Is it really possible to see your own ghost? THE ANSWER SEEMS TO BE YES

But even those studying the phenomenon known as autoscopy have no idea what causes it, or who might join its list of victims next. One thing’s certain—there’s nothing else like it on earth

BARBARA MOON January 3 1959

Is it really possible to see your own ghost? THE ANSWER SEEMS TO BE YES

But even those studying the phenomenon known as autoscopy have no idea what causes it, or who might join its list of victims next. One thing’s certain—there’s nothing else like it on earth

BARBARA MOON January 3 1959

D. H. Lawrence, the blunt and blazing English novelist, died of consumption at Vence, in the south of France, at forty-four. A few days before his death, Mrs. Aldous Huxley was in his room tidying it and plumping the pillows. Lawrence was propped up in bed, an emaciated figure wearing a red nightcap for warmth. Suddenly he exclaimed to Mrs. Huxley, “I’m not really here, Maria. I’m over on the other side of the room, and I can see myself. My cap looks funny and my nose seems very thin." An experience had come to Lawrence in those few seconds that is as eerie, as primal and as disturbing as any known to man. He had, so to speak, seen his own ghost . . . in daylight . . . fleshed out . . . clothed . . . as solid-seeming as his real companion.

There was, of course, nothing there. Men of science call his experience autoscopy — seeing oneself. There are no experts on autoscopy, and few studies in medical literature. There’s evidence that many who have suffered it do not care to talk of it.

Most laymen have never heard of it. Yet here and there, flickering through recorded history like swampfire, are hints that it may be a common experience. In the fourth century B.C. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, reported a man who could not go for a walk without seeing his double coming toward him.

Only a couple of years ago a social worker from Ottawa was sitting in a dentist's chair when suddenly, for a moment, she seemed to be looking down at her own body from above. The great Russian novelist of the nineteenth century, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, experienced autoscopy and was so filled with pity and terror that he wrote a book about it, The Double, and introduced the theme into most of his other works. A male teacher in London, England, six years ago was accompanied everywhere for four days by his double; the teacher got so used to it that when, in desperation, he finally visited his doctor, he drew up a second chair for his spectral companion.

The apparition is usually sudden and without warning. The victim may be wide awake, deep in thought, or drowsy, but not—in the classic cases—asleep. He sees his double quite clearly, but it may range from a magic-lantern image hanging in the air to a solid, three-dimensional form so real-seeming that the texture of the skin may be distinguished. It is usually dressed just as the subject is, and mimics his movements while staying just out of range.

Indescribable sensation

It appears that the subject feels, in some indescribable way, linked with the double. If he tries to approach it the double may draw back or fade away. Or it may not. One woman said her double touched her; one man’s double seemed to him to approach and merge with him.

None but the victims themselves know what the actual experience is like: it seems as impossible to communicate as that shimmering sideslip in time that is called déjà vu and that, too, hints at forms of experience the mind might furnish if we could let it, or would.

However, one remarkable interview sketches some of the ingredients that pass both language and understanding: a doctor in San Francisco, Caro Lippman, has recorded a conversation with a patient. She was a court reporter, suffering from migraine headaches, who, while sitting in his office on the twenty-first floor of a skyscraper, had suddenly felt her real self clinging to the outside of his window.

"You knew you were sitting in the chair?” Dr. Lippman asked her afterwards.

A. “Oh yes ... I knew I wasn't . . . that I didn’t have any . . .”

Q. "But you told me that this second 'self' seemed more real to you at the time?”

A. "All my feelings were with the part of me that was outside the window.”

Q "You say you felt cold?” (Many victims have tried to describe the same symptom. They speak of "a chill and my hackles rising” or “an icy prickling” or "a cold shivering.” It seems indescribable, except possibly in the old words of Job: “a spirit passed before my face: and the hair of my flesh stood up.")

A. "I felt cold, and I could feel the terrible struggle . . . my arms, or ‘me’ trying to keep from falling.”

Q. “Was that ‘me’ afraid?” (While some victims have been afraid—aghast —many others speak only of "an ineffable sadness,” of "weariness.”)

A. "Well, it was just a physical . . . wishing to get hold of myself. And I had to shudder to get back in. I have to (shuddering) readjust like that." An Englishman has described the same experience as "like sucking your yolk back into your shell.”

Q. "What happens to the ‘me’ that is sitting in the chair?”

A. "Well, you can't feel it."

Q. "You can't feel that one at all?"

A. "No, you can't feel it physically. I know it's there, but I can't feel it."

Usually the subject locates himself correctly in his real body, but in a whole group of cases, like this one, he finds himself in the double's body—or simply outside his own body—looking at his physical husk.

