The Witch in the Waiting Room

William Hirstein. Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation. Bradford/MIT Press. 2006.
 
Robert S Bobrow. The Witch in the Waiting Room: A Physician Investigates Paranormal Phenomena in Medicine. Thunders Mouth Press, 2006.
 
Doctors experience some very strange things during the course of their professional lives, as these two books show.

Hirstein deals with phenomena with which perhaps conventional science is more at home with, but which ultimately may turn out to be more subversive of our conventional view of ourselves and our world. Confabulation is syndrome encountered in patients with a variety of neurological damage; gaps in memory are filled with fantastic stories, which the patients themselves actually believe at the time. Hirstein shows how this confabulation can occur with other kinds of strange delusions generated by specific forms of neurological damage. People with certain kinds of strokes are paralysed down one side but refuse to admit the fact, others simply deny with existence of one side of their body and world.

More specific syndromes exist. In Capgras syndrome people believe that their significant others have been replaced by impostors, its opposite Fregoli’s syndrome in which strangers are perceived as the significant others (you might see the face of a relative on everyone you meet in the street for example), Intermetamorphosis, in which faces change before your eyes, doubles syndrome in which come to believe they have an exact double; there are other syndromes in which people can lose the ability to recognise faces at all.

In many ways these are extreme examples of things that happen to all of us, who has not walked past an acquaintance without recognising them, who has not been embarrassed by going up to a stranger thinking them an acquaintance. More interestingly Fregoli’s syndrome and Intermetamorphosis are very like phenomena reported from the séance room. The former in cases in which people “see” the faces of loved ones in the features of the medium or her accomplice or even an old doll. The latter is represented by what was called transfiguration mediumship, in which the face of the medium seems to change into the face of one of the sitters significant others.

All of these syndromes call into question the certainty of our perceptions and inferences about the world.

The paranormal phenomena discussed by Bobrow cover a range, from those which are simply weird but not fundamentally challenging our world view, to the hard core paranormal stuff. Bobrow’s experiences also point out that raise the subject of the paranormal in a sympathetic sounding manner in any social group, and you will easily accumulate a raft of the stories of anomalous experiences.

Bobrow draws his accounts mainly from the mainstream medical literature, giving lie the claim that such things are routinely censored out of the mainstream press. It has to be said in fact that the evidential standards of some of these stories fall below what would be acceptable in academic parapsychological literature. being of a largely anecdotal character. Some of the material reported here will be familiar to Magonia readers, we get studies of NDE’s, Ian Stevenson’s reincarnation claims etc. Others are perhaps less familiar. Many people will have heard of body dismorphia, the idea that ones body is fundamentally wrong, the commonest example is that of transgenderism, whereby someone feels trapped in the body of the wrong gender and often seeks reassignment surgery. This is often explained as having “a woman’s brain in a man’s body” or vice versa; what then can we make of the case reported here of a man who believed he was a tiger trapped in a human body, I doubt anyone would assume he actually had a tiger’s brain!

Other cases centre around death occurring when predicted, or when people think they are cursed, they seem to suggest the strong role of suggestion.

Bobrow also looks at the work of writers like Robert Becker and Michael Persinger.

A problem with Bobrow’s approach is that he is an a sense parachuting into the paranormal territory and cherry picking stories, without being aware of the often complex and problematic background of what looks impressive because it has been reported in the medical literature by authority figures with degrees and professorships and the sort.

In some sense the odd experiences in these two books tend to contradict each other. Much of the material in Hirstein argues for the extraordinary way in which our memories, minds, thoughts and personalities are condition by the precise state of our brains; the more paranormal material in Bobrow arguing exactly the opposite, citing cases of memories acquired when the brain was supposed to be completely out of commission, being drained of blood during an operation, or even memories of other peoples lives. These two sets of claims become the nucleus around which rival camps of sceptics and paranormalists gather, each uncritically accepting the claims of their own side while ignoring or vilifying the claims of the other.


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