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)

ASSAP @ 30: A series of posts summarising what we have learned through thirty years of ASSAP, whose anniversary was 10 June. See here!

26 April: Expecting a shadow ghost?

Shadow ghostI saw the shadow on the path and waited, but no one came! Was it a ghost? I think it was actually an example of expectation leading to paranormal misinterpretation of the normal! There's probably a much snappier way of saying that.

The path leads up to a frosted glass window. So anyone approaching usually shows up as a shadow through the glass. On this occasion, however, the path had puddles on it from heavy rain. The 'shadow' on the path was actually caused by the reflection of someone, in a puddle, moving on a nearby different path. But the impression of someone approaching was very strong through the frosted glass. With a clear view it would have been obvious that a reflection in a puddle was not an approaching person!

However, the role of expectation was also very significant in this case. There was an unusual scenario, a reflection in a puddle, that exactly resembled a common one, someone approaching along a path. When the expectation was not fulfilled, with no one actually arriving at the window, the idea of a paranormal cause arose.

I'm sure this kind of 'unfulfilled expectation' has a key role in some apparently paranormal experiences. For instance, if you see someone walk behind a tree and no one emerges on the other side, you may well think it's a ghost, particularly if you subsequently approach the tree and there's nobody there. But what if that (real) person decided to change direction, while behind the tree, and walked away on a course that left them hidden by the tree? It's unusual but it COULD and, no doubt, DOES very occasionally happen.

Our brains take short cuts in processing the huge amount of sensory data they receive. One such short cut is to assume that objects, including people, will generally act in an expected way. On the rare occasions when the unexpected happens, we can be deceived into thinking we have experienced something weird or paranormal when we have not. One last thought - how would our brains react when experiencing something truly paranormal?

24 April: Human and machine sensory perception and the paranormal

Cameras record pictures quite differently to human visual perception. Here are just some of the differences:

Situation What the humans perceive visually What a digital camera sees
Watch a light source continuously Remains the same brightness Looks brighter with longer exposure
How much is in focus High depth of field (see diagram) Typically lower depth of field
Fast moving object Seldom blurred Usually blurred
Object not seen well May misperceive May lack detail
Bright objects / dark objects Sometimes able to see detail Detail lost (over- or under-exposure)
Peripheral view of scene Less detailed than central vision As detailed as centre
Distinguishing similar shades Excellent discrimination Poor discrimination
Everyday scene Few details remembered Good record of a single instant

Human visual perception is complex and barely understood. It uses short cuts so that it is fast enough in producing the (near) real-time image in our heads that is vital for survival. Photography, by contrast, uses reasonably well understood physics to produce recordings of images but it has known limitations. The two systems have significant differences in the way they work.

Just as much of what is reported by eye witnesses as paranormal is actually a result of a misunderstanding of how human perception works (see misperception), so many reports of anomalous photos derive from a misunderstanding of how cameras actually work. A lot of this misunderstanding arises from statements like 'I know what I saw', that is often heard from witnesses to apparently extraordinary phenomena. It implies that whatever we perceive as witnesses is a near perfect recording of physical reality. Similarly, statements like 'the camera does not lie' implies that instruments are even more likely to record physical reality faithfully than eye witnesses. However, both instruments and human perception are only approximate recordings of visual reality. And the difference between what is recorded by a witness, or instrument, and physical reality varies all the time and can be large sometimes, depending on the circumstances! Only once you understand the limitations of both instruments and human perception can you start to understand where so many reports of the paranormal originate.

So, as a paranormal researcher it is vital that you understand as much as possible about how both human perception and 'machine perception' work. Otherwise you could spend your time chasing misperception and instrumental artefacts rather than trying to find any real paranormal phenomena.

In this week's New Scientist there is an article about the cocktail party effect. Researchers observed the auditory cortex responding to just one voice from two that were being played to a listener simultaneously. Our brains can tune-in to the precise auditory characteristics of one voice in a crowd and follow it exclusively. No sound recorder can perform that trick! On the other hand, with a directional microphone, a sound recorder can pick sound from just one direction, which no human ear can do. We need to understand these mechanisms, and how they differ between witnesses and machines, to make sense of reports of the paranormal, many of which are actually, on close examination, xenonormal.

