Seein’ Things

A while back I came across, or someone sent me a link to, a recent news article that discussed Charles Bonnet Syndrome. I had seen some articles about this in the past, but something about what this article said started me thinking about perception.

Seein’ Things
— Eugene Field

I ain’t afeard uv snakes, or toads, or bugs, or worms, or mice,
An’ things ‘at girls are skeered uv I think are awful nice!
I’m pretty brave, I guess; an’ yet I hate to go to bed,
For, when I’m tucked up warm an’ snug an’ when my prayers are said,
Mother tells me, “Happy Dreams!” an’ takes away the light,
An’ leaves me lyin’ all alone an’ seein’ things at night!

It seems that our minds are predisposed to find patterns in random data. We see gods, demigods, heroes, and victims in the stars — a collection of unrelated points of light in the night sky becomes, in our minds, Orion, or Libra, or a Big Dipper. A set of random squiggles on a tree trunk, revealed by peeling the bark, seems a communication in some unknown language.

Sometimes they’re in the corner, sometimes they’re by the door,
Sometimes they’re all a-standin’ in the middle uv the floor;
Sometimes they are a-sittin’ down, sometimes they’re walkin’ round
So softly and creepy like they never make a sound!
Sometimes they are as black as ink, an’ other times they’re white–
But the color ain’t no difference when you see things at night!

And sometimes we see angels or devils in the clouds above our heads, or Jesus on a tortilla, or perhaps a Green Man peering out from among the leaves.

Once when I licked a feller ‘at had just moved on our street,
An’ father sent me up to bed without a bite to eat,
I woke up in the dark an’ saw things standin’ in a row,
A-lookin’ at me cross-eyed an’ p’inting at me–so!
Oh, my! I wuz so skeered that time I never slep’ a mite–
It’s almost alluz when I’m bad I see things at night!

Seeing patterns in the chaos must be an aid to survival in the wild, where at any moment some fierce enemy might be watching from behind the leaves or branches. A slightly different color or a tiny gap in the leaves could be eyes, and how quickly one sees such a pattern could mean life or death. The apparent pattern could just be a coincidence, a random arrangement without meaning, or it could be something to fear.

Lucky thing I ain’t a girl, or I’d be skeered to death!
Bein’ I’m a boy, I duck my head an’ hold my breath;
An’ I am, oh, so sorry I’m a naughty boy, an’ then
I promise to be better an’ I say my prayers again!
Gran’ma tells me that’s the only way to make it right
When a feller has been wicked an’ sees things at night!

Perhaps we see these images most when we in some way expect to see them.

An’ so when other naughty boys would coax me into sin,
I try to skwish the Tempter’s voice ‘at urges me within;
An’ when they’s pie for supper, or cakes ‘at’s big an’ nice,
I want to–but I do not pass my plate f’r them things twice!
No, ruther let Starvation wipe me slowly out of sight
Than I should keep-a-livin’ on an’ seein’ things at night!

Oliver Sacks says the hallucinations related to Charles Bonnet syndrome result from lack of stimulus. People who are experiencing loss of vision, perhaps from macular degeneration, or who have no vision at all are the ones who see these visions, so perhaps they are not related at all to the visions I was thinking about. Or perhaps even in the absence of even chaos our brains try to construct what might be there.

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