Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The visitor from an alternate universe

Making its way around the internet in the last few days we have the strange story of Lerina Garcia, a Spanish woman who is making an extraordinary claim; that she has side-slipped into our world from an alternate universe, where things are similar -- but not identical -- to this one.

This story, which could come straight from a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation, would be funny if it weren't for how serious Ms. Garcia sounds about it.  Here's how her plight was described on the site All About Occult:
Lerina Garcia, a then 41-year-old woman from Spain, well-educated, came up with a rather fascinating story.  According to her, as she woke up on an unspecified day in March 2008, her eyes fell upon her bed sheets.  Strangely, they weren't the ones she remembered going to sleep to.  Neither were her pyjamas. As she decided to ignore the minute peculiarities to go to her office, the same she had been working for since 20 years, she found that the department which she called hers didn't have her name on the plate.  First she thought she had got the wrong floor, but no, everything was the same, same floor, same department, except it wasn't hers.  Then she found out she had been working in a different department altogether, for director she didn't even recognize.  Scared, she left the office on sickness grounds.
Understandably.  But the strangeness didn't end there.  In Garcia's own words (translated, obviously, into English; this is verbatim from the site, and I'm aware that some of it seems a little oddly-phrased):
6 months ago I’m not with my partner of 7 years, we left and started a relationship with a guy in my neighborhood.  I know him well, I’ve been 4 months with him and know his name, address, where he works as a child you have and where he is studying. Well, now there is this guy.  It seems that existed before my ‘jump’ but now no trace, I hired a detective to look for it and there in this ‘flat’. 
I went to a psychiatrist and attribute it to stress, believed to be hallucinations, but I know not.  My ex-boyfriend is with me as usual, I’ve never left it seems, and Augustine (my boyfriend now) seems to never have existed here, it lives in the apartment where he lived nor find his son. I swear it’s real, I am very sane.
First of all, I can't imagine living through this.  The terror must be extreme.  From the report, it sounds like Ms. Garcia is entirely sincere (i.e., not a hoaxer), although it certainly can be hard to make that judgment simply from an article.  But going on the assumption that she isn't lying outright, what are our options for an explanation?

Well, it hardly needs saying that I'm not buying that she's a visitor from an alternate universe.  The ad hoc assumptions that would be necessary for us to believe that are simply too numerous.  So I think we can safely cancel the Red Alert Status, and send Geordi LaForge et al. back to their stations.

[image courtesy of artist Christian Schirm and the Wikimedia Commons]

What I think is most likely here is that Ms. Garcia is a victim of something akin to the Capgras delusion, about which I have written before (read my original post here).  While this isn't classic Capgras -- the most common manifestation of which is a sudden conviction that everyone has been replaced by perfect duplicates -- the similarities are apparent.  And she certainly has what is the most striking thing about Capgras and other delusional disorders, which is that while the sufferer is exhibiting symptoms of serious impairment, at the same time (s)he is absolutely convinced that (s)he is entirely sane.

One of the most terrifying things about such aberrations, I think.  At least for most other disorders, you know you're sick.  Here, you're convinced that you're seeing things correctly -- and therefore, it must be everyone else who is seeing things wrong.

So for all of the people who are citing Ms. Garcia's case as proof of alternate universes and the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, and so forth, I'm not finding it convincing.  It's much more likely that she had a minor stroke, perhaps in the limbic system or temporal lobe, which function together to allow for facial recognition and memory.  Rather than trumpet her case as proof of the paranormal, it might be better to see to it that she has a CT scan, and appropriate treatment for what is almost certainly a neurological disorder, not anything (literally) otherworldly.

7 comments:

  1. Capgras Syndrome is very strange, when you think about it. When people say, "It's all in your head," there are fewer mysterious places to be.

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  2. I'd like to know why her psychiatrist didn't think to have her physiological state examined! Did she have any history of stress in her recent past? What exactly did she tell the doctor to make him just blame it all on mere stress? Anyway I think you're right that something happened to her neurologically and that should have been explored by her doctors.

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  3. She's a woman, her doctor was more than likely a man. She's an educated woman who works a good job and states she recently broke off a long-term relationship. That's pretty much all anyone with a PhD needs to blame stress. Sad but true.

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  4. Not sure why you'd jump to Capgras syndrome. For one, she doesn't believe anyone's been "replaced," rather the world is just slightly off. With Capgras, if she saw her boss she would think "I know the name, I know the face, but you're not him." For her, instead it was "I know the building, I know my boss, but he doesn't know me. Because he's not my boss."

    That's a very different situation, and closer to a psychotic break. Quick Wikipedia check (kuz I'm bored but not that bored) shows Schizopheniform disorder or brief psychotic disorders as being relatively good fits. They both allow for delusional episodes that occur over a relatively short period (less than a month for brief psychotic disorders, less than six for schizopheniform) with a fast onset, and which doesn't effect higher functioning. Delusional disorder fits too (although it is kind of a catch-all term).

    Bonus points: Brief psychotic disorders are twice as common in women, and occur in the late 30s to early 40s.

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  5. Would make for an interesting Twilight Zone episode. Hmmm. Maybe in another universe it already has.

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  6. Check out the tv series Timeless - that's almost exactly what happens to a lead character when she comes back from the past to find the alterations that were made there mean that her sister doesn't now exist.

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  7. I've been a mental health clinical social worker for 20 years and have never heard of the specific form of delusion you mention. And any delusional disorder comes with additional symptoms that she doesn't appear to have. This is not representative of mental illness.

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