20 April: The odd feeling of an OBE

I had another mini-OBE (out of the body experience) recently. It was only a very minor experience, just seeing something temporarily as if from further away than it physically was. But what struck me was the accompanying feeling - slightly light-headed, as if in a mild trance. The feeling only persisted during the visual illusion, both stopping at precisely the same time. This suggested a mild altered state of consciousness (ASC).

We know that seeing the world from a different viewpoint than usual can be caused by disruptions between the normal interaction between the TPJ (temporoparietal junction) in our brains and the senses of sight, touch and 'balance' (vestibular system). What I don't know is if the ASC caused the disruption, and so the OBE, or whether it was a symptom of something else happening. Unfortunately, most people who experience spontaneous OBEs are too interested in the obvious weird sensory experience to take much notice of other symptoms, so there isn't much reference material out there about it.

Some people have tried to induce OBEs using trance techniques so there probably is a strong connection. Like a previous episode of mine, I think this particular one may have been associated with the a restricted visual environment. If so, it is likely that the feeling of an ASC was a symptom rather a cause. It is probably the feeling of certain mental systems temporarily halting their normal function. Just like the previous incident (linked above) I also had a disturbed night's sleep beforehand which is probably another clue to what is going on.

Also of interest is that I was never aware of having mini-OBEs before I found out about how OBEs could be induced by disrupting the function of the TPJ! This is very similar to the way that I never noticed myself having misperceptions until I first found out about them! It's as if knowing that a psychological state CAN happen allows you to notice when it DOES happen. We all misperceive all the time but few of us ever notice it. Perhaps there is a mechanism that stops most of us noticing things like misperception and mini-OBEs most of the time. And it is possible to turn it off! I'm pretty sure it is 'turned off' in many of the people who report paranormal phenomena frequently.

18 April: I've just discovered orbs!

OrbsWhat are those fuzzy white blobs in my photo? They're orbs, as any quick perusal of the web will quickly tell you. How many times have orbs been 'discovered' now, I wonder?

ASSAP continues to be sent photos of orbs, despite having many web pages on the subject. To be fair, in recent times many of these photos are accompanied by questions suggesting that the orbs pictured are different to those described on our website. So far, none of them have been but one should never say never! The fact is that the overwhelming evidence suggests that orbs are strongly illuminated, out of focus bits of dust, water droplets, insects or other airborne particles.

But there are still people 'discovering' orbs for themselves all the time. And some of them decide that orbs must be paranormal. So, you can find websites and publications where orbs are presented as not being photographic artefacts. These sources are usually based on the personal experiences of an individual or small group of like-minded people who take an alternative (paranormal) view of the subject.

I have no problem with people taking an 'alternative view' on matters paranormal. After all, in the face of the ghost hunting boom my own view that there is little or no evidence that ghosts are spirits looks 'alternative', though it is shared by other serious paranormal researchers! But in the case of orbs, the evidence really is overwhelming that they are a photographic artefact. And every currently known objection to the Orb Zone Theory (OZT) has been successfully dealt with (see here), though we are always interested in examining new ones.

Some of the groups promoting paranormal views of orbs claim to be using the scientific method. However, when a scientist does research into a subject they first do a search of the existing literature. However, this does not appear to be happening with groups supporting the paranormal view. They do their own research, which is fine, but ignore, or simply don't appear to know about, all the previous work that has been done on the subject. If those promoting the paranormal view on orbs were to look at the existing research on the subject they would find that the points that appear to support their point of view have already been extensively studied. They might also discover that there are important observations that any new paranormal theory of orbs must explain (which are already explained by the OZT). If someone comes up with a new theory of orbs it must explain everything the OZT can, at the very least.

This illustrates one of the unfortunate features of paranormal research. Too much of it is done in isolation, which inevitably leads not only to things being 'discovered' again and again but mistakes being repeated endlessly too. This problem is probably a reflection of the overwhelmingly amateur nature of paranormal research. Having said that, the internet now allows instant access to plenty on information on any subject. The downside is, how can one judge which information is good?