A well-known poetess who suffered from epilepsy for many years used to feel when she was recovering from certain attacks that she had two bodies and was herself between them. She could not decide which was the real one, and would sometimes get quite badly hurt through picking the wrong body and banging heavily into a wall.

“Which one shudders? Do you shudder with the outside one?” Dr. Lippman asked his patient.

A. "Both. You shudder with both, to get them back together again. That gets the feelings back into the body, so when I do that, it’ll be all of me together.”

No one knows how or why some people find themselves asunder. No one knows what causes autoscopy, or whom it will visit, or what moment it will pick, or how to stop it. Of the handful of people who have studied the cases, some think of it as a true ghost, come on some awful occasion of its own to haunt the victim: many medical men regard it as a burlesque on normal sense perception composed and played out meaninglessly by a hurt brain. There are psychologists who see it as the product of some need of a disheveled personality—a need so strong that the sense centres oblige with a counterfeit. There are a few who suggest that the victims are privileged: that they show the last gutterings of an almost extinct talent—or the first flicker of a new one — for a different kind of thought and experience and even communication.

The confusion of explanations is understandable, for one of the most remarkable features of this bizarre and disquieting phenomenon is the great range of conditions that sometimes produce it—and sometimes do not.

Some years ago a French Canadian was brought into the Saskatchewan Hospital at Weyburn by the RCMP, who had picked him up for creating a disturbance in a Regina hotel. He had started out at a ball game in Winnipeg, but had suddenly been overcome by unreasoning panic and had fled the game to board a bus for Regina. The trip was nightmarish, for he became convinced that the driver was making signals with the brakes and that a lady passenger was also signaling by moving an orange about. He checked in at a hotel in Regina and the nightmare grew more and more florid: people rushed into his room; he put up a fight against a man with a peg-leg; he got knocked out. When he finally came to, he found himself on the floor of what seemed to be a police cell, bleeding profusely. He picked himself up and went to the Judas hole in the cell door. There, sprucely mustached, smartly turned out, walking up and down the corridor outside, smoking a cigar, he saw himself. He later reported, ‘‘I knew it was me and then I knew I was crazy.”

At Weyburn his case was diagnosed as a brief, acute schizophrenic episode. Schizophrenia, a severe mental disturbance that some now believe to be caused by an upset in body chemistry, is marked by hallucinations of various sorts. Yet in eight years at Saskatchewan Hospital, working with thousands of schizophrenic patients, this is the sole case of self-appearance that Dr. Humphry Osmond, head of the hospital, has encountered.

A hospital in Cowley, England, reports an old man, with a large tumor in the left side of his brain, who started seeing the image of himself “exactly like looking in a mirror.” It lasted for about a minute, during which it aped all his movements, and it came back on several occasions before his death two months later. Yet one researcher reviewed eight hundred other cases of intracranial tumor of which one hundred had visual hallucinations of some sort; none saw himself.

The temporarily schizophrenic patient at Weyburn saw his double only once in a lifetime; the man with the tumor at Cowley saw himself several times in a period of two months. The double of one subject, a young English electrical engineer, is with him every waking moment. It has been found that a number of epileptics see their double at the time of a periodic seizure—either just before or just after an attack. Occasionally the experience even replaces an attack.

Such a case was a brilliant young architect in England, who developed epilepsy at thirty-three. When he was thirty-eight he was sitting in his office one morning talking to a builder-contractor when he glanced toward the entrance and saw, materializing through the closed door and then approaching the desk, his exact mirror-image complete to the monocle he himself was wearing. Only one detail was different. The architect had lost a leg in a grenade accident and limped slightly on his artificial leg. The double walked with no limp.

The contractor noticed his employer's pallor and vacant expression and asked if he felt unwell. The contractor recalls: “He did not answer. He was staring at the door and seemed not to hear me. After a second or two he got up, walked to the door, and tried the handle. He then came back to his desk, looked at me, and said: Yes. Where were we? Oh, yes, I know.’ ”

The architect’s own account was somewhat different: “I felt like paralyzed. I could not move. I felt as if all my life left my body and went into him.” At this point he apparently lost consciousness for a few seconds. Then: “I and my double melted together into one body and one soul. Everything became at once so lifeless, empty, and meaningless, so unreal, and so far away. I do not know how long it lasted, but it seemed ages to me. Finally 'he' left my body again, and I saw him walking slowly toward the door. On this occasion he was limping on his right leg, as l always do, and somehow I knew that he felt tired and weary. He disappeared through the closed door without opening it. Then suddenly I felt an irresistible urge to go over to the door and to satisfy myself that it was really closed. I do not know why I did it . . .

“After this experience I felt weary and tired, and much older. I had difficulties in finding the right words and could not continue to discuss the technical points with my contractor. So I sent him away, and, as I felt headachy and sleepy, I went to my bedroom and lay down. I fell asleep, but woke up in a little while feeling fresh and fit again.”

