THE SENSED PRESENCE (or the “Feeling of Presence”) and the brain.
There are several arguments in cognitive science that suggest that the human sense of self is largely an outgrowth of our linguistic abilities. We are not only a linguistic species, but we are also linguistic beings.
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The first such argument was advanced by Julian Jaynes (1976), who suggested that inner voices were once a universal feature of human thought, that these inner voices were experienced as originating outside of the self, and were taken to be the voices of spirits or gods. Jaynes’ work still remains highly controversial, but his emphasis on linguistic aspects of the self has also found much agreement.
The next important advance in theory is from Gerald Edelman, whose work, The Remembered Present (1989), remains one of the more difficult examples of contemporary philosophy. In brief, Edelman suggests that the flows of information in the brain are mediated through ‘re-entrant‘ feedback loops. As evolution provides new cognitive functions, new reentrant loops must be established. When language appeared, these loops had to be created between the language areas and every other part of the brain that has a phenomenological correlate; that is, every part of the brain whose activity creates a conscious experience, because every phenomenon is subject to being named and labeled. Above all, this includes phenomena related to the sense of self. The human experience of self, he concludes, is a linguistic phenomenon, at least in part. His theory is an attempt at a full explanation of the biological basis of consciousness, and the concept we’ve just outlined is only one feature of a much more comprehensive theory. His theory (called the theory of neuronal group selection) corroborates the classical spiritual notion that the mind’s tendency to label phenomena and to spontaneously generate ideation is the primary phenomena associated with normal states of consciousness.
We should also add the obvious evidence that our sense of self is vulnerable to verbal assaults. Self-esteem can rise and fall according to the words we hear from others. Further, we are also highly prone to genuine emotional responses to our own linguistic thoughts.
So, if the language centers are integrated into the neurological bases of the sense of self, and (the homologous portions) of both sides of the brain are involved in each process, and language is usually on the left, then what’s going on in the right side of the brain, in the areas directly opposite the language areas? The best answer so far is the offered by the hypothesis that there is a subordinate sense of self there, one which acts to support the normal sense of self, speech and verbal understanding. It has contributions to make towards aspects of grammar, and it is essential for the maintenance of the normal range of emotional tones. Its contributions to the left-hemisphere-dominated, normal sense of self are referred to as intercalations. The operant metaphor is of a calendar.
Brain functions are somewhat localized to one side or other. However, every function on the left requires a sub-function from the right, something like a ‘shared’ file, to use a computer analogy. The calendar functions perfectly well, but leap years require an intercalary month. Each function in one side requires input from the other. The split brain studies showed us that each hemisphere could manifest an almost independent mind. Vectorial Hemisphericity implies that almost isn’t good enough to make a truly human being. The sense of self requires the involvement of structures on both sides. These structures have some of the lowest firing thresholds in the brain, and are thus more likely to mismatch their (metabolic) rates of activity. When this happens, a person will experience a change in their ‘self.’
The human sense of self (in normal states of consciousness) is a vector requiring both sides of the brain, but with greater recruitment of the left temporofrontal and, to a lesser extent, limbic regions.
Because the hypothesis is based on a theory that says that concludes that language is an instance of a broader pattern of neural organization, we are forced to conclude that vectorial hemisphericity is one of the overarching principles behind all brain functions. The area in which this hypothesis has been most extensively tested is in studies related to the sense of self, in one of its more unusual manifestations, the experience of the Sensed Presence.
THE SENSED PRESENCE AND THE SENSE OF SELF
A great deal of our understanding of the sense of self is derived from the understanding of an experience called the sensed presence (or the “Feeling of Presence”). In its simplest form, it appears as a feeling that there is someone or some conscious ‘ thing’, an energy or a presence in the room with you even though you know you’re by yourself. It can also manifest as a feeling that you are ‘not alone’ or just ‘being watched.’
Our interpretation of this experience relies on the fact that humans have two senses of self. Left hemispheric and right hemispheric. It also relies on the idea that the dominant sense of self in normal individuals is the left hemispheric (linguistic) sense of self. We experience its dominance in our lives every second as we experience our minds generating a constant stream of inner dialog. The subordinate sense of self, on the right in normal individuals, is active during almost all cognitive processes, but it acts to subserve the linguistic, dominant sense of self. The right hemispheric self and phenomenology are only outside our awareness whenever we are thinking in words, They do not stop. The sensed presence happens when the right hemispheric sense of self falls out of phase with the left hemispheric self. The right ‘self’ is experienced as an external presence. Although there are reports of partial OBEs in which a person experiences themselves as being in two places at once, it is much more common for a person to feel that the sensed presence is not themselves at all, but an outside, “ego-alien”, being. The two hemispheres can act independently, as shown in ‘split brain’ studies, giving the person a partitioned awareness. The sensed presence might be likened to a temporary split brain, but limited to its senses of self (Persinger, 1993).
