Neuroscientific Exploration of Strange Relations: Between The Fantastic and the Paranormal

Tzvetan Todorov in his classic study of the fantastic, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre once defined it this way:

Which brings us to the very heart of the fantastic. In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us.1

The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny, or the marvelous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event. But what if this interpretation was itself problematic? What then? What if evidence from the neurosciences could shed light on such inexplicable and seemingly unnatural events, personages, and happenings? What if all along it has been our metaphysics once again that has misapplied false categories and complexified the world into natural/supernatural divisions that are now obsolete?

As Jeffrey J. Kripal in Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred reminds us:

Paranormal phenomena, after all, dramatically violate those firm epistemological boundaries that, since Descartes, have increasingly divided up our university departments (and our social reality) into things pertaining to matter and objective reality (the sciences) and things pertaining to human experience and subjective reality (the humanities). Our scientific worldview has progressed, moreover, with the assumption more or less intact that it is the former objective reality that is really real, not the latter subjective . . . well, whatever that is.’

For Todorov the fantastic was bound to that wavering between the possible and impossible, the hesitant uncertainty we have when faced with the inexplicable event, phenomenon, or agency that cannot be deciphered, interpreted, or reduced to the descriptions of either ancient mythic forms, nor to the internal psychological manifestations of the uncanny force or pressure of mental causation, and yet it is there in all its frightening appeal before us: this thing that both fascinates and lures us to our doom, or freezes us in fright as if hypnotized by the deadly eyes of a viper. Philosophically it is that interval of time, duration in-between our choosing or deciding, a moment of hesitant uncertainty in which we are held spellbound unable to decide, caught in the act of is it or is it not…. real? That is the question: How to interpret the impossible? How to make sense of that which has no precedent for us in the particular, when we are faced with something unbounded, ungrounded by concept, thought, or precept? This is the heart of the fantastic…

Todorov in his definition of the Fantastic required three conditions be met:

The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work – in the case of naïve reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations. These three requirements do not have an equal value. The first and the third actually constitute the genre; the second may not be fulfilled. Nonetheless, most examples satisfy all three conditions.

Hesitation and uncertainty are paramount: that between reader/text concerning natural/supernatural; that between character and real/unreal; and the rejection of allegorical or symbolic.

My first question is this between natural/supernatural: if we take up the neuroscientists we might consider the possibility that the old metaphysical divisions between natural/supernatural are actually those of the brain itself. The notion that our divisions are bound to unconscious processes of the brain itself that filter out data deemed not useful to the brain for either survival or reproductive needs. So that the forces some consider to be supernatural or marvelous are neither, but rather aspects of our common reality that have been arbitrarily filtered out by the brain in its evolutionary decision to survive and have sex. What we’ve termed the invisible, the noumenal is not some separate world, but our own world either misidentified by metaphysical categories and cognitive biases, or the unneeded aspects of a natural order that our brain has deemed of little use in the long evolutionary history to our survival and reproductive needs.

If this is true then we are not only blind to our own internal/unconscious brain processes, but as well we are blind to the surrounding environmental processes that our brain deemed unnecessary as functional aspects of our evolutionary heritage.

The reason I bring this up at all is that throughout human history there has been this battle between visible/invisible forces bound to natural or supernatural powers, and yet these have been throughout that time from Shamanistic (ecstatic flight) or Voudoun (ecstatic immanence-possession) divided from the natural order. It was this process of division that produced both reason and the binary cultures we’ve become. All cultures have indexed this division into code, we are no different.

Watching these otherwise banal paranormal channel’s here in America like Destination America one sees this made explicit. Superstition reigns and the old metaphysical categories of tribal imagination are still alive and well. We see the use of highly refined electronic equipment right alongside the strangely disquieting categories of the skeptic and fantastic. It is the fantastic that orders such phenomenon for these investigators who like Todorov’s reader interpret the events as either natural (debunked) or supernatural (accepted), but always according to the outmoded categories of metaphysics. Strangely none of these common sense or non-philosophical investigators, who as far as one can see have never thought beyond the level of such events philosophically understands what it is these phenomenon entail so to a show reduce them into these disquieting categories of marvelous or uncanny that are so apparent in Gothic, Weird, and Fantastic literature.