During the following year the architect had five more such episodes, each in the same place and at exactly the same hour of the morning — the hour at which, incidentally, he claimed to have lost his leg in the accident. Finally, afraid he was going mad, he went to consult a doctor in Vienna. There, just after checking into his hotel, he walked straight into a tramcar—“as though in a trance,” according to the sister who had accompanied him—and was killed.

Phantom images

Such cases suggest to some students that autoscopy is the result of physical insult to the brain—chemical poisoning, tumor, spasm, a wound or irritation of some kind—that sets the brain to manufacturing sense-signals as well as relaying them. It’s rather like a damaged TV scanner that stutters out random, extra electronic impulses which make a phantom, extra pattern on the screen.

If this is so, autoscopy should be regarded as a symptom of some kind of organic brain damage. And, indeed, Professor Jean Lhermitte, one of the world's foremost neuro-psychiatrists and one of the first to make a study of autoscopy, said in 1951, “What I want to lay stress upon is the fact that the apparition of the double should make one seriously suspect the incidence of a disease.”

But there are many cases of autoscopy on record where examining doctors have been able to find no real physical excuse. A number of patients with migraine—commonly supposed to spring from unconscious emotional conflicts—have confessed to seeing their doubles, or to seeming to move outside their bodies and look back at them. One California doctor has reported no fewer than eight such cases. The emotional disorder called hysteria has produced not only visions but also some cases of self-appearance. Among the victims are a few who appear to compensate for a lost limb or body-member by hallucinating an unscathed double.

Psychiatrists maintain that urgent unconscious conflicts can trigger the brain into playing tricks just as easily as can physical damage. Autoscopy, therefore, makes them seriously suspect the presence of sickness in these personalities.

And there are a few uncomfortable but compelling cases, like D. H. Lawrence’s, that can be construed as being caused by great mental stress or great sickness or both. Among them are the experiences of some who have sunk into the death-coma and been revived.

One such case was cited by Sir Auckland Geddes, at one time professor of anatomy at McGill and later the British ambassador in Washington. The subject had dictated an account to a skilled secretary as life was re-establishing itself. In it he described realizing he was so acutely ill with gastro-enteritis that he could not ring for assistance, placidly resigning himself, then becoming aware that he was splitting into two consciousnesses. He was located in the A-consciousness.

"The B-personality I recognized as belonging to the body, and as my physical condition grew worse and the heart was fibrillating rather than beating. I realized that the B-consciousness belonging to the body was beginning to show signs of being composite, that is, built up of ‘consciousness’ from the head, the heart and the viscera. The components became more individual and the B-consciousness began to disintegrate, while the A-consciousness, which was now me, seemed to be altogether outside my body, which it could see.”

The narrator seemed to watch his body being discovered on the bed, the arrival of the doctor; heard the comment. “He’s nearly gone”; saw the hypodermic injection; knew the stronger heartbeat. Then: ”I came back into the body really angry at being pulled back, and once I was back, all the clarity of vision of anything and everything disappeared and I was just possessed of a glimmer of consciousness, which was suffused with pain.”

But there are also cases on record where, by any lay standards, the victims are quite normal.

A retired schoolteacher in England said she first saw her double when she returned from the cemetery after her husband’s funeral. It was waiting for her in her darkened bedroom. Dimly conscious of an intruder, the teacher said, she reached up with her right hand to switch on the electric light. The intruder made the same movement with her left hand. The hands seemed to meet, not with a touch but with a chill, numbing sense of the blood running out. Under the light the double was revealed to her dressed in identical widow's weeds, and it seemed to mimic her every movement. The schoolteacher was suddenly and overwhelmingly drained of feeling and emotion, unbearably sleepy. She lay down on the bed and closed her eyes. Almost at once she seemed to feel life seeping back into her and when she opened her eyes again the double was gone. But it returned the next day at dusk, and almost every day after that.

The doctor who examined her could find no sign of organic disease or any other disorder beyond "a mildly obsessional and worrying type of personality, with a tendency to depressive moods."

One doctor who had a single experience of autoscopy was suffering from nothing more serious than flu. In other victims the only abnormality has seemed to be fatigue. In fact it appears probable that many normal people suffer self-appearances of which medical men never hear; they feel hallucinations are disreputable and stay silent about them.

Significantly, from the one group that’s not reluctant to dine out on its personal experiences, however strange, come a striking number of accounts of autoscopy. These are writers, and one list of victims names fifteen world-famous ones, ranging from Goethe to Edgar Allan Poe. De Maupassant, the French novelist, once asked a friend, “How would you feel if you had to go through what I experience? Almost every time when I return home I see my double. I open the door and see myself sitting in the armchair." Jean Paul Richter, a German author of the nineteenth century, had hallucinations of himself from early boyhood. He wrote. “I look at him, he looks at me, and both of us hold our eyes in horror."

