by Tony Harrington
She came into the office one morning looking particularly worn out and not at all well rested. She was a new mother and periodically she would have a rough day from having been up with the baby all night. This particular morning however, she looked different. There was worry behind her weary eyes and she seemed to have withdrawn inside herself, not at all the chipper co-worker I had come to know.
I, being the concerned office mate, approached her at the mid-day point to discuss what we wanted to do for lunch. It was typical that we went to lunch together to discuss the weekend and get caught up. She said that she just wanted to be alone for a bit and nervously brushed me off. I decided to finally confront her about her disposition afraid that she was mad at me for something I may have done unbeknownst to me. I am forever saying the wrong things and putting my foot in my mouth, a majority of my free time is spent apologizing for my insensitivity so I was no stranger to this.
I asked her if she was okay and if I had done something to upset her. She stood from her chair and walked to our office door and pulled it closed. She sat on the desk and folded her hands across her chest and laughed nervously. “I have got to be losing my mind,” she said as she appeared to struggle to not cry. “That’s the only answer.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” I said. “It’s not like you used it that often.” Remember what I said about me always saying the wrong thing? Exactly.
She brushed off my insensitivity and told me that the previous night her baby was extremely quiet. My co-worker had awoken to the sound of beautiful silence, the baby having slept through most of the night. We will call my co-worker “Kelly” to protect her identity. Kelly tells me that she was riddled with panic when she realized that it was well past four in the morning and that her daughter had not cried for her late night feeding. She walked down the short hallway to the nursery and opened the door quietly. She pushed the door in slightly and leaned her head into the room and listened to gentle breathing coming from the baby’s crib.
Kelly pulled her head from the room and was pulling the door shut when her eyes darted to the rocking chair that sat in the corner of the room at the foot of the crib and she was seized with terror when she saw herself sitting in the chair slowly rocking back and forth, completely oblivious to the fact that anyone was looking at her. She gasped, threw the door open and when she entered the room there was no one in there aside from the baby who woke with a scream at the sound of the door hitting the wall.
This got me thinking about several incidents where I thought I saw someone who I knew, who wasn’t actually there.
One time recently I came home from work and headed to the bedroom to set my laptop bag down. On the way I swung by the office and yelled hello to my roommate who sat at the computer playing World of Warcraft or some other online adventure. I headed to the bathroom, washed my face, changed out of my work clothes then came out to the family room and sat down to watch television. I almost had a heart attack when the front door burst open and my roommate came in hauling bags of groceries from Wal*Mart.
“Did you leave the groceries sitting in the car while you played WoW?”
He looked at me a bit confused as though I had lost my mind. “What are you talking about,” he asked. “Help me with the bags.”
I took a handful of bags and walked them to the kitchen. I noticed there were frozen items still covered with ice. “When did you go shopping?”
“Have you gone mad,” he asked. “I just got in.”
“How long was I in the bathroom?” I literally thought I had a seizure or stroke or passed out and lost track of time while I was in the bathroom. “You were just sitting in there,” I said, pointing to the computer room. “You were playing WoW.”
“I assure you I wasn’t. I went to the store right after work.”
“No.” I looked around confused then smiled because I thought surely he was having a laugh at my expense. “I saw you, I swear, plain as day playing your stupid game.”
“For starters, the game is awesome, secondly, I don’t know who you saw on the computer but it was most definitely not me.”
That was pretty much the end of the conversation, I didn’t feel much like pursuing it, I knew what I saw and I know it was real.
So either I, like my old office chum Kelly, lost my mind and started seeing things that were impossible to see or I had experienced something that I could not explain.
Flash forward a few years and now I am sitting in front of my computer writing this piece and I decide to research seeing people who aren’t really there. More importantly, seeing people you know or seeing yourself, specifically. That is when my trusty pal Google returned the word “Doppelganger”. A word that I had seen used in several old stories and a low-budget Drew Barrymore movie but never paid much attention to what exactly it is.
Doppelganger, the word, is German and literally means “double walker”. Historically and fictionally speaking, said doppelganger is typically a tangible double of a living person, usually the evil side of a living person. As a literary device the use of the doppelganger is effective though cliche` by today’s standards. But realistically, it is a true phenomenon experienced by people everyday including Abraham Lincoln who saw his own doppelganger standing behind him with two faces as he looked into a dressing table mirror.
It is not a terrifying experience necessarily, until that moment you realize that the person you saw was not really there though they appeared to be and seemed very real, solid and three-dimensional. I am sure it is more off-putting to see yourself, so my apologies to Kelly for thinking her insane.
Typically, and there is not much to go on aside from a few scant historical reports and personal experiences strewn about the ether we call the internet. What I have gleaned from reading the few stories and personal accounts is that the sighting of a doppelganger usually precedes some tragic event or unfortunate happening. I am pleased to say that in my experiences nothing of this nature has happened. Either I am lucky or all these little incidences are going to culminate in one giant unfortunate windfall. I hope that is not the case.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
On 8 July 1822, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in the Bay of Spezia near Lerici. On 15 August, while staying at Pisa, Percy’s wife Mary Shelley wrote a letter to Maria Gisborne in which she relayed Percy’s claims to her that he had met his own doppelgänger. A week after Mary’s nearly fatal miscarriage, in the early hours of 23 June, Percy had had a nightmare about the house collapsing in a flood, and
- … talking it over the next morning he told me that he had had many visions lately — he had seen the figure of himself which met him as he walked on the terrace & said to him — “How long do you mean to be content” — No very terrific words & certainly not prophetic of what has occurred. But Shelley had often seen these figures when ill; but the strangest thing is that Mrs Williams saw him. Now Jane, though a woman of sensibility, has not much imagination & is not in the slightest degree nervous — neither in dreams or otherwise. She was standing one day, the day before I was taken ill, [15 June] at a window that looked on the Terrace with Trelawny — it was day — she saw as she thought Shelley pass by the window, as he often was then, without a coat or jacket — he passed again — now as he passed both times the same way — and as from the side towards which he went each time there was no way to get back except past the window again (except over a wall twenty feet from the ground) she was struck at seeing him pass twice thus & looked out & seeing him no more she cried — “Good God can Shelley have leapt from the wall? Where can he be gone?” Shelley, said Trelawny — “No Shelley has past — What do you mean?” Trelawny says that she trembled exceedingly when she heard this & it proved indeed that Shelley had never been on the terrace & was far off at the time she saw him.
