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No. 20: Mar-Apr 1982

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The Mystery Of Spontaneous Visions

This fascinating survey of visionary experience during the Middle Ages is more valuable as a thought-provoker than an anomaly collection, although one might claim that any spontaneous vision is anomalous. The authors went back in history and examined a host of documents from the Middle Ages -- the lives of saints, histories, biographies, etc. They identified visionary experiences and explored the biological and sociological contexts. Kroll and Bachrach found 134 visions; that is, experiences that had no objective reality. We call such experiences hallucinations today; and their contents were the same then as they are now.

What the authors are after in this study are the perceptions of the visionary experiences by the community. The survey demonstrated immediately that the visions of the Middle Ages appeared to all types of people, not just saints and seers; and, further, that most of the 134 experiences were unrelated to physical and mental health. It was also obvious that the various communities readily accepted these visions as bona fide spiritual and parapsychological experiences. In other words, they were taken as messages from God, predictions of future events, marks of spiritual favor, etc. Kroll and Bachrach concluded that in the Middle Ages visions were culturally supported phenomena and not evidences of psychological illness, as they are today.

(Kroll, Jerome, and Bachrach, Bernard; "Visions and Psychopathology in the Middle Ages," Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 170:41, 1982.)

Comment. Superficially there is little that is surprising in these results. The people of the Middle Ages had wider spiritual horizons, while we build mental hospitals and consider UFO contactees as nuts. Regardless of the cultural environment, visions keep on occurring. They virtually never have any practical import. Why, then, do we keep on seeing them? Waxing speculative again, the false-head butterflies mentioned on p.000 probably have no inkling about the real value of their markings; is there some yet uncomprehended purpose behind these strange human mental quirks, or are they merely a little snow on our TV screens?

From Science Frontiers #20, MAR-APR 1982. 1982-2000 William R. Corliss