Who sees hallucinations?

While many of these brilliant men were undoubtedly either physically or mentally abnormal, Dr. Kenneth Dewhurst, a student of autoscopy writing in the Irish Medical Journal, says, “It would be gross presumption to fix a psychotic or organic label to all such people."

In fact there is a growing conviction that hallucinations are a very common occurrence. A census undertaken some years ago by the Society for Psychical Research in England indicated that more than eleven percent of normal people had hallucinations of one kind or another at some time in their lives. And not long ago Dr. John Smythies, of the Saskatchewan Hospital in Weyburn, said firmly, "The formation of hallucinations is a normal activity of the mind." Some thinkers go still further and say that the formation of hallucinations is the activity of the mind: what we call the real world is simply that steady hallucination which is triggered by the stirring senses. When the senses doze, other hallucinations take over as dreams. But, sometimes, even when the senses are awake, there is interference — jamming, as it were — from some other source or sources.

Psychiatry suggests that the source is our own unconscious selves. Research into extrasensory perception seems to suggest that the source can be another mind. Most religions suggest still another possible source. All three groups believe that special conditions, such as stress, sickness, fatigue or mortification of the flesh, can encourage the interference.

And neuro-psychiatrists now add that among the minds so affected some will have the power of constructing a visual image in objective space from the strange signal. They call such people “visualizers." Goethe, for example, could voluntarily hallucinate a flower, which he then watched unfold.

But victims of autoscopy don't conjure up their doubles by will. And even involuntary hallucinations, like most dreams, seem to make some sense. What sense is made by the appearance of one’s self to oneself?

It seems a special experience, specially elemental, calling to mind the old superstitious folklore about twins, or man’s irrational dislike of being told someone else looks like him. The signposts seem to point back along the road of racial memory to the savage who thought his reflection in the water or his shadow on land contained part of his life: even today Eskimos in remote areas believe that a photograph steals away part of the subject’s soul. Or the signposts seem to point to ethical man’s old war with his bad angel; or psychological man’s new war with his basic drives; or religious man’s belief in his immortal soul; or any human’s fierce clutching round him of his own identity; or some other, unknown convulsion in the hot, dark sump of the unconscious.

Some cases make it easy to read meanings into them. The poet Musset’s double was all that he loathed and feared in himself: “It was myself,” Musset wrote, “but twenty years older; my features worn by debauchery or illness; my eyes seemed startled and my mouth cruel." The double overtook him in a park near Paris one day, stared vacantly as it passed, and then made a gesture of hatred.

Yet a machine operator's double was his own ideal—it always appeared conducting an orchestra as the machinist longed to do. Still another double appeared to a woman in the guise of her conscience, clothed in white, with “a Madonna-like veil over the head.” It debated aloud the selfishness of a project she was considering. "I shall do what I like, you pious, white prig," said the subject, but she gave up the project.

To those who have seemed to leave their bodies when sick or near death, the experience repeatedly carries the meaning of personal survival. Wrote one New York doctor, “If the whole world was to rise up and say that there was no life after one left the physical organism, it would not make one particle of difference in my mind, as I am absolutely certain that I have been as free from my physical body as I ever will be."

Psychiatry suggests another possible meaning to the self-appearances. Every human being, it seems, has a body-image—a shifting but ever-present kind of awareness of his own dimensions, shape, description and arrangement of members. Within limits, it alters according to circumstance: the feet seem bigger if they trip clumsily, the fingers if they are frost-nipped, the head if it aches. If we go up in a lift, the central body mass seems to lapse downward, to surge upward as the lift descends. If a woman is wearing a hat her body image stretches to the tip of the feather that she must protect from accident; if a man is driving a car his dimensions stretch to include its width and length.

Our body-image is with us constantly, wavering, bloating, shrinking, like a diver under changing pressure.

But, unstable though the image is, the mind clings to it. Even when the body is altered or damaged, the mind may refuse to alter its body-image to fit. An amputation is well known to produce the frequent phenomenon of the phantom limb, in which the patient keeps all the sensations of location and movement that he had in his real leg.

Autoscopy, it's suggested, may carry this one stage further. The architect with the wooden leg, whose double nevertheless didn't limp, may have hallucinated not just a leg but a whole, intact, external body.

And, perhaps, if the mind can compensate in this way for physical damage, it may also compensate for subtler psychological outrage to its body-image.

In what ways might our selfhood be so violated that we want or need to cast it loose from us, or ourselves from it? No one knows for sure.