ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
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ASSAP blogWelcome to the ASSAP paranormal blog! Though this blog is aimed at anyone interested in the paranormal, it will be of particular interest to the paranormal research community. Updated frequently, but not regularly (don't expect something new every day!), it covers any paranormal topic, as well as highlighting recent changes to the ASSAP website. You may not notice it but this site changes on an almost daily basis.

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28 April 2008: EXIF - a gift to anomalous photo analysts

EXIF - Exchangeable Image File Format - doesn't roll off the tongue. Technically, it is a specification covering image file formats in digital cameras. However, its most exciting aspect is the fact that it records exposure details of digital photos. To most photographers, who just want nice photos, it is probably of no interest whatever. However, to keen photographers and, particularly, anomalous photo analysts it is better than sliced bread!

With film photos you only got exposure information if the photographer recorded them which only a very few keen ones did. While it is possible to deduce if a flash has been used, it is much easier to prove with the EXIF data. Occasionally, someone with orb photos insist they never used flash. In most cases the EXIF data contradicts them. It is not always obvious that a flash gone off when you are behind the camera concentrating on framing your shot.

There are lots of other very useful bits of information in the EXIF data. There is shutter speed, for instance. Many 'ghost photos' are the result of a long exposure. Using the focal length and aperture you can work out the depth of field, provided you have a rough idea of the subject distance. And, of course, there is the time and date of the exposure. This could be wrong if it was never set up by the camera owner or was set incorrectly. However, the timestamps can still allow you to work out times between shots in a sequence. This might be crucial, for instance, if you need to know how fast an object in successive shots was moving.

In the days of film you could only guess at what the exposure settings were. This made proving a theory explaining an anomalous photo difficult. Now it can be made possible in digital photos with EXIF data. If you take an anomalous photo, make sure you keep the EXIF data with the photo if you want it analysed. Some photo software packages will strip the EXIF data off unless you stop them. Don't let them!

PS: If anyone asks me, 'how do you become an anomalous (or paranormal) photograph analyst', I would answer, 'first become an experienced serious photographer'. Only after that should you concern yourself with photographic anomalies. Most anomalies are quite easy to identify if you know photography. You also need to be very keen because, as far as I know, there are no paid professionals!

24 April 2008: Vigils in the dark

I remember once getting excited about the shadows of moving ghosts! I was sitting in the dark on a vigil staring at the bottom of a door. The bottom of the door was lit because the light was on in the room behind. After staring for a long time, I began to see movement. It looked like the shadows of people moving around in the lit room. However, I knew the room was locked off with no one in there. Could it be the shadows of ghosts?

Well, no. I wasn't just seeing shadows cast on the light crack under the door. The whole light crack was starting to distort, change shape and move around as if the entire building was dissolving before my eyes! Clearly this wasn't really happening! I decided it was eye-brain illusion thing. I now know it is called autokinesis.

Autokinesis occurs when you are in a dark environment staring at a small light. After a while the light appears to move, even though it is physically stationary. It has often been implicated in UFO reports where people stare at bright stars or planets for prolonged periods and believe them to be moving.

Autokinesis is only one of the difficulties involved in holding ghost vigils in the dark. Among the many problems are; the long time it takes for your eyes to adapt to the dark (some 30-45 minutes to get to 80% of full sensitivity), poor visual resolution, the night blind spot and impaired depth perception.

The night blind spot is particularly nasty. It is an area of unusually poor resolution right in the centre of your field of vision. The central area of your vision (produced by the fovea) is where you see the sharpest details in good light. However, in low light the fovea switches off leaving you with particularly poor vision straight ahead of you. Of course, most people aren't aware of this and instinctively look straight at any object they are trying to see better. The trick, apparently, is to look slightly askew, around 20 degrees to straight ahead, to get a better view in very low light.

Given the major problems associated with dark vigils, which will increase the number of misperceptions massively, why do they still happen? I suppose there is the naive idea that ghosts are somehow associated with the dark. In fact, most ghosts are seen in plain daylight. Also, with one or two very rare exceptions, ghosts do not glow, so they would be missed entirely on most dark vigils. As with many things in the paranormal, the 'everyday' idea does not correspond with the evidence.

