ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAP bloggerWelcome 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.

Whenever new information becomes available on a subject ASSAP covers, it is added to the relevant pages of the website straight away. So, just because you've read a page, don't assume it will still be exactly the same when you next look. That way the ASSAP website remains an up to date research resource.

The photo (to the right) is the ASSAP blogger himself, out looking for anomalies wherever they are to be found, so that you can read about them here.

Important note: If anything in this blog does not make sense, try following the links in text! If it still doesn't make sense, that's probably my fault ...

Previous blog pages ...

29 Apr 2009: Why no swine flu?

Well, how can I compete with saturation coverage elsewhere? I thought people might like to read about something else! Anyway, if you looked at the misperception picture I described yesterday, you might want to try again! I've added another figure that might work better. That's because it is now deliberately ambiguous with no obvious real number there to distract you. I find I see various different figures and letters now but see what you think.

28 Apr 2009: Trying to illustrate what can't be illustrated

Misperception is difficult, possibly impossible to illustrate in a still photo. Most misperception relies on the viewer not being able to get a prolonged, close view of an object. Instead, something might only be glimpsed briefly or seen through mist or in peripheral vision. Our brains make a 'guess' at what we are really seeing and substitute it into our visual field. Misperceptions generally disappear if we get a good view of the object being misperceived.

In many paranormal reports, the witness never gets a chance to study the misperceived object. This might be because it appears only briefly or maybe it cannot be approached. When the misperceived object IS subsequently seen well, and the misperception disappears, the substitute's vanishing act tends to reinforce the illusion that it is paranormal!

Never one to abandon impossible tasks, I've tried to produce a still image that can be misperceived in certain viewing conditions. It was inspired by a real experience where I saw the figures on a digital clock apparently keep changing spontaneously in low light. So here it is - see if it works for you!

24 Apr 2009: Do we remember things best as ghost stories?

There are memory competitions where people have to remember the sequence of cards in a randomly shuffled playing card deck. It sounds astonishing but people recall the sequence of entire decks after studying them for a few minutes. How do they accomplish such astonishing feats of memory?

A common way is the method of loci. Every playing card is associated mentally with a particular place and the sequence strung together as an imaginary journey. What is interesting is that a whole image, containing a lot of information, is used to recall a playing card which can be defined with just two items - suit and rank. So an awful lot of superfluous information is being stored just to recall something simple. Also interesting is that it is specifically visual images that are used to 'tag' memories.

This clearly relates to the way our memory works and it might explain confabulation and the way witness accounts become exaggerated over time. If a witness saw a distant dark figure on a dark night, there isn't much detail to recall. However, if the witness interpreted the figure as a ghost, straight away there is a 'story' attached to the sighting (and maybe even a particular visual image) that makes it more memorable. When asked to describe the figure, the witness may confabulate details that 'confirm' that the figure was a ghost, such as it was wearing period costume, when in reality no clothing was visible.

This could explain how our cultural ideas of ghosts, and other anomalies, can feed directly into witness accounts. It may also explain why real life ghost accounts are much less dramatic and unambiguously weird than 'traditional' accounts. If you can get to a witness soon after their experience, and question them carefully, you may find out what they really saw, as opposed to what they might have confabulated after many retellings.

Updated article: Paranormal witness memory

23 Apr 2009: Justifying odds in paranormal experiments

I've recently read some accounts of parapsychological experiments and I found them less than helpful. To me, not nearly enough space was devoted to the protocol and far too much to results (and often highly speculative conclusions). I was left wondering exactly how the experiments were really done.

In particular, I am concerned that some experiments may quote the odds of getting a result by chance without really justifying how they obtained those figures. Just because you connect a random number generator to a target, it does not guarantee the odds! To me, the ideal is that the subject must always faces an equal, random chance of a fixed number of different outcomes that they can readily distinguish from each other.

The odds of guessing whether a (unbiased) coin toss will come up heads is 50%. Each time the coin is tossed the subject faces the same chance - it does not depend on anything that has gone before. There are a fixed number of outcomes - heads or tails - and the subject can easily distinguish between them.

When it comes to some parapsychological experiments, this is not so. In some experiments I looked at, it was not demonstrated that the subject could distinguish between all possible outcomes. If subjects confused two possible outcomes, it could affect the odds.

To justify precise mathematical odds, there must be an equal chance of several fixed, distinguishable outcomes at the time of each guess. Some experimental designs get away from this ideal, albeit unintentionally. If that happens, the odds should be recalculated, if that is possible, otherwise the results may be skewed.

