Scottish tradition of second sight and other psychic experiences in families
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Cohn, Shari Ann
Second sight, a special psychic ability of having prophetic visions, is traditionally believed to be a natural inborn faculty of mind running in certain families in Scotland and other countries. Detailed written accounts of second sight from the 17th century onwards are consistent with modern-day accounts collected by folklorists and ethnologists. The visions could take the form either of direct representations of someone's fate such as seeing a funeral procession, or symbolic representations, such as seeing a death shroud on someone. The current study using questionnaire and interview methods examined the prevalence of second sight, the nature of the experiences, and whether there is any evidence to support the belief that it is hereditary. A large-scale mail survey, using random sampling methods, showed that the frequency of second sight was 10% in the Western Isles, 16% in the Highlands and Lowlands, and 33% in the Grampian region. Generally, neither highland descent nor gender seemed to be significantly related to people reporting second sight. In all the areas, people who reported having second sight were significantly more likely to report second sight in blood-related family members. A phenomenological and ethnological approach was applied to the design of the questionnaire and interview schedule, the style of the interviews and their analysis. The 65 item questionnaire covering the different types of second sight experiences found in the historical accounts and biographical and family history information, was sent to people who expressed an interest in the study. A total of 208 questionnaires were received, primarily from Scotland but also from other countries. The responses indicated that second sight is experienced by people of diverse ages, occupations, religious and cultural traditions. Women tended to report more experiences than men and an important factor related to having second sight was having had a religious experience. Fieldwork was conducted in different parts of Scotland. Seventy people were interviewed and over 500 accounts were collected. A phenomenoiogical approach was applied to looking at patterns in the accounts. A consistent feature is that the imagery, whether visual, auditory, kinaesthetic or olfactory, was described as real and not originating purely in the mind of the observer. This was true whether the emotional content was positive or negative. Some of the visions were seen as quick 'film-like' images through the mind, others appeared as projected three-dimensional images which became the central focus of perception. It was proposed that people with second sight could have an eidetic-like imagery. Two of the most common types of second sight experiences are awake visions of future deaths of people well-known to the percipient or of unfamiliar persons. Accounts of seeing funeral processions and death shrouds are rarely reported today. A total of 130 pedigrees from people with a history of second sight were constructed. The results of pedigree and segregation analyses demonstrate that second sight seems consistent with an autosomal dominant inheritance pattern, especially for small family sizes. Though certain aspects of the data favoured a social and cultural model, it was argued that they were still consistent with second sight having an underlying genetic component. The importance of other studies examining the pedigrees of second sight in different cultures was stressed. If similar inheritance patterns were observed in disparate cultures, this would provide further scientific support for the view that second sight is hereditary. It was speculated that second sight may be part of a creative mental process and what may be hereditary is the way information is received and processed by the brain and expressed in different sensory modalities.