‘The Self’ emerges in one neurological context as a characteristic readout on an EEG. It’s known as the 40 Hz component, and the reason it is associated with the sense of self is that its not there when we’re in dreamless sleep. It’s only there when we’re awake, and when we are dreaming. It’s only absent during that time when we are in those stages of sleep that we can’t remember. The reason we can’t remember it is that ‘we’ aren’t there during dreamless sleep. The pathways that maintain the sense of self are inactive at this time.
The sensed presence is only one example of a whole class of experiences called visitor experiences, or just visitations (Persinger, 1989). It falls at one end of a spectrum. At the lower end we should expect to find the sensed presence, and at the other, we find a very affective being, such as God or Satan in a fully extrapolated environment, complete with heavenly or hellish sounds, smells, bodily sensations, etc. As the experience deepens in intensity, recruiting more and more brain structures, it can include visions, smells, tastes, vestibular feelings of falling or rising, parasthetic feelings of tingles, ‘buzzes,’ or more difficult to describe ‘energies’ in the body.
As the experience becomes more intense, it can acquire a visual component, as activity in the temporal lobes spills over to the occipital lobes. The Presence becomes a figure of some kind; an angel, a ghost, a muse, the spirit of a beloved dead friend or relative, a guru, and most importantly, God.
One common visitor experience is that of seeing a hooded figure, like a monk, or a shrouded figure. These kinds of visitors are entirely covered except for their hands and face. Such an experience would tend to indicate the involvement of the parahippocampal gyrus, located on the bottom of the inner planes that divide the brain into two parts, about midway along its length. When this area of the brain is involved in a visitor experience, the episode will often include the visitors hand:
“…I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it-half steeped in dreams- I opened my eyes, and the … room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would soon be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it.” (Melville, Moby-Dick)
A very similar experience appears in a collection of angel stories. It even begins with the sensation of their hand being touched by another hand, as well as a visitor on the bed, or in this case, several.
‘In July 1991, Sara Hiam of Harborn, Birmingham was in the hospital recovering from surgery. She was very poorly and feeling afraid. Suddenly she was aware of angels ‘encamped’ on her bed, and she felt the peace and protection of the Lord. Sara says, ‘I actually felt a hand in mine and knew the peace of the Lord more strongly.’ (Price, 1993)
Only the hands and face have such representation in the brain. They are the two body parts we use most to express our emotions, through our facial expressions and gestures. The human brain is more adapted to communication than others. Several primate species have been ably to learn sign language, and all of them use some kind of gestures in communicating with one another. Communication is a social phenomenon. It mostly happens between people. Possibly faces and hands are the body parts our brain are most able to recognize because these are routinely used for communication.
If the experience involves one amygdala (an emotional structure that produces our own emotions as well as helping us see what others are feeling) more than the other, the result might be an emotionally intense experience. If one amygdala or the other really dominates the experience, then a terrifying demon, or a deeply comforting angel might be the result.
If the experience involved the sensorimotor cortex, it could include feelings of movement, which can be extrapolated into sensations of flying, rising or falling. From rising into heaven, or just being uplifted, to sinking into ‘the depths’ of fear. Another kind of somatic experience that can occur are called parasthesias. These are vibratory sensations, such as electric-like ‘buzzes,’ pins-and-needles, chills, and so forth. The phrase ‘kundalini buzz’ is often used, especially if the experience is pleasant enough, and the experient is familiar with ‘new age’ or Yoga concepts.
If the experience included the lower (ventral) portion of the temporal lobes, where long-term memories are stored (Squire, 1991), it might include exotic memories, such as ‘buried’ childhood memories of sexual abuse (Gardner, 1994), ‘past life’ memories, memories of encounters with aliens (Schnabel, 1994), and so forth. I’m not saying that these things are never real, but that in many cases they turn out to be examples of ‘false memory syndrome.’ A visiting angel says it has known you for many lives. One can be taken on a tour of the universe and feel that all the mysteries are revealed. These mysteries are seen to be truths which one had only forgotten, as their content is perceived through neural avenues that usually manifest memories. In western countries, NDEs that go through all stages include life reviews that can replay a whole lifetime. All these implicate the parahippocampal gyrus, the entorhinal cortex, and the perirhinal cortex, areas which are most active when long-term memories being accessed or consolidated (Miller, 1998).
Several brain structures outside the limbic system can become involved in an experience at once, and the experience can be further colored by excitation or inhibition of the functions below the limbic system, such as the thalamus (whose pulvinar nucleus can induce aura vision when stimulated), or the reticular formation, which has been implicated in the life reviews (Taylor, 1979).
