4 posts tagged

weird experiences

Weird experiences: free will mishaps

This has been moved out of the Vipassana post.

Why do feel like I have free will? Well, for instance, I can pretty reliably control my body, e. g. I want my hand to move and it moves. If I couldn’t control my body or my thoughts at all – e. g. when heavily drugged – I would probably say I did not have much free will at that moment.

Furthermore, if I lost my internal monologue as well and could only process sensory data – had awareness of what I see, hear, etc, but no thoughts about it – I would say that perhaps I still had some degree of consciousness, but no free will at all.

Here are some weird experiences that rather complicate both of those intuitions. (For me, they render the whole question of “do I have free will?” rather meaningless. Your take might differ.)

Alien hand syndrome

The alien hand syndrome goes like this: you are trying to light a cigarette and your left hand actively prevents you from doing so. There’s no observable thought process, either – it just moves against your will. Or rather, it is certainly controlled by your brain, but you no longer feel like it’s true.

From Arin Bhattacharya’s An Overview On Rare Diseases, Volume II:

[...] patients frequently exhibit “intermanual conflict” in which one hand acts at cross-purposes with the other “good hand”. For example, one patient was observed putting a cigarette into her mouth with her intact, “controlled” hand (her right, dominant hand), following which her alien, non-dominant, left hand came up to grasp the cigarette, pull the cigarette out of her mouth, and toss it away before it could be lit by the controlled, dominant, right hand. The patient then surmised that “I guess ‘he’ doesn’t want me to smoke that cigarette.” Another patient was observed to be buttoning up her blouse with her controlled dominant hand while the alien non-dominant hand, at the same time, was unbuttoning her blouse.


It gets worse. Anosognosia: you want to move your hand, it doesn’t move (e. g. it is paralyzed), and your brain immediately make up a justification for why you actually didn’t want or didn’t try to move it after all, preserving the belief that you are in full control of your body. When called out on your bullshit, you make up another one, and another, and another.

Apparently, the only way to wake up from anosognosia is to get cold water sprinkled into your ear (?!), but it doesn’t last for long.

From The Apologist and the Revolutionary:

Anosognosia is the condition of not being aware of your own disabilities. To be clear, we’re not talking minor disabilities here, the sort that only show up during a comprehensive clinical exam. We’re talking paralysis or even blindness. Things that should be pretty hard to miss.

Take the example of the woman discussed in Lishman’s Organic Psychiatry. After a right-hemisphere stroke, she lost movement in her left arm but continuously denied it. When the doctor asked her to move her arm, and she observed it not moving, she claimed that it wasn’t actually her arm, it was her daughter’s. Why was her daughter’s arm attached to her shoulder? The patient claimed her daughter had been there in the bed with her all week. Why was her wedding ring on her daughter’s hand? The patient said her daughter had borrowed it. Where was the patient’s arm? The patient “turned her head and searched in a bemused way over her left shoulder”.


If somebody severes the connection between your brain’s hemispheres, tells one hemisphere to do something, and ask the other hemisphere “why did you do it?”, it will make something up – and, again, be completely convinced that this is the true justification. No matter what your actual actions are, you can still find a way to believe that “you” caused them, even when you didn’t:

[...] a split-brain patient was shown two images, one in each visual field. The left hemisphere received the image of a chicken claw, and the right hemisphere received the image of a snowed-in house. The patient was asked verbally to describe what he saw, activating the left (more verbal) hemisphere. The patient said he saw a chicken claw, as expected. Then the patient was asked to point with his left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere) to a picture related to the scene. Among the pictures available were a shovel and a chicken. He pointed to the shovel. So far, no crazier than what we’ve come to expect from neuroscience.

Now the doctor verbally asked the patient to describe why he just pointed to the shovel. The patient verbally (left hemisphere!) answered that he saw a chicken claw, and of course shovels are necessary to clean out chicken sheds, so he pointed to the shovel to indicate chickens.