So, unless you are specifically investigating a report of an extremely rare glowing ghost, there is no valid reason for holding vigils in the dark. Just because they do it on TV, it doesn't mean there is any sense to it. The scientific value of such vigils, where observers will inevitably be misperceiving wildly, is minimal. Oddly, dark vigils are so common these days that most paranormal researchers do not even question their validity. They really should!

23 April 2008: Ever seen a ghost in the corner of your eye?

Why do eyes have corners? I can't say I've ever seen an eye with corners and the 'picture in my head' doesn't have obvious corners either. Nevertheless, people often report seeing strange beasties, including shadow ghosts, shadow people and even demons in the 'corner or their eye'.

Face in vegetation

Can you see a face in this picture? Try looking at in the 'corner of your eye'. If you still can't see anything, you'll need to consult the instructions in our new article on corner of the eye phenomena.

Peripheral vision is noticeably different to the detailed view you are using to read these words. It is a strange world where shapes are distorted, everything is monochrome and movement is exaggerated. It is little wonder that it produces reports of odd shaped creatures, nor that they should resemble shadows. The only strange thing is that peripheral vision is yet another area of 'natural explanation' (like misperception) that neglected by many paranormal researchers. It is yet another natural explanation to consider when examining witness reports. Paranormal researchers may find it useful to look at the Testimony Site Map for more information on factors to consider when examining witnesses reports.

Further reading (new page): Corner of the eye phenomena and shadow ghosts

21 April 2008: No, ghosts are NOT the same as spirits!

People are sometimes surprised when they ask me if I believe in ghosts. 'Of course I do, who wouldn't I?' I say. The reason some are surprised is that they assume the word 'ghost' is the same as 'spirit'. It isn't! I know what I mean by ghost and it isn't the same as spirit! It's possible that some ghosts might possibly be spirits but the evidence to date shows this to be rather unlikely.

The problem is that a whole generation has now arrived in paranormal research that can barely remember a time before the ghost hunting TV programmes. These shows, with their assumption-led methods, use words like ghost and spirit to mean the same thing. Sadly, most research done with such methods is valueless from a scientific point of view. If you really want to know what ghosts are, you need to look at the evidence provided by more conventional investigations. The first step is to come up with an assumption-free definition of the word 'ghost'!

The picture that emerges from serious ghost research is that most ghosts are probably the result of either misperception, hallucination or even memory changes. Some people will argue that such xenonormal ghosts are not 'real' ghosts (by which they usually mean 'spirit')! However, if you study lots of investigation reports you won't see any obvious difference between the description of ghosts' appearance and behaviour between those shown to be xenonormal and others presumed to be paranormal.

Ironically, what makes xenonormal and unexplained ghosts all part of the same phenomenon is the widespread, unjustified assumption that ghosts are spirits. Witnesses seeing a mysterious figure in their bedroom don't know if it is a product of sleep paralysis or a spirit. What they DO know is that it is a ghost!

Many paranormal researchers use the words 'ghost' and 'spirit' interchangeably. However, just as we know that the casual use of certain words can promote discriminatory thoughts, treating 'ghost' and 'spirit' as synonyms affects the way cases are investigated and interpreted. For reference, ghosts are human (or animal) figures that witnesses believe not to be physically present. It's a bit clumsy but at least it avoids assumptions about the cause of apparitions.

18 April 2008: Will mediums have to justify their claims?

Some mediums are said to be worried about proposed new Consumer Protection Regulations that will replace the old Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951. At the moment, it has to be demonstrated that a medium has set out to defraud someone to be convicted. The fear among some psychics is that they may have to prove that they are really contacting spirits if they are to sell their services in future.

While this might affect people going for a commercial reading with a psychic, it seems unlikely to make much difference to paranormal research. Ghost research, for instance, does not require the presence of mediums and never did. Indeed, taking along mediums on vigils tends to end up in assumption-led research which is unlikely to produce any worthwhile scientific data.

