Creatures in the Night and Miracles in Clouds: A Discourse on the Plausibility and Indistinct Nature of Group Hallucinations and
Biology 202: Neurobiology and Behavior
16 May, 2008
Creatures in the Night and Miracles in Clouds: A Discourse on the Plausibility and Indistinct Nature of Group Hallucinations and Collective Reality
10:30 pm on April 21, 1977 placed seventeen year old Bill Bartlett and two friends on the road at night in Dover Massachusetts. The road at night was not particularly winding, secluded, ill-maintained, or extraordinary, merely a comfortable road befitting a Boston suburb. However, out from the darkness, creeping at the tops of a stone retaining wall, something unexpected slunk into the line of site of the young driver, something that reportedly was able to shake the young man to his core. There, atop the wall lurked what Bartlett described as a creature with:
“…two large, shiny eyes glowing brightly ‘like orange marbles’. Its large oval head, which was easily as large as the rest of its body sat atop a spindly neck. The body was lanky and long limbed and had large hands and feet. The skin was hairless and seemed to have a rough texture, not unlike sandpaper.” 
The incident might have passed without further notice, the police report that young Bartlett felt compelled to file relegated to the dusty shelves of the basement archives for eternity, had not the following day two more such sightings occurred. At 12:30 am another young teenager walking alone in the dark encountered what was reportedly the exact same “creature” among the hills and gullies. Later that evening two additional teenagers also encountered this phenomenon along the road, with only minute differences in description . What is unusual about this case is the remarkably short time between the separate experiences and the degree of similarity between the encounters. The intervals between sightings is commonly agreed to be two short a time for wide dissemination of news concerning the incident. In fact, no real information is known to have been accumulated or published regarding the strange experiences of the teenagers, who were deemed to be unconnected and credible members of the Dover population, until sometime later when an acquaintance of Bartlett sparked a formal investigation. The ensuing investigation shed no definite light on the situation, instead engendering a plethora of possible explanations for the incident ranging anywhere from a case of animal misidentification (some people claimed that the “Dover Demon” was nothing more than a baby moose), to that of a hoax , to an example of group or collective hallucination. It is this last explanation that draws my attention and which posits the grounds of my discussion on the interaction between subjective and internal experiences of reality in relationship to those of collective, or more appropriately, selectively collective, and externally derived experiences.
The above incident, as well as other noted experiences of fantastical natures, such as the Mothman sightings of Virginia and the Jersey Devil of the Jersey Pine Barrens, do not conform to the typical definition of group or collective hallucinations, nor are they necessarily hallucinations in clinical terms, although they are often explained as such. A hallucination, as distinct from either an illusion or a delusion, first and foremost must be a product of the internal environment of the nervous system . In other words, a hallucination must be engendered by neuronally generated input and not by external stimuli, although, some external stimuli, hallucinogenic drugs, electromagnetism, etc. may indirectly produce hallucinations as an effect of altering the internal environment which encapsulates the nervous system. What’s more is that these neuronal inputs must be misrepresented to other parts of the nervous system, most notably the objective consciousness, or “I-function”, which generates the context in which inputs and outputs, both internally and externally produced, are interpreted. Misrepresentation often occurs through the failure of one portion of the nervous system, such as a region of the brain which deals with processing auditory or visual information, to alert, or to receive alerts from other parts of the nervous regarding specific neuronal activities. In other words, there is a breakdown in the corollary discharge units of the nervous systems. Therefore, if one portion of the nervous system produces a set of self-generated inputs of a visual or auditory nature but does not report the self-generated nature of the production to other parts of the nervous system, then the inputs may be erroneously interpreted as externally derived. Thus, the I-function reconciles the disembodied inputs by defaulting them into an external context. This means that the I-function interprets these inputs as “actual” visual or auditory signals. In result, one hallucinates the experiences of hearing voices or seeing visions which to others do not exist in the external environment.
In contrast, illusions are the misinterpretation of external input. A classic example of illusionary experiences is the oasis phenomenon where reflections of light, bouncing off of particles in the air and off of the ground in a desert are misconstrued by the nervous system and perceived to be something else, in this case a pool of water . In other words, an illusion is an instance in which the “story” or context that the I-function creates based on external stimuli is not the best hypothesis so to speak for describing the actual environment. Instead, the context of external input is made to reconcile with what the I-function and in some cases the physical body desire to experience. Lastly, a delusion is a false conclusion or context for inputs, whether external or internal, which are illogically held to be true despite contradictory evidence, such as knowledge of past experiences, or discrepancies between one’s conclusions with the conclusion of others .