Persistent non-symbolic experiences

Even given all these aberrations, it is still hard to believe that all of our actions, not just some, could be post hoc rationalizations. And sure, I cannot prove it.

But I can throw one more stone into the bucket of doubt. Here is a man who has no inner monologue at all and seems to function exactly as he functioned before he lost it, Gary Weber:

For the next 25 years, as Weber finished his PhD, married and raised two kids and made his way through a string of industry jobs – eventually culminating in a senior management position running the R&D operations of big manufacturing business – he got spiritual. He read lots of books, he meditated with Zen teachers, mastered complicated yoga postures, and practiced what is known in Vedic philosophy as “self-enquiry” – a way of directing attention backwards into the center of the mind. To make time for all this, Weber would get up at 4am and put in two hours of spiritual practice before work.

Although he says he never had the sense he was making progress, Weber kept at it anyway. Then, on a morning like any other, something happened. He got into a yoga pose – a pose he had done thousands of times before – and when he moved out of it his thoughts stopped. Permanently.

“That was fourteen years ago,” says Weber. “I entered into a state of complete inner stillness. Except for a few stray thoughts first thing in the morning, and a few more when my blood sugar gets low, my mind is quiet. The old thought-track has never come back.”

[...] What he cared about was that in an hour he needed to go to work, where he was supposed to run four research labs and manage a thousand employees and a quarter of a billion dollar budget, and he had no thoughts. How was that going to work?

“There was no problem at all,” Weber says, which he admits may say more about corporate management than about him. “No one noticed. I’d go into a meeting with nothing prepared, no list of points in my head. I’d just sit there and wait to see what came up. And what came up when I opened my mouth were solutions to problems smarter and more elegant than any I could have developed on my own.”

This sounds a bit / a lot like enlightenment. However, if you are curious but don’t feel like reading about spirituality much, you can search for “PNSE” instead. Scott Alexander’s review of _Clusters Of Individual Experiences Form A Continuum Of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences In Adults_ is a good place to start.


Are our actions determined by our brains? Not always and not entirely, but often enough that I feel comfortable saying “yes”.

Is it hard to predict what we will do? Also yes. (And if you want to drag quantum uncertainty into it to upgrade the status from “hard” to impossible, Scott Aaronson’s The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine is a good read.)

Are we more complicated than, say, worms? Hell yeah, even though worms are pretty complicated too.

Where does the strong feeling of having free will come from? I don’t know, but perhaps it is simply because we observe the correlation between our thoughts and our actions so often, that it seems that correlation must imply causation. An interesting read: neuroscience of free will on Wikipedia. Perhaps also Baer, Kaufman, Baumeister – Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will, but I haven’t read it yet.

Finally: do we have free will? Eh.

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Weird experiences: ??? (the case of Henry Darger)

This post is a collection of quotes from About Henry Darger, a marvellous review of John MacGregor’s Henry Darger: In The Realms Of The Unreal. It is hard to diagnose Darger, so judge for yourself. (Further reading: Henry Darger on Wikipedia.)

He was a janitor in a hospital. After he died, his landlord discovered that he wrote a 15000-page novel illustrated with 10-meter watercolors. From Wikipedia:

In the Realms of the Unreal is a 15,145-page work bound in fifteen immense, densely typed volumes (with three of them consisting of several hundred illustrations, scroll-like watercolor paintings on paper derived from magazines and coloring books) created over six decades. Darger illustrated his stories using a technique of traced images cut from magazines and catalogues, arranged in large panoramic landscapes and painted in watercolors, some as large as 30 feet wide and painted on both sides.

He also wrote a 5000-page autobiography:

In 1968, Darger became interested in tracing some of his frustrations back to his childhood and began writing The History of My Life. Spanning eight volumes, the book only spends 206 pages detailing Darger’s early life before veering off into 4,672 pages of fiction about a huge twister called “Sweetie Pie”, probably based on memories of a tornado he had witnessed in 1908.

