The Paranormal Elephant
Like the legendary 'elephant in the corner', there is a serious problem haunting paranormal research and no one's talking about it. The paranormal research community is split dramatically in two and the division is holding back research. The division is, of course, between 'skeptics' and 'believers' (or 'sheep' and 'goats'). In essence, the split between those who believe that all reported paranormal phenomena can be explained by current scientific knowledge and those who don't.
In other areas of science there is a broad consensus about most of the evidence and theories in their particular fields. Researchers may hold alternative views on theories and interpret the evidence differently but this produces healthy debate that helps drive their subjects forward. Evidence is collected, theories are produced from it and these are tested against more evidence. This is the way science progresses.
Contrast this with the situation in paranormal research where there are two main camps with incompatible views. They rarely communicate and tend to be inward-looking. They both talk about the same phenomena but in often starkly different terms that would baffle neutral onlookers.
The crucial thing that ought to drive the subject forward, like any science, is evidence. But, bizarrely, even the evidence appears to be split. Experiments done by 'believers' typically confirm paranormal phenomena while those done by 'skeptics' don't. Indeed, this 'experimenter effect' is one of the few phenomena on which most researchers agree (and is used to support both sides of the argument!). The results of any experiment are routinely challenged by one camp or the other, depending on what they show!
The result is a subject in paralysis! The same questions that were asked by researchers a century ago are still unanswered.
Of course, there are other major problems in paranormal research, such as lack of funding and involvement from mainstream scientists. However another problem, probably just as big, is the erratic collection of evidence. Paranormal phenomena, whatever they might be, are not easily measured or even experienced. Many serious paranormal researchers have never seen a ghost, despite decades of investigating. The quality of evidence collected varies enormously. It ranges from rigorously designed laboratory experiments to stories from a friend of a friend. This ought to lead to careful weighting, according to source, but too often it does not.
What can be done to get paranormal research out of this hole? It is far too big a question to answered in this short article. However, here is a suggestion that some researchers may want to try. It can be summarised as 'ask different questions'!
Too often paranormal research questions are framed in a 'believer versus skeptic' way (eg. 'does telepathy exist?'). This approach has not proved hugely fruitful so far. If there was sufficient high quality evidence around to decide such 'big' questions, they would have been settled long ago. So why not, instead, ask different questions that can be answered and see where they lead?
Start with the known
But where to start? With any scientific study, the most sensible place to start is with the known, basic incontrovertible evidence that everyone agrees on. For instance:
- That people report hauntings is undeniable
- That all reported hauntings are associated with ghosts is not
So instead of starting yet another pointless debate about whether ghosts exist, why not ask an alternative question that can be answered, like - why do people report being haunted? It is a deceptively simple question but it leads into some promising avenues where surprisingly few paranormal researchers have trodden.
There are, of course, many subsidiary questions behind that new one. For instance:
- what do people who report hauntings think ghosts are (and why)?
- what do they understand to be the symptoms of a haunting?
There are many other questions, besides these, that need to be answered to build up a picture that might answer the original question. However, the question of why people report hauntings is central to paranormal research.
Other alternative questions
There are plenty of other fundamental questions you could use to start new paranormal research. Suppose you were interested in EVP (electronic voice phenomena), for instance. Following a similar approach to that above, everyone agrees that:
- people report hearing voices in sound recordings
- they do not recall hearing the same apparent voices at the time of the recording
So, instead of arguing about where the apparent voices may come from, why not ask - what makes a particular sound speech (not just in EVP but in general)? It turns out that this question is quite difficult to answer but at least there is some existing scientific research to form a starting point.
The new question, too, leads to many subsidiary questions, like:
- how does a person know a particular sound is a voice?
- is there any way that you can measure objectively if a sound is a voice?
Here's another interesting question to consider. Everyone agrees that:
- certain places attract repeated reports of haunting activity
- most places don't!
So, instead of arguing about whether ghost are responsible for hauntings, try asking - what distinguishes a haunted from a non-haunted place? Some subsidiary questions might be:
- which minimum 'symptoms' constitute a haunting?
- what environmental differences, if any, distinguish a haunted location?
There are many other questions like this you could ask. They all start from the same starting point - facts on which everyone, from whatever camp, can agree.
A really big question
Here's another interesting question to consider - does everyone experience the world in the same way? This may seem more like philosophy than paranormal research but the answer could be highly relevant. Recent scientific research into synaesthesia suggests that the input from our senses are all processed in one area of our brains before we become consciously aware of them. Synaesthesia is a condition, shared to some extent by around 1 in 20 of the population, where people unconsciously form seemingly bizarre connections between various senses. They may see music, smell shapes or hear colours. The area of the brain through which the input from all the senses passes is concerned with language. It means that, even in non-synaesthetes, input (ie. signals from the environment) from one sense may affect output (ie. what we become consciously aware of) from another. It also means that what we experience may be subtly affected by linguistic concepts already within our brain. What each of us sees or hears might literally be altered by what we know (or think we know!). What is more, we won't even be aware of this in-built 'sensory filter' because everything happens before it reaches our conscious mind or memory.
This is all speculative at the moment but it could explain why some people seem to experience the paranormal all the time while others never do. They may simply experience the world in a subtly different way! Do people who see aura, for instance, have a form of colour synaesthesia? It could all have a profound effect on paranormal research.
This alternative approach to paranormal research breaks away from the sterile believer / skeptic argument. It starts with undeniable facts and builds on them using conventional scientific research methods. Some people may object that this approach is taking 'the long way round' to answering the 'big' questions of the paranormal (like 'does precognition exist?'). This may well be true but attempting to address these big questions directly hasn't got us very far!
Postscript: More on the 'really big question'
It is known that senses can affect each other by 'leaking' between each other - synaesthesia. The fact that it is the language area of the brain where this happens opens up a fascinating area of speculation. Language is related to concepts of reality eg. the concept of a chair. When you hear or read the word 'chair', it triggers a concept in your mind without conscious effort. You may even imagine what a chair looks like. Even if you just think the word 'chair', without reading it or hearing it, you may still imagine a picture of a chair.
Now imagine you are in a spooky castle with a reputation for being haunted. You may, quite involuntarily, be thinking about ghosts. So, if you hear a noise behind you that you don't instantly recognise, the concept of a ghost might get mixed up with the sound of the unidentified noise. Your brain might 'interpret' the noise as a ghostly footstep without you even being aware of it. You would actually 'hear' the noise as a footstep. When someone asks you what you heard, you may instantly and confidently reply 'footstep'. To your conscious mind and memory, you really did hear a footstep.
If you had a sound recorder running at the time, you might play it back and hear that the sound was just a central heating radiator creaking as it warmed up. You would realise your mistake and revise your memory. BUT, if you never had that recording, you could remain convinced for the rest of your life that you heard a ghost sneaking up behind you.
Is this too fanciful, too speculative? Maybe, but it would be well worth trying to research the idea.
© Maurice Townsend 2007