ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
Privacy and cookie information ASSAP mailing list

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) 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)

27 August 2010: Explaining the unexplained

Suppose a paranormal investigator has just published a comprehensive report into a case. Their considered conclusions are that some aspects of the case remain unexplained. Now suppose that, a few weeks later, someone comes up with a natural explanation for all the unexplained aspects. In any other field of study this would think this was a cue for celebration! However, the paranormal researcher tries to defend their conclusions, insisting the case really is still unexplained!

The reason for this apparently strange behaviour is that 'unexplained' tends to imply 'paranormal' in such circumstances. Unsurprisingly, most paranormal investigators believe in the paranormal. But they cannot all be experts in every possible xenonormal cause of a paranormal report. So, once a report becomes public there are always likely to be experts out there who really CAN explain an apparently genuinely paranormal case.

Even when paranormal investigators call in relevant experts during a case, they may not always ask the right questions. Ask a photographer, for instance, if an ordinary consumer camera can photograph airborne dust particles in everyday situations and the answer is likely to be a firm no (but see here for photo of dust particle). Show that same expert a photograph of orbs and they will tell you they are out of focus dust particles caught very close to the flash, a fairly common phenomenon with compact digital cameras!

The first question asked of the expert reveals that the questioner believes it was 'impossible' for an ordinary camera to photograph dust in any circumstances. Thus it must therefore be impossible that dust is the cause of orbs (but see here for an explanation of such orbs)! This 'assumption of impossibility' has produced the wrong question and therefore the wrong answer!

So here is my advice to paranormal researchers:

  • remember that most paranormal reports have xenonormal causes
  • if you think something is unexplainable, talk to an expert
  • if you talk to an expert give them the full context
  • the more natural explanations you eliminate, the stronger your case becomes
  • never assume that because you can't explain something it must be inexplicable

Finally, once a case is completed, it can be difficult to go back and do more investigation. So if, once the case is completed, someone suggests a possible natural cause you never thought about at the time, it might be difficult to go back and check it out. This may leave unresolved doubts about a case, weakening it as evidence. Yet another reason to look at as many possible xenonormal causes as possible at the time and bring in experts if needed.

I like a good mystery but I prefer a great solution. Saying a case is 'unexplained' should be seen as a challenge, not a conclusion.

25 August 2010: Parisian UFO

Gull UFORecently, I said I wished I was in France rather than the UK after our summer got messed up by the jet stream getting stuck. Then, not long after, I found myself in Paris! Sadly it was only the briefest of trips but at least it was hot and sunny, a type of weather I'd almost forgotten existed!

While I was there I got this photo of a weird UFO in the brilliant blue skies over France's capital city. It looks, superficially, like a light aircraft, except it doesn't make much sense! There is no obvious tailplane, the 'spike' underneath is clearly not landing gear and what is that spherical object on top of the nearside wing? So what is this bizarre French UFO? Could it a flying rod? Or a strange experimental aircraft?

Regular readers will no doubt have guessed that I already knew what it was before I took the photo! It is part of a large flock of gulls seen flying over the Seine. The 'object' is not one gull but two flying in the same line of sight. This would be obvious if you could see the rest of the photo which is full of flying gulls. However, suppose these were the only two gulls in the photo and the photographer did not notice them until they looked at the photo at home?

This is just how many UFO pictures anise. The photographer notices nothing out of the ordinary when they take the photo. But then, on examining it later, they see something bizarre. As it is in the sky, it must be a UFO! Something similar can produce 'ghost photos', except they are usually not in the sky.

Whenever I see a photo showing something weird where the photographer noticed nothing odd at the time of exposure, I straight away wonder if it is a coincidence or photographic artifact. Others, it seem, think paranormal or anomalous.

So I now have UFO photos from Paris, London and Berlin. There seems to be a pattern developing - Madrid next, maybe?

ASSAP was the Weird '10 Conference last weekend. Look here to see Nicky Sewell flying the flag for ASSAP (right at the bottom of the page).

24 August 2010: Using databases to probe the paranormal

I saw some clothes blowing around on a washing line, in my peripheral vision, recently. I noticed it because I thought it was someone watching me! Clothes really do produce strong misperceptions!

There is a long held idea that if we put all the information about ghost sightings (or some other anomaly) on a database, we may be able to deduce new information about ghosts by comparing the data in various different ways. So, for instance, we can compare times of day when sightings occurred, the weather, local geology and so on, to look for correlations.

I used to think this might be a good idea myself, though the huge amount of work involved always put me off actually doing anything about it. Thankfully, I no longer think such a database would tell us anything much we did not already know about ghost sightings. And here is why.

We already know from carefully investigated reports of ghost sightings that the vast majority have xenonormal explanations. Most of these are misperception with the remainder split between near-sleep experiences, coincidences and many other rare natural explanations. The remaining cases are usually described as unexplained. Though many people take this to mean paranormal, some may have xenonormal explanations that are not obvious because of a lack of evidence.

If we put all these cases into a database and searched them for common factors