Senses

Chrono-perception and other exotic senses + how to create your own unique senses

My dad used to complain that my mother had “no sense of time…” And I understood. I was forever waiting for my dinner while my mum “just finished” a sewing project, a painting, or some crafting. My wife is the same.

Craft-orientated people like my old Mum, and my wife, get preoccupied by the creative project they are working on. It seems that they don’t have any “sense of time.”

Does this mean, though, that creative-people cannot “feel” the passage of time? Or does it merely mean that they are absorbed and distracted by their imagination and just want to get on with their project?

Sense in hand

And, anyway, sorry Dad, but is chrono-perception (the sense of time passing) a real “sense”? Or is it just a pseudo-sense like humor and fairplay. If it is a sense, what organ does it use? Would an alien from another planet require time perception? If an entity existed outside earthly time & space (for example, a floating spirit or a deity), would it require time perception? If an organism counts eons instead of hours to develop and grow (for example, endoliths that live for thousands of years on the ocean floor or huge inter-connected colonies of fungi) — do they need time perception or, indeed, any “sense of time” at all? And what might all these things have, if they don’t have a sense of time? What other senses do such things possess?

If you’re a fantasy fiction writer, these are exactly the type of questions you are expected to ask. Because these are the kind of questions that spark new stories and facilitate fruitful imaginings!

Sense of smell

I spoke about fear on the Myth & Magic Podcast, Episode 73 (aired 17th March 2021) and how you should use the hormonal cascade to impart fear in your story. On that show I mentioned that our animal brains are capable of “slowing down time…” when we face deadly danger. Although this phenomenon (known as “chronostasis” — the immobilization of time) is actually a disconnect between normal visual sensations and perceptions rather than any special new ability or sense, nevertheless, chronostasis is interesting, because it requires us to focus on how we perceive our surroundings, using our most important sensory organs: eye, ear, skin, nose and mouth. But what if there are other receptors? What if we unconsciously use other organs to perceive “other” mysterious things? 

Well, it just so happens that we humans (most of us) do possess other receptors, and through these lesser known receptors, we do perceive other mysterious things! For example, most of us, if healthy, have a sense of balance. This is known as equilibrioception and, as in other animals, it prevents us from toppling over. The vestibular system (it’s a labyrinth inside your ear, so you can’t see it) does the work for us. When the sense of balance is disrupted, it causes dizziness, disorientation and nausea, which is why we feel queasy in a rocking boat, woozy after getting off a spinning roundabout, and why astronauts must be trained to deal with the sick feeling of weightlessness in space

common sense

We also have a number of other interoceptions (these are sense receptors located within the body, mostly organ-based and, like the vestibular system in the ear, they cannot be seen). For example, most of us can sense when we are “full up” after a big meal, conversely most of us can sense when we’re hungry. Also, most of us sense pain. We also have a vomeronasal organ V.N.O. for short that (weirdly) is also present in snakes and lizards and which we think (though nobody knows for certain) is used to sense chemical cues (pheromones) and might explain some of our curious mating behaviors.

Other animals have “exotic senses” and these are quite exciting: for instance, some snakes can “see” the body-heat of their prey, some bats can sense infrared light, and some birds can sense ultraviolet light. Some shrimp can perceive polarized light and multispectral images (it’s quite possible they see colours we humans wouldn’t recognise!)

Magnetoreception is the ability to use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate and some birds and herding animals possess this sense. While echolocation (used by bats and whales) allows an animal to interpret reflected sounds (in the same way that sonar works in submarines).

Sharks and rays (some whales as well) detect electric fields (electroception) though their skin and, as far as we know, the platypus does this as well. These creatures are likely to use the sense of electroception to hunt in very dark waters. Hygroreception is the ability to detect changes in humidity in the atmosphere and some insects use this sense before constructing shelters.

