Playing With Your Mind

Yesterday I told you a little ghost story. And while all the events I wrote about happened, right down to the coin flipping seance, I think I should point out I do not believe in ghosts.

Why didn’t I mention this? Well, all good stories have to pick and choose the facts they present to make the best impact. There are many things I left out, but if I included them would have unnecessarily stretched out the story (already long for a blog), confused the reader, contradicted a point I’m trying to make, or otherwise hurt the tale I was trying to weave.

That’s not to say the apartment did not creep the hell out of me. It did. And I guarantee you it was haunted.

Now you’re scratching your head. Let me explain.

I don’t believe in ghosts now, but I used to. Or, more accurately, I wanted to. I still want to. I think it was Carl Sagan who was bewildered by the need of people to believe in the supernatural when the natural world was more amazing than we can even begin to comprehend. But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be more amazing if ghosts, bigfoot, or little grey men giving rednecks unwanted prostate exams were real. But let’s be honest, shake the magic 8-ball in your head and ask it if they are, and the correct answer is “All Signs Point To No.”

Having mentioned magic 8-balls, I should add I also don’t believe in Astrology, Rune Stones, Tarot Cards, I Ching, Palm Reading, or Fortune Cookies. But you know what? They all work.

I’m just a seething mass of contradictions today, aren’t I? Stick with me a little longer.

The fact Tarot Cards work has nothing to do with the supernatural and everything to do with what is called pattern recognition. Tune your TV to a channel with nothing but static on it (assuming your TV can) and you’ll see two things: The first is the beginning of the universe. About 1% of the static you see is actually the background radiation from the Big Bang. Fun fact, free of charge.

The second thing you’ll see is… something. Stare at that snow long enough and you’ll swear you see something. I remember as a child I thought I saw vague stick figures on the screen moving about. The station next to the static was showing sports and at the time I thought maybe some of the image was bleeding in, but it wasn’t. For one thing I was seeing stick figures, for another what I was watching them do did not match up with what happened when I changed back to the sports program.

What I was seeing was, quite literally, the product of a child’s imagination. My brain saw chaos, desperately tried to create order out of it, and found it. Years later when I moved into a new room in my grandma’s house, as I tried to get to sleep I thought I saw the silhouette of a man with an axe by the doorway. As anyone who has watched a Scooby Doo cartoon can guess, it turned out to be the coat rack with an umbrella.

This is what our brains do. It’s a survival trait that goes back to a time when figuring out what was moving in those bushes beyond the campfire could mean life or becoming a late night snack, and it errs on the side of caution by making order out of chaos based on what is on your mind. And that is where fortune telling comes in.

Pick a card, any card.

Fortune telling is a primitive form of psychology. It’s like Rorschach tests or word association. Fortune telling doesn’t tell you anything. It is the chaos that allows your mind to create a pattern, and in interpreting that pattern, tell you something about yourself. When you open a fortune cookie and it says “Forgetting a promise leads to bad feelings,” you can’t help but go through your own mind and ask yourself what promises you’ve made. If you find none you expand the search to things that could be interpreted as promises. Chances are you will find something, Perhaps you’ll find several, and you’ll then prioritize which one is most important, and give it the attention it needs.

Congratulations, you did that all yourself. The fortune cookie did nothing other than be random chance. Had you found “Romance waits for no one” the same process would have occurred.

This is what all fortune telling does. When you have someone doing it for you it hinges as much on the person doing your reading. This gets into the realm of “hot” and “cold” readings, where the reader uses various tricks (consciously or unconsciously) to apply what they know about you to the reading.

This is why I sometimes flip coins. The apartment story wasn’t the first time, I’ve done it for ten years at least. When I’m not sure what to do, I start flipping. By the time I’m done I’ve usually, but not always, figured out what I’m going to do. It’s fortune telling at its simplest. If I think I’m torn on an issue, flip a coin, then start going ‘okay, best two out of three’ then ‘best three out of five’ then ‘that didn’t count, I didn’t catch the coin right’ then clearly I’m trying to tell myself something – namely that I’m not as torn on the issue as I thought I was.

Irony: asking a Loonie to make a sane decision for you.

So now you know why I chose to flip a coin in the apartment. I was torn and wanted to see if I could tell myself something. At the last moment I decided on the quasi-seance, because I’m a writer and it felt right under the circumstances. Even then I imagined writing the event down at a later point.

But the end result wasn’t really in doubt.  I can imagine how the conversation with the ‘ghost’ could have turned out differently a thousand ways from the very first flip, yet still end up with me not taking the place. I knew that the disturbing string of little coincidences connecting the dead man’s life to mine wouldn’t have gone away once we moved in, it would have kept pecking away at my mind, and I doubt it would have had a positive influence.

So you see, the apartment was haunted. By me.

Why didn’t I say that in the first place? I think I answered that question at the start of this story.