Again, the scientific method can help. Anyone can read about experiments done on orbs and reproduce them for themselves (see here). If people do such experiments they can convince themselves that the OZT really does explain orbs.

16 April: The 'first glance effect'!

The door was open! But less than a minute before it had been closed, I was absolutely sure of it! Idly staring out of a train window, while halted at an urban station, I had noticed the derelict block of flats nearby and, in particular, a 'room' on the roof, presumably some sort of access to lift machinery. But how could the door to the room now be open when it had been closed when I'd last looked, just seconds before? There was no one visible anywhere on the roof and, being derelict, the building probably had very few visitors.

There were two obvious possibilities: (1) there really was someone up there who had opened the door in between my two glances without my seeing them or (2) I was mistaken in thinking the door was closed the first time I looked. It could hardly be a memory problem, not over a period of mere seconds! It was most likely yet another example of the 'first glance effect'!

I've no idea what the official name for the 'first glance effect' (FGE) is, but I'm sure there must be be one. It is something I've noticed many times down the years, particularly when birding. It happens when you first glance at a scene you've never seen before. Essentially, your first glance is often wrong in some way! Usually, it is just details but sometimes you can miss quite big obvious things! Like whether a door is open or shut! Often you think you've seen something you haven't, like a rare bird you're really hoping to see!

It is clearly a misperception effect. When you first look at a scene you've never looked at before, your brain will 'fill in' any details that you don't notice straight away with things that are 'probably there'. Most people don't notice the effect because, on continuing to stare at an unfamiliar scene, your brain automatically 'fixes' any errors with real details. Importantly, this is an unconscious process. As far as you're consciously aware, you saw everything accurately from first glance (even if you didn't)!

If, however, you glance at a novel scene briefly, then look away and then back again, you might notice differences, like the open or closed door in the example here. It's like those 'spot the difference' puzzles, but with only one scene. You might, or might not, notice the differences but, when you do, they are usually obvious.

I can't recall a specific example of FGEs in paranormal reports but I'm willing to bet there are some! If a witness idly gazes at an unfamiliar scene, looks away and then back, they may see a ghostly figure in one or other of the two views. Either way the figure will have 'appeared' or 'disappeared' so quickly that it 'could only' be something paranormal, like a ghost! Or, it is a FGE where the initial glance failed to notice a figure that was already there or 'inserted' one that was not (like a tree appearing as a human figure, for instance).

This is certainly something to look for when interviewing witnesses. If a figure is reported to appear or disappear, did the witness look away while this occurred? And did they study the scene in detail for any length of time before this happened? Was the scene one they were familiar with?

This is the sort of detail in witness testimony that can hint at misperception. How many people would actually look for it when investigating a paranormal report? Things like misperception are subtle and you need to know what to look for in witness testimony. And another odd thing about misperception - now that you know about FGEs, you might well catch yourself having one!

5 April: A voice from nowhere!

'Hello!' I looked round, surprised. There was no one nearby and yet I had just been clearly addressed by someone apparently just a couple of metres away. I was on a railway station and the nearest person was tens of metres away at the time. Moreover, there was no nearby cover to hide anyone having a joke at my expense. 'Hello!', the voice repeated.

I considered the possibility that I was being addressed by a ghost. The voice sounded very ordinary, if a little tinny. Not what I would have expected for a paranormal phenomenon, somehow. Further investigation revealed the source of the voice to be a 'help point'. For those not familiar with these, they consist of a box with a button and loudspeaker. You press the button to gain someone's attention and use the loudspeaker to conduct a conversation with a railway employee at the other end.

So why would such a help point apparently address me, who had not pressed the button or even approached the box? Previous experience at that very station provided the answer. I've seen people press the help button and be told, by an automated response, to wait until someone is available to answer their query. This can go on for many minutes and most people wander off before there is any reply. What I had witnessed was, presumably, an railway employee answering someone who had already quit the scene. I just happened to be there at the right time.

As usual, I will add that someone else, not aware of the likely cause of the disembodied voice, might well report it is unexplained or even paranormal. If only we could see all the circumstances surrounding a reported paranormal event, I'm certain many would have similarly mundane explanations. Regular readers will be aware of many personal examples of this kind of incident that I have recorded here over the years.

