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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