Today Darger is a somewhat famous artist, and his illustrations are sold as standalone works. Here are some:


Here’s a quick sketch of who Darger was, which will hopefully give you an idea of why I find him so fascinating. He was a reclusive man who worked various dishwashing jobs for most of his life. He only had one real friend in the course of his life, and although he occasionally interacted with the other residents of his apartment complex, they just saw him as a peculiar, taciturn eccentric. But when Darger was on his deathbed, his landlord Nathan Lerner began to clean out his room and discovered something incredible. Unknown to everyone around him, Darger had been writing and painting. Writing and painting a lot.

Darger’s novel, In The Realms Of The Unreal

Among the objects Lerner discovered were fifteen massive volumes comprising one continuous fictional work entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. In total, the typed, single-spaced text was 15,145 pages long – one of the longest fictional works ever produced by a human being, if not the longest.

In The Realms Of The Unreal is, in some very broad sense, a fantasy novel. It takes place on a planet far larger than Earth, which Earth is said to orbit as a moon. This planet is mostly composed of Catholic nations, of which the most important to the plot are Angelinia, Calverinia and Abbieannia. [...] The story is about a war between the Catholic nations and the atheist nation Glandelinia, which is inhabited by evil, sadistic people who practice institutionalized child slavery.

“In the Realms, there are numerous characters named after Darger”

In the Realms, there are numerous characters named after Darger. There’s a framing device in which the text is supposed to have been written by a journalist named Henry Darger who followed around the Christian troops, though this is often abandoned. There’s a Christian general named Henry Darger, and the leader of a secret society, the Gemini, is named Hendro Dargar. (The names slip sometimes, so that certain characters are sometimes Darger, sometimes Dargar.) There’s also a Glandelinean General Henry Darger. There’s mention of someone named Dargarius, a name which Darger (for some reason) sometimes used in real-world correspondence. These Dargers do not all seem to be distinct in the author’s mind, and it’s often confusing which one is being referred to in any given instance.

“Darger’s paintings are filled with prepubescent girls”

Darger’s paintings are filled with prepubescent girls – usually the Vivian girls, but there are also sometimes anonymous child slaves, etc. They are usually depicted naked, even when there is no good reason for this. (This accords with nothing in the text; the Vivian girls lose their clothing from time to time, but there’s no stipulation that they just go around naked all the time.) The little girls usually, but not always, have penises. (They’re pretty clearly supposed to be girls, though, and there’s no mention of genitals anywhere in his writing, much less an explanation for the anomalous genitals he laboriously drew onto each of his female heroines.)

“[Darger] saw the fictional war between Christians and Glandelineans as a way of punishing God for taking [his newspaper clipping] by causing harm to millions of (fictional?) Christians”

The inspiration for writing the Realms was the loss of a particular newspaper clipping, a photo of Elsie Paroubek, a little girl who had been murdered, and whose murder was all over the Chicago papers for a short time. Darger’s journals express no particular interest in this picture until he discovered that he had lost it. After that, he spent much of the rest of his life in a profound state of anger at God, who he believed had taken the picture from him. He saw the fictional war between Christians and Glandelineans as a way of punishing God for taking the picture by causing harm to millions of (fictional?) Christians. In his mind, Elsie Paroubek and Annie Aronburg seem to have merged: in the text, characters occasionally refer to the loss of a picture of Annie Aronburg, and some of the characters contend that the anger of some man named Darger on account of this loss – rather than the actual death of Annie Aronburg – is the true cause of the war. (The characters are understandably baffled as to how the loss of a picture could cause a war, and they are also confused as to whether the Darger in question is the Christian general or the Glandelinean general. Near the end of the story, it is revealed that the two men both claim ownership of the lost picture.) Again and again in his journal he threatened God, telling him that if the picture wasn’t returned, he might let the Glandelineans win the war. He never found the picture. (There are hauntingly beautiful passages in which the ghost of Annie Aronburg appears to Darger, beseeching him to give up his anger at God. But she never convinces him.)