4 April: The wrong kind of sound

When a sound is 'wrong' what does it indicate? Regular readers will be aware I have an acquaintance who has microsleep with REM (MWR). This is a very rare occurrence when someone who has a microsleep starts to dream instantly. This happens to a very small number of people, almost certainly a result of a sleep disorder. It can lead to episodes which strongly resemble paranormal experiences in which the person briefly visits an 'alternate reality' (goes into a dream, in fact) before quickly returning. Some people who believe themselves to be psychic may, in fact, being having just such experiences.

Anyway, my acquaintance reports that sometimes, when falling into a microsleep, he hears loud sounds. Moments later, on waking, it is clear that the sounds were highly unlikely to be real, despite feeling so during the experience. But then he noticed something else - the sounds were 'wrong'! How? Well, consider hearing someone clapping in a smallish room. Now think of the same clapping sound heard outside. They sound quite different. Just about everyone would notice the difference but usually only when it is pointed out.

The difference is reverberation. In an enclosed space there are echoes from walls mixing in with the original sound, changing it quite significantly. So, if you hear a noise without reverberation in a room, it sounds 'wrong'. You normally only hear such sounds inside with an anechoic chamber. The effect is distinctly odd and obvious. And that's what acquaintance heard - an 'outside' sound while inside - which felt wrong.

It is clear that, in this particular case, the 'wrong' sound was a result of the MWR. So, if someone else had this experience how might they interpret it? If they knew they were having MWRs it would probably be put down to them. But if someone else reported such an experience they might well interpret it as paranormal. But such MWR noises not only sound 'wrong', they are often not easily explainable by natural causes on the site where the experience took place. It would be worth asking a person who reported 'wrong' or 'inexplicable' sounds what other weird experiences (particularly visual) they might also have had.

So what does a 'wrong' sound indicate? It might mean a MWR or, much more likely, a hypnagogic experience. But some people would say that an 'wrong' sound was, in itself, an indicator of the paranormal. You get the same problem with paranormal photos. To a serious photographer, something turning up in a photo (like an orb or lens flare) that wasn't there when the photo was taken is an indication of a photographic artefact. However, other people clearly see it as an indication of the paranormal, based on the idea that a camera can somehow 'see' things that people cannot, even though there is no compelling body of evidence to support this idea.

Personally, I think any report of a 'wrong' sound should prompt checking for signs of MWR and other near sleep experiences. It should also prompt a close examination of the site of the report, in case there is a physical cause for 'wrong' sounds. Only after all these possibilities are exhausted should we start to consider the paranormal as an explanation.

3 April: Invisible UFO

I looked towards the sky, where the noise was coming from, but I couldn't see anything but clouds! It was the sound of a helicopter, low down and nearby. It should have been obvious, just above the houses but it wasn't there! I was walking along a familiar street, lined with houses and no trees. Could the sound be an invisible UFO?

Rewind this real life scene by a few minutes and all becomes clear. I first saw the helicopter on the opposite side of the road, hovering low and nearby. But as I walked along the road I lost sight of it behind houses. Suddenly, it sounded as though it was in a completely different direction, as described in the first paragraph. The helicopter did not, however, cross the road. In reality, it remained in roughly the same position as I first saw it.

What changed was that I was no longer hearing its sound directly by line of sight. Instead, the noise was being strongly reflected by a smooth wall on the opposite side of the road to the helicopter's position. It gave a very strong illusion that the helicopter was hovering just behind the wall but, somehow, remaining invisible! The illusion was strong enough to make me seriously consider the possibility that a second helicopter was present. Later, I decided that two helicopters flying so close together over a residential area could surely not be allowed on safety grounds. In any case, I never saw such a second craft, despite an extensive search.

Reflection is something anomaly investigators frequently forget to consider when describing where a strange sound is coming from. The problem is that we cannot see sound so we tend to forget that it can be reflected, refracted and diffracted, just like light. In fact, diffraction is a more sizeable effect with sound, compared to light, because of its lower frequency. It's why you can hear stuff around a corner without being able to see it.

