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Leonard George’s Alternate Realities and Exceptional Human Experience
Rhea A. White
At first glance, Alternate Realities (Facts on File, 1995) by psychologist Leonard George is but the latest in a long line of encyclopedic dictionaries of the paranormal that consist of alphabetical terms related to the paranormal, the mystical, and the supernatural. Sometimes they have helpful "see" references to synonymous terms and "see also" references to related ones. The several editions of Gale Research’s multi-volume Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology goes a step further by grouping related terms in topical index e.g., Organizations and Societies; Periodicals; and Paranormal Phenomena. But George’s volume, though it is alphabetical, is obviously the product of considerable study, experience, and a theoretical approach that culminates in an overview of many kinds of phenomena that has resulted in a classification presented in the Introduction. He points out that we "dwell in the cave of our senses" (p. 6) and likens it to Plato’s Cave. Although much of the book is about "the extraordinary," he also takes a look at "mysteries of the ordinary," which are found in four domains: the body, the past, the inner world, and the external world. He notes that all four, including the body and the external world, are constructed, not simply given. "The contents of our awareness are the products of elaborate mental processes, steered by a complex of beliefs and motives. In short, consciousness is a construction, not a direct encounter with naked reality. The solid appearance of out mentally synthesized worlds of experience is an illusion" (p. ix). Thus, our worldview and our unquestioned beliefs largely determine the world we and others share in our cultural constructs. George emphasizes that the worldview is a tool, not "the truth" about reality, and he suggests that we question the "ordinary" as much as the "extraordinary."
In introducing supranormal experiences, he shows that "any and all facets of daily experience—the outer world, the body, the past, the inner world—can be invaded by supranormal phenomena" (p. xv). He covers many types of phenomena associated with each, ways of inducing them, and several cultural variations.
In a Directory of Entries, he presents his method of classification and the entries found under each category. I will list his categories below, but there is room to give only one example each.
A. General Topics: Approaches, Attitude and Interpretations (e.g., altered states of consciousness +15 more terms); Correlates (gender + 32); Mental Disorders (paranoia + 13); Organic Disorders (epilepsy + 11); History (Fatima apparitions + 26).
B. Varieties of Unusual (Supranormal) Experience: Body and Self (aura +24); Mystical and Related Experiences (epiphany + 16); Automatized Experiences (possession + 18); Memory Phenomena (fugue + 21); Sleep-Related Experiences (lucid dream + 14); Sensory and Perceptual Anomalies (eyewitness accounts of unusual experiences + 26); Psi (precognition + 22); Encounters with Otherworldly Beings (sasquatch + 21); Unusual Natural Phenomena (corpse light + 46).
C. Deliberate Inducement of Unusual Experiences: General (dancing + 12); Drugs (datura + 14); Methods and Experiences Associated with Specific Transitions, including (1) Buddhism, Indo-Tibetan (lung-gom + 32); (2) Buddhism, Zen (koan + 16); (3) Christianity (charisms + 20); (4) Hinduism (moksha + 34); (5) Islam (mahabba + 6); (6) Judaism (kabbalah + 2); Taoism (nei-tan + 1); and (8) Western Esoteric Traditions (alchemy + 3). Some terms are listed in more than one category, such as Fugue; and Kundalini.
Of special interest to the EHE Network is George’s category of correlates, as we are compiling a list of concomitants of exceptional human experience and plan to publish a flyer on it. Regarding correlates, George notes: "Supranormal phenomena are more likely to be experienced by certain people, under certain conditions. Research has identified a number of factors linked to them" (p. xvi). The correlates he describes in his dictionary are absorption; age; ambiguity; belief, anomalous; childhood alternate reality; childhood trauma; conformity; control needs; creativity; death concerns; dogmatism; education; emotional arousal; encounter prone personality; experience, unusual; fantasy proneness; gender; geophysical influences; group dynamics of unusual experiences; head injury; hypnotizability; intelligence; locus of control; magical thinking; narcissism; psychological adjustment; reasoning skills; religiosity; sensation seeking; sensory deprivation; social interest; temporal lobe abnormality; and unlikely virtue.
These correlates are certainly relevant to alternate realities, but our classification differs somewhat. Some of his items we consider to be triggers, such as head injury; some are what we call concomitants, such as emotional arousal; and some could be aftereffects, such as religiosity. Many are personality correlates, which we do not deal with. Those interested in a range of correlates should read what George has to say.
George’s classification encompasses many exceptional experiences. He includes the pathological, the social/historical, and induced experiences. Many of the categories he describes I and others have considered as counterhypotheses for another type, such as cryptomnesia for reincarnation. But in his view, the delirium tremens of the alcoholic count as much as satori in that both are alternate realities themselves. The only aspect he does not give much attention to are the aftereffects, but this is no doubt because his book is centered on alternate realities: George’s classification is one of the most inclusive and legitimate that has been devised for exceptional experience, which he views as glimpses of alternate realities. The concept of "exceptional human experience," however, is further along the constructionist spectrum than George’s "alternate realities," hence the emphasis in our work on experience rather than phenomena. George’s book is excellent for EHEers because of the range of exceptional experiences he sets forth and the potential normal explanations he offers for them as well as his delineation of the anomalous aspects that have not yet been explained. George is not concerned with exceptional human experience as such, that is, or the human potentiality component of exceptional experiences, but he does include certain transformative practices and deals with specific transformational experiences, such as kundalini, mystical experience, and shamanism. His work will be equally useful to librarians, scholars, and EHEers.
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