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“High speed accidents and near-accidents seem to produce “sightings” of one’s double, as do drug over-doses and “anxiety, fatigue, attacks of acute labyrinthine vertigo, and the febrile-toxic states of typhus and influenza.” In short, if you see your double, it is usually because you are in danger of death, and its superstitious identification as a death-sign was quite reasonable…

“My own doppelganger was the product of a near-accident on the road.

“I drove around a curve in the highway, and found a huge truck coming right at me, on the wrong side of the road, only yards away. It is difficult to describe what happened next. I didn’t black out, but there was a sort of suspension of consciousness, so that instead of seeing a truck bearing down on me, I saw beside me in the passenger seat – myself. It was dressed in a starched blue and white cotton dress (as I was); its hands were folded passively and its head dropped forward on its chest.

“Whilst I was observing this, some kind of saving reflex must have gone to work to wrench the car out of the path of the truck (which thundered by only inches away) onto the gravel shoulder. My double disappeared. I was gripping the wheel so hard that I had to make a conscious muscular effort to unfasten my fingers. Immediately I slumped down, only to jerk upright when I realized I had fallen into the exact pose of the Thing I had seen beside me. I was abysmally frightened.

“I knew that the rational reason for fright was that I had narrowly missed being hit by the truck, but that seemed irrelevant; what had really scared me was that the figure beside me, for all its passivity, seemed indescribably malign and threatening. I imagined that the meekly bowed head had concealed an evil smile.”

Victoria Branden, Understanding Ghosts (1980).

[This was one of the spookiest entries in John and Anne Spencer’s The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (1992), which I owned as a child. Coming across the original source as an adult, I was disappointed to learn that Mrs Branden’s game is to reconcile conventional experiences of the supernatural – which she judges to be too innumberable to dismiss as pranks and mistakes – with the insights of neurological science. Lately, a 2006 research project conducted at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne by the neurologist Professor Olaf Blanke, has indeed replicated the “doppelgänger effect” in the lab. Working with epileptic patients, Blanke found that an electrical stimulation of the left temporoparietal junction could induce a similar phenomenon to that experienced by Mrs Branden. Ed.]