Visits from Dead People — Part 1

When I was younger, I used to play with myself.

No, not like that. Okay, well, yes like that, but that’s not what I meant. (Too much information, huh? The hell with it, I’m leaving it in. We’re all sexy beasts here.)

What I mean is that I used to play with different parts of my body, to see what I could learn from them, to see what they would do.

Eyes were the best part. I learned I could see my heartbeat in my eyes. If I stared at a blank patch of sky, I could see a mandala-like pattern, pulsing gently in tune with my heart. Whatever arteries or capillaries were in my eye, I decided, they very slightly disturbed the retina each time my heart contracted, creating faint shadow-like tracings in a concentric pattern.

Those “spots in front of your eyes” you see when you bend over and then stand up too fast? I never did figure out what those were – something related to changes in blood pressure in your visual capillaries? – but I did figure out how to see them even when I wasn’t bending over and standing up. They’re fainter, paler, but still there, and they seem to cover your entire visual field. Fascinating little things for a young boy, little swimmers that continuously moved in front of my eyes!

I learned that if I stared at something without moving my eyes, my vision would gradually go dark, until I couldn’t resist flickering my eyes to the side and everything would reappear. I decided there was some bit of your eye or brain that got tired of seeing the same thing, and just shut down over the course of 20 seconds or so. You had to move your eyes constantly in order to keep seeing.

Likewise, if you held your eyes still and stared at a bright object for a half-minute or so, then closed your eyes, you could still see the thing, sort of burned into your vision, but as a negative image. It was like there were chemicals involved in seeing, and they got used up in the process. The “negative” was the area where the chemicals were used up. Your eyes had to keep moving, both so you could continue to see a thing, and so the chemicals in each spot could be replenished.

Another fun thing I discovered with eyes. If you cross your eyes while you look in the mirror and then, without uncrossing your eyes, look to the left, your left eye temporarily works just like a chameleon’s eye, moving completely independent of the right. It was freaky and delightful. If you worked at it, it seemed to me, you could learn to run your eyes independently. (But I was too lazy to work at it.)

On another front, I learned I could tinker very slightly with my heart. If I lay down very quiet, and concentrated on feeling it pulse in there, and then thought about it not pulsing, it would pause for a second. I did it twice, and both times it scared me, both the weird way it felt and the scary possibility that it might just stay stopped, and I broke off the experiment.

I toyed with my breathing. You needed a certain amount of air, I knew, but why did it have to come with regular slow breaths? Why not breathe like a dolphin, where you held your breath for a minute or so, then did a deep exhale and inhale to get the needed oxygen? I tried it one day, taking 10 or so dolphin-breaths over the course of 10 or 12 minutes. The experiment ended when someone (my brother?) came in and asked me a question. I discovered my vocal cords were completely paralyzed, and it was a good five minutes before I could talk again. That sort of scared me too, and I never tried it again. (But I still wondered: Why do you have to breathe right for your vocal cords to keep working?)

I played with my tongue, watching in the mirror and tweaking it into different shapes. I was surprised to realize your tongue is a tentacle! A short tentacle, but still a tentacle, and a really clever, useful one.

It was my tongue research that helped me realize that every part of your body has multiple uses. Tongues can be used for eating, for whistling, for cleaning your teeth of food particles or your lips of milk, for talking, even for gesturing. Tongue gestures ranged from comical to obscene, and those last, I discovered, were deeply offensive to some people, particularly adult women. (So of course I practiced them a lot, to try to figure out why they were so bad.)

I discovered whistling, and played with my lips to learn to do it. Eventually I figured out six different ways to create whistle-sounds. There was a way to do it with your hands cupped into a sort of sphere, where you blew across a hole that formed between your thumbs (actually my brother showed me this one, but I had to figure out how to do it to make it work) and make a sound like an owl. (Trying it just now, I discover I’ve forgotten the exact positions, and would have to experiment to get it right again.)

I discovered a wimpy, quiet way to whistle with just your tongue. There was another way you could do it with just your lips, and it was louder and you could make actual music that way, if you practiced. You could do a pretty loud single-note whistle by putting your two little fingers in your teeth, wrapping your lips over them and blowing between them. There was a way you could do a piercing blast so loud it hurt your own ears by using your lips, tongue and teeth (which I put to good use later in life to whistle-call my distant dogs during hikes). And finally there was a way to use your lips, thumbs and a blade of grass to make a noise like you’d imagine a dying rabbit might make.

I played with my brain. If you were left-handed, as I was, you couldn’t write well with your right hand. But if I held a pen in my right hand and imagined it was my left hand, I could write better – still not well, but visibly better – instantly. And that seemed weird. You could temporarily rewire your brain so that some of the writing dexterity of your good hand crossed over to the bad one!

Not really an experiment but a thought-provoking experience: I had an odd sort of thing that happened to me very, very occasionally when I was a kid. I’d have a strange feeling and certain memories would flash into my mind in the same sequence. I’ve since decided this may have been a very small seizure of some sort, where a group of neurons in one tiny part of my brain would fire off in unexpected coordination. It must have been a VERY small one, though, because it was attention-getting but not attention-consuming; if I was mowing the lawn or doing something with my cowboy friends, I’d just go on with what I was doing. (Note to insurance companies, prospective employers and drivers license bureaus: This hasn’t happened in probably 50 years, and besides my description of it here is all dramatic license for the purposes of this essay – I’m really talking about someone else I knew who described it to me – so fuck off.)