Updated article: Evaluating the paranormal

22 Apr 2009: Is 'choice blindness' the cause of 'photographer's memory'?

This week's New Scientist (18 April) has an article on 'choice blindness'. It is similar to change blindness, where people fail to notice drastic changes in the scene around them, which may cause some apparent ghost 'appearances' or 'disappearances'.

With choice blindness, people decide on a product only for it to be surreptitiously swapped after the decision. Despite that, people will still produce arguments to explain why they chose 'their' product (which has now been swapped with one they previously rejected). It is a form of confabulation, making up reasons to explain what they've decided.

This reminded me of 'photographer's memory ', discussed earlier this month. If someone has 'decided' that their photo shows a ghost, UFO or other anomaly, their mind can be difficult to change. If credible natural explanations are suggested for the photo, the photographer may suddenly 'remember' things they didn't recall before that 'proves' it really was paranormal in origin. Of course, the photograph has not be swapped but it may have an obvious natural explanation when shown to someone else (making it, effectively, a different 'product'). So to 'defend' their initial decision, photographers may remember things to back up their story, despite not having remembered them before! It certainly sounds similar to choice blindness! It also reinforces the fact that we are not as aware of what is going on around us as we imagine.

20 Apr 2009: When grass gets up and walks away

GrassOut for a walk the other day, I saw something truly weird! A blade of grass at my feet got up and walked away! I don't mean blown in the wind! It calmly crawled away on its legs!

Luckily I had a camera to record the incident. If I hadn't, I'd still be wondering if I was hallucinating. It may not be a ghost or a UFO but it still hit me as a pretty anomalous experience.

Here is my photo of the patch of grass (right) including the 'blade' that walked away. Can you spot it (clue: it's not in the centre!)? Technically, most of the plants here are not grass but many look similar.

Now look at the second photo (below right) which 'explains' the mystery. It shows a close up of the 'grass that walked'. It was taken a few seconds later after the object had walked onto a stone. It was just as well it walked onto a stone because I was having great difficulty finding it in the viewfinder. Looking for a 'blade of grass' among all those other similar leaves was not easy.

Green Tiger BeetleNow you can see that it is a green beetle. In fact, it is a Green Tiger Beetle (Cicindela campestris) which is relatively common, in suitable habitat, in Britain. You should be able to see it in the photo above, if you haven't already, towards the left side.

What has this to do with paranormal research, you may ask? Well, it's an example of the xenonormal - seeing something natural that you don't recognise! As with many xenonormal experiences, it puzzled me greatly at first! Bits of grass don't get up and walk around. I quickly guessed it was a beetle but some people would not have and, if they could not get a close up view of it, they might remain forever puzzled. They might even tell it as a weird 'believe it or not' story.

I also saw what I thought were two human figures dressed in white in the distance at one point. These, however, turned out to be bits of wood that someone had piled up. It was a good example of misperception. Though I suspected, after the 'people' remained motionless for several seconds, that they were something else, it was still a strikingly realistic experience. When I saw the wood close up, I couldn't believe I'd ever thought it was two people!

17 Apr 2009: Eliminating misperception

Misperception probably causes more paranormal reports than any other single factor. It is, therefore, important to understand it and be able to eliminate it as a possibility. Indeed, it should be the first possibility to be considered in almost all paranormal investigations.

I am starting a new section of the website devoted to misperception. The first page is concerned with the theory of detecting misperception in anomaly reports. It is not a practical guide to investigation techniques. Instead it examines what information may be required to eliminate misperception from an investigation.

New page: Eliminating misperception - the theory!

16 Apr 2009: Misty ghosts!

People sometimes report mists as ghosts. This is usually when mist is very patchy, with locally dense areas perhaps resembling a figure, rather than the more usual uniform fog. This is presumably why people report photos with misty areas on them as ghosts. In reality, most such photos are examples of 'photographer's breath', which is visible in the flash on a cold, dark night.

What is odd is that the vast majority of apparitions are reported to look like normal people. They may only be recognised as ghosts if they vanish or could not have been present (see time displaced ghosts). I can think of no reports where a ghostly figure turned into mist or vice versa. Nor are such mists ever reported behaving like humans! So, there does not seem to be any obvious evidence for misty ghosts. It looks like another one of Hollywood's devices for portraying ghosts has influenced real life reports in an unhelpful way!

