Visits from Dead People — Part 2

[ Continued from Visits from Dead People — Part 1 ]

Another thing I figured out: There’s room in your head for more than just you.

I even wrote a story – okay, part of a story – about it one time. I figured that if multiple personality is really a thing – meaning that if there are real people out there with multiple personality as a disease, and sort of by accident – why couldn’t there be people who did it on purpose, and used it as an asset? Monday through Friday, you could be Dr. Kensington Braithwaite III, but on weekends you could be Billy Bob Harley. Not just those people as you imagined them to be, as you acted them out, but the real people – the one guy who had little or no memory of the other one, and vice versa ditto.  

But mostly the story was based on my own observations about … the other people inside me. The people I had somehow absorbed, or recorded.

You know how when you live with or around somebody for any length of time, you can eventually predict what they’d say on just about any subject? That’s them inside you.

If you’re like me, you can not only know what they might say on any subject, you can hear it in their voice, right there in your head.

Hey, Hank, you wanna go to Whiskey Creek with us tonight? Hank, you left your dishes in the sink again. Hank, the horses are out! Hank, I’m stuck out in the driveway; you got your snow shovel? Hank, can you come help me haul a coupla tons of hay this Saturday?

(To that last: HELL, NO, I don’t! Are you crazy? Hauling hay is the LAST goddam thing I wanna do this Saturday! Oh, grumblegrumblefarkingcrapgrumble, okay.)

We record the people around us. Their faces, their voices, the things they might say and the way they might say them. I have a vague memory of reading about “mirror neurons” – a part of the brain specifically devoted to “mirroring” the emotions and attitudes of the people around us.

When you think about it, there would just about have to be something like that in your head, just so you can imagine what other people are feeling. So they’ll be real to you. We could hardly have evolved as social animals without it.

But you don’t have to know any of that. You just have to watch what happens in your own head:

The recordings in our heads are so real to us that sometimes we react to people even before they say anything. You spill your milk, you feel scared and guilty even before Mom enters the room. You KNOW what she’ll say. Why? Because she’s in your head, and she’s already saying it. “Oh, Nita, AGAIN? Why can’t you be more careful? Your brother never spills HIS milk! Go get me some paper towels! And the mop!”

It’s not just her voice, it’s her facial expression, her body language, her actual feeling of annoyance, as you oh-so-well, after long practice, imagine it to be.

The thing about it is, the ability to record and replay the people you know is active when the people it models are alive, but it stays working even after they die.

I can feel my Dad smiling at me right this minute as I write this. He’s pleased and amused at me. Pleased that I’m smart enough to come up with the insight about how we record people and then react to those recordings even after people are dead, amused that imagining him reacting to it carries within it its own paradox – that I feel him so exactly, but that if it’s something happening in my own brain, it’s not really him I’m feeling.

Bear in mind that the Play button on this ability is not completely under your control. You can call up your rolling 4-D image of a person at any time, but those persons are also perfectly capable of popping into your head at any time completely on their own.

I say again: The ability doesn’t stop when they die.

That’s good: You can hear your mom’s loving voice in your head, see her smiling face, years after she’s gone.

But it’s bad: Your hated stepfather can continue to bring you down with his snarky comments, spoiling every personal victory, decades after he’s dead and out of your life.

And it’s bad for this other reason too: It predisposes us, triply so — as individuals, as a culture, and as an intelligent species growing up without guidance and trying to understand ourselves — to mistakenly believe there’s something there after death.

We hear them in our heads. They come to us, talk to us, vividly share their feelings with us.

They have to be real.

Except they’re not.

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About Hank Fox
  • Hank Fox

    Argh. I have a typo, but I can’t fix it where I am. Meant to say “Hell no I CAN’T. “

  • Rebecca Hensler

    Hank, this is a brilliant insight. (That last one, though the previous ones are pretty smart too.) I’ll be posting a link to the Grief Beyond Belief membership; it helps people to know that the way their dead loved ones seem to keep existing inside their heads isn’t just THEM.

    By the way, I loved all the ways you experimented with your body’s capabilities as a kid. I just tried the left hand/right hand one. Worked a little. I think it would work even more with practice. As a teenager I would write a dot on a page and stare at it, induce double vision by letting my eyes unfocus, and then mark on the page how far distant I could get the two spots to move. Never knew anyone else tried these kinds of eye games.

