Example 9 Virtual Reality

Example: This is not a dream, but is a powerful example of how the unconscious can produce very real sense of experiencing something as physically true, that is a mental phenomena. The account is by Phillip Zimbardo in the book Psychology and Life, published by Scott, Foresman and Company.

It was my first day back to work after recovering from a traumatic automobile accident. I was lucky to be alive with only torn ligaments in my leg and a concussion: the driver had been killed by the impact of a head-on collision. As I hobbled up the three flights of stairs supported by a crutch, my initial joy of returning to school was suddenly suspended. With each step I took a strange sensation occurred: I could ‘feel’ myself BECOMING my younger brother, George. Not IMAGINE ‘as if’ I were George, but being transformed physically to be him.

I perceived my face changing to be his face and my body doing likewise. My limp became more pronounced, and it took great strength to climb the last flight. In a panic, I shut myself in my office, not wanting anyone to witness this strange transformation. I avoided looking at my reflection in the window for fear I would see his face and not mine. Had I really become my brother or was I MERELY hallucinating?

Time passed during which I tried frantically to relax, ‘to pull myself together,’ and make sense of my distorted sense impressions. After all, I was a normal, serious scientist type not given to such flights of fancy. I lived by the reality principle.

My secretary and colleagues knocked and came into the office before I could say I was busy. They were worried by my abrupt disappearing act. They were relieved to see I was ‘my old self again,’ and I was relieved to see them responding to me as if I were Phil and not George. A glance at my reflection confirmed my hope. I had changed back, ‘or was no longer George….or George was no longer manifesting himself in me.’ Whatever? Weird, no? But why?

When we were children, George had infantile paralysis and for a time had to wear leg braces and walk with crutches. I would accompany him to therapy sessions and observe his frustration, embarrassment, and anger at not being able to function normally. Since we were only eighteen months apart in age, I could readily empathise with his feelings. I may have also felt guilty at being glad I too was not crippled. Once I recall volunteering to exchange places with him in the swimming pool exercises, but the nurse chided me, ‘being crippled is not fun and games young man.’ I was about four at the time.

As I hobbled up the stairs to my office some twenty five years later, the pattern of feedback sensory stimulation reactivated this pre-recorded motor action plan. Memories of George’s posture and movement were enacted. I had retained mimicry responses of his motor activity that I had observed so intensely. Now I was changing places with him, but not consciously and not volitionally. The suddenness and vividness of the hallucination was frightening because it was so real, yet at the same time contradicted my knowledge of reality.

Another example from a man used to entering this condition.

I was suddenly shot into a dream state as I sat awake writing, yet I was still awake in this state and I had a very distinct image, along with a feeling, of a small bird fluttering close my head. What was incredibly clear and real was the way its wings were fluttering. I could really see and feel that they were not simply waving up-and-down but vibrating at great speed. The bird kept fluttering near me, and I realised it was trying to attract my attention so I would follow it. So in fact I did, and it led me into a condition of great darkness. I could see or hear nothing. But the bird led on, and I trusted it and we came to what was recognisably a dark cave from which were slowly emerging hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. I understood as I saw this that an enormous number of people throughout the world were now emerging from a dark place. I realised that this was my work, leading people from the darkness to the light.

Copyright © 1999-2010 Tony Crisp | All rights reserved