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 (above right, pic by Val Hope) 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 ... (including ghosts, UFOs, poltergeists, flying rods, miracles, orbs, hypnotic regression, big cats, vampires, near sleep experiences, premonitions, shadow ghosts, paranormal photos, auras, river monsters and dozens of other subjects)

29 April 2011: That wedding and the power of crowds

I'm not one for pomp and ceremony, so I'll not be in the crowds at the Royal Wedding today. I'll be happy just to watch a bit on TV. However, I have got 'caught up' in such moments before. On the day Charles and Diana got married, a long time ago, I suddenly thought, on the spur of the moment, it would be fun to be there. I suppose it was the idea of 'being there' as history was created that was the attraction. And so I turned up to cheer the couple on. Anyone who knows me will be amazed that I was there!

That's the power of crowds! Once you become a part of a crowd, you tend to start thinking like everyone else there. It's only a temporary condition but, for a short while, your normal thought patterns are suspended and you feel like everyone else there. This can even extend to seeing what everyone else sees, even if it isn't strictly real. When you're in a crowd that thinks as one and someone says they've seen something extraordinary, you tend to see it too. It's only later, once you've left the crowd, that you wonder what you really saw. By then, it is too late to check out what really happened.

This sort of thing can happen with casual paranormal reports. Groups of people are as vulnerable to misperception, maybe even more so, than individuals. If everyone else in your group sees a tree as a ghost, you're likely to as well. It adds the strong bias of psychological suggestion to your normal perception. A 'group mind' can see things that individuals may otherwise not.

I wish William and Catherine a great day and a fantastic marriage. But if I hear that part of the crowd saw something paranormal, I will treat it the report with extra caution.

27 April 2011: Being psychic and mirror touch synaesthesia

Have you ever felt someone else's pain? Not just metaphorically but literally? If so, you may have mirror touch synaesthesia. People with this rare condition hyper-empathise with others. They are much better than the rest of us at recognising other people's emotions, as well as feeling their pain.

I have previously theorised that people who are particularly good at empathising with other people may believe themselves to be psychic. It's possible that some people who believe they are psychic, when in reality they have no paranormal abilities, actually have mirror touch synaesthesia. They may be particularly good at picking up information from people through unconscious cues, like body language, that most of us miss. They may 'know' things about someone they've only just met without realising where that information has come from (and concluding it must be extra-sensory perception). I had no idea about this condition when I came up with my ideas about hyper-empathy but it seems to fit well with how I thought it might work.

Given that people who see coloured auras, and also consider themselves psychic, may have another type of synaesthesia, it begins to suggest a promising new line of research. Perhaps it is time that people who think they are psychic were tested for such conditions, as well as for any paranormal abilities. It is easy to see how someone with synaesthesia might think they are psychic.

Interestingly, many people with synaesthesia don't even realise there is anything odd about the way they see the world. They hear people saying things like 'I feel your pain' and don't realise it is just a metaphor. When they do come to realise their condition is odd, they might well conclude they are psychic. People who have synaesthesia often remain undiagnosed for a long time.

PS: Sai Baba died recently (see here). This reminded of my own bizarre tale concerning the man (see here).

26 April 2011: Can sounds produce visual misperceptions?

One commonly reported phenomenon in hauntings is doors opening or closing by themselves. It sounds like pretty good evidence for something paranormal, until you look into the report in detail.

Firstly, I've seen doors open by themselves myself and there are good non-paranormal reasons for this to happen (see here). But there are two other commoner types of report concerning opening doors. Firstly, doors can FOUND open when the witness is sure they were shut. Secondly, there are reports of people hearing, or even seeing, door handles being turned.

The first phenomenon could clearly be a case of memory problems or of someone else opening a door without the witness being aware of it. The second case is, perhaps, more interesting. There are reports of people lying in bed, for instance, and hearing the sound of the door handle to their room being turned. Sometimes, they might even see the door handle turning.

Whenever a witness is lying in bed it always difficult to eliminate a near sleep experience as a cause of the phenomenon. The witness may have hallucinated (through hypnagogia) either hearing or seeing, or both, the door handle move! But there is another possibility.

