“She saw a little blue man at the end of her bed.” Charlie said, recounting a conversation with a care home resident with Parkinson’s disease.
“I told the boss and she said that they all do.”
I reclined on my creaking bunk. “I mean, I know you can get hallucinations with Parkinson’s, but is the little blue man a common theme?”
“Hmm. It sounds like something from mythology. Or like one of Terence McKenna’s machine elves. I wonder if it’s some kind of universal archetype?”
Silence in the darkened dormitory.
“I don’t know if I fully believe in those kind of ideas though.” I said.
Charlie coughed. “Well there is evidence. They did experiments with rats in mazes across the world. Once the first rat discovered how to escape the maze, the rest of the rats around the world found the maze easier to complete.”
“Damn.” I said.
“Morphic resonance, isn’t it?” Judy said. “The theory.”
“I think that’s something different.” Charlie said.
“Nah, I think that’s right. Rupert Sheldrake’s theory.” I said. “Similar to Jung’s collective unconscious but outside the confines of human biology. Once something turns up there, everyone can tune into it.”
Are we onto some secret knowledge here or has this conversation has descended into gibberish? I thought to myself.
Why does irrational and magical thinking descend in the dead of night? That strange place between reality and dreams that evaporates in the cold light of day. In the ancestral environments where our instincts evolved, with sabre-tooth tigers prowling in the distance, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to be rational and lucid to fend off the lurking terrors of the night?
I was reminded of the phenomenon of constructive paranoia, described by scientist and writer Jared Diamond in his book The World Until Yesterday. He had found what he thought was a suitable expedition camp in the forests of New Guinea but was urged by his team of New Guineans not to camp in the area as it was near a dead tree. This seemed an insane overreaction to Diamond, as the tree appeared safe and stable.
As Diamond spent more time in the forests however, he began to hear trees falling in the forest, around one per day and heard personal accounts of local people being killed in this fashion.
Suspiscions began to build and he realized that for those New Guineans, who would camp in the forest around one-hundred nights a year, the risk which appeared low based on one night’s camping, would actually at odds of say one-in-a-thousand, be likely to happen over the thousands of nights camping in a person’s lifetime. The extreme cost of being crushed by a falling tree, outweighs the minor cost of finding another campsite and the paranoia which appeared irrational is actually rational in terms of the most important thing, survival.
The sleep of reason
The mind is of course prone to create monsters in the darkness. So where does paranoia cross the bridge from rational to destructive?
I remembered an interaction earlier in the day with a Chinese backpacker in the hostel kitchen, where I had been cooking. I walked towards him on the way to the sink and greeted him with a smile. He bowed his head with a deferential “sorry” and scurried out of my way.
How bizarre, I thought initially, but recalled several reports of coronavirus-inspired racism against Asians I had seen in the news and social media. People shouting “Thanks for the virus!” That kind of thing.
I wondered whether the man had recently been a victim of this, perhaps at the hands of an ignorant Briton. Of course, he could have just had a long day, or even just be a naturally shy person. Maybe my mind was just making connections where the were none.
This kind of cruel and hateful behaviour certainly seems to escalate during hard times though and an extreme and unhealthy kind of paranoia can be a factor (although even justified paranoia doesn’t warrant that kind of moronic abuse of course).
But what does that have to do with our midnight musings? Is the lazy thinking behind prejudice related to the wandering mind at the witching hour? Who knows. Eventually our nonsense ceased and the dormitory fell silent.
Crampon, my style
We ascended from our accommodation, Idwal Cottage, the next day towards the pretty lake Llyn Idwal. We then snaked up a ridge until we reached the snowline.
“Better put our crampons on.” Si said.
Icy gusts rained down from the summit of Glyder Fawr.
I tightened my waterproof hood and strode into the snow. The gradient escalated and soon became near-vertical.
The concept of constructive paranoia resurfaced in my mind, as I trudged up the icy slope. It is in extreme environments like this, where one wrong step could be a death sentence, paranoia becomes increasingly rational.
After a short climb we rounded the crest of the ridge then scrambled up to the summit, where the peak of Snowdon was visible across the valley.
No signal at Idwal
There is no phone signal nor wi-fi at Idwal Cottage and the nearest entertainment is miles away. We would, therefore, be forced to engage in actual human conversation. Perhaps there was another way.
I grabbed my guitar and Charlie brought down his banjo. A woman in her fifties, who had been eating soup in the corner, joined our gang of four and we sang the night away, from irish folk songs to dueling banjos.
The current climate of fear demands a pinch of constructive paranoia, I feel. When survival is a stake, measured steps are essential, whether on an icy ridge or metaphorically, in the face of a global crisis.
As we envision shapes in the murk after sunset, times of uncertainty tend to send the mind to irrational places, so I remind myself to examine these thoughts, to realize there is a wisdom in caution but not become a victim of fear.