Head Sense

Your responsibility, as an ingenious fantasy fiction writer, is to mingle, merge or just “think up” new exotic senses for your human-like characters or, even better (in my opinion) dream-up fabled creatures that come equipped with extraordinary & fantastical senses.  

To steer you in the right direction, I suggest the following approaches:

1: Think about why your fantasy creature needs such “power” in the first place. Is it going to be used for hunting? Will it be used to escape or camouflage itself? Will it be used to communicate with others of its kind? Is it used for mating rituals? Does it require the exotic sense so it can successfully achieve some other super-normal talent (for example, dragons might require some sense of altimetry (so they can judge how high to fly) and maybe they’ll need some sort of ion-detection sense (like an in-built smoke-alarm) so they will wake-up if they accidentally spit fire in their sleep!

2: Think of how the new sense might be contained within the physical body of the entity (within a highly specialized organ, perhaps, or a part of the brain? ) How will the animal/entity maintain the good health of the sense? Will it require a specialized diet? Will using the sense require practice? (Humans need to learn balance, for example, before using a surf-board or riding a bicycle, don’t they?) Does the sense grow stronger (or weaker) over time? We know, in humans, that sight fails as we age and taste buds are never replaced. Perhaps all exotic senses diminish through a lifetime? But what if some senses develop and grow as an entity ages? What if the animal develops a strange new sense later in life?

3: Think of synonyms for existing and better known senses. For example, see = distinguish, hear = understand, taste = acquire, smell = inhale, and feel = calibrate. Compile your own set of synonyms for better-known senses because you’ll need them for component 4 of this exercise…

4: Now for the fun part! Add your synonym (the word you came up with in component 3 above) to something that’s weird and either magical or scientific (don’t forget all the other main points though: your imagined creature/entity must require the new sense for a tangible purpose and it must somehow be contained within a body). Here’s my list of ideas:

Neil Mach’s list of exotic senses:

  • electrostatic distinction : an entity “sees” electrical charges
  • baryon comprehension : an entity “hears” interactions between atoms
  • ectoplasmic acquisition : an entity “tastes” spiritual energy
  • crystallographic inhalation : an entity “smells” crystal structures in solids
  • hydrothermal gauging : an entity “feels” the onset of hydrothermal activity
covid senses

Hooray! it’s now time to think up your own exotic senses!

Work out how they might be used in your creature/entity (or your human like character). Consider the positives / negatives of possessing such exotic senses and how your narrative might alter if your protagonist (or antagonist) possessed such an amazing skill! Good luck. Let me know how it goes!

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

Ghost In The Mirror

Can we see ghosts in mirrors?

Seeing ghostly images in the mirror is a form of scrying. I’ll get into that shortly…

But let’s begin by agreeing that mirrors are, of course, portals to other dimensions.

Just ponder the rationality of that simple statement for a moment. When you look into a mirror, you don’t see yourself. Not really. You merely see a mirrored version of yourself. The tint, texture, and contour of the glass will slightly modify or manipulate the mirrored version that you observe. Therefore it’s not you. It’s a version of you. Remember this when checking your face in the morning!

Snow White Evil Queen Complex

What’s more (and this is even more difficult to understand, so take a breath): the person in the mirror is not the same person that everyone else sees. Not only is the person in the mirror not you (because it’s a modified version) but it’s not even the “you” everyone else sees! Others see a presented image of yourself. The mirror provides a reflected image of yourself. In short, if you really want to examine your “true self” ditch the mirror and don’t worry about what people think or say; instead look deep into your inner being. Right, that’s the Snow White “evil queen complex” dealt with — but it’s drifting away from the main point… so let’s get back on track —

It is important to stipulate that I am not suggesting (at this stage) that anything supernatural is going on when we look into mirrors. But on the other hand, I also think we should properly appreciate how genuinely weird a mirrored surface is. We take shiny surfaces for granted, probably because we’re staring at them for much of the day. Shiny surfaces have a magical authority over us… and even an absolute control over our existence in certain cases. If you don’t believe me, try taking someone’s phone away or denying them a television screen.