There are, of course, some investigators who routinely take psychics on their ghost vigils. If the psychic is going along as an investigator it seems unlikely they would have to justify any claims to anyone. Research, by definition, has no certain results. Where a psychic is paid, to lead a group of ghost hunters for instance, there could potentially be more of a problem. With this sort of law it is generally down to whether money changes hands. It will be interesting to see if the use of psychics on some ghost hunting TV shows is challenged!

16 April 2008: Why seeing ghosts is scary!

When you experience something unfamiliar, the chances are you will find it a little disturbing. Or possibly more than a little! Meeting something unfamiliar is, of course, a perfect description of many paranormal (or more likely xenonormal) experiences. Most of us find things we don't understand, or can't predict, worrying.

Interestingly, when people experience uncertainty or the unfamiliar, they often secrete a stress hormone called cortisol. This hormone affects their memory of the event, biasing it towards negative feelings. Certainly, many people find encounters with ghosts or UFOs disturbing and do not want to repeat the experience. This is typical of the effect of cortisol. It may be why ghosts are scary, even to investigators who go looking for them!

Some scientists think cortisol is also responsible for flashbulb memories. Flashbulb memories occur when you experience, or hear about, something traumatic or of high significance. They are characterised by being long-lived and detailed. It is possible that some reports of paranormal encounters may, if they aroused strong emotions in the witnesses at the time, be flashbulb memories. Though flashbulb memories are detailed and long-lived, they are still subject to creeping inaccuracies through retelling, as with other memories.

It would be useful for investigators to try to assess how witnesses were emotionally affected by their experiences. If the experience was disturbing and is recalled vividly, it may indicate a flashbulb memory. This will probably produce more details than you would expect, however these should still be checked as it does not mean they will be necessarily accurate.

14 April 2008: Most anomalous photos are not fakes!

Rays from bricksVisiting paranormal forums, it is fascinating to see how people react to anomalous photos. Most say that either the photo was digitally manipulated, OR that it is something truly paranormal. Very few people plump for other alternatives, like the photo is perfectly genuine and unedited, just unusual.

In my experience, the vast majority of anomalous photos show no sign of manipulation. However, neither do they obviously show anything paranormal! Most photographic anomalies are a result of how the shot was taken. For instance, light trails and 'transparent ghosts' result from unintentional, or unnoticed, long exposures. Orbs and strange mists generally arise from taking flash photos with digital cameras, particularly outside at night. Other major classes of anomalous photos come about from lens flare or the photographer not noticing what was in the photo when it was taken. There are also other, rarer, oddities like peculiar glowing shapes resulting from water on the lens and the strange photo shown above.

Looking at the photo above, do you notice anything odd? If you look carefully, you will see faint straight lines radiating from the centre of the photo, which shows an old brick floor. This effect was created deliberately by zooming out during the exposure. OK, so technically it was 'cheating', however it was not digitally manipulated (a film camera can produce the same effect) on a computer. Such a thing could happen accidentally, producing a very puzzling photo!

When you consider the thousands of photos taken every second all the time all around the world , it is little wonder that some will produce strange effects like these. While manipulated photos are certainly sometimes submitted as anomalies, the number is far fewer than most people seem to imagine. If you have to examine an anomalous photo, you're opening guess should be that you are looking at a photographic artifact. The new graphical site map page for anomalous photos may help you in deciding what to look for.

11 April 2008: Differential diagnosis of hauntings

Shadow ghostIf you watch the American medical drama 'House', you will know all about 'differential diagnosis'. In essence, patients are diagnosed by producing a list of possible diseases that could fit the list of symptoms they present. Then, to determine which one is correct, the doctor may use various tests to eliminate, hopefully, all but one!

I think such a method could be applied to haunting cases. If, say, ghostly footsteps are routinely heard in a particular room, a group of investigators could examine the area and come up with a list of possible natural explanations. These might include: thermal expansion of the boards, movement in connecting boards, sound being reflected or refracted from a nearby room and so on. These theories could then be tested by the group. For instance, someone could walk about on connecting boards to see if the reported sound was reproduced. If all the possible causes were tested and eliminated, the footsteps might reasonably be called unexplained.