Darger’s autobiography, The History Of My Life

Darger’s 5000-page work The History Of My Life is putatively an autobiography. However, that word does not accurately describe the vast majority of its contents. The first several hundred pages of the work are indeed an account of Darger’s early life. However, after describing a scene in which his younger self is entranced by the sight of a powerful storm, he apparently gets distracted by the storm and spends the remaining 4000-some pages of the text describing the wake of destruction caused by a fictional twister called “Sweetie Pie,” with no further mention of his own life whatsoever.

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Weird experiences: aphasia (a collection of examples)

Aphasia is a wide range of language impediments caused by brain damage – usually a stroke. Those impediments can be very specific – for instance, a person might be able to say “walk” as a noun but not as a verb.

The Man Who Lost His Language

From Sheila Hale’s The Man Who Lost His Language (available on LibGen).

Unable to recall certain classes of words

Some aphasics who can’t speak can sing the words of familiar songs. Proper names are difficult for some aphasics – as, indeed, they are for some normal people. Guy Wint was at first unable to recall the names of the friends who visited him in hospital. But he could remember their telephone numbers, and so would report to his wife that Sloane 2381 had been to see him, or the flowers had been brought by Mayfair 9643.[1]

Some have difficulty with other classes of nouns, colours for example.[2] There are aphasics who can demonstrate that they experience colours normally; they can match different hues or put the correct colour on a black-and-white photograph of, say, a banana or grass. But they have problems naming or understanding the names of colours, and will frequently, for example, identify ‘blue’ as ‘green’.

[1] G. Wint, The Third Killer, 1965.

[2] A. R. Damasio and H. Damasio, ‘Brain and language’, Scientific American, Sept. 1992.

Unable to pronounce familiar words

Some aphasics are disproportionately impaired for long, unusual words, others for the shortest and most familiar words, such as and, the, was, in. A recovered Swiss aphasic described in his memoirs having had more difficulty pronouncing the French for if and since than Nebuchadnezzar and Popocatepetl.[1]

[1] Gardner, The Shattered Mind

Can speak verbs but not nouns, even when the word is the same

Some have more trouble with verbs than with nouns and vice versa. Some can speak nouns but not verbs, but when reading aloud it is the other way round. There are aphasics who can say or read aloud certain words, such as park, walk, play, as nouns but not the same words in their verb form, or vice versa.[1] A case has been reported of a man who can say the plural noun cuts but cannot say, read aloud or even repeat the final -s of the third person singular of the verb ‘to cut’.

[1] S. Chiat and E. V. Jones, ‘Processing language breakdown’, in M. J. Ball (ed.), Theoretical Linguistics and Disordered Language, 1988

Can read the names of musical notes in the key of G but not in the key of F

It seems that all languages can be impaired by damage to the language centres, even those that rely on right-hemisphere specialities like tone or the analysis of visual input. Any system of communication that consists of discrete arbitrary symbols ordered according to abstract rules is vulnerable: tone languages like Chinese, deaf and dumb sign languages, even musical notation.

Performing musicians and composers may lose the ability to read or write music but still be able to play and sing from memory. An Italian-based team of researchers recently reported the case of an aphasic professional organist who could read the names of musical notes in the key of G but not in the key of F, although she could recognize both keys when she heard them and could play in both on the piano at sight.[1]

[1] Schön, D., Semenza, C., & Denes, G. (2001). Naming of Musical Notes: A Selective Deficit in One Musical Clef. The quote is not precise – the actual paper says “The deficit on which we focused was her inability to read orally the bass (F) clef, often substituting it with the violin (G) clef.”

Bilingual people can forget one language while retaining the other

In bilingual or polylingual people different languages may be affected in different ways. There are bilingual German Jews, who have refused to speak German since childhood, only to find either that they have mercifully lost it altogether or that they are unable to communicate except in German.

The Language Instinct

From Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (available on LibGen).

