Doppelgangers Or: I go to Wikipedia so you don’t have to

So it was doppelganger week here in Facebookistan and me, being curious in the most undiscriminating way possible, decided to figure out what the hell was up with the the whole thing. As a gamer (in both the video and tabletop sense of the word) my view of the doppelganger has always been one of intense suspicion. Doppelgangers were faceless things that could adopt whatever shape or image they needed at a given time. Here’s one:

You can change into anyone at all you say? Hmmm…

As you can see, I had a very different idea of what doppelganger week was going to be about. I was expecting something more invasion of the body snatchers than anything else. Alas, this was not to be and everyone just posted images of famous folk who kind of looked like them. As you can see from my current profile pic, I didn’t really get it.

(By the by, that is a bacon cheese burger where a Krispy Kreme is standing in for a bun. As always, the bun is in your mind.)

But as it turns out, neither of these is the original, OG doppelganger. That term comes from the German (which you’d be able to tell if I knew how to put umlats into this) and means “double goer.” Originally this applied to, and I’ll quote:

“The word is also used to describe the sensation of having glimpsed oneself in peripheral vision, in a position where there is no chance that it could have been a reflection.” (a la wiki)

Of course, words change their meaning and the term doppelganger now refers to a person who has an uncanny similarity to oneself. In folklore these doppelgangers were bad luck Betties, generally representing impending doom of one sort or another. What surprised me about the wiki article was not that it had a different meaning (I had always assumed that doppelgangers were some sort of mythological beast rather than a phenomenon) but the historical bits down towards the bottom of the page.

For example, Mary Shelly’s husband was killed by one. No shit. Additionally John Donne, a ‘metaphysical poet’ saw his wife’s doppelganger on the night their child was stillbirthed. Now the fact that a pair of wonky English poets both saw doppelgangers is not exactly the most startling fact I’ve ever heard. However, one of my favorite white presidents, Abraham Lincoln, also saw a doppelganger of himself in the mirror, with a lighter and darker version seemingly superimposed on itself.

But if you really want to read a ‘humdinger’ of a doppelganger, the last one on the Wiki page is the best. An anecdote relating to one French schoolteacher Emilie Sagee tells the story of her bilocating in front of a whole class of kids. That is, she split in two and the doppelganger proceeded to eat and write, move independently of the original Ms. Sagee and even appear in far better health than the original Sagee.

Now, this would all be pretty interesting by itself, but there’s apparently some science going on here. Something like the doppelganger effect was accidentally induced in patients undergoing electromagnetic stimulation of the brain. This stimulation induced weak currents in the patient’s brain by rapidly cycling a powerful magnetic field. This is essentially the same as poking a wire in someone’s brain and giving it a tiny shock, without all the fun. The actual experiment is pretty interesting in and of itself but I’ll summarize for lazy folk/people with lives.

By stimulating a specific part of the person’s brain with these wireless electrical currents, scientists were able to induce the experience of another person. In fact, by varying the stimulation, they were able to induce both a shadowy, featureless person and a male figure. Normally we all have a sense that we exist, a sort of self-image that is co-extensive with our body. It’s why we don’t constantly freak ourselves out by hovering over our own shoulders. The docs involved in the study suggested that the point in the brain they were stimulating controlled that function of the brain and when it was disrupted by the electromagnetic radiation, the sense of self-image went away and the patient literally spooked themselves.

It’s worth noting that the patient described the whole affair as “highly unpleasant” which I’m guessing is something of a understatement.

As soon as I ran across this idea I thought it’d make a great idea for a story but unfortunately I remembered that someone else had done it much better than I’m likely to.

So take that doppelganger week or month or whatever.

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