“Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves” – Albert Einstein
It’s a big universe and sadly we only have these tiny little brains, our insufficient googly eyes, wholly inadequate noses, and despairingly stunted ears to work with. Not you. You’re perfect. I mean the rest of the unwashed masses. Given our sensory limitations, it seems glaringly obvious that we miss a lot, particularly those things which our rough and ready, immediately accessible cognitive models regard as highly improbable. We are awash in physical realities that we can’t detect without assistance – infrared, ultraviolet, electricity, gravity, and the haunting appeal of pop music. I largely ignore both the fact that I’m involuntarily tapping my foot to Disney-inspired Top 40 hits or have a cell phone until someone rudely brings it to my attention that I’m humming a tune from Frozen or reaches out across the mobile ether to contact me. I still generally ignore it when it rings, but it represents an invisible intrusion on my comfortable, hermetically-sealed reality. Anomalies and assorted fortean phenomena (those things that are sensed as eruptions of the impossible into the realm of possibility) are designated as such since they are not encapsulated by our ontologies, but for millennia we have remarked upon them in folklore, mythology, theology, and “weird news” precisely because they have attracted our, albeit very selective, attention. I’m not talking about awareness that stems from a predisposition to believe, rather the disorienting occurrence of the upstart noumenal becoming phenomenal.
Cognitive psychologists have spent a great deal of time and grant money exploring the mechanics of the human capacity for selective attention, and this is frequently trotted out as an explanation for the experience of the paranormal. You think there is a ghost in your house because you have attuned yourself to the common sounds of acoustically-prone architecture that most folks blissfully ignore. You interpret a fuzzy bush as Bigfoot, ignoring the other visual cues that would suggest a more herbaceous origin. Manna fell from heaven, but you ignored the fact that luggage did as well. This is a polite way of saying that it’s all in your head. What if anomalistic phenomena are indeed a function of selective attention, but rather than chalking them up to “mis-“ or “over-“ interpretation, the experience of the strange, while still a function of attention, was actually the result of attention to oddities at the margin.
Now, I’m not especially paranoid and anybody who tells you different is probably just out to get me, but I started down this line of thought when I was musing about why all these folkloric critters would expend so much effort in making us disbelieve in their existence, or at least making the possibility so confusing as to induce migraines. Maybe that’s the hangover talking, but I prefer existential explanations for my maladies like any other self-respecting narcissist. I’ve requested that my tombstone read, “It was all about me, after all…”. But, what if the inhabitants of other realities pay no more attention to us than we do to them? That would certainly explain the relative paucity of our encounters with otherworldliness. Perhaps we are anomalies to what we regard as anomalies, that is they have to actually attend to our existence to know we exist and interact with us. And once they see us and we see them, anything can happen. Thankfully this would also explain the epiphenomenal nature of my dating history. Pretty girls and handsome dudes abound, but if you fall in a forest, do they notice? By the same token, your encounter with a ghost, faerie, divine emissary, or monster may be just as puzzling for them as it is for you.
In light of this, consider John Keel’s disturbing interactions with the elusive specter Indrid Cold in the Mothman Prophecies. Unfortunately, long ago I had the lack of foresight to lend my first edition copy to a ne’er-do-well and never saw it again, but thankfully Hollywood made a movie with scintillating dialogue for me to quote in order to illustrate my point. John Klein (John Keel’s alter ego in the movie) after experiencing a series of very personal anomalies and inexplicable phenomena related to the Mothman, asks his other alter ego Alexander Leek a simple question of “Why me?”, to which he receives the response “You noticed them, and they noticed that you noticed them”. We tend to weigh our perceptions against our thoughts, and when they are incommensurate, we can choose to acknowledge or ignore them. And therein resides the experience of the uncanny and the unnatural. It is a question of judgment, both of the observers of the anomaly and the anomaly itself.
We then no longer receive unhesitatingly the ideas or percepts as they occur in the non-volitional stream of consciousness, but we question them, asking as it were whether they are or are not in harmony with the idea to which we have selectively attended. The perception of either their harmony or their discord with it, in answer to our question, is a judgment; and there is no judgment which does not pre-suppose an implicit question or doubt, involved in the act of selective attention for the purpose of knowing, an act of attention to what we afterwards, that is, in Logic, call the subject of the judgment. The act of selective attention renders the percept or idea attended to expectant of some other percept or idea (to be supplied from the store of memory by spontaneous redintegration) which will harmonise, that is, will coalesce with it, so as to form a single but complex idea. The discrepancy, real or apparent, of the percept attended to with the course of spontaneous redintegration in which it occurred was the very circumstance which led us to attend to it, with the view of finding something with which it would not be discrepant. We thus found the subject of our judgment (Hodgson, 1898, p283).
The real question, of course, is do we want to notice, and do we want to be noticed. Once we notice an anomaly, we chase after it with gadgetry and guns. Consider the possibility that if we attract enough attention, we might end up creeping out paranormal investigators on someone else’s interdimensional reality show. Or maybe they’ll just come and take our stuff. I don’t really want to be exorcised, what with all the yelling and dousing with holy water. It’s unsavory. I’m not saying we should ignore the shadowy creatures and anomalies of existence that cross our field of vision, simply that we should pay no more attention to them than they do to us. If a faerie suggests an irrational activity or an extraterrestrial tries any sort of invasive probing, we have every right to point out to them that they are as strange to us as we are to them, and if they want to have any kind of healthy relationship, they need to make their intentions obvious. As Victorian novelist Samuel Butler said, “If God wants us to do a thing, he should make his wishes sufficiently clear. Sensible people will wait till he has done this before paying much attention to him”.
Hodgson, Shadworth Hollway, 1832-1912. The Metaphysic of Experience. London: Longmans, Green, 1898.