What if the sound is simply SIMILAR to a door handle being opened? This would certainly account for those cases where the door handle is heard to move but not actually seen in motion. But could it account for cases where a door handle is also seen to move? I have often wondered if a sound effect alone could make someone think they'd seen something they hadn't. If the door handle was only visible in poor light, it might appear to move, through misperception, if a sound like the handle opened was heard. This would probably only happen with circular handles, where it can be difficult to see for sure if they are moving or not. Even so, the witness may be thoroughly convinced they'd seen the handle move.

This is all speculation on my part but I think it worthy of research. Can people 'see' something motionless 'move', in poor viewing conditions, when there is a suitable sound effect? I think it is possible but it will take research to confirm this. If anyone tries it, please let me know the results.

15 April 2011: How many paranormal witnesses have sleep disorders?

Sleep disorders are difficult to diagnose. There are people around who have such a disorder and don't even know it. They just put down the way they feel to 'stress' or their 'time of life'. Even doctors may sometimes misdiagnose these conditions. Sleep disorders can often only be definitively diagnosed in a sleep lab.

What does this have to do with the paranormal, you may ask? Some of the symptoms of sleep disorders include experiences, like hypnagogic hallucinations (including microsleep with REM), sleep paralysis and automatic behaviour, that could explain some apparent paranormal reports. Automatic behaviour is where people do things but without any memory of having done them. This can explain finding objects in unexpected places, which might also be interpreted as ghostly or poltergeist activity. Anything that disrupts the normal pattern of sleeping and wakefulness, as sleep disorders do, can produce intermediate states of consciousness between the two, sometimes producing hallucinations while awake.

I should emphasize that sleep disorders are rare. Narcolepsy, for instance, affects around 0.05% of the population. However, that small minority may experience repeated hallucinatory episodes that some might interpret as paranormal. If, as happens surprisingly frequently, you come across a case of haunting where only one member of the household ever experiences anything dramatically weird, it is fairly obvious that you need to find out more about that witness. One possibility worth exploring might be a sleep disorder.

14 April 2011: What causes spookiness factors?

Research has revealed that certain environmental factors within a location tend to increase the number of paranormal reports there. These 'spookiness factors' include being damp, dark, cold and old. These factors do not produce hallucinations, like EIFs for instance, but they increase the likelihood that things like misperception are interpreted as paranormal.

So how do these factors work? Obviously, they are part of the culture. In ghost stories the locations often contain these factors so we expect a cold, old, dark house to be haunted. But the 'spookiness' of these particular factors probably derives from more fundamental considerations. For instance, damp, dark and cold all make people feel uncomfortable which can increase anxiety and so perhaps promote the idea of something not being 'normal' or 'right' about a place. Infrasound, which is probably also a spookiness factor, may also increase feelings of anxiety.

But what about old? Many people actually like old places and deliberately seek them out to visit, so it's unlikely they make people feel uncomfortable or anxious. I think the link here is time. Quite simply, an old place has a longer history, so there is more chance that an event thought to produce a ghost is likely to have happened there some time. This relies on the idea of ghosts as spirits, for which there is little support from real haunting cases. However, this spirit-ghost link is part of popular culture and so many people will unconsciously assume it is true, despite the lack of evidence.

On another subject, I found this interesting article today. It is reminiscent of the rubber hand illusion. It shows graphically how we believe our visual sense over all others, including pain! It is why misperception is so powerful and why people will continue to believe they've seen something paranormal even when all the evidence implies they did not. What people see they believe, even when it does not correspond with reality.

12 April 2011: Bad vibrations

Back in February I mentioned feeling strange due to vibration being transmitted through the floor to my feet. I said at the time "I wondered what I would have thought if I had not been able hear the source of the vibration. There would still be the odd sensation in my feet but no obvious source."

But when the experience happened, for a few seconds I did NOT actually associate the feeling with the very obvious sound of a nearby washing machine. I suspect that in some apparently paranormal experiences, a witness may NEVER make the connection between an odd experience they are having and a cause which might not appear obviously connected.

