Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Numinous Verisimilitude

Originally posted on February 9, 2016

I’m giving a lecture series on illusion—part of a long-running series on psychological literacy. Some people have experiences that seem so real, not illusory, and more, the experience is compelling. The word “numinous” means strangely compelling: A thought or image seems is so true and important that it must be witnessed to. It compels you it’s so strong a feeling. It seems that you can for sure live by this feeling. It really is valid.  (Except that maybe it isn’t.)

“Verisimilitude” by itself is less compelling, but it refers to an experience that really seems real, verily, more than just “similar” to, but at the moment it’s “the real thing.” Alas, it may vanish upon awakening, but for a brief time there it seemed so real. Some dreams partake of this sensation. On waking, they register in memory only as a vivid dream. They fail to arouse the actual memory circuit, or only do it a little, enough to say, “Boy, that dream seemed so real.” But the images dissolve; the conscious mind doesn’t “remember” them vividly, like “real” life. However, our theories of dream and wake are shown to be fuzzy. Confabulation is the mind’s dreaming that gets expressed as awakened reality. You see it in some folks with brain disorders, some senile folks, or people who have damaged parts of their brain with vitamin B deficiency plus alcohol (Korsakoff’s Syndrome).

The mind plays tricks like this. Neurology and psychiatry and even Law (the institution that is struggling with the role of the Witness—is what they remember valid?).

I think some folks develop religious and political beliefs that partake of a mixture of these two phenomena, and it might be said that ordinary life is also their product. Another esoteric term is “epiphanous delusion” which appears in some patients with paranoid schizophrenia. An epiphany is when “it all comes together! It makes sense!” This can be numinous—so vivid and compelling, infused with a sense of importance, if not urgency.

That these experiences can be produced by the brain rather than as reflections of the outside world is revolutionary. It means that we cannot trust our perceptions, because they are contaminated by interpretation. In summary, the experiences of “This is important,” or “This is really real! You can bank on this!” are similarly vulnerable to illusion.

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