Ghost in the Mirror

But back to common-or-garden mirrors, I think it’s because the symmetrical reality of the “mirror world” we experience (I call it the symmetrylity) seems so compelling and perceptive that we don’t recognize the deep and intrinsic flaws in our thinking. We honestly believe that the mirror world is real. However, it is not. It is another dimension. For example, how strange is it that when two people look into a mirror at the same time, they see different images on the same surface! And when a person looks at himself in a mirror, what he really sees is the front and back reversed! You need to be a mathematics teacher if you want to explain the inter-dimensional aspect of mirrors.

Although we might expect a “standard” mirror (perhaps the mirror in the hall) to behave in a rational way, and to always provide an accurate representation of the world around us (albeit in reverse) it’s not true. It won’t! When a glassy surface is not held completely flat then it will behave like a lens and will distort (magnify) what we see. And a mirror that is tilted even moderately (maybe not flat against a wall) will give seemingly realistic results, but it will skew images. While a mirror that curves even insignificantly will, nonetheless, reduce larger images.

Can't Look At Myself

If you add these factors to the strange ability that mirrors possess (they allow us to “see behind ourselves” without turning around, which is one of the most useful benefits of reflective surfaces, but it’s also a bit like looking into the past) — when all these attributes are put together you can guess why some folks claim to see visions in mirrored surfaces. And it’s why humankind, since prehistoric times, has used reflective surfaces to attempt to perceive future events or “see” outside the perspective space & time they found themselves somewhat limited by.

Halloween Mirror

Mirrored surfaces, such as the still dark waters of a sacred pool, or the waters glimpsed in a baptismal font, or polished stones & jewels, or very shiny goblets, or glass spheres, have been used since prehistoric times — for clairvoyance (seeing into future), augury (interpreting omens), and divination (the gift of prophecy). When a reflective surface is used for these paranormal activities, it is called scrying.

Concentrating on the medium of exploration (the reflective surface) is said to help scrying practitioners “focus attention” and “free their mind” in much the same way that a guru might meditate or a priest might be prayerful before a religious service. Maybe it’s a kind of self-hypnosis. After this approach, a scryer might report “seeing” images in a reflective surface. Some scryers even report hearing voices. The famous French seer of the 16th century, Nostradamus, practiced scrying before making his famous predictions; he’d stare into a bowl of water or use a “magic mirror” to see the future world while in a trance. Mirrors seem to lift the veil between what we consider our physical realm and a glimpsed spiritual realm. And it is true that ancient civilizations (such as the Mayans) thought mirrors functioned as two-way portals between humanity and gods.

nostradamus

To understand how mirrors might act as portals, we need to recognise that luminescent surfaces are regarded by some as representations of liminal space and can therefore be thresholds between natural and spiritual realms. To learn more about the fascinating topic of liminality, you’ll need to listen to episodes 13, then episode 40, and episode 51 of my Myth & Magic podcast. I also cover the subject of liminality in depth, in my non-fiction writer’s manual “So You Want To Write Fantasy?” But I think it’s interesting to note that people tend to approach mirrors to ask important questions about their existence and future opportunities at liminal moments in their life (at any thresholds they might encounter.) For example, on a wedding night, getting ready for a funeral, before a big presentation at work or in the dark waters of a font at the moment of baptism. (Note: a child younger than 18 months cannot “see” a reflected image, but what do the godparents see?)

