Sunday, July 13, 2008

An anecdote - when Lucifer had a crack at me

Well, I like to think it was Lucifer, not some unimportant demon...

This is a personal anecdote about something quite scary and real that happened to me when I was about 12 years old (to the best of my no-doubt unreliable memory...). It's a story that shows the value in skepticism and using science as a candle in the dark to chase away the demons... (Those who know the candle bit will see the cleverness of my rip off of homage to, Carl Sagan.) I never told anyone this story straight after it happened. I only could discuss it years later when I understood what actually happened.

When I was about 12 years old, I woke up early one morning, lying on my back, completely paralysed. I could not move any part of my body at all, but was fully conscious. An extremely low pitched and evil sounding voice, sounding as if it was coming up from the bowels of the Earth was saying: "Come to me.... Come to me... Come to me..." over and over again. Needless to say, I was completely terrified. As the voice spoke, I kept feeling as if I was being pulled down into my bed, like I was being crushed through it even.

It was very repetitive, and I could feel myself drifting back to unconsciousness. I thought that if this occurred, I was a goner. I'd be sucked down into the depths of hell with this evil sounding demon. I tried to call out to my parents, but no sound would come. I panicked more and more, but to no avail.

Eventually I calmed down and thought about it (no mean feat given the evil voice still called me...). I thought I could either give in and lose consciousness, or if I could just move one of my fingers, I'd be able to break the "spell". I concentrated on my fingers (my right hand I think), and I twitched my pinkie. Within a millisecond the paralysis was over; the voice disappearing with it. I'd bested the evil demon.

For the next year or so, with the experience so vivid, I wouldn't say I actually believed in the devil and hell, but it did play on my mind and give me some cause for concern (prior to this, not being a Christian, I hadn't really thought about it). As the memory started to fade, I started to change my view of this experience, and chalked it up as a bad dream, but I still wasn't sure.

Then, in my early 20s I read a book by Carl Sagan - The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (see my Skeptics' Circle tribute to Carl based on this book). In the chapter on Alien Abductions, he discusses Sleep Paralysis. I'd previously never heard of it, but all of a sudden my experience went from being a seemingly paranormal one, to a standard physiological one, sleep paralysis with hypnopompia.

Initially, without even knowing it, as the memory faded I had applied Occam's razor to dismiss the experience as an intense and horrifying dream. That is, I had two possible hypotheses for my experience (that I could think of anyway). One, the "Lucifer hypothesis", that a devil really was trying to kill me and drag me down to hell. Or two, the "mega bad dream hypothesis", I'd had an intense and horrifying dream.

Given my evidence for both hypotheses was simply my own anecdotal experience, I reasoned the Lucifer hypothesis was the most convoluted. It postulated an entire other world (hell), to this day an undetected other world. The mega bad dream theory postulated an explanation based on an extrapolation of experiences I was already familiar with (bad dreams). The only inexplicable bit, at that stage, was the paralysis. But I had experienced the paralysis on a few occasions on its own prior to this. I just didn't know what to make of it.

I could have stuck with my first explanation, the Lucifer hypothesis (it sounds way more 'wicked'), but I had Spun Another Hypothesis that explained the experience just as well (though still not very well) and was simpler. So I went with the mega bad dream hypothesis.

Sagan's book "saved me" in more ways than one. As I said before, in his chapter on Alien Abductions he discussed sleep paralysis. This explained the only part of the experience that I couldn't readily explain. My mega bad dream hypothesis was not only parsimonious, it now had the well understood science to explain every aspect of it. Game over.

The other way Sagan's book "saved me" was by introducing me to baloney detection including fallacies and techniques I'd unconsciously been using such as Occam's razor and Spinning Another Hypothesis. (To be fair to my Dad, he was fostering these thinking skills in me from an early age, but Carl gets the major kudos as Dad didn't come and rescue me when I was 12! Although it was his copy of The Demon Haunted World I read...)

Being skeptical doesn't mean dismissing ideas out of hand. It means weighing up quality evidence (i.e., ignoring GIGO) to try and form an opinion. Where the evidence lacking, it means applying thinking techniques to form an "on balance" view. It means you are immunised from the purveyors of humbug. That's why skeptics never get possessed, haunted, abducted by aliens, scammed... you get the idea.