% of britons [and way more in asia] agree with you. and yet, as with those devout souls who will be pushing prayer-quarters into the slot machine of the afterlife this month, it seems a bit ridiculous: disembodied people rustling around in our space, knocking things over or sucking all the heat or light out of a specific space?

while psychologists- including freud and jung- have been fascinated with ideas of the uncanny, most practitioners in the field who do not specifically choose to focus on parapsychology or anomalistic psychology fall into the category of skeptics. and they have many reasons for believing that, yes, the monsters are all in our heads.

for starters, the assignment of responsibility for things that we do not understand to unseen figures or spirits has been a persistent feature in all human cultures for as far back as we have records. that glowing disc in the sky we see every night was the domain of the gods for millennia before we visited and saw for certain that it was just a very pretty rock. we construct a spirit world to impose order on the things we can't understand, meaning that, on some very basic level, the paranormal is just the gap between what we see and what we know.

and that sort of order can be a lot more comforting than what seems rational. it is a lot more comforting to believe we communicate with gods than to think that our brain function is so compromised that we have no idea what is happening to us. likewise, it is more comforting to think that loved ones we have lost continue to exist in some form than to grapple with the concept of non-existence. the world can be a terrifying, dangerous, deceptive space, so what is the benefit of trying to confront every single painful aspect of it? most of us have our horror plates overflowing already, thanks.

but there are other, even more mundane explanations for why some people truly believe in the reality of ghosts. for one thing, we're very dishonest with ourselves about the frequency of hallucinations. psychiatrists now believe that hallucinations are part of everyone's day-to-day reality [see the linked post for a bit more about that]. we reach for the explanation of the paranormal when we find ourselves unable to put those "little" hallucinations in context. if we can't write it off as meaning our senses are smarter than others, or as something we must have imagined, we have to point to an outside force because the alternative would be to admit that we're having very vivid hallucinations. but if we were being honest with ourselves, we'd admit that it's something that everyone goes through and that it only becomes a problem when it gets too intense or too frequent.

instances of paranormal activity, then, could simply be hallucinations that we want to deny.

or, they could be about other things we want to deny. various sorts of disorders emerge when we try to process events that are beyond our threshold of tolerance; mental illness is very often caused by the suppression of trauma, especially at a young age. so feeling an acute link to the paranormal could be something along the same continuum as an intense fear of social interaction, or having the "blank" periods known as fugues.

others point out that feelings of the paranormal can be induced through brain surgery. i don't want to think about how they figured that one out.

probably like this.

but perhaps most importantly is that people believe in ghosts and the paranormal because other people believe in them. there seems to be a high predisposition among people who hear about others seeing [or hearing, or sensing] ghosts to agree with them. we are social animals who have always relied on the word of others to keep ourselves and the members of our "tribe" safe and informed. we believe people not because we are gullible, but because it's how we survived for hundreds of thousands of years. sure, we're much better informed and much more nefarious now, but that doesn't change the fact that we're still hardwired to think that others are trying to do what they feel is best for the group.

believing in ghosts comes from the same place as any other faith: a litany of explanations and proofs cannot possibly assail it, because evidence is not just unnecessary but antithetical to its existence. that means that i can come up with as many reasonable explanations of how your brain is playing tricks on itself, but if you're a believer, and especially if you've had an experience that felt uncanny, i'm not going to disabuse you of your convictions. hell, i'm not even convinced i can disabuse myself of those convictions, and i believe with all my heart that i'm wrong.

that's right. the draw to the paranormal, and even specifically to ghosts, is so powerful that i can't even quash my own feelings that i've had such experiences. so yes, even those among us who believe that rationality can rule the world still can't get our heads entirely out of the crazy. we are hardwired to deceive ourselves, and we're hardwired to believe ourselves. we're perverse little monkeys. 

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