An internal account of how a stroke feels

One of these victims, who eventually recovered his language ability, recalls the event, which he experienced with complete lucidity:

When I woke up I had a bit of a headache and thought I must have been sleeping with my right arm under me because it felt all pins-and-needly and numb and I couldn’t make it do what I wanted. I got out of bed but I couldn’t stand; as a matter of fact I actually fell on the floor because my right leg was too weak to take my weight. I called out to my wife in the next room and no sound came — I couldn’t speak. ... I was astonished, horrified. I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me and I began to feel bewildered and frightened and then I suddenly realized that I must have had a stroke. In a way this rationalization made me feel somewhat relieved but not for long because I had always thought that the effects of a stroke were permanent in every case. ... I found I could speak a little but even to me the words seemed wrong and not what I meant to say.

An example of speech of a person who can not remember nouns

The neuropsychologist Kathleen Baynes describes “HW,” a business executive who suffered a stroke in this general area. He is highly intelligent, articulate, and conversationally adept but finds it virtually impossible to retrieve nouns from his mental dictionary, though he can understand them. Here is how he responded when Baynes asked him to describe a picture of a boy falling from a stool as he reaches into a jar on a shelf and hands a cookie to his sister:

First of all this is falling down, just about, and is gonna fall down and they’re both getting something to eat ... but the trouble is this is gonna let go and they’re both gonna fall down ... I can’t see well enough but I believe that either she or will have some food that’s not good for you and she’s to get some for her, too ... and that you get it there because they shouldn’t go up there and get it unless you tell them that they could have it. And so this is falling down and for sure there’s one they’re going to have for food and, and this didn’t come out right, the, uh, the stuff that’s uh, good for, it’s not good for you but it, but you love, um mum mum [smacks lips] ... and that so they’ve ... see that, I can’t see whether it’s in there or not ... I think she’s saying, I want two or three, I want one, I think, I think so, and so, so she’s gonna get this one for sure it’s gonna fall down there or whatever, she’s gonna get that one and, and there, he’s gonna get one himself or more, it all depends with this when they fall down ... and when it falls down there’s no problem, all they got to do is fix it and go right back up and get some more.

More examples of forgetting only certain classes of words

The mental thesaurus, in particular, is sometimes torn into pieces with clean edges. Among anomic patients (those who have trouble using nouns), different patients have problems with different kinds of nouns. Some can use concrete nouns but not abstract nouns. Some can use abstract nouns but not concrete nouns. Some can use nouns for nonliving things but have trouble with nouns for living things; others can use nouns for living things but have trouble with nouns for nonliving things. Some can name animals and vegetables but not foods, body parts, clothing, vehicles, or furniture. There are patients who have trouble with nouns for anything but animals, patients who cannot name body parts, patients who cannot name objects typically found indoors, patients who cannot name colors, and patients who have trouble with proper names. One patient could not name fruits or vegetables: he could name an abacus and a sphinx but not an apple or a peach.

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Weird experiences: visual form agnosia (the case of Dee Fletcher)

The patient, Dee Fletcher, loses the ability to visually recognize shapes, objects, or people. She knows there is something on a table, but doesn’t know that it is a pencil or how it is oriented on the table. She can still perceive color and texture, and recognize materials. Intriguingly, something in Dee can still recognize shapes – for instance, she knows exactly how to position her hand to grab the pencil from the table – but this knowledge is not available to her consciousness.

Everything in this post is quoted from the Open Philantropy 2017 Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood, Visual form agnosia in Dee Fletcher.

Dee goes through coma

In February 1988, Dee collapsed into a coma as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by an improperly vented water heater in her home.

Dee loses recognition of shapes and objects

After a few days of recovery, it became clear that Dee’s vision was impaired. She could see colors and surface textures (e. g. the tiny hairs on someone’s hand), but she couldn’t recognize shapes, objects, or people unless (1) she could identify them via another sense (e. g. hearing someone’s voice, or touching a hand), or unless (2) she could guess the object or person’s identity with color and surface texture information alone, for example if a close friend visited her while wearing a distinctively blue sweater.

[...] Dee often had trouble separating an object from the background. According to her, objects seemed to “run into each other,” such that “two adjacent objects of similar color, such as a knife and fork, will often look to her like a single entity.”