Percy Shelley’s drama Prometheus Unbound (1820) contains the following passage in Act I: “Ere Babylon was dust, / The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child, / Met his own image walking in the garden. / That apparition, sole of men, he saw. / For know there are two worlds of life and death: / One that which thou beholdest; but the other / Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit / The shadows of all forms that think and live / Till death unite them and they part no more….”
Two days after their arrival there, Mr. Donne was left alone, in that room in which Sir Robert, and he, and some other friends had dined together. To this place Sir Robert returned within half an hour; and, as he left, so he found Mr. Donne alone; but, in such ecstasy, and so altered as to his looks, as amazed Sir Robert to behold him in so much that he earnestly desired Mr. Donne to declare befallen him in the short time of his absence? to which, Mr. Donne was not able to make a present answer: but, after a long and perplexed pause, did at last say, I have seen a dreadful Vision since I saw you: I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms: this, I have seen since I saw you. To which, Sir Robert replied; Sure Sir, you have slept since I saw you; and, this is the result of some melancholy dream, which I desire you to forget, for you are now awake. To which Mr. Donnes reply was: I cannot be surer that I now live, then that I have not slept since I saw you: and am, as sure, that at her second appearing, she stopped, looked me in the face, and vanished.
This account first appears in the edition of Life of Dr John Donne published in 1675, and is attributed to “a Person of Honour… told with such circumstances, and such asseverations, that… I verily believe he that told it me, did himself believe it to be true. “At the time Donne was indeed extremely worried about his pregnant wife, and was going through severe illness himself. However, R. C. Bald points out that Walton’s account
“is riddled with inaccuracies. He says that Donne crossed from London to Paris with the Drurys in twelve days, and that the vision occurred two days later; the servant sent to London to make inquiries found Mrs Donne still confined to her bed in Drury House. Actually, of course, Donne did not arrive in Paris until more than three months after he left England, and his wife was not in London but in the Isle of Wight. The still-born child was buried on 24 January…. Yet as late as 14 April Donne in Paris was still ignorant of his wife’s ordeal.” In January, Donne was still at Amiens. His letters do not support the story as given.
So what could be causing this strange phenomena? People just don’t see people who aren’t there for no reason? Do they?
Left temporoparietal junction
In September 2006, it was reported in Nature that Shahar Arzy and colleagues of the University Hospital, Geneva, Switzerland, had unexpectedly reproduced an effect strongly reminiscent of the doppelgänger phenomenon via the electromagnetic stimulation of a patient’s brain. They applied focal electrical stimulation to a patient’s left temporoparietal junction while she lay flat on a bed. The patient immediately felt the presence of another person in her “extrapersonal space.” Other than epilepsy, for which the patient was being treated, she was psychologically fit.
The other person was described as young, of indeterminate sex, silent, motionless, and with a body posture identical to her own. The other person was located exactly behind her, almost touching and therefore within the bed on which the patient was lying.
A second electrical stimulation was applied with slightly more intensity, while the patient was sitting up with her arms folded. This time the patient felt the presence of a “man” who had his arms wrapped around her. She described the sensation as highly unpleasant and electrical stimulation was stopped.
Finally, when the patient was seated, electrical stimulation was applied while the patient was asked to perform a language test with a set of flash cards. On this occasion the patient reported the presence of a sitting person, displaced behind her and to the right. She said the presence was attempting to interfere with the test: “He wants to take the card; he doesn’t want me to read.” Again, the effect was disturbing and electrical stimulation was ceased.
Similar effects were found for different positions and postures when electrical stimulation exceeded 10 mA, at the left temporoparietal junction.
Arzy and his colleagues suggest that the left temporoparietal junction of the brain evokes the sensation of self image—body location, position, posture etc. When the left temporoparietal junction is disturbed, the sensation of self-attribution is broken and may be replaced by the sensation of a foreign presence or copy of oneself displaced nearby. This copy mirrors the real person’s body posture, location and position. Arzy and his colleagues suggest that the phenomenon they created is seen in certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, particularly when accompanied by paranoia, delusions of persecution and of alien control. Nevertheless, the effects reported are highly reminiscent of the doppelgänger phenomenon. Accordingly, some reports of doppelgängers may well be due to failure of the left temporoparietal junction.
See monothematic delusion for a detailed description of various psychological problems including the syndrome of subjective doubles, which may be related to the doppelgänger. See also out-of-body experience and the Third Man phenomenon.
Fascinating scientific study that answers the possibility of why some people may experience the doppelganger phenomenon but it does not answer it convincingly enough for those of us who have never had our brains externally manipulated by electromagnetically stimulating the left temporoparietal junction.
Until science can adequately answer for a larger portion of the population without external stimuli, then this fascinating experience will be left open along with astral projection, telepathy and other phenomenon that can’t be proved but can’t be disproved either.