Although, hallucinations are, as products of an individual’s nervous systems, inherently subjective and individualized, there is some belief that the phenomenon of group or collective hallucinations occurs. A collective hallucination is a hallucination in which a number of individuals experience the same or similar hallucinatory event, i.e. events which do not reflect an identifiable, or confirmable external input. However, no identifiable mechanism exists in current scientific thought which could possibly explain this apparent phenomenon. In fact, no experimental data or documented facts persist, save compendiums and accumulated figures representing anecdotes of such phenomenon, which would even support its existence. Yet, reports of collective hallucinations and events which are categorized as such do seem to exist if only in anecdotal form and thus as a part of our subsumed cultural collective consciousness. These instances are typically associated with mass religious experiences and historical group hysterias, such as the Salem Witch trials of the 17th century, and to a lesser degree with ghost, UFO, and cryptozoological encounters, in which fantastical occurrences of a sensory nature (often visual or auditory, but sometimes olfactory or tactile) are also perceived to occur. The situations associated with the former instances, i.e. with the witnessing of religious miracles and episodes of mass hysteria, are often interpreted as products of a common psychological environment in which “expectations” between what the “I-function” expects to occur or desires to occur are harmonized to a degree between individuals. This expectation is often fostered by an atmosphere of intense emotion and often revolves around a central focal point of attention or meditation, such as a religious icon. This intense cognitive attention, emotional investment, and expectation may either catalyze a reinterpretation of external input producing an illusion, or it may be erroneously correlated to internally produced inputs, such as a vision of bloody tears, moving icons, or disembodied voices. These inputs themselves may or may not have been internally generated specifically to reconcile expectation to event, i.e. to create desired inputs where there would otherwise be none. It is also possible that these internal inputs occur regardless of an internal desire for their occurrence and when reported are deemed validating and convenient to the story that the I-function is expected to tell and thus are conveniently appropriated. It is believed that such a standardized level of expectation, based upon precedent experiences of others and on a common understanding of religious or superstitious dogma, may be responsible for similarities in experience . In which, the I-functions of many individuals internalize a context for a story which then incorporates internal elements into experiences which validate or compliment that context.
Group hallucinations in this sense are also a partial product of the imperfect memory of the human brain; the I-function’s willingness and ability to alter memory through additive or reductive processes and transfiguration in order to create a better “story” also plays a large part in generating the impression of a hallucinatory event. In this case, dissimilar aspects of a hallucinatory experience, which may pertain to the majority of an individual’s subjective experience in some cases, are manipulated in order to converge toward a more harmonious account of an event as time passes and individual experiences are recounted . This is especially true in cases where an individual fails to experience an event and in result adopts the experiences of others into their internal story, where there own memory becomes supplanted.
The instance of generating a hallucinatory, or perhaps in this case delusional, encounter after the time and place of the supposed event is also highly associated with the way in which the brain couples memory with emotion. This association is especially true when concerning feelings indicative of high levels of stress and trauma such as fear, anger, and anxiety. For example, it is noted that in the case of trauma survivors who experience hallucinations, such as sufferers from PTSD, hallucinations are associated with abnormal memory formation . In normal memory formation, memories are organized in the region of the brain known as the hippocampus and then integrated with older memories in the frontal cortex to be “made sense” of through the use of language . However, in abnormal brain memory formation, such as that which occurs during traumatic experiences, memories are stored in parts of the amygdala, which is generally associated with attaching emotional significance to memories but which is not typically integrated into the processes of the hippocampus and the frontal cortex. Additionally, during traumatic events, the Broca area of the brain which regulates language, and thus which regulates how we communicate memories both to others as well as to ourselves, shuts down . In result, memories remain in the amygdala “as a chaotic wordless jumble of physical sensations or sensory images” . In other words memories relating to certain events of high stress or emotional intensity are not processed properly and remain in the nervous system as random, disembodied sensory input, indistinguishable both from internally generated and externally received inputs. However, the I-function must nevertheless attempt to place these inputs into a discrete context. This discrete context may in some cases be an external context in which these inputs are perceived as occurring from outside the nervous system and are thus experienced as hallucinations.
Knowing the relationship between emotion, memory and hallucination and how the three interact in the story the I-function tells, it is acceptable to posit the possibility that, just as other parts of the brain are capable of generating autonomous input which has the possibility of being misrepresented in the story of the I-function, that the portions of the brain involved in memory formation can generate random input as well. Perhaps the amygdala is capable of randomly generating sensations of fear or anxiety so as to override the process of normal memory formation, generating instances of a disconnection between memory and emotion. This disconnection between short term, incoming memory and emotion may prompt the generation of a hallucination, in which the unconnected emotional input is attached to another internally generated input such as a visual image which is used to validate and organize the sensation of fear or anxiety. In other words, the appearance of an unregulated emotion prompts the need for both a context for that emotion, as well as, produces an expectation in the developing story of the I-function which must be reconciled with the exterior world. Thus, the unregulated emotion requires an association with the outside world i.e. fear must be prompted by something or fear must be met with a fearful occurrence. In light of this need, the nervous system hallucinates either a proper cause for this fear or answers the internal expectations produced by fear.