Whenever we witness anything, we only pay attention to a very few things. If we are experiencing something surprising or puzzling, we may be even worse at noticing detail. That's because we are concentrating on the unexpected experience rather than other less exciting things going on simultaneously. Who is going to notice the everyday sound of a washing machine when they are experiencing a ghostly feeling of an invisible presence?

This goes back to the idea of trained observers that I touched on earlier this month. I wonder how many 'unexplained' observations could be easily accounted for if the witness only remembered something apparently unimportant that happened at the same time. That's why it's important to try to recreate such experiences as closely as possible, including 'irrelevant' things like doing the washing! And to ask the question 'did you notice anything else, maybe completely unrelated, at the time'?

11 April 2011: I see another ghost or two!

The other day I was sitting on a train with a companion when I saw a woman dressed in 1940s style clothing walk past. She walked out through the door of the train, which was at a station at the time. My companion saw the figure too, completely solid and unremarkable apart from the clothing. None of the other passengers in the fairly crowded coach seemed surprised by the sight. Moments later, just before the train left the station, the woman reappeared at a more distant door in the same carriage and joined a male companion, also dressed in 1940s style clothing!

So were they ghosts? I don't believe so. They looked completely normal and did nothing odd, like disappearing or walking into a wall. They looked like two normal people who happened to be wearing historical costume. Similar reports in the past have been put down to ghosts.

Why would two people be going round in public wearing old-style clothing? There are any number of possible reasons. They could have been going to a fancy dress party (it was early evening) or a historical re-enactment or fair organised by a group interested in the period. They could be actors at an outdoor event where there were no changing rooms. They might just like wearing old style clothes! Among young people we periodically see 'retro' fashions, particularly from the 1960s.

It is possible to look at a photo showing a group of people and date it to within a few years by looking at the clothing fashions on show. However, there will always be a few people who wear unfashionable clothes for various reasons. We cannot assume we are looking at a ghost just because we see someone in old-fashioned costume. But some people still do!

8 April 2011: Now instruments are being used to 'communicate'!

I have already admitted to being an early advocate for instrumenting paranormal investigations. My idea, in common with other researchers, was to see if there was anything environmental that characterised haunted locations. This turned out to be a worthwhile endeavour. It has been found that haunted locations tend to be darker, colder and damper than non-haunted places overall. Some haunted places may also have unusual magnetic characteristics that can make people hallucinate ghostly experiences. So far, so good!

A second aspect of instrumenting investigations was to see if environmental variables actually changed while someone was witnessing something paranormal, like seeing a ghost or hearing a strange noise. Again, this was a good idea though there have not, as yet, been any compelling studies. One of the obvious problems is the lack of suitable apparently paranormal events during investigations. Another was that many apparently paranormal experiences are actually xenonormal.

Unfortunately, this has not stopped some people acting as IF there had already been such conclusive studies. Thus we arrived at the idea, seemingly from nowhere, of a 'ghost detector' based on electromagnetic field variations (see here for more), even though there is no evidence that such a thing actually works.

Now a third phase of instrument use has arisen which, I have to admit, I never anticipated - communicating with ghosts! I don't mean things like EVP, which have been around for decades, but using things like EMF meters and thermometers! People are asking ghosts to indicate their presence by affecting an EMF meter or thermometer! Like similar methods, this relies on all sorts of as yet undemonstrated assumptions.

Needless to say, some people are getting apparently positive results with these new methods. This is hardly surprising given the wide scope for 'false positives' using these techniques. For instance, many instruments are hand-held, rather than being left in a static position, during vigils.

If you are going to compare readings from an instrument over time, it must be perfectly still, not being held. Moving an instrument around may produce different readings because environmental variables do vary from place to place. It does not mean they are actually varying over time.

Some instruments are even sensitive to the direction they are pointing! An infra-red thermometer measures the temperature of the nearest surface it is pointing at. If the thermometer is pointed by its user in another direction, it may find another cooler or hotter surface and so the reading might change, even though the overall temperature in the room has remained the same. Single axis EMF meters may also change reading with direction, even though the field remains unchanged.

Another habit that can causes spurious readings is turning instruments on and off during a monitoring session. Instruments take time to settle down to a steady reading after first being turned on. So if you 'ask a question' and then turn an instrument on, you cannot rely on the reading for a little while. And readings during this 'settling period' may be different each time you turn the instrument on.