14 Apr 2009: Legal paranormal?

I've occasionally read people defending paranormal claims by saying that the evidence they've supplied would either (a) satisfy a court of law or (b) was obtained by methods (eg. forensic) used in the legal process. They hold this to be sufficient to satisfy anyone who disputes their claim. It is a curious line of argument because most paranormal researchers stress their scientific, rather than legal, methodology.

The legal system deals with well-defined transgressions of human-defined written laws. The types of evidence that can be considered by a court are also laid down in writing. All of this is a human-defined system of rules.

By contrast, the paranormal is a study of, potentially, natural phenomena not generally recognised by science. Paranormal phenomena may obey unknown, and certainly not human-defined, natural laws. Thus, they fall into the obvious sphere of scientific study. I believe, therefore, that it is scientific standards of evidence, not legal ones, that are paramount in the study of the paranormal. I do wonder why people use the 'legal' argument' at all!

9 Apr 2009: Photographer's memory

We already have "photographer's breath" , which is what causes mysterious mists to appear in photos taken on cold nights. Now there is another anomaly: "photographer's memory". This happens when someone asks you to examine an anomalous photo and give your opinion on it. Each natural explanation for the observed anomaly that you suggest is greeted with "yes, but ..." followed by a perfectly good reason why it could not be correct.

The thing is, every "yes but" relies on remembering some precise detail of the exact circumstances surrounding the taking of the photo. Sometimes this is days, weeks or even years ago, requiring a considerably feat of memory! When I look at my own photos I can usually remember the general circumstances, like where and when, but not the exact details of each shot. Knowing things like whether there might have been a tree branch partially obscuring the shot, is completely beyond me. When I take a photo, I concentrate on framing the subject and tend not to notice much else that's going on around me. Indeed, far from being highly aware of what's going on around me, I often fail to notice when someone is approaching! What I really could do with is a photo of me taking a photo! That is why "photographer's memory", which appears to be so precise and long-lasting, amazes me!

In reality, most of us don't even notice details of unusual incidents, never mind the humdrum stuff. However, we all want to think we've taken an amazing and unusual photo. So when someone suggests it might have a mundane explanation, we trawl our memory for reasons why it can't be so. But the question is, can we really always trust our "photographer's memory"? (see also memory)

8 Apr 2009: Faster shutter speeds still produce flying rods

Hover flyThis humble hover fly, pictured recently, shows some characteristics of a flying rod. Specifically, the wings have turned into diaphanous appendages due to the fast flapping motion. The body of the insect is still because it was hovering! What is really interesting is that the shutter speed was 1/320s, much faster than the 1/50s typical of flying rod still photos.

Though this hover fly doesn't actually appear like a flying rod in this particular photo, the high shutter speed shows just how fast its wings are beating. The previous record was 1/200s, also a hover fly, so this is much faster.

It means that it may be possible to flying rod or insectorod photos with higher shutter speeds than the minimum for movie video cameras. It has been assumed by some people that flying rods could only appear in video recordings where the illumination was very low, calling for 1/50s or 1/60s frame exposure time. In fact, flying rods may be produced above this minimum frame time.

7 Apr 2009: Double exposures are back!

Double exposureMany ghost photos in the past were put down to double exposures. In reality, double exposures were always rare since most film cameras had mechanisms designed to avoid them. Most ghost photos showing transparent figures were probably the result of long exposures.

When digital cameras came along, the idea of double exposures seemed finally to have gone forever. You can, of course, produce the same effect in software but this is usually detectable. The digital camera itself is designed to take a single frame and then download it to a chip. Until now, that is!

Some recent digital cameras can now do double exposures deliberately! That is how the photo here (above) was produced. It has not been manipulated in software - it was all done in the camera.

These modern double exposures could happen by accident though that is unlikely as most people would notice that all their photos looked odd! Sadly, however, there is still deliberate fraud. Such a fraudulent photo will show up as unmanipulated. There may be some information in the EXIF record but, other than that, it may be down to careful analysis of the photo, looking for clues!

6 Apr 2009: I see no ships!

It is said that when Magellan landed on Tierra del Fuego, the natives could not see his ships, lying in plain view on the horizon. Because they had no ships themselves, they could conceive of such structures and so literally didn't see them.

This may just be a legend but I can certainly believe it could be true. The story is often used to illustrate the point that we may be dismissing real paranormal phenomena or alien encounters, using natural explanations, because we don't understand what we're really seeing.

