More than two decades ago, Peter Brugger, as a PhD student in neuropsychology at the University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland, was developing a reputation as someone interested in scientific explanations of so-called paranormal experiences. A fellow neurologist, who had been treating a 21-year-old man for seizures, sent him to Brugger. The young man, who worked as a waiter and lived in the canton of Zurich, had very nearly killed himself one day, when he found himself face-to-face with his doppelganger.
The incident seemed to have been started when the young man had stopped taking some of his anticonvulsant medication. One morning, instead of going to work, he drank copious amounts of beer and stayed in bed. But it turned out to be a harrowing lie-in.
He felt dizzy, stood up, turned around, and saw himself still lying in bed. He was aware that the person in bed was him, and was not willing to get up and would thus make himself late for work. Furious at the prone self, the man shouted at it, shook it, and even jumped on it, all to no avail. To complicate things further, his awareness of being in a body would shift from one body to the other. When he inhabited the supine body in bed, he’d see his duplicate bending over and shaking him.
Soon, fear and confusion took hold: Who was he? Was he the man standing up or the man lying in bed? Unable to stand seeing his double any longer, he jumped out of the window.
When I visited Brugger in the autumn of 2011, he showed me a photograph of the building from which the man had jumped. The patient had been extremely lucky. He had leapt from a window on the fourth floor and landed on a large hazel bush, which had broken his fall. But he had not really wanted to commit suicide, said Brugger. He had jumped to “find a match between body and self”. After getting treatment for his fall-related injuries, the young man underwent surgery to remove a tumour in his left temporal lobe, and both the seizures and the bizarre experiences stopped.
Such hallucinations are classified as autoscopic phenomena (from “autoscopy”; in Greek, autos means “self” and skopeo means “looking at”). The simplest form of an autoscopic phenomenon involves feeling the presence of someone next to you without actually seeing a “double” – a sensed presence. The doppelganger effect takes this phenomenon a step further, so that a person may hallucinate that they are actually seeing and interacting with another “me” – a visual double. But probably the most widely experienced and best-known form of autoscopic phenomena is the out-of-body experience (OBE). During a classic full-blown OBE, people report leaving their physical body and seeing it from an outside perspective, say from the ceiling looking down at the body lying in bed.
Despite their vividness, they are all hallucinations caused by malfunctions in brain mechanisms that root us in the here and now. The strange experiences are probably our best window on some very basic aspects of our sense of bodily self – explaining how the brain builds our perception of being present in the here and now, and the subjective, emotional feelings that dominate our consciousness.
Read More: Here