Monday, 5 May 2008

Omphaloskepsis

Today, Charlie Brooker writes about occasionally feeling waves of existential angst, a description that interested me because I've had the same occasional feeling for many years now. I suppose it must be part of the human condition, since looking at the comment thread on the article, there are many other people who experience the same thing.

The realisation is very strange, and really comes down to recognising that I am a being with free will, and that most of the time I am on auto-pilot (as Brooker puts it). It's a frightening but exhillerating feeling that usually only lasts a second or two, and for me, it's got to the point where I can fairly comfortably cause it to happen to myself. I'll usually try it when dropping off to sleep, since it's better if there are no distractions. Then, I'll start to imagine being outside my body, watching myself, repeating in my head "I am real", and "I am not just a bodiless mind floating in the void" over and over again.

Sometimes it take a few minutes, sometimes it doesn't happen at all, but sometimes, I can force my brain into a loop, where I realise that I'm a real person for a split second, my brain compensates for it and calms me, and I counter it, usually with something like "No, but actually real", and imagine myself coming out of my body again. Doing this again and again causes the feeling to gradually fade in intensity each time, and it'll be a couple of weeks before I can do it again with any force.

I'm not a philosopher, and I don't really know how to describe the feeling (though it's certainly the same thing that Brooker and his commenters are talking about), and I'd be interested to know if anyone I know has experienced anything remotely similar.

4 comments:

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

errr... no.

this was my first reaction.

Then I kinda thought about it, and realised that every now and then I think about it and how awesome the human body is and how our eyes are all crazy and cool and how our minds work and all that stuff. I generally end up think how cool God is for making it all work, which is obviously down to my beliefs. But I think that's what you where trying to say. I generally try to sleep when I'm in bed though.

TheTelf said...

I think it's less about weird and amazing we are physiologically so much as how strange it is that when we think of the 6.6 billion people on the planet, we rarely think of ourselves as one of them. So often, we think about real issues and people as though they were just statistics, or as though they were scripted. Certainly the weirdness for me is the momentary 'realisation' that I am (and we all are) more than just a statistic.

Difficult to explain (hence why I've done it so badly twice).

The Big LeBamski said...

As far as I'm aware, I've never had the realisation that you and Brooker describe. That's not to say that I'm not aware of being real, or that everyone else is real, but I just haven't experienced it in such a discrete fashion.

The closest I've come to what you're describing about everybody not just being a statistic or a soundbite or an image but a real living organism is when I watched some footage from 9/11, probably a couple of years after the event. I remember seeing footage of one of the towers burning. Tumbling from the tower were what at first looked like black specks. But then as they tumbled came the realisation that they were people jumping out of the tower. And a couple of seconds after came the stark reality of what they were doing. I remember feeling in my stomach a feeling that I don't think I felt before, nor since, a hyperrealisation if you will, of what I was seeing, and that each of those people was as real as me. And then I realised that the footage was a couple of years old, which meant that everything since that day, those people had never experienced, nor would they ever experience anything again.

I guess that's a little more to do with the stark reality of mortality and, to use a cliche, the fragility of human life. But I think there's a bit of your thing in there too.

In terms of being on autopilot, I guess its our consciousness' way of keeping us from going insane. Imagine if you were aware of everything that was happening in the whole world, and were thinking about it at every point of every day. What you know as a life would never exist because you would be concerned with everything else in the world so much that you couldn't have one.

It's a pretty philosophical discussion, and one that I'd like to continue more fully through a proper reply on the blog. But I shall stop here as I really need to go to bed. A very interesting and thought-provoking post though. Thanks.

immedia reaction said...

I'm not sure I follow exactly (though haven't read the Charlie Brooker yet)... Can't say I've had the same realisation. I think I once had the opposite experience. I was sitting on a chair at uni and suddenly it was if I didn't exist at all. I felt that if I stopped concentrating all the atoms in my body would fly apart and as a physical structure I would cease to exist.

I could barely feel the chair underneath me and I nearly dissolved and fell right through it. It wasn't a pleasant feeling because simultaneously, I felt that nothing mattered. If all I consisted of was atoms and that was all everything else was, then I could become discorporeal and it wouldn't matter. My feelings for other people, theirs for me, none of it mattered. Nothing mattered. I was.. indifferent. Maybe a spectre had my daemon.

Some small part of me was terrified and managed to stop it happening. But it was a very, very, very small part. It's only happened the once and I hope it never does again.