Popular Mechanics take a look at the science presented in “The Dreamscape” and ask whether it’s possible to scare yourself to death, and whether it’s possible to strategically access recessed memories from the brain.
Is it possible for someone to scare himself to death?
Mark Young, an employee at the mysterious, possibly evil, corporation Massive Dynamic, is so convinced he is being attacked by butterflies that he jumps out of a window to escape them, and the team is called in to investigate this bizarre tragedy. The butterflies were a hallucination, but the cuts Young suffered from them were very real.
Mad scientist Walter Bishop concludes that Young suffered from psychosomatic effects, which is the ability of the mind to cause actual physical changes in the body. This “mind over matter” philosophy is the same thing responsible for a person getting goose bumps when they are frightened, he claims. In this case, the wounds originated internally and pierced their way through the body tissue.
“Hallucinations have varying levels of reality to a patient,” says Dr. Mark Milstein, a neurologist and assistant professor of neurology at a major New York City hospital. “Some know that what they are seeing or hearing is not really present. Some believe so deeply in their hallucinations that they may act against them, yelling at imagined people, or even trying to attack them.”
Dr. Milstein explains that hallucinations, the perception of sensory information without actual external stimulus, can be as simple as hearing someone when you are alone or smelling apple pie cooking in an empty house.
But to be cut by one’s imagination, as Young was by the butterflies, isn’t possible in reality. The only way for that to ring true in modern science is if Young was cutting at his own skin without realizing it. “If a patient believed that he was being assaulted—by insects, for example—he might end up harming himself to stop the ‘assault,’ ” Dr. Milstein says.
As with most of the victims in Fringe, Young’s bloodstream was exposed to a compound that caused the hallucination; in this case, the compound came from a toad. Dr. Milstein doesn’t list this as a candidate for typical drugs at play in such scenarios. Instead, he says that several sedatives, anesthetic medications and even some treatments for Parkinson’s disease can bring about hallucinations.
“Interestingly, LSD, an illicit drug most historically described to cause hallucinations, actually more prominently causes sensory delusions,” Dr. Milstein says, explaining that these delusions are merely a result of normal sensory perceptions being altered or distorted.
Can you strategically access recessed memories from the brain?
When Dunham first went into the “sensory deprivation” tank nine episodes ago, she got inside the head of Agent Scott. Little did she know that Scott’s memories also got inside her head—and stayed there. Walter Bishop mentioned that the visions (and hallucinations, as it were) Dunham has been having could last for years unless she used a form of repressed memory therapy to bring those foreign memories to the surface and release them from her subconscious.
According to Dr. Milstein (the real neurologist), the memory in question here isn’t one of the typical subtypes of memory. There is immediate memory, which is the amount of information a person may retain for just a few seconds, such as a phone number. There’s working memory, like doing a math problem in your head, and recent memory, such as remembering what you ate for dinner the previous night.
Then there is remote memory. “This is your permanent memory,” Dr. Milstein explains. “What was your childhood address? What is your father’s birthday?”
None of these, however, explain repressed memories of another person. Recalling such memories, such as what Scott was doing while Dunham went to the bathroom on their first date, is impossible, but even if Scott’s memories somehow miraculously became Dunham’s repressed memories, other methods might work better than a tank filled with water.
“There is data that hypnosis may help uncover ‘forgotten’ memories,” Dr. Milstein says. “Additionally, application of a sedative, such as sodium amytal, may create a dissociative state that helps release repressed memories.” This particular sedative, Dr. Milstein explains, is often labeled “truth serum” by science-fiction and thriller authors.
“However, both of these techniques require a skilled practitioner,” Dr. Milstein says. “And in both situations, patients can become very confident about distorted or even ‘false’ memories.”
Luckily, Agent Dunham’s recovered memories led her in the right direction in her investigation, but in reality, her visions likely mean that she is suffering from the same symptoms as Mark Young: hallucinations.