Humans are a social species. As we saw in the chapter on the amygdala, our sense of self responds as if it were threatened when a person’s social status is threatened, as though one were one’s social position. Our self-esteem rises and falls responding to our social interactions. The human sense of self, we will argue, is partly a social phenomenon. Whenever we are interacting with others, we are externalizing a part of our self onto them. Our experience of the person is largely egocentric, as we assume that their experiences are like our own. The externalization process may not be only psychological. One of my hypotheses is that states of consciousness are reflected in low intensity neuromagnetic signals, which implies that we might actually be broadcasting our states at all times. If we recall that our states can change in response to magnetic signals, we can conclude that we might be imposing our state of consciousness on others whenever we relate to them. See the section on ‘the magnetic brain’.
Its possible that we never actually experience other people, but instead only experience ourselves as we are when we are with them.
As children, most of us played with our imaginations. We felt that our toys, especially our dolls and toy animals, had a presence about them. Some children don’t like to see their toys handled roughly because they believe that their stuffed animals, dolls and so forth are alive and can be hurt the same way they can. A cup becomes ‘Mr. Cup.’ The distinction between ‘I’ and ‘thou’ becomes blurred. Henri Frankfort, in his classic Before Philosophy has explored the idea that the religions of pre-literate cultures are based on a similar view. He argued that the experience of self and other was the basis of their understanding of their relationship to nature. The sun became ‘Mr. Sun.’ The peoples of these cultures actually experienced the features of their environment as though they were conscious beings. From there it’s a short step to ‘Apollo, the Sun God.’
We want to suggest that similar mechanisms are working when children are engaging in imaginative play, when we are relating to one another, and when we are praying, whether to a formless God or a consecrated statue. In another chapter we will be looking at how this same theory can also help us understand the process of romantic love, and the intensity of its disappointments.
We interpret the sensed presence experience as evidence supporting the theory of vectorial hemisphericity. This theory is a refinement of the model of functional hemisphericity developed in the wake of the ‘split brain’ research of the 1970s.
When patients who had their corpus collosum cut were studied, it began to look like there were functions that were localized to one side or the other. The results agreed with the brain stimulation studies done in the previous two decades by Wilder Penfield and others who mapped the brain’s functions by stimulating the surface, and observing the patient’s response (Penfield 1963).
For example, when such patients were shown an object, they either knew the word for it, or knew what it was and how it was used, but not both simultaneously (Gazzaniga, 1998). Now that the two hemispheres were unable to communicate with one another, functions that relied on both of them were disrupted. It began to look as though there were functions that were confined to one side or the other.
Each normal brain function involves a primary operative area on one side, as well as the homologous or corresponding area on the other. The process of drawing from the subordinate hemisphere is called intercalation. While this is a reasonably straightforward proposition for most functions, its ramifications for understanding language and the human sense of self require deeper thought.
The area of human experience where the workings of the self and language are revealed most clearly is that of religious and mystic experience. The arena where language fails, and a person’s sense of themselves can be transformed.
NOTE: The sensed presence experience is a common effect in Dr. Michael Persinger’s lab in his (often-called) “God Helmet” experiments. However, it’s a rare effect with the Shakti and Shiva neural stimulation systems. This difference may be due to the suggestion/explanation given to Persinger’s subjects (that they are participating in a “relaxation experiment”), or to the less-than-rigorous conditions that home users have for their sessions.
Edelman, Gerald, “the Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness.” Basic Books, New York, 1989
Gardner, Richard, “Differentiating True and False Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse” International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Oct, 1994
Gazzaniga, Michael S. “The Split Brain Revisited” Scientific American, July 1998: 50-55
Jaynes, Julian, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1976
Miller, Laurie, A. (Et Al) “Contributions of the Entorhinal Cortex, Amygdala And Hippocampus to human Memory” Neuropsychologia, V.36, No.11:1247-1256
Penfield, Wilder & Perot, Phanot “The brain’s record of Auditory and visual Experience” Brain, v86, Part 4: 596-696
Persinger, Michael A. Geophysical variables and behavior: LV. “Predicting the Details of Visitor Experiences and thePersonality of Experients: the Temporal Lobe Factor. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1989, 68, 55-65
Persinger, M. A. “Vectorial Cerebral Hemisphericity as Differential Sources for the Sensed Presence, Mystical Experiences and Religious Conversions.” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1993, 76, 915-930.
Price, Hope, “Angels: True Stories of How they Touch our Lives.” Avon publishers, 1993.
Schnabel, Jim, “Chronic Claims of Alien Abduction and Some Other Traumas as Self-Victimization Syndromes” Dissociation, Vol.VIII, No.1, March1994
Squire, Larry R. & Zola-Morgan, Stuart “The Medial Temporal Lobe Memory System” Science, vol 253, Sept. 20, 1991: 1380-1386
Taylor, Gordon R., “The Natural History of The Mind”, Penguin Publications, 1979, Pg. 75
Blog on 2014 research on the sensed presence.
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