Even if instruments ARE static and not hand held, there are lots of causes of changes in readings that are nothing to do with the paranormal. An electrostatic meter or the similar negative ion detector, for instance, will be sensitive to any changes in static electricity which could simply be caused by someone moving around nearby.

This latest phase of using instruments in ghost investigations is the least useful yet. If someone gets a positive result it could be any one of a number of natural causes. If they get a negative result, the user may simply conclude there is no ghost nearby or they are not being cooperative! Either way, it tells us pretty much nothing about what causes people to experience haunting phenomena or see ghosts.

6 April 2011: A shadow across the sun and trained observers

Suddenly it's warm and sunny here in England. But then came a shadow from nowhere lasting less than a second! What was that, I wondered? It turned out to be a plane going in front of the sun momentarily. It's quite unusual to see such shadows as the plane needs to be quite low to produce an observable shadow on the ground. But it DOES happen and it could be puzzling if you didn't notice the plane noise. This could happen if there was lots of other noise going on. All a bit far fetched? Well, it happened and I've even noticed shadows from large birds sweeping mysteriously across the ground on sunny days! Someone else might have reported such incidents as paranormal. This is how coincidences turn into paranormal incidents!

What I really wanted to talk about was 'trained observers'. I've often wondered what one is and whether it is really possible to train a person to observe better than someone else. It is often said that scientists are trained observers. However, it is not a formal part of scientific training (at least not in my day). Rather, I think you pick up information during scientific training that allows you to 'read' certain situations. It does not necessarily give you acute perception or incredible attention to detail though I suspect that science may tend to attract people who have such abilities naturally. Many a scientific discovery came from noticing a detail no one else had.

So, I guess being a trained observer is about knowing what to look for in any given situation. So, for instance, a meteorologist wanting to forecast the weather, without any outside information, would check the sky (cloud cover, type of clouds, speed of cloud movement, cloud formations, etc), wind direction and speed, signs of recent precipitation, local relief (mountains, valleys, plains etc) to come up with a reasonable local forecast.

So why am I talking about this? Well, when people relate anecdotal evidence about paranormal phenomena, the mention of a witness being a 'trained observer' always makes it sound much more impressive. But I'm not so sure. If my analysis of what makes a trained observer is true, they are only likely to be better observers of a situation where their training is relevant. Our meteorologist, for instance, may look at the strata in an exposed rock formation with as little understanding as any other non-geologist.

Saying a trained observer has witnessed a UFO, for instance, is only really impressive if they are an astronomer. And a meteorologist. And an aviation expert. And an ornithologist. And an atmospheric physicist. And maybe a few other things, such as a neuroscientist specialising in perception!

Can there such a thing as a 'generalised' trained observer? Given the breadth of knowledge and depth of experience that would be required, I really doubt it.

So, unless I've got this whole 'trained observer' thing completely wrong, I don't think it should be counted as important unless the training is relevant to what was being observed. And even trained observers are still subject to misperception and hallucination in suitable circumstances.

This does not mean that all witnesses are equal. However, we do need to be careful before assuming that being a 'trained observer' lends any greater weight to a witness's evidence. It would be good to ask what the observer is trained in observing first. I suspect that the best general training a paranormal witness could have is in the ability to spot misperception and hallucination!

If anyone has any better information about what constitutes a trained observer, please email me!

5 April 2011: Consciousness and the paranormal

A software bot, LIDA, that simulates perception and awareness has reproduced the timings in which real human consciousness works, according to an article in this week's New Scientist. It uses the theory that perception is largely unconscious and that we only notice things consciously if they are deemed important. There are various strands of experimental evidence which also support this idea.

A couple of interesting points arise from this research. Firstly, what decides if an unconsciously perceived object is important enough to be reach consciousness? Presumably, this must be an unconscious mechanism. I would guess, the decision is based partly on in-built survival mechanisms (you NEED to know if something dangerous is approaching) and partly on prior perceptual experience (which is known to affect what we see). Whatever the mechanism, it supports the idea that we all perceive things in a slightly different way. If two people look at the same scene, both seeing something they do not recognise, one may interpret it as paranormal while the other does not. Because this happens at the unconscious level, both will be convinced their interpretation is correct. I have seen this happen on ghost vigils.

