Adam Sisman's sympathetic new biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre), the brilliant if acerbic historian, contains an unexpectedly fascinating passage on the great controversialist's declining years that sheds a ray of light on the way in which witnesses perceive ghosts.
In his late 80s, Sisman notes, Trevor-Roper was diagnosed with glaucoma and then developed a cataract. Soon afterwards, he began to suffer some alarming hallucinations: "He would look up from his desk and see the trees in leaf in mid-winter, or the landscape whizzing by as if he were aboard a train... Once, as he went to put out the dustbin, he found himself lost in a cemetery of dead machines, surrounded by rusting combine harvesters, lorries, cranes and derricks. Inside, the house grew an extra staircase." Other outlandish figments of the historian's imagination included gigantic trees and even a complete train at a platform at Didcot Station (which Trevor-Roper attempted to board).
All of this eventually led to a diagnosis of Charles Bonnet Syndrome – a little-known condition, first described well over 200 years ago, in which those suffering from failing vision unconsciously compensate by dredging up memories with which to populate the fading landscape. Typically these vsions are what are known as "Lilliput hallucinations" (in which the hallucinated objects appear on a reduced scale), but as Trevor-Roper's own case shows, it's also possible to experience the opposite, and also extremely realistic visions of human figures, even within one's own home. An experience of the latter sort occurred to Trevor-Roper in 2002. As Sisman records:
He woke at three o'clock in the morning to find a woman beside his bed, statuesque and immobile. He tried to question her, but she did not reply, and slowly dissolved into the air. 'Now I know all about ghosts,' he said. 'I've seen one now and solved one of life's mysteries – and the rational world is restored.'
CBS is, of course, a pretty rare syndrome, and it would be wrong to suggest that, on its own, it can account for more than a tiny fraction of ghost sightings or other Fortean reports. Nonetheless, Trevor-Roper's encounters, and the equally outlandish experiences of other sufferers from CBS, tell us a good deal about the astonishing power of the human memory and the interplay between mind and senses. Perhaps a very similar mechanism accounts for at least a proportion of strange visual experiences; certainly, the Trevor-Roper case suggests that when such phenomena do occur, even the most intelligent and sceptical of witnesses might readily be taken in.
Lord Dacre himself agreed. "It's perfectly obvious to me," he told one interviewer, "that ghosts are created out of the rubbish of the brain, in the same way as are the hallucinations of CBS. Ghosts are a sub-Charles Bonnet Syndrome."
Source: Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (London: Macmillan, 2010) pp.536-8
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