Where is a personality?
When we talk about consciousness, we tend to assume it is the same as personality - the essence of being an individual. However, research has revealed that personality is much more closely associated with memories. When someone loses their life memories, they also lose those aspects that define their personalities.
So if memories are our personality, what is consciousness? It turns out, again according to research, that the vast majority of what our brains do is unconscious. That includes not only obviously unconscious things, like controlling the muscles to make us walk, but decision making. If we chose to move our hand, the nerves that control the relevant muscles react slightly before we are aware of it consciously. This implies that the decision has already been made unconsciously and our consciousness is only informed afterwards! So what use is our consciousness? It is thought to be a place for high-level executive planning, like what to do next Tuesday. So much for the idea that consciousness is what defines our personality!
So, the unconscious part of our brains is where all the action is! All the information from our senses is processed by our unconscious but only the 'edited highlights' make it to our consciousness (see misperception). What is more, what we see and hear is interpreted for us before it becomes conscious. And things (like words or visual objects) may be substituted for what our senses actually picked up. A shadow may be turned into a figure by the time we see it (see visual substitutions). A faint random noise may be turned into a voice before we hear it (see formant noise).
Our unconscious brains sense things as they really are, because they have the raw input from eyes, ears and so on. This can be demonstrated by experiments. Though our sight might be fooled by optical illusions that show something larger or smaller than it really is, if we reach out to touch it we grab it accurately. Clearly the illusion is occurs only in our consciousness.
Unconscious source of xenonormal?
It is tempting to speculate that many xenonormal phenomena (most reports of paranormal end up being xenonormal) may result from the mismatch of information between the conscious and unconscious parts of our brains. As well as the obvious examples like formant noise and visual substitutions, there may well be other examples.
For instance, what about a sense of presence - the feeling that you are not alone in a room, even though you can't see anyone else? Is this another example of our unconscious passing on edited sensory information and maybe throwing in its own interpretation along the way? Is the mismatch between what the unconscious knows and the consciousness thinks unusually large in such cases? How many other apparently paranormal experiences may arise from the fact that the unconscious bits of our brains know something that the conscious bits don't know.
Limits of perception
It is notable that a great many paranormal incidents involve witnesses reporting phenomena at the limit of their perception. For instance, they may see a figure in the dark or at a distance so that they are hard to see. Or they may hear something that is very faint.
The same is true of things we perceive with the help of instruments. Those anomalous photos that do not involve orbs tend to show apparent objects at the limit of the resolution of the photo (whether spatially, in terms of pixels, or by the ability to distinguish between two different colours or shades). EVPs are often very faint or shrouded in distracting noise.
© Maurice Townsend 2008