My question is and has been: What if these phenomenon of paranormal have nothing to do with ghosts, spirits, demons, or unnatural forces, happenings, events but are rather part of a larger natural order that has been filtered out by our brain and the slow progression of cultural and linguistic barriers we’ve built up through religious and secular theory/praxis over millennia? What if these forces impinging on these otherwise superstitious peoples lives does in fact exist but not in the metaphysical or supernatural mode of apprehension in which they are reduced, but rather mark out a natural order of energetic powers that we have yet to understand due to our brain’s own inherent limits, finitude, and blindness?

In their neurocognitive approach to the ancient traditions of reception and ecstatic mysticism termed Kabbalah Shah Arzy  and Moshe Idel explore the possibility that these ancient cognitive maps were none other than roadmaps into the brains core processes:

Using neurological and neuropsychological studies, analyses of brain lesions, experimental psychology, neurophysiology, and neuroimaging, we endeavor to decode the neurocognitive mechanisms and processes underlying these mystical experiences. This enables further understanding not only of the mystical techniques but also of the ecstatic experiences and their various contexts.3

Patrick McNamara in a wider frame would through a neuroscientific approach on a world-wide survey of test subjects from various indigenous, aboriginal, and shamanistic cultures discover that changes in religious experiences in the sample of subjects that have been studied with cognitive and neuroscientific techniques are, in fact, reliably associated with a complex circuit of neural structures. This, of course, is a remarkable fact. The fact that a particular circuit of brain regions is consistently associated with religious experiences may tell us something about the nature and functions of religion.4 He’d go on to say:

Whatever else it is, religion is an integral part of human nature and thus religion is not mere delusion. The functionally integrated religion-related brain circuit involves a widely distributed set of neural regions (depending on particular religious behaviors) but nearly always includes the key nodes of the amygdala, the right anterior temporal cortex, and the right prefrontal cortex. Sometimes the subcortical amygdala is not part of the picture, but the hippocampus is. Sometimes one portion of the prefrontal cortex does not “light up” in association with religious practices, whereas another region of the prefrontal cortex will. Sometimes the parietal lobes are implicated, and so on. Nevertheless, in hundreds of clinical cases and a handful of neuroimaging studies, it is a striking fact that the amygdala, large portions of the prefrontal lobes, and the anterior temporal cortex are repeatedly implicated in expression of religious experiences. (McNamara, p. xi).

Like anything else this is all very speculative and in the early stages of neuroscientific endeavor and will obviously as more data is brought to bare make new discoveries as well as a better understanding of such strange ecstatic forms of consciousness due to changes in neurochemical changes and relations among regions of the brain. The use of natural substances and hallucinogens is as well under scrutiny and has been a part of modern neuroscientific studies since the early nineteen-fifties through the work of Albert Hoffman and others.

My only point is that many of the supposed religious and mystical experiences, the otherwise notions of supernatural events, personages, and experiences have as much to do with the as yet understudied neurochemical origins of such experiences as have yet to be explored. But we cannot reduce it to strict neuroscientific changes in the brain either, there is as well a relation to external events, powers, forces, agencies that exist not in some supernatural world but rather are and remain a part of our own natural order as yet unexplained and misidentified due to centuries of metaphysical baggage and conflicts between reason, spirit, and praxis in such areas. The Secular Age founded by the Enlightenment separated such worlds divisively and built categories of internal/external , intrinsic/extrinsic, epistemological/ontological separation that during the later twentieth-century led to the aporia’s and dead-ends of post-structuralist and analytical quagmires of Continental and Analytic philosophy, not to mention the strict physicalist materialism of the early period. All this is passé, and yet it still surfaces in our present era of speculative trends in the debates on the sciences and philosophy.

This is not the place for me to battle that one out, only to point out we are entering a period when our knowledge of the brain’s inner workings is being uncovered and there seems a strange and uncanny relation between the world and mind that is emerging out of the neuroscientific community that presents us with a completely different and more ominous picture of ourselves and the cosmos we inhabit.


  1. Tzvetan Todorov. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Cornell University Press; 1st edition (May 31, 1975)
  2. Jeffrey J. Kripal. Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Kindle Locations 559-563). The University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Shahar Arzy and Moshe Idel. Kabbalah: A Neurocognitive Approach to Mystical Experiences. Yale University Press (June 30, 2015)
  4. Patrick McNamara. The Neuroscience of Religious Experience. Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (October 30, 2014)

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