Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
Recently I was contacted by an individual seeking spiritual counsel about, among other things, a strange phenomenon he was experiencing.
Per my usual policy, I’m not going to identify this individual. I’m also going to refer to him with a generic “he” and keep details about him confidential.
Basically, the individual said he was occasionally feeling a presence in front of or behind him and that sometimes it felt like someone touched part of his body, such as his head or arm.
What should he do about this?
The reason I’m sharing the story is because the thought process I used when discerning how to advise him could be instructive for others trying to figure out similar spiritual situations.
The process I used deals with the principle of background knowledge.
A Real-Life Illustration
Let me begin by showing how background knowledge is important for assessing what is happening in a particular situation.
This is a story where the principle was important in my own life.
Ever since she was a teenager, my wife suffered from ulcerative colitis—a condition of the colon that can cause intestinal pain. Periodically, my wife would have ulcerative colitis flare ups that would cause her a great deal of discomfort.
The summer she died, my wife began having intestinal discomfort, and we reasoned like this:
Background Knowledge: Renee has ulcerative colitis.
Situation to Be Explained: Renee is having intestinal discomfort.
Probable Conclusion: An ulcerative colitis flare up is causing the discomfort.
This is what we both thought. But then we discovered a lump under her collarbone, and testing showed that she had advanced cancer that had spread throughout her body.
My first thought was, “Oh, no! Now we have two problems to deal with: Not only is she in pain because of the ulcerative colitis flare up, we also have to deal with the much worse problem of cancer!”
The doctor was quick to correct this thought, however. “No, this isn’t an ulcerative colitis flare up,” he said. “She has advanced colon cancer, and it’s all the cancer.”
The fact she had advanced colon cancer represented a shift in background knowledge that lead to a different chain of reasoning:
Background Knowledge: Renee has advanced colon cancer.
Situation to Be Explained: Renee is having intestinal discomfort.
Probable Conclusion: Advanced colon cancer is causing the discomfort.
This is just one example of how background information you have about a situation is important to accurately assessing it, but there are many others.
Mathematicians have found ways to quantify the effects of background knowledge on such assessments. One illustration is a famous formula known as Bayes’ Theorem, after Thomas Bayes, the 18th century clergyman who formulated it.
We don’t need to go into the details of the theorem here, but it is important to recognize that what you already know about a situation—your background knowledge of it—needs to be taken into account when trying to understand what is specifically going on.
That includes in spiritual situations.
The Inquirer’s Experience
Let’s apply that to the case of the individual who contacted me saying he felt unseen presences and the feeling of being touched.
There could be a number of explanations for that. Some would include:
- Natural phenomena
- Mental illness
Which explanation is most likely, and which should I point him to?
Background knowledge is key.
A Nighttime Occurrence
One piece of background information the individual gave me is that these experiences tend to happen at night.
That would point us to the first two explanations.
People’s imaginations get active at night, when our level of stimulation goes down and our sense of danger increases due to the darkness.
We’re biologically built to be alert for potential dangers lurking in the darkness—when we can’t rely on our vision to tell us about them—and we start listening for footsteps and “things that go bump in the night” to tell us about things we may need to be careful of.
Momentarily feeling that there might be someone in the room with you is not at all uncommon during certain parts of the night. It’s normal.
This is even more the case when people are falling asleep, waking up, or otherwise drowsy.
Everybody has had the experience of being in one of these states and thinking they heard a footstep, a bump, a knock on the door, a doorbell, a phone ringing, or something else signaling the presence of another person—and then snapping awake and finding it was nothing.
These phenomena are apparently caused by the same parts of our brain that are responsible for dreams—as we’re on the border of sleep, these parts of our brain are active, and sometimes it feeds us dreamlike content before we’re fully asleep, causing us to snap awake looking for the reason.
Something similar can happen when we’re in the process of waking up. We may be partially awake but still unable to move and have dreamlike perceptions of others being present.
This phenomenon—known as sleep paralysis—is thought to be responsible for many reports of alien abduction, incubi, and succubi.