Through the Looking Glass

In literature (especially in fantasy fiction) there is a tradition of using mirrors to combine thoughts on mythology and cosmology and to describe a method of visiting multiple worlds that are typically outside a character’s limitations. I am sure you can think of a hundred examples. A mirror is a useful device because it allows the protagonist to wander (in mind and spirit) without having to leave a prosaic existence. Sometimes there is even the suggestion of a physical trip to an “otherworld”. Thus, Alice reflects on what it must be like to live on the other side of a mirror’s reflective surface, so she chooses to travel “Through the Looking-Glass” in Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tale. Alice discovers an alternate dimension in which everything is reversed, including logic (so, for example, running takes you nowhere, walking away from something returns you to it). She finds that her mirror world is divided into sections by streams (reflective surfaces too) suggesting there are a myriad more dimensions to choose from. Harry Potter comes across a “mirror of desire” perhaps that he might be tempted to use to turn back time (a mirror of Erised) or that can be used as a scrying tool to see his (dead) parents.

The Crystal Ball John William Waterhouse 1902

So, returning to the central question, can ghosts be seen in mirrors? Some people, notably those who are prone to such things, are almost certain to “see” puzzling images in reflected surfaces. Some reported sightings might be because of sensory deprivation (the darkness of the pool or the glow of the chalice), or skewed images that might prove unreliable because of a less than perfect surface. We must also take the mental state of the seer into account (is she at a threshold in life? Is it a time of stress and change?) And the health and mindfulness of the seer must be examined, plus their use of recreational, religious / mystical substances, medicines or intoxicants, and the seer’s lack of sleep, and a host of other factors.

There is probably a lot of pareidolia going on too. Pareidolia is the disposition of all observers to see recognizable objects, patterns — and even messages — in totally disconnected presentations. So, for example, we all see faces in everyday objects. How often have you looked at an electrical socket and thought it seemed to be a smiling face looking back? We all see visions in clouds. And we all see spooky humanoids in reflections. Pareidolia is not some kind of psychosis: it is a normal human tendency. And it explains many curious things.

pareidolia

We must also consider the subjective nature of experience: sometimes we too easily forget that we perceive our environments in a completely different way from those around us. The “seen and understood” universe that we experience differs entirely from the “seen and understood” universe that everyone else experiences. This is due to our sensory perceptions being unique to us. They say that each of us has a unique pattern: but we ought to remember that each of us also experiences a uniquely different world — and although our worlds overlap and seem to have many things in common with each other — each world is experienced in a totally different way. So anyone, at any point in their life, might experience what psychologists will call a benign hallucination on a mirrored surface. It is likely to happen to all of us!

Yes, ghosts are seen in mirrors. And that’s perhaps the least disconcerting aspect of reflective surfaces!

Give Him Money

Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

Hall of Mirrors in Royal Palace of Versailles

Do you exist in an Echo Chamber of public opinion? How do you avoid the mirrored gazebo? Here is how to escape your own personal Hall Of Reflections

Hall of Mirrors

The Hall of Mirrors (like the grandiose one in the Royal Palace of Versailles near Paris, which has 350 mirror surfaces) is designed to display the wealth of a king, and make the place appear larger than it actually is and to reflect the faces of those who promenade past. 

Even if you haven’t been to Paris, you’ve likely been inside a hall of mirrors. They are a traditional attraction at carnivals and amusement parks. If you’ve ventured into one of these attractions, I’m sure you’ve found them a bit labyrinthine and when the mirrors are distorted, due to their curves, they might have given you an unusual or confusing reflection of yourself that could have been funny, but might have been terrifying.

Scaramanga used a hall of mirrors to trap James Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun and Batman chased the Joker through a hall of mirrors in The Dark Knight Returns.

Funny Hall of Mirrors

But do you exist inside a gazebo of mirrors? Are you trapped inside the hall? Do you know the way out? Socially, when you have surrounded yourself with reflective images of your own views, judgments and opinions, it is sometimes difficult to find your way clear.

When you are trapped inside a hall of mirrors, it feels impossible to see things in their true light. And as long as you are trapped inside the hall, the perverted & deceptive images you see all around you will mock you… don’t you know they are just mirror images of your own unstable impressions?