The other interesting point concerns consciousness. Neuroscience provides compelling evidence that consciousness is something produced by the physical brain. However, some parapsychologists take the view that the results of psi experiments suggest consciousness may not be tied strictly to the physical brain.

But what if psi, assuming it exists, operates at the unconscious level of the brain? Extra-sensory perception (ESP) may be competing with ordinary perception to be noticed. Just as with ordinary perception, a 'psi perception' might only reach consciousness if it is deemed important enough by our brains. Even taking the most positive view of lab psi experimental results, it is obvious that ESP must be an incredibly unreliable, unpredictable and inefficient form of communication. Maybe it's because psi is competing, not very well, with ordinary perception!

My point is not that lab experiments show that psi exists, which is arguable (see here for a discussion on that thorny question) . Rather, I don't see why consciousness should be the seat of any psi mechanism. Psi, if it exists, could just as easily happen in the unconscious part of brain function, like ordinary perception. The scientific evidence increasingly demonstrates that consciousness is the tip of an iceberg in brain processing. All the really exciting stuff that our brains do goes on at the unconscious level.

PS: There is another poltergeist in the media (see here for TV interview). It is very frustrating watching stuff like this as dozens of questions zip through my mind which are never answered in the interview. Indeed, most could only be answered by a full scientific investigation.

4 April 2011: Passing witches or the wild hunt?

The other evening, as it was almost dark, I heard a strange noise coming from the sky. I knew what it was without seeing the cause but many people would not. Similar noises have been interpreted in the past as witches flying by or the 'wild hunt'. In fact, it was the sound of Canada Geese flying by, calling. It is a fairly common sound around here, in the early morning or evening, though not usually when it is so dark.

The stories about witches and the wild hunt go back a long way, long before Canada Geese were introduced into Britain in the late seventeenth century. However, there are several other goose species that have been in Britain for much longer that could account for such reports. When they fly high at night on migration they call to each other producing an eerie sound, unless you recognise it for what it is. Being night time, of course, people could not see what caused the strange sound, hence its supposed weird causes.

Unlike the original North American population, Canada Geese do not migrate on this side of the Atlantic. But geese like White Front, Barnacle and Pink Footed do migrate into the UK in winter and might be heard flying overhead at night during spring or autumn. If you want to see them, your best bet is to look at the full moon through binoculars to spot their silhouettes passing in front.

1 April 2011: Voices in silence

Orange UFONot even for a second! That's how long I was tempted to do an April Fool's joke today. There's a lot of stuff being written today that people will look back on and cringe so I'm not going to add to it. I can't promise anything about next year though.

Anyway, what interests me today is the dead of night! It's something that crops up a lot in paranormal research. That is despite the fact that paranormal reports occur at all times of day. But there is still something specially spooky about the wee hours.

Apart from the dark, the other thing that tends to happen more at night than during the day is silence, or at least something close to it. Ghostly sounds appear to be the commonest features of hauntings and are most easily heard when there is little background noise.

Something I've noticed recently is that ambient noises sound, not simply louder, but different when they have a background of silence. Take electric fans, for instance. These are quite common in building these days driving air conditioning, cooling electronic devices and providing ventilation among other things. If you listen to such a fan for long enough you can sometimes hear what appear to be voices or whispering or even music. I've noticed that the effect is much more noticeable when there is silence apart from the fan itself. This is probably because other noises form a distraction. It's almost as if our brains get 'bored' with listening to a monotonous fan for a long time and so superimpose something meaningful, like voices or music, on top.

In addition to this phenomenon, the regular noise from a fan can interact with other ambient noises. In the phoneme restoration effect, for instance, someone is played a recording of a spoken sentence where one word is replaced by white noise of the same duration. And yet, people still 'hear' the missing word. Their brain has inserted it using context and expectation. The regular noise from a fan may 'enhance' other ambient noises, to make them sound more voice-like, like white noise. Without the fan, these noises may be simply heard as noise. WITH the fan they might resemble voices. The evidence for all this is essentially anecdotal and needs proper research but there are many reports of people hearing voices from fans (try searching the web).