[...] Dee’s problem is not that she struggles to verbally name shapes or objects, and nor is it a deficit in remembering what common objects look like. G&M-13 reports:

Dee has great difficulties in copying drawings of common objects or geometric shapes [see image below]. Some brain-damaged patients who are unable to identify pictures of objects can still slavishly copy what they see, line by line, and produce something recognizable. But Dee can’t even pick out the individual edges and contours that make up a picture in order to copy them. Presumably, unlike those other patients, Dee’s problem is not one of interpreting a picture that she sees clearly — her problem is that she can’t see the shapes in the picture to start with.

Dee couldn’t recognize any of the drawings in the left-most column above. When she tried to copy those objects (middle column), she could incorporate some elements of the drawing (such as the small dots representing text), but her overall copies are unrecognizable. However, when asked to draw objects from memories she formed before her accident (right-most column), she did just fine, except for the fact that when she lifted her pencil and put it back down, she sometimes put it back down in the wrong place (presumably due to her inability to see shapes and edges even as she was drawing them). When she was later shown the objects she had drawn from memory, she couldn’t identify them.

Dee can still recognize colors and texture

[...] When G&M showed Dee a flashlight made of shiny metal and red plastic, she said: “It’s made of aluminium. It’s got red plastic on it. Is it some sort of kitchen utensil?” Given that she couldn’t see the object’s shape, and only its surface colors and texture, this was a sensible guess, since many kitchen tools are made of metal and plastic. As soon G&M placed the flashlight in her hand, she immediately recognized it as a flashlight.

Weirdly, Dee can actually recognize shapes just fine, but she can not consciously use this knowledge

[...] However, despite her severe deficits in identifying shapes, objects, and people, Dee displayed a nearly normal ability to walk around in her environment and use her hands to pick things up and interact with them. G&M report the moment they realized just how striking the difference was between Dee’s ability to recognize objects and her ability to interact with them:

[In the summer of 1988] we were showing [Dee] various everyday objects to see whether she could recognize them, without allowing her to feel what they were. When we held up a pencil, we were not surprised that she couldn’t tell us what it was, even though she could tell us it was yellow. In fact, she had no idea whether we were holding it horizontally or vertically. But then something quite extraordinary happened. Before we knew it, Dee had reached out and taken the pencil, presumably to examine it more closely… After a few moments, it dawned on us what an amazing event we had just witnessed. By performing this simple everyday act she had revealed a side to her vision which, until that moment, we had never suspected was there. Dee’s movements had been quick and perfectly coordinated, showing none of the clumsiness or fumbling that one might have expected in someone whose vision was as poor as hers. To have grasped the pencil in this skillful way, she must have turned her wrist “in flight” so that her fingers and thumb were well positioned in readiness for grasping the pencil — just like a fully sighted person. Yet it was no fluke: when we took the pencil back and asked her to do it again, she always grabbed it perfectly, no matter whether we held the pencil horizontally, vertically, or obliquely.

How could Dee do this? She had to be using vision; a blind person couldn’t have grabbed the pencil so effortlessly. But she couldn’t have been using her conscious visual experience, either, as her conscious visual experience didn’t include any information about the rotation of the pencil or its exact shape.

G&M soon put this difference to a more formal test. They built a simple mailbox-like slot that could be rotated to any angle (while Dee closed her eyes), and then they gave Dee a thin card to “post” into the slot. When asked to “post” the card, she had no difficulty. However, when she was asked to merely turn the card so that it matched the orientation of the slot, without reaching toward the slot, she performed no better than chance. She couldn’t consciously see the orientation of the slot, but nevertheless when posting the card into the slot, she had no trouble rotating the card properly so that it went into the slot.

The diagrams [above] show Dee’s performance relative to healthy control subjects, with the “correct” orientation always shown as vertical even though the slot was rotated to many different orientations. Video showed that when posting the card, Dee rotated it well before reaching the slot — clearly, a visually-guided behavior, even if it wasn’t guided by conscious vision.

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