Snow White

Everybody has a level of unconscious emotional patterning. In other words, we all want to “fit in.” We think we know what society expects from us, so we prefer to be a reliable “cog in the machine” rather than a flying bolt that looks as if it’s escaped from the gubbins and is causing havoc. That makes sense. Society is about compliance & conformity. It is about following certain axioms. But what if we don’t see society “the right way” because our view has been skewed by distortion so all we now see are perverse reflections of our beliefs…
Are we tempted to think the skewed reflections we see all around us are the truth?

What if the truth (we believe we see)  is just another reflection of the truth ( we want) to see?

Freeing ourselves from the corridor of mirrors is about letting go of everything we think we know. It is about separating ourselves from social conditioning, ideologies, political opinions, music, images and memes… all the things that we see every day that appear to remind us we know we are doing the right thing… in other words, all that stuff that seems to confirm to us that what we think is broadly the same as what everyone else thinks; in other words,  our perspectives are correct. But, to become an honest, free-thinking and broad-minded artist it’s vital we break free from this echo-chamber of opinions. 

How We See Ourselves in the Hall of Mirrors

When we see ourselves in the wonky reflection at a funfair, we might “lean” a certain way to “right” ourselves or to adjust our perspectives, or we might make ourselves look more ridiculous, just for fun. Buy when we’re at the funfair, we know the reflection  is not us and we know the distortion is just a silly game. We can walk away. We know the reflections are merely distorted lies of ourselves. But it’s not so easy to walk-away from the hall of mirrors in real life!

When we leave the funfair hall of mirrors we see our “real” selves again, don’t we? But some people are tempted to hide in a mirror maze all their lives. As an artist, we can’t afford to be one of those types.


Here’s a test to see if you have escaped the hall of mirrors:

Group A

  • Do you find yourself at odds with authority figures (scientists, teachers, academics)? 
  • Do you find everyone you know agrees with you on most issues? 
  • Do you often share memes or images you find funny or instructive? 
  • Do you often re-post friends’ opinions and their jokes and memes on social media? 
  • Do you enjoy getting rave reviews and lots of likes when you make a good point? 
  • Do you have to stop being friends with people sometimes because they post something disagreeable?

Group B

  • Do you ever ask others for help or advice?
  • Do you have lots of friends on social media that don’t think the same as you?
  • Do you have friends who some might describe as “way out there” in beliefs or lifestyle?
  • Do you have religious friends? Do you keep in regular contact with them? 
  • Do you like to listen to the opinions of others, even if they do not correspond with your own thoughts?

If you answered mostly yes to questions in higher group A and mostly no to those in lower group B, then you might need to ask yourself some additional questions:

  • How will you avoid following the pack? 
  • How will you know what to believe? 
  • How will you know which opinions should be questioned? 
  • How will you come up with original & creative content? 
  • How will you present your own ideas on social media?
Distorted Reflections

Can we break free from the hall of mirrors? Yes, but we have to do the following:

Understand what matters to us by searching (in our hearts) for our core beliefs and trusting in those beliefs

Trust in our own resolutions, knowing we don’t need others to help us decide what is best for us

Take ownership of any unwise decisions we made and acknowledging our mistakes

Understand our flaws and know that our mistakes make us resilient in the longer term, because there is less chance we’ll make the same mistakes again

Believe in ourselves. Understand we you are capable of making the right decisions.

Acknowledge that we don’t need someone else’s point of view to understand what is happening around us… if we don’t understand exactly what is happening, we can find out the facts for ourselves

Know that the best and truest answers lie within ourselves. When was the last time we searched our own conscience for an explanation? We must learn to do this before accepting another person’s opinion.

Ask ourselves questions to get answers: We must use common sense, intuition, and instinct before we seek the opinion of others

Learn to trust our own judgment. It is usually reasonable and it does not need to be confirmed by some other person

Recognize that it is sometimes wiser to consult an expert for guidance or information than an opinion-holder

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Thoughts, ideas or suggestions?  Tweet me @neilmach 

Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.