There are other machines commonly found in buildings that can produce such regular monotonous noises. Pumps in refrigerators and central heating, for instance. If you just listen to such a machine briefly, you're likely to hear just noise. But when it is quiet and you are concentrating on something else, you might just hear a voice or music. Our perception mechanisms do not like continuous unchanging inputs and will eventually impose patterns on them sometimes. See also formant noise article.

PS: I haven't commented on the widely publicised Coventry poltergeist here because such cases require full investigation before any useful conclusions can be drawn. There is an extensive commentary on the press coverage here, though.

The lowest photo on this page shows an orange UFO videoed recently. The full story is here.

For a review of paranormal research in the noughties, see here.

Last month's (March) website figures are an average of 9036 hits per day. This is significantly up the previous month's 8248 daily average.


Previous blog pages ...

  • Mar 2011 (including roof heron, Atlantis, first time witnesses, comparing film to digital paranormal photos)
  • Feb 2011 (including predicting the future, ghost bird, time slip, weird floor, what do we really know about paranormal)
  • Jan 2011 (including the ghost hunting boom, orange UFO, EVP experiment, extreme normality)
  • Dec 2010 (including microsleeps and road ghosts, shadow ghost in snow, lack of ghosts in photos, anthropomorphism)
  • Nov 2010 (including EMF meters, auras, evidence for precognition, sensitisation, the ghost hunting boom)
  • Oct 2010 (including black orbs, UnConvention, mirror visions, levitation, flying rods and orbs)
  • Sep 2010 (including a ring tone from the roof, shadow ghost video, time slip explanation, daylight orb video)
  • Aug 2010 (including Parisian UFO, sense of presence, SLI, consulting experts, misperception)
  • Jul 2010 (including Sherlock Holmes as a paranormal investigator, haunting sounds, what ARE hallucinations)
  • Jun 2010 (including the Loch Ness Monster, gorilla video, getting ghost stories the wrong way round)
  • May 2010 (including ball lightning, Wem ghost photo, waking up twice, eyewitnesses, Robin Hood)
  • Apr 2010 (including causes of road ghosts, new orb evidence, bird UFOs, UFO photo, not quite seeing is believing)
  • Mar 2010 (including experiencing hypnagogia, consciousness, belief, prolonged misperception, doppelganger)
  • Feb 2010 (including visual continuity errors - AKA ghosts, near sleep experiences on trains, spontaneous OOBEs)
  • Jan 2010 (including intelligent oil, SLI, inducing OOBEs, orange UFOs, the bleak midwinter)
  • Dec 2009 (including review of research in the noughties, pretty orbs, imperceptions, river monster)
  • Nov 2009 (including EVP without a recorder, demons and entities, why only some people see ghosts)
  • Oct 2009 (including grey ghost, near sleep experiences, a triangular UFO and seeing David Beckham)
  • Sep 2009 (including latent memory, Tufted Puffin, Bermuda Triangle and garden poltergeist)
  • Aug 2009 (including official UFO files, partial ghosts, flying rods and miracles)
  • Jul 2009 (including garden poltergeist, big cat video, orbs and hypnotic regression)
  • Jun 2009 (including thoughts from nowhere, shadow ghosts, premonitions and metallic UFO)
  • May 2009 (including analysing paranormal photos, making ghosts and ghost lore)
  • Apr 2009 (including phantom bird, choice blindness and grass that gets up and walks away)
  • Mar 2009 (including deja vu, ghostly mists, weird UFO photo, white ghosts and naked eye orbs)
  • Feb 2009 (including hidden memories, coincidences, auras and window UFOs)
  • Jan 2009 (including animals sensing ghosts, vampires, flying rod season and a haunted path)
  • Dec 2008
  • Nov 2008
  • Oct 2008
  • Sep 2008
  • Aug 2008
  • July 2008
  • June 2008
  • May 2008
  • April 2008
  • March 2008
  • February 2008
  • January 2008
  • December 2007
  • November 2007
  • October 2007
  • Even older

© Maurice Townsend 2011