However, there is another way to look at it - a perfect example of the xenonormal and misperception! In misperception, unrecognised objects are substituted by something similar from visual memory. However, not only had the Fuegan natives never seen ships, they had nothing similar in their memory to substitute for them, so they just saw the sea! In our much richer modern visual environment we can always find something to substitute for any unrecognised objects. In the case of UFOs, we can substitute flying saucers from movies for Venus! Indeed, if aliens really ARE visiting the Earth, unless they come in Hollywood style craft, we may not see them because their technology is completely beyond our imagination.

3 Apr 2009: The paranormal is more likely than that explanation!

Sometimes the 'natural explanations' people come up with to explain weird reports are really bizarre! So bizarre that the paranormal actually seems more likely! Or so many people say.

Certainly, there is a category of 'explanation' which I would describe as dismissive. It is often general, applying to whole category of phenomenon, rather than to a specific case. It uses the logic: 'If ghosts don't exist then you couldn't have seen a ghost' . Such 'explanations' are entirely unhelpful and unsatisfactory. The person offering the explanation does not even need to examine the facts of the case to come up with such a statement. And frequently doesn't!

Then there is the second type of unlikely explanation which is a genuine attempt to account for the specific events reported in a single case. It may involve an incredible coincidence, like an actor in costume walking unannounced along a street and being reported as a ghost.

It is important to differentiate between these two explanations, despite their apparent similarities. The first, 'dismissive', type can be safely ignored since it usually does not address the evidence in a specific case. But not the second. When rare coincidences happen, they will attract attention and may well be interpreted as paranormal. They cannot be rejected as an explanation simply because they don't happen often! They need to be specifically ruled by evidence.

But couldn't 'coincidence' be used to reject all paranormal reports, you may ask? What does it take for a paranormal report to be accepted as definitely paranormal?

The answer is that isolated paranormal reports are always going to be vulnerable to the 'coincidence' explanation. Unless there is positive evidence to rule out a rare coincidence, it will remains a rival explanation to the paranormal for any particular case.

However rare coincidences cannot explain consistent, independent reports of very similar phenomena. The word 'independent' here is important because it means that witnesses were not aware of the other reports in advance. Even then, it does not necessarily follow that such a group of reports must be paranormal but it clearly implies a common cause which should be investigated.

2 Apr 2009: Time displaced paranormal

In many cases witnesses only realise they've seen something anomalous after the event. For instance, someone might see a human figure in an office and think nothing of it until later, when they realise they were actually alone in a locked building. Then they start to think it was a ghost. It is only the 'impossibility' of the sighting that makes it apparently paranormal.

This is a 'time displaced' paranormal report because, at the time, nothing appeared wrong or unusual about what was seen. Lots of ghost reports are like this which is why apparitions are often reported as looking completely normal. By contrast, many UFO witnesses are aware at the time of their observation that they are seeing something weird.

It is tempting to think that many of these 'looked normal at the time' cases are just that - something normal that only appears paranormal when other facts come to light. So why are so many reports like that?

There may be an explanation in ghost stories. Many ghost stories involve a 'twist in the tail' device whereby a hitherto seemingly normal situation is revealed as paranormal by an 'impossible' feature. For instance, someone has a chat with a stranger only to find out later that the person had died years before! It is possible that this literary device is seen by many people as a real indicator of the paranormal. Real life lacks the emotionally appealing neat structure of ghost stories and many such cases turn out to have natural explanations. Nevertheless, as paranormal researchers we will still want to investigate, just in case it isn't so normal after all. The paranormal is fickle and rare so no chance, however slim, to find it should be missed!

New article: Time displaced paranormal

1 Apr 2009: No joke!

Strange photoIt is traditional on the 1 April to publish a jokey piece as an April Fool's joke. However, in the field of anomaly research such jokes can backfire. There is no suggestion, however outrageous, that will not be taken seriously by at least a few people. Before long, a 'joke' can become an 'established fact' all over the internet! And in our field, there's always the possibility that the 'joke' might really be true!

Some ideas, like using EMF meters to detect ghosts, probably didn't start as a joke. However, no one seems to know where it originated and there is no obvious evidence to back it up. It is nevertheless taken as a 'given' by many paranormal researchers. It demonstrates just how an idea without any obvious evidence base can get around very easily!

So, instead of a joke, I thought I'd expand on the monthly note about how many hits the ASSAP website is getting. This month's (March) figures are an average of 9902 hits per day. This shows continuing steady growth over the last few months (Feb 8511, Jan 7355, Dec 6764). So thanks to everyone who visits and for the kind words people have written about the site. It is appreciated!

The photo is described in last month's blog!

PS: The latest ASSAP website stats stand at an average of 9902 hits per day (not including crawlers and bots!) for March.


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© Maurice Townsend 2009