We tend to always believe that a sound is coming from the direction it appears to come from. If nothing can be seen in the apparent direction of the noise source it is NOT routinely dismissed as reflection or diffraction. That's because many people believe that invisibility is actually a factor in FAVOUR of something being considered paranormal (like invisible ghosts). Using that analysis, if I hadn't already seen the helicopter in a different direction, I would have been entitled to consider it a ghost aircraft or invisible UFO! There have certainly been reports of invisible UFOs, such as unexplained radar reflections, inexplicable shadows or unknown aerial objects which disappeared, so it's hardly a novel idea. How many apparently paranormal incidents could be explained, like the one above, if only the witness had also seen their prelude or finale?

2 April: Tunguska - a new possibility?

The Tunguska Event remains a mystery over a century after it occurred. Briefly, on 30 June 1908 there was a massive explosion in Siberia, centred on a remote area near the Tunguska River. Some 80 million trees over an area of around 2,000 square kilometres were felled by the event. Just about every anomaly researcher has heard of it. It is interesting because its origins were not immediately apparent. Officially, it has always been put down to a large meteor or comet. The problem is the lack of any crater or meteoritic debris. This has left the field wide open for speculative explanations.

One of the more recent suggestions is a methane explosion. There is methane locked into permafrost in areas like the Tunguska region. If some was released it could easily form a cloud that might be ignited by lightning. The problem is that, generally, an unconfined cloud of a flammable gas will burn rather than explode. And, even if it did explode, the amount required to produce such massive devastation as seen as Tunguska would be huge.

Now there could be another factor to consider - the presence of trees! In this week's New Scientist there is an article on the Buncefield explosion when an unconfined cloud of petrol vapour caused a massive explosion, despite the apparent lack of suitable conditions to account for its ferocity. Experiments have recently demonstrated that igniting flammable gas clouds in the presence of suitable vegetation, that was present at Buncefield, can produce just such massive explosions.

The way the vegetation turns a fire into a huge explosion is to do with branches and leaves. As the gas wraps itself around these natural structures it increases the surface area of the gas cloud as well as creating turbulence that increases the mixing of air and flammable gas. Both of these accelerate the rate of combustion leading to an explosion.

There is no conclusive evidence for any one explanation for the Tunguska event at present. But maybe a clue has been missed! All those trees may not simply have been a flattened as result of the event but could also have been a contributory cause.

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

Last month's (March) website figures are an average of 14561 hits per day. This is similar to the previous month's 14845 daily average and considerably up on Mar 2011's average of 9036!


Previous blog pages ...

  • Mar 2012 (including jogging and ghosts, misty ghosts, image noise, full spectrum photography, EVP of machines)
  • Feb 2012 (including ghost car, analyzing anomalous photos, ghost at rock concert, OBEs and motion sickness)
  • Jan 2012 (including stopping flying rods, photographing fairies, time warp, a ghost tie, ghostly fingers, New Year UFOs)
  • Dec 2011 (including missing time, improving ghost vigils, anomalous photos, ghostly faces, seeing fiction)
  • Nov 2011 (including OBE video games, EVP and VLF, whatshisname, paranormal misconceptions, invisible ghosts)
  • Oct 2011 (including smartphone ghosts, similacrum, smell of ghosts, morphing UFOs, slowing time)
  • Sep 2011 (including tidy ghost, MADS, transparent ghost, big announcement, ghost fox, not alone)
  • Aug 2011 (including cold spots, spectral hound, triangular UFO, ghost photos, rushing air and being dragged)
  • July 2011 (including Hilary Evans, Harry Potter, witness investment, bias in paranormal research, TV detectives)
  • June 2011 (including ASSAP @ 30, detecting lies, hyper-vigilence, strange thunder)
  • May 2011 (including ASSAP @ 30, lone shoes, flying rods, bias, early memories, strange floating object)
  • Apr 2011 (including royal wedding, mirror touch synaesthesia, sleep disorders, new ghost sighting)
  • 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
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  • December 2007
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  • October 2007
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© Maurice Townsend 2012