Of course, this sort of thing happens already in investigations though often not as rigorously as perhaps it should. For instance, one person might come up with one natural cause and test it as best they can on their own. It would be better if a group of people bounced ideas of each other, like in the TV programme, to produce as many theories as possible. Then the whole group could do the tests together and, if necessary, offer advice to each other about the best way to prove their point. The tests could be videoed, as well as witnessed, so that other people could later review them as well. An important point in favour of using multiple witnesses to do such tests is the problem of misperception, which varies between people. Some witnesses may hear the reproduced sounds as footsteps while others hear only creaking floorboards (just as some people see a face in picture where others see only random shapes). If anyone reports the sound as footsteps (even if others disagree), then it probably accounts for the original report.

This may seem a little over the top but, at present, in some cases (especially with assumption-led investigations), such testing is often all too perfunctory. If the differential diagnosis of a patient is wrong, they may die. Things aren't quite as serious in paranormal research, of course. However, if testing natural explanations in an investigation is not done rigorously, people may claim paranormal activity when there is none. Considering that this implies an agency beyond current scientific knowledge, it is only fair that the claim is tested thoroughly.

7 April 2008: Repeater witnesses

Ufologists have noticed that some UFO witnesses repeatedly report seeing unknown objects in the sky. They call such witnesses 'repeaters'. Interestingly, such UFO repeaters often also report lots of different paranormal experiences, in addition to UFOs. Another interesting point, from ghost cases, is that frequently, one or two members of a haunted household will experience the vast bulk of the odd goings-on. Other inhabitants of the property may experience little or nothing unusual.

These observations imply that the general population divides into two broad groups - those who experience anomalous phenomena, often repeatedly during their lifetimes, and those who never experience anything weird. The paranormal explanation for this phenomena is that such people are sensitive, psychic or mediumistic (or in the case of UFOs, 'marked out' in some way).

So how can such repeaters be explained by naturalistic theories, like misperception? Interestingly, repeaters would also be called 'sensitive' in such theories, though not to the paranormal. Instead, people who repeatedly report anomalous phenomena may sometimes be unusually sensitive to their physical environment. Such people may notice the creaks and groans associated with buildings, particularly when heating up or cooling down, more than others (see New House Effect) and interpret them as haunting phenomena.

Most of us spend a great deal of our lives ignoring what is all around us. We walk along a city street but fail to hear the blackbird (common in the centre of UK cities) singing or see the urban fox diving into an alley. When we DO notice such things, they may be surprising, even unfamiliar, and might be seen as xenonormal.

So repeater witnesses may be people who occasionally become hyper-sensitive to their physical environment. Suddenly, they notice things that they had ignored before and interpret such unfamiliar events as paranormal. It's just an idea at the moment, but it would be worth researching with psychological tests.

4 April 2008: Finding paranormal info more easily

Graphical site mapThe ASSAP website contains a lot of information about the paranormal and how it is researched, some of it rare or even unique on the web. There are currently well over 250 web pages and documents (most hundreds of words long, some containing several thousands) on this site. However, it can be tricky to find particular articles sometimes. Indeed, it's often easier to go to web search engine and type 'ASSAP UFO', for instance, to see what we have on UFOs. Now, searching for relevant data has become easier thanks to a new graphical site map.

The old site map, like many on other websites, reflected the web link structure of the site. However, our new graphical site map reflects actual information relationships instead. So, for instance, there is a map showing how witness testimony flows from incidents to investigators and where it may potentially be altered along the way.

The new arrangement means that it should be easier and quicker to find the exact information that you want. So, for instance, suppose you want to know about the colours of orbs. Firstly, go to the main site map and you will see an entry for 'anomalous photos'. By clicking that link you will see there is a second map which includes 'orbs'. From there, it is easy to find 'colours' which takes you straight to the relevant page (and even paragraph). Even quite obscure pages on our site are now just a few mouse clicks away.