Having the background information that the inquirer’s unusual experiences were happening at night this meant they could be due to perfectly ordinary nighttime imaginings or sleep-related phenomena.
But he also indicated something else . . .
Another of the problems the individual wrote about were persistent and unwanted thoughts which he felt compelled to neutralize by performing bodily rituals.
These are the classic symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
In this disorder, the unwanted, intrusive thoughts are the obsessions, and the resulting rituals to neutralize them are the compulsions.
Given the severity of the symptoms the individual described, I strongly suspected he was experiencing OCD.
The background knowledge that the inquirer is likely experiencing OCD would point us toward the third of the four explanations given above: mental illness.
The idea that someone else is present, or that one has just been touched, could be unwanted, intrusive thoughts caused by the OCD—in other words, they could be obsessions.
Also, OCD is an anxiety-disorder, and anxiety can induce a state known as hypervigilance in which one is over-alert to potential dangers, and that could manufacture the sense of unseen presences or touches.
What About Demons?
While demons are a possible explanation, they are not what is indicated by the background knowledge we have of the situation.
If the inquirer had said, “I’ve spent years in a Satanic sect,” then we would have background information pointing in the direction of demons, but we don’t have that.
Instead, knowing that this is a nighttime phenomenon a probable OCD sufferer is experiencing, the background knowledge points to perfectly natural phenomena as the explanation:
- Ordinary nighttime imaginings
- Ordinary dream-related phenomena
- Ordinary OCD/anxiety manifestations
So, based on the background information in hand, I concluded that one or more of these natural explanations was the probable reason. (There are other possible natural explanations as well, but these are the ones the background knowledge suggest.)
I should note that this type of analysis is something the Church employs. Thus, in its discussion of exorcism, the Catechism states:
Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness (CCC 1673).
As the Catechism indicates, the inadequacy of natural explanations needs to be excluded before one proceeds to exorcism.
Natural explanations are the first recourse when interpreting an event, and only if we have evidence that something more than natural is present is recourse to be had to exorcism.
Having formulated an assessment of the likely causes of the inquirer’s experience based on the background knowledge he gave, I was now at the point of formulating advice.
Given the number of subjects the inquirer asked about, the email I sent back was lengthy, and I didn’t have space to go through the chain of reasoning I’ve just described in this post.
The last thing you want to do is get a person with OCD—or any anxiety disorder—worrying that they could be experiencing demonic activity. Their condition will seize on that fear and increase their sufferings.
Since the person didn’t ask about the possibility of demons, and since I didn’t have space to go into the subject in detail and explain why this explanation is unlikely, I didn’t raise the subject.
For the sake of the individual’s peace of mind, I simply wrote:
Regarding the sensations you sometimes have at night of feeling a presence or feeling like someone touched your head or arm, it is actually normal for people to experience sensations like this when they are falling asleep or waking up.
The same parts of our brain that are responsible for our dreams seems to be responsible for this. Those parts of our brain can still be active when we are transitioning into or out of sleep, and if that is when these feelings are happening, they are nothing to worry about.
Even if they are happening when you are fully awake, they may just be your imagination or a symptom of anxiety. In fact, they could be a symptom of OCD.
Try relaxing and ignoring them.
If they persist or get worse, you may wish to talk about them with your doctor or an OCD counselor.
Given the background knowledge that these were minor nighttime phenomena being experienced by an OCD sufferer, this was prudent counsel.
Were it to turn out that something demonic was happening, it would be prudent to leave that matter for when such evidence emerged and not to impose fears of it, without the context we’ve covered here, before the individual was ready for this.
The principle of not imposing a burden on someone prematurely is important. After all, Jesus himself told the disciples:
I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now (John 16:12).
The Holy Spirit will give people the resources they need to deal with situations as they emerge, but it is not productive to get people worried about situations that are unlikely and that they will probably not have to face.
Thus, no matter what the future holds, we can all follow Jesus’ exhortation:
Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day (Matt. 6:34).
And Peter’s counsel:
Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you (1 Pet. 5:7).