This book follows a psychologist's quest to understand one of the most curious experiences known to humankind: the universal, disturbing feeling that someone or something is there when we are alone. What does this feeling mean and where does it come from? When and why do presences emerge? And how can we begin to understand a phenomenon that can be transformative for those who experience it and yet almost impossible to put into words? The answers to these questions lie in this tour-de-force through contemporary psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience and philosophy. Presence follows Ben Alderson-Day's attempts to understand how this experience is possible. The journey takes us to meet explorers, mediums and robots, and step through real, imagined and virtual worlds. Presence is the story of whom we carry with us, at all times, as parts of ourselves.
This chapter recounts the author’s interviews with people who hear voices that others cannot. This hearing of voices is connected to the central notion of ‘the presence feeling’. The author describes how in feeling that something is there, but not via our normal senses, we are sensing something impossible, ‘going beyond’ the ordinary sensory field. At the same time, these experiences don’t quite seem to fit the sensation of presence we have encountered already. They are beyond what someone could conceivably experience, but they do not pick out the social bit – the sense of someone being there. Presences, then, are not new. They have been there all along, with people trying to describe them but unable to pin them down or grasp why they come, why they are there.
This chapter discusses the feeling of another person’s presence, which is often experienced in extreme weather conditions. The author discusses how, in such spaces, presences may not exactly be commonplace, but they are not unexpected. Mountaineers and climbers make up one community in which stories of presence are well-known and often shared. These presences are usually known under a different name, though: ‘The Third Man’ – the archetypal presence, the providential companion, the silent traveller, aiding those adrift in times of need. It is likely that such experiences have been happening for centuries, materialising out of blizzards, hillsides and glaciers, only to dissolve once more. In cases of climbing, the occurrence of hallucinations is often attributed to the effects of altitude.
Presence can mean lots of things to different people. This chapter describes people’s experiences of other people being present and discusses research of felt presence. The feeling of the presence of another person can be described as an instant and vivid feeling of recognition – not an unknown ‘someone’ being there but a specific person, present right now. The author’s examples encourage us to think past the double, or at least to think more broadly. If felt presence comes from us, why does it feel so distinctly ‘other’? Could the mirror be a starting point, the first step on an uncanny road?
This chapter tells Luke’s story of skiing to the South Pole, where he experienced a range of hallucinatory phenomena: illusions, visions, voices and presence. They became so familiar to Luke that they formed part of the daily routine: illusions on the snow and hallucinations on the horizon. Luke’s presences were not just saving him; they needed him. He had a responsibility to them. His experiences remind us that relating to others is not a one-way street – duties, hopes and desires go in both directions. It stands to reason that if our minds somehow create others, then our feelings towards them will reflect that complexity. Some presences lead. And some are led.
We can probably find an explanation for anything, and we do not always get the chance to test our explanations. To do that, we would have to somehow create a presence. In this chapter, the author describes how Olaf Blanke and colleagues offered a more detailed model for how this process works for presence with the help of a robot. The author concludes that our brains might create a bodily self – but that body has to exist in space. Some spaces will make our bodies grow or shrink, contract or relax. Where we draw the line, where we distinguish ourselves from others, these things will shift with the space we are in. The presences we encounter might be familiar companions, or unsettling doppelgängers, or just neutral entities, but the conditions around us have to be right for them to appear at all.
Visual hallucinations are known to occur in both Parkinson’s and dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB). This chapter studies both conditions. The author posits that we have at least two different theories to consider. The body theory of felt presence reflects how we think the motor system works and provides a plausible explanation of how presences might be possible in particular situations and conditions. An alternative theory of presence is based on the broader idea of ‘predictive processing’. When we see, hear or feel things around us that aren’t there, our brain attempts to fill in the gaps based on some kind of ingrained expectation. That might not be something we are consciously expecting – it is more like a learned response. We can call this the expectation theory of presence. These models might not be mutually exclusive. Both of these theories could be playing a role in the presences of psychosis or Parkinson’s. They could potentially explain different examples of presence, or they could work in concert in some way, one laying the groundwork, the other offering a finishing touch.
This chapter begins with the story of Leven Brown, who rowed from Cadiz to Tobago. The author talks to Leven to understand more about the link between endurance and presence. There is a dearth of accounts of experiences that sound like presence for extended pursuits done solo: ultrarunners, free divers, long distance swimmers and sailors, for example. But what drives that connection? Is it just isolation, leading us to conjure companions? Is it about people being pushed to the extremes of their limits, mentally and physically? Or is it something more individual than that, something unique to the people who have these experiences? Some of the encounters reported are similar to the classic ‘Third Man’ experiences discussed in chapter 2. They come about in adverse situations, but they occur more in continuity with everyday life. The author is left with some questions: is it stress or adversity that prompts these experiences, or do they tend to occur for a certain kind of person? Do you have to be someone extraordinary already to enter this realm? And if you do need to be a certain kind of person, how can the experience ever be separated from the individual?
In this chapter, the author explores the nature of loneliness and isolation, and what this might tell us about presence. He discusses the ultrarunner Paul Burgum’s experiences of feeling that a spirit had joined him on his epic run in Italy and suggests that this illustrates an important point: if you go seeking inspiration, actively looking for companions and putting yourself into states that blur the boundaries of self and other, you might not always get to choose what happens next. A presence could be invited in, but who or what they are isn’t always up to you – the process might even require you to give up that kind of control. And it might be shaped by others around you. This chapter expands on the complexity of presence.
This chapter looks at sleep as potentially one of the most powerful sources of presence. The presences that come with sleep paralysis are not like most of the presences we have met so far. These visitors are much more likely to be experienced in a negative fashion. The phenomenon of sleep paralysis acts as an important testing ground for many of the key questions around felt presence.