2 April 2008: Window areas and Ufocals

UFOThis month's Fortean Times contains an article on 'window areas'. Window areas are geographic locations which appear to produce more than their fair share of anomalous reports. Ufocals are much the same idea except that they relate specifically to UFO reports. Paranormal researchers have speculated that certain places may attract whatever is responsible for paranormal or UFO activity.

I was reminded of a lecture I went to way back in the 1980s. It was given by Paul Devereux who was explaining his, then novel, earthlights theory of UFOs and other anomalies. He was examining the geographic distribution of anomaly reports to see if they were more frequent near geological faults (see tectonic strain theory). Naturally, cities and towns produced the largest numbers of reports, simply because there were more potential witnesses to see anything strange. Even taking that into account, there was a huge blob over Milton Keynes, then nothing like as big as it is now, which clearly needed explaining. Was it a window area? A ufocal? Actually, it was where prominent ASSAP and BUFORA investigator (and now sadly the late) Ken Phillips lived.

Ken was an immensely keen and highly active paranormal investigator who researched huge numbers of cases. As word got round that he was the man to tell about your strange experiences, he got lots of local cases. The result was a large number of paranormal reports originating in and around Milton Keynes. Ken had 'created' his own window area! It is probable that some other supposed window areas may also be the result of particularly active local investigators, especially if they get media publicity. Once the local newspaper declares an area a 'hotspot' for paranormal activity, you can expect all sorts of xenonormal reports to flood in.

If you could somehow get uniform investigator coverage of the entire country (to counteract the 'Ken Phillips Effect'), could you then use the resulting geographic spread of reports to look for window areas? There would undoubtedly be hot and cold spots simply by random statistical chance, but would any of them be something more interesting? As we know, the vast majority of paranormal reports turn out to be xenonormal when properly investigated. More importantly, reports of UFOs can be produced by lots of different natural explanations, as can ghost and other paranormal phenomena. That being the case, if reports of anomalous phenomena DO cluster in hot spots, it probably mainly shows psychological (rather than paranormal) factors linking them together, such as a flurry of media activity or a place with a spooky reputation.

If you dig below the surface of any local area, you will find plenty of odd stories. ASSAP's own Project Albion has shown this, with apparently unspooky places like Croydon and Mitcham producing respectable numbers of strange tales. Whether the geographic distribution of such reports will tell us anything about the underlying nature of such experiences it's difficult to say. But you should certainly treat claims of window areas with caution and look out for someone like Ken Phillips living in the area!

1 April 2008: An invitation you can't resist ...

Ghostly faceI received an email from a TV production company this morning, asking me if I would be interested in taking part in their proposed new ghost show. The basic format is that a team of paranormal investigators must successfully identify at least one ghost in a haunted location, within no more than 2 hours. Their answers will be judged right or wrong by a historian who will look up records of who lived at the place.

A nice twist is that each researcher gets a list of celebrities to peruse beforehand. They must chose the celebrity they least like (this does make sense, trust me!). Given the sample list supplied with the email, finding a suitable candidate should be no problem! If the team succeeds in finding out the name of any ghost, each of the nominated celebrities will be dumped into a vat of 'cold green ectoplasm'. If they fail, however, then each team member will have to endure 4 hours alone in a haunted room with their nominated celebrity! Once per series, the programme will visit a non-haunted location to keep the participants on their toes (and presumably give the celebrities their revenge)!

There will also be special prizes, such as EMF meters or negative ion detectors, presented to anyone who detects any paranormal activity during the show. If someone actually sees a ghost, they will receive a thermal imaging camera! For balance, there will be a resident skeptic present who must explain, in no more than 20 seconds, each of the paranormal phenomena recorded in terms of natural causes.

I was certainly flattered to be considered but regretfully decided to decline. It wasn't just the commitment to 20 investigations a year (all expenses paid). I looked at the date of the email and the company name, 'DoAnythingToGetonTV Productions Ltd', and felt it wasn't for me!

NB: For an explanation of the picture of a ghostly face, see the March blog.

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© Maurice Townsend 2008