  • kagekiri

    Yeesh, yeah, internalizing other people’s voices can suck. My internal voice of guilt is tinged with my parent’s voices, with the voices of the times my friends were disappointed by my actions or hurt by me, even those I’m no longer in contact with…damn, it hurts just thinking about it.

    I’ve been trying to stop listening to those voices or over-projecting and extrapolating so much from past experiences to future ones, but it’s a hard habit to break.

    Before I started trying to limit the effects of these internal voices, pretty much every mistake felt like yet another addition to the chorus of shame and disappointment that was in my head, denouncing me or staring at me in disapproval.

  • FedUp(OrJustFed)

    re Internalizing parents’ voices….in my case, it goes a little farther on some subjects. For instance, when cooking, baking, or gardening, I don’t hear my mother’s voice, I simulate her reasoning and thought patterns. The closest description I can come up with is (kinda creepy) “Norman Bates”-like. I’m not hearing Mom, I’m borrowing her judgement. The food results have been good (and pretty yummy!) The plants stay green, too.

  • hotshoe

    Interesting post, Hank.

    For the last several years I’ve been solitary – my choice, mostly – unemployed stuck in the house at first and although I got a job last year, it turns out I’m working literally a mile from the next closest human being … and lately I’ve noticed that I’m NOT getting those voices from my family anymore.

    I wonder how much experiential reinforcement my brain needs to recreate that not-here person. Talk to Mom on the phone last week to “hear” her voice when I spill the milk this week ? Yeah … but how many weeks can go by before the effect stops ? And can contact, or absence of contact, with anyone (not Mom) last week make it easier, or harder, to “hear” her this time ?

    Amazing and bizarre, our consciousness is. I’m sorta glad I won’t still be around if/when science figures it all out.

    • F

      This is probably a bit variable depending on who you are. These sorts of person-memories aren’t perfect to begin with, and can be colored by things like your age at the time you lost contact with the person (if you have). Even for people one has not lost, one may imagine, say, a father’s disappointment, to a deep and lasting effect, when in reality dad isn’t disappointed at all, but in fact proud. He just had different ideas about what his child might be in the world, maybe fixated on something for a while, but the exact nature of what the adult child does isn’t important, but how well the child does their thing and how happy they are is what dad is really concerned with. Or the opposite: Losing a father when young and a bit insulated, one might still picture dad as a giant, and a great man, when in fact he was a major ass with serious problems which eventually contributed to his death.

      Memory is funny and pliable, even though we can have very good imprints of other persons as well.

      Which reminds me a bit of something I read or watched many years ago, about culture or language or memory or death. There is some culture where they speak of the dead in a manner (my comparison here) akin to the way we speak of the living/growing. There are the very recently dead, with many people alive who are still grieving for their loss. There are those not-recently dead, who still live in the memories of those who knew them. And there are the dead who no one living knew, but who live on in shared stories and things they built or owned. Then there are the forgotten dead, no longer even a name in a family history. Or something like that. But the key was that the person lives on to varying extents in the memories of others, in these stages I compare to infancy through old age into a second death.

      (Sadly, I can’t recall whether this culture had much stock in an afterlife, but my plastic memory thinks not. -And right there is another sort of virtualization host running some virtual machine in my memory, doing the thinking: Not another person, but a simpler construct of concepts. I, the host OS and wetware, cannot remember, but I have a memory that thinks it remembers.)

  • Leslie

    My dad has been gone for almost 23 years. I can’t hear his voice. I am sure I’d recognize it if, miraculously, he were to appear. I know it was a soft voice, not especially deep.

    I can come up with his opinion on things and the words he’d say but I cannot hear his voice. I can see his face and remember what he looked like at different points in my life. I love him just as much today as the day he passed.

    I wish I could conjure up his voice.

    • hotshoe

      I’m sorry, Leslie. Hugs for you if you want ‘em.

  • hoary puccoon

    I remember my father talking about an older friend, a Jew who had escaped to America from Nazi Germany. And my father’s gestures gradually became very unlike himself as he reminisced– his hands gesticulating, even his eyebrows arching in a way they never usually did. Even years after his friend’s death, my father still carried a memory of him in his own nerves and sinews.