Illuminating the Shadow People.

Illuminating the Shadow People.

Shadow people are a very common visual hallucination for humans to have. They usually appear as a result of sleep deprivation, psychosis (especially stimulant psychosis[1]), delirium, psychoactive substances, or sleep paralysis. During this experience, the subject perceives a patch of shadow in their peripheral vision or focused visual field to be a living, autonomous figure. This figure can be either humanoid or animal-like in appearance.Due to the unique behavior of these hallucinations and can be considered a sub-type of autonomous entities.

The visual external hallucinations usually, but not always, begin to appear as initial fleeting images out of the corner of the eyes in the peripheral vision. As the duration of the experience (sleep deprivation, stimulant psychosis, diphenhydramine, etc.) progresses. However, shadow people may begin to appear in full view and one will be able to look directly at them. At advanced mental states, one is even able to look away from the entity and look back at the entity without a change in the hallucination. This progression is typically the same whether one is experiencing shadow people from sleep deprivation or from stimulant psychosis.

The bodies of the shadow people are usually perceived as a type of blackness that has a sense of depth with few facial or bodily features. The blackness of the body often seems almost opaque as if one is looking into a “black hole” in anthropomorphic form. They also may appear as animal forms, uniform blobs, disembodied body parts, or a myriad of indescribable shapes. They sometimes appear to have faces, eyes, or mouths and are able to move or change shape. The movement exhibited can be normal human movement or it can be faster, slower, or more choppy than a normal person’s gait. It is also possible for multiple shadow people to occupy one’s field of vision simultaneously while acting autonomously from one another and even interacting with one another.

This hallucinatory state is often accompanied by a feeling of intense paranoia and anxiety due to the fact that shadow people are subjectively sinister in appearance and usually a result of negative states such as stimulant psychosis and sleep paralysis. Shadow people appear often in sleep paralysis, often carrying with them a sense of impending doom during the experience[2]

Multisensory aspects

Although it is not an intrinsic part of this hallucinatory effect, shadow people can potentially be accompanied by other sensory components aside from one’s visual perception of them. This is typically infrequent and usually only occurs during very intense states of sleep deprivation, delirium or psychosis. For example, shadow people can potentially have an accompanying “voice”, despite the lack of a visible mouth structure. This auditory communication follows an identical leveling system of progressively more detailed and coherent spoken word in the same manner as a generic autonomous entity. Shadow people may converse with the person experiencing them or they may converse amongst each other – sometimes talking about the person going through the experience.

Alongside of accompanying auditory hallucinations, shadow people may also present tactile and gustatory hallucinations. This is even rarer than their potential auditory effects and typically only occurs in particularly intense and advanced hallucinatory states. Their tactile effects can be indistinguishable from a real human touch and generally varied in temperature.They can also even include physical actions such as pulling of clothing, hair, or the skin.

History and culture

Shadow people have been referenced throughout popular culture and time as ‘demons’ or ‘omens’[3], ‘ghosts’[4], or even ‘inter-dimensional time travelers”[5]. This wide recognition of shadow people, combined with their representation in common culture and horror films may contribute to the prevalence of these external hallucinations. From the common internet consensus on shadow people, they are more often thought of as ghosts or real interdimensional beings than simple hallucinations.

The shadow person as an image was portrayed in the 20th-century show “The Twilight Zone”, in the appropriately titled episode “The Shadow Man”[6] where a shadow person lives under the main characters’ bed. This episode was broadcast nationwide and still remains available, furthering people to exposure of shadow people through second-hand experiences and Hollywood-style manufactured images.

The more an image is spread throughout a culture, the more likely a person will manifest that image in a state such as sleep deprivation, delirium, and stimulant psychosis. The fear instilled by society and the negative connotation portrayed by society may influence the anxiety and feelings of unspeakable horrors when seeing these autonomous entities. This has been investigated in relation to the common appearance of shadow people in sleep deprivation experiences[7]

Due to the cultural influence and the perception that shadow people may in fact be “spooky ghosts”, people who experience this external hallucination may attribute it to the paranormal or other irrational causes rather than accepting that it is a natural effect of abnormal brain chemistry levels that may stem from a wide variety of mental states (discussed above). The de-stigmatizing of the shadow person experience and rational discussion of the true origin of these autonomous entities can grant many sufferers relief from paranoia and mental illness stigma.

 Psychoactive substances

Watch your back.
Stimulating the TPJ region of the brain (yellow arrow, top) caused a woman to think there was someone behind her when she sat down (bottom).

You’re walking down an empty street alone, when suddenly, you have the eerie feeling that someone’s following you. Is your mind playing tricks on you? Maybe so. According to a new study, when a specific region of the brain called the left temporoparietal junction (TPJ) is stimulated, it can create the illusion of a “shadow person.” Given that such experiences are often heightened in psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and paranoia–and even in those who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens–the results could lead to a better understanding of these neurological conditions.

The finding emerged by accident. Neurologist Olaf Blanke of the Brain Mind Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, and his colleagues, were attempting to identify the source of epileptic seizures in a 23-year-old woman. They applied a mild current through surgically implanted electrodes to various regions of her brain. Not much happened until the researchers stimulated the woman’s left TPJ, located roughly above the left ear. Suddenly, she reported feeling the presence of a mystery person behind her, a motionless and speechless shadow that imitated her body posture and actions. “He” lay beneath her when she lay down, sat behind her when she sat down, and attempted to take a test card from her when she tried to participate in a language exercise.

Such delusions are similar to those seen in patients with schizophrenia, says Blanke. Schizophrenics often mistake their own bodies to be someone else’s, for example, and attribute their own actions to others. They also have frequent illusions of being followed, or controlled by a stranger, as do those who claim to have been manipulated by aliens.

Blanke says the shadow person phenomenon may shed light on how the brain perceives “self.” In order to recognize its own body, he says, the brain uses sensory information, such as visual and proprioceptive cues (which indicate the position of body parts relative to each other and everything else). The TPJ is known to put some of these cues together. When this function is disrupted, the brain perceives two bodies instead of one and mistakes the second for that of a stranger, the researchers propose tomorrow in Nature.

It’s a valid idea, says neurologist Pawan Sinha of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. But this might be just one of many mechanisms that generate such hallucinations, he says.




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