However, the engendering of high emotional input from inside the nervous system is still consistent with the idea that hallucinations, particularly group or collective hallucinations are related to atmospheres of intense emotion and expectation. However, what of the scenarios, such as the one with which I began this paper, where an incident is often dismissed as a group hallucination despite the fact that the occurrences of individual experiences where spread out over time and occurred between individuals within a group. In contrast, most mass religious or historical records group hallucinations occur simultaneously or within close temporal and spatial intervals. For example, why did only Billy Bartlett witness the supposed Dover Demon out off a group of people present in the car that fateful April evening? What about Billy Bartlett’s perspective at that moment made its interpretation of the world so drastically different than his immediate peers yet so harmonized to the experiences of others? Yet, other than the conclusion that there was an actual unknown creature present, why is this case, as well as other cases, such as those of the Mothman sightings for instance, still often described as an episode of group hallucination?
However, in the case of the Mothman sightings, a certain expectancy was present in the minds and imaginations, in the I-functions, of the residents of Pleasant Point West Virginia and in the psyches of those who had heard of the tales of Moth-like creatures along isolated roads at night. This sense of expectation that “there is something unearthly out there” and the atmosphere of intense emotional anxiety which such an expectation engendered can perhaps explain this particular case’s association as a group hallucination. Following the initial sightings of the West Virginia Mothman, significant time passed between sightings and the information regarding the perceived presence of an unknown creature in a specific area had time and means to disseminate. However, as has been noted before, the time between the sightings of the Dover Demon was considerably smaller, and news regarding the details of the encounters had little time to disseminate amongst a population and generate any comparable atmosphere of collective expectation or anxiety. However, despite a lack of common atmosphere those involved in the Dover Demon sightings were able to recount episodes more similar to one another than those reported from the Pleasant Point Mothman sightings.
What than was the common factor between the individuals involved in the Dover Demon incident, disregarding the conclusion of a hoax? These common factors may revolve around common expectancy and anxiety found, not in the expectancy of running into to some unknown creature, but from the anxiety and primal expectancy for danger that inherently lurks in the presence of darkness. After all, all three incidents occurred at night, along a road, which although not particularly obscure or isolated, still conjures up feelings of isolation and vulnerability, where the hollow shell of a car is the only barrier between one’s self and the uncertainties of the nighttime world. Thus, perhaps the natural anxieties toward the dark, toward the isolation and vulnerability one feels in the dark, added to the increased focus of driving a car or navigating the hills at night was sufficient stimulus to produce a similar expectancy of danger or reason for fear in each of the minds of the witnesses. Thus, in accordance to these expectations, which for certain reasons may have been more significant in the minds of the individuals involved than in their respective companions, the I-function perhaps appropriated a random image, or the nervous system generated a random image which corresponded to the expectations of the I-function. This image was then accepted by the I-function as an actual component of the story of the external world. However, the question remains, as to why, if this incident was indeed a case of group hallucination, why the images of expectation were virtually identical between the parties involved? Why did their separate, subjective minds experience such similar encounters with something that was seen by some and not by others? Or in the end can this case be classified as an example of group hallucination or is it more accurately explained as a hoax between teenagers or as an actual sighting of some mistaken or unknown animal species? Is this encounter better classified as an illusion versus a hallucination, where the term “group hallucination” is merely a mistake in semantics?
Are the grounds for the existence of group hallucinations even plausible, and can such a phenomenon truly occur? Or are all group hallucinations the product of fallible, malleable human memory? The crux of this argument thus far is that no real protocol for research into the phenomenon exists outside of an anecdotal level, where once again evidence is subject to specific preconceptions and an unreliable memory. However, if a true group hallucination were to be identified it would have to be procured via the comparison of neurological activity. Using EEG’s, for example, could display syncs in brain phenomena between individuals at the precise moment of the hallucinatory experience, such as at a religious function where a fantastical event is expected to occur. However, this idea is largely impractical, considering one can never specify exactly when such an event will take place. In the end however, the most interesting aspect of this discussion is not whether or not collective hallucinations are actual neurologically discreet phenomena, or even if things such as the Dover Demon or the West Virginia Mothman actually exist. Instead, the most interesting aspect of this discussion by far is the fact that there exists a “desire” to change reality, to alter the story concerning what we perceive because we like one particular version of the story better. We like the idea that the vision of the Virgin Mary in the clouds is a collectively experienced miracle rather than an neurological anomaly. We like the idea that there is something there versus not there. We are willing, no matter how unconsciously, to alter our own perception of inputs, whether internal or external, and our memory of those inputs depending on what we, meaning both the individual “I-function” and the collective consciousness of society, prefer reality to be. Even in the case of “real” external inputs, all that is perceived to exist is still the product of the interpretation of millions of tiny cells and electrical-chemical signals and the context in which they are placed by the I-function. In the end, it is not so much the inexplicable, fantastical elements of experience which represent the greatest example of this desire but the ordinary day to day experiences of life which form that which we collectively call “reality”. The story that there is a road to drive on beneath our cars, hills to walk over beneath our feet, or a place called Dover Massachusetts at all is probably the greatest collective hallucination of them all.
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