I have been reading and writing a lot about neuroscience for a class that I am assisting. Among the interesting material is recent research on phantom pain. I recently had a phantom somatic experience. This account is about how we can feel experiences that are not physically happening.
Last week, in Orlando after my conference, I went to Universal Studios with my daughter and sister. We waited in line for a ride that exhibited much interest (in the form of long lines), but of which I knew nothing. It is the Simpsons Ride, and I am probably the only person on this forum who never watched a show (though I saw the movie and know who Homer is…). Anyway, this is what happens (if you plan to go on the ride, and prefer to be surprised, stop reading here.)
While waiting, we were surrounded by Simpson animated videos, with the story line that leads up to being in an amusement park where a psychopath is on the loose. The successive animated segments take us up to the point where we enter a room and get strapped into a large, open roller coast type car. Then the lights go out, and the car moves, and when we are illuminated, we are in surround, gigantic animated reality, with Homer and family sitting in front of us. But the psychopath has rechanneled the ride, and we are on the ride of and for our lives.
The car lurches and dives through the sabotaged amusement park, a renegade coaster car being plunged down the track, then off the track, then off the edge of a cliff, into a vortex, into outer space, into the depths of the sea….you get the idea. And the car is lurching and tipping, and we are going a million miles a minute and plunging to the center of the earth. And all the time I know that this car has not left the building, but my body knows what it feels, which is the plunging, dropping, falling, twirling, and most intense physical, somatic sensation. Cognitive Dissonance, I believe it is called, and it is the only think keeping me from complete panic. This probably goes on for less than 5 minutes, but it was a lifetime. Irrespective of what my brain knew, my body was in a life-threatening situation and I had to hold on not to try to grap my child and escape for my dear life.
As I sensed the ride was coming to a triumphant resolution (for me and Homer, not the psychopath), I forced myself to shift my eyes from the surround-screen and over the rim of my lurching coaster car. I saw that there were about a dozen such cars around me, and we were all elevated on some sort of motorized pillar that was the source of the actual lurches and tips of the car. But we never otherwise moved. My body was being tricked by what my eyes and ears captured and my mind interpreted. Very good animation, and very large, but it was after all just a movie. Yet even after realizing the trick, I could not suppress my body’s experience of falling off the last cliff.
I wonder if the ride would feel the same way if I did it again. Now that you know the trick, would it feel the same for you? For someone who has never ridden a roller coaster (a normal one that is) would the visuals be able to invoke the same somatic reaction. And what parts of my brain mediated this experience anyway. All these things we will probably never know, because I don’t think Homer is getting into the fMRI machine. thanks for the opportunity to share this story.