Today at the Sunday Times Literary Festival in Oxford, something very unusual happened for the very first time. I have been giving the same old SuperSense talk for about two years now and have pretty much got used to all the wacky questions and members of the audience who have had strange experiences. I have even encountered my own bizarre episodes of déjà vu where I suddenly felt that I had been in the situation before as well as the related déjà vécu where I was sure I had the memory of being there. No doubt repeating myself over and over again, led me to experience the familiarity of situations without keeping track of the source. As anyone who has every lectured knows, I got that depersonalized experience where I was listening to myself as an external speaker.
These are all tricks that the brain can play on us, as I hammered home my same old message, “You are your brain, nothing more, nothing less. Any weird experiences are just your brain playing up.”
I was getting towards the end of my presentation when I was saying that there was no scientific evidence for mediums or possession when a lady in the front row, probably in her late 50’s grasped her arm and started shaking. I thought, “Oh here we go, someone is going to trying and persuade us that she is possessed.”
But if she was acting, then she was doing a fine job. She had turned ashen white with that bluish tinge to the lips indicating anoxia. Oh no, I thought, she’s having a heart attack. But then she started convulsing and I realized she was having a seizure. Her convulsions became increasingly violent and I really thought she was going to drop dead. The audience and organizers did not know what to do. Some wanted to clear the room, or remove her but I explained she was having a seizure and that there was nothing to do but to let it pass.
I surprised myself in my calmness – when the seizure started to subside, I asked her if she was epileptic. She nodded. I asked if she wanted to stay. She said yes. Had my talk or demonstrations triggered her fit? She said no – “phew” but I could not help thinking that in my efforts to stir the audience with mind-bending demonstrations, I had gone a little too far.
If that event had happened 400 years ago, it would have probably been interpreted as something demonic but we now understand these behaviours as the cascading misfiring of the brain in a storm of neuroelectrical activity.
Upon reflection, I realized I had missed an opportunity to make a point, but it would have been extremely callous at the time to point out the significance of this lady’s misfortune. In that one moment, she had demonstrated in a way that I never could, that all our thoughts and behaviours are the outputs of a biological machine. She had no control over her brain because she was her brain and when it went on the blink, so did she. A sobering thought.