I figured out déjà vu on my own! That 3-second-long feeling of “I’ve been here before, doing this exact thing.” The best answers I’d had so far as to what it was – and plenty of other people seemed to have it, so there were plenty of theories – was that it was a remembered instance of precognition (a future-vision you’d had days or months ago, maybe without realizing it, that you were just now remembering), or something to do with a past life, but I decided to think about it as something real, something really going on with your brain.

My guess was that there’s a part of your brain that has to do with recognition. It fires with that “feeling of surprised familiarity” when you actually do encounter something familiar unexpectedly. But what if it fires, very occasionally, at random? You’d get the feeling of familiarity without actually being anywhere especially familiar. Which would be weird. “I’ve been here in this library before, at this exact moment, doing this exact thing, picking out this exact book.” “I’ve been here in this Jack in the Box before, on this exact summer day, biting into this exact same Jumbo Jack.”

The cool thing about postulating a Familiarity Center in your brain was that it didn’t have to have mystical woo-woo attached to make sense. But it was still a bit of a reach, since I had no knowledge of any such thing.

Yet years later, I got to feel all smug and happy when I read an article by a brain researcher who said he had pretty much the same theory. Déjà vu was something mundane – neurons involved in the act of recognition, firing by accident and sparking that feeling of familiarity for a few seconds.

There was a lesson there too, a lesson in one’s approach to understanding stuff. Other people, steeped in the mystical stories about psychic powers and past lives, got it wrong. It was only when you turned away from that and looked for some real-world explanation, that you got it right, or close to right.

Regarding which, I put some thought into Visits from Dead People. Their voices sounding in the room. Their images appearing to you in dreams. Their anger, or love, or … whatever … coming to you in quiet moments.


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  • Kilian Hekhuis

    Cool stuff, and very recognizable. Anxious for part 2.

  • Tracey

    Interesting take on deja vu, and makes a lot of sense.

  • MaryLynne

    You are just the coolest. Every column I either learn something new or have a new way to think about the world – often both. You are so thoughtful – there is actual thinking going on that inspires thinking and wonder in us. Thank you! Can’t wait for the rest of this column.

  • Midnight Rambler

    Those “spots in front of your eyes” you see when you bend over and then stand up too fast? I never did figure out what those were – something related to changes in blood pressure in your visual capillaries?

    Those are red blood cells moving through the capillaries that lie in front of the photoreceptors in the retina. A visible example of our evolutionary heritage!

  • Midnight Rambler

    Re déjà vu: this can also be caused by a sort of partial seizure (not the convulsive kind that you usually think of). I have epilepsy, and after switching to a medication that especially targets partials, I’ve never had a déjà vu feeling, whereas I used to have them fairly often.

  • kennypo65

    That “owl whistle” you mentioned, when I was in second grade you were nobody if you couldn’t do it. I can still do it. I taught it to my son when he was in second grade. I can’t describe how to you; I’d have to show you. If we ever meet, I’ll bet I show you just once and you’ll remember. BTW, I think it sounds more like a mourning dove.

    • c2t2

      It does sound like a mourning dove. I’ve had ‘conversations’ with mourning doves using this method. (I think they’re saying “I don’t understand your accent, bro.”) It’s possible Hank’s talking about a different method.

      I wish I knew how the really loud whistle worked (the one he uses to call his dogs). That would be useful in so many situations. When I was a teen I was a martial arts instructor AND a lifeguard during summer, and boy could I yell. I wish I could still command that kind of attention in the middle of chaos, instead of my current method of undignified flailing.

      As for the rest of the post: Awesome! I did a few – but not all – of those same experiments. I’ve always wanted to learn how to write right handed, but my right side is truly pathetic at fine motor control/coordination. I think this post gave me a hint.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    I think you and I were the same person as a kid. I had also figured out that staring at something very still can make your vision go funny.

    It works even easier if you stare at a uniform surface, like a carpet, and there is a small object a bit to the side of your center of vision. Keep your eyes still and after a bit, the object will disappear as your eyes get tired of seeing the same thing and your brain fills in the missing data with whatever pattern it expects to see. This happens quicker than having your entire field of vision go blank.

    At 4th grade lunch, some of my friends caught me staring blankly at the table doing this. They thought I was weird until they too made a little french fry disappear.

  • Jet

    I experience déjà vu times when I even remember FEELING déjà vu. So i have basically an infinite regression of that feeling, which is really really weird.

  • StevoR

    When I was younger, I used to play with myself.
    No, not like that. Okay, well, yes like that, but that’s not what I meant. … What I mean is that I used to play with different parts of my body, to see what I could learn from them, to see what they would do.

    Laughing my drunken ass off! Cheers!

    • Ev

      My favourites were always lucid dreaming (I wanted to be know how it felt to fly) and if you want to have insomnia for a few years, try observing yourself falling asleep.
      Good news, I can do this now, and have taught myself to fall asleep by ‘scattering’ my thoughts deliberately and then following them down the rabbit hole. Fun.

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