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Uncanny Experiences

The Red Piece on the Chess Board of Science

Text: Janina Ryymin Image: Lieke van den Belt

You are playing a game of chess with black and white pieces. Suddenly you notice a red piece on the board. Your heart rate elevates, your eyebrows climb toward your forehead; an uncomfortable feeling arises. Are the rules of the game different with this red piece in place? Should you just deny the existence of the red piece and carry on as usual?

Encountering a thing that questions our set ways of thinking is a universal human phenomena explored by anthropologist Mary Douglas. She found that anomalies - things that don’t fit into set categories of thinking - are either ignored, condemned, or confronted. If they are confronted, anomalies create new patterns of thinking. Experiences that don’t fit into our set ways of thinking are commonly named ‘uncanny’ experiences. Because these experiences are deeply personally meaningful and thus subjective, they are stigmatised. Due to their personally meaningful nature, uncanny experiences are difficult to convey in words. Many choose to remain silent about their uncanny experiences due to the difficulty of speaking of such a stigmatised experience. The stigma within the western scientific culture diagnoses uncanny experiences as symptoms of mental illness. These ‘supernatural’ experiences include phenomena such as telepathy and foresight alongside others. Uncanny experiences can also be experienced as mystical or religious experiences which are often described as going beyond the objective and subjective world. Anthropologist Marja-Liisa Honkasalo writes in her book At the Limits of the Mind that despite their name, uncanny experiences are encountered by more than half of the population of Western countries.

Why is there such stigma attached to such experiences and those who research them? When Honkasalo alongside her colleagues received funding from the Finnish government for her research project on the topic, the media reflected the public’s discomfort toward the ambiguous theme questioning why the public funds were used to finance ‘mumbo jumbo’ studies. To understand the discomfort, we first must see what the rules of chess are that uncanny experiences uncomfortably question.

Discomfort & Commonality

Uncanny experiences do not fit the current scientific worldview: they are subjective, non-repeatable and are often described as going ‘against reason’. They sit uncomfortably on the border of objective and subjective worlds; they are not shared, that is, they are not necessarily similar in objective measures. Yet those who experience them often describe them as crossing the boundary of subjective and objective experience. Their content varies from person to person, yet more than half of the population experience them.

We cannot repeat them with certainty. Uncanny experiences force us to take a second look at how we categorise experiences as real and unreal. If we consider these ‘hallucinations’ as real in some way, the boundary between subjective and objective becomes porous. At the same time, they raise questions on how we define mental illnesses; if half of the population experiences phenomena that could be a symptom of a mental illness, do our categories of mental illness need redefining too? Perhaps hallucinations are more normal than we would like to admit. Honkasalo points out that simply hearing sounds is not considered as a mental disorder. Hearing voices as a phenomenon raises uncomfortable questions, it is an anomaly. Could research lessen the stigma of these experiences and lessen their negative effect? After all, to whose worldview uncanny experiences fit and are part of their grand narrative, have more positive uncanny experiences.

Philosopher William James, writing about religious experiences, defined the genuineness of an experience by evaluating whether the experience had witnessable consequences. If a person sees a vision of a deceased loved one who had passed away holding grudges and this vision informs them that the grudge can be let go, the positive outcome is real. Therefore, the experience should be considered real. They have agency, these experiences influence the ’real’ world. They are not simple fantasies.

Science & Subjective Experience

Uncanny experiences influence the ‘real’ world - when a person sees a dead relative waving goodbye after their death and through this experience feel more peace. The subjective experience that is sometimes labelled as a hallucination affected the ‘real’ reality in. We cannot say that these experiences are not real. When they are considered, they question some basic assumptions attached to the Western scientific worldview. This is one of the reasons this anomaly is rejected from study.

Firstly, uncanny experiences don’t seem to have a clear cause. They go against the idea of causality. In other words, they do not seem to follow a clear cause and effect pattern. Uncanny experiences don’t sit well with one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs. Because they aren’t easy to repeat, studying them is challenging.

Secondly, uncanny experiences often question categorisations such as alive/dead, mind/body or self/other. Many report seeing loved ones appear after their death to say their final goodbyes. Studying such experiences requires one to consider these experiences as real and not just a story. Accepting this, leaves the mind on shaky territory because it questions its connection to the body.

Third point, uncanny experiences produce questions about the separation of mind and body. The rather common phenomena of out-of-body experiences, experienced by one out of ten people, bring up questions about the mind being in the body. In these experiences, there can be a feeling of being dead or/and a feeling of peace. Honkasalo shares an example of a woman who felt that she was lifted a few centimetres up from her body. We do not understand these experiences. There seems to be a fear of even looking at their direction because they seem to go beyond reason.

These experiences are uncomfortable anomalies that are worth studying instead of ignoring and/or condemning, as the consensus seems to be doing now. What better way to study these experimental phenomena than using anthropological research methods? After all, as anthropologist researcher Kapferer said, the roots of anthropology are in the research of the ‘irrational’. Honkasalo makes a brilliant example of this. There already is a red piece on the board. The piece requires rethinking fundamental assumptions and ways of asking questions. Anthropologists could use their skills in understanding subjective experiences to further our understanding of uncanny experiences. A phenomenon so common should be studied even if it requires a questioning of previous paradigms. Why not use anthropological research methods to study these experiences in order to better understand them? There are many more possibilities to be discovered in the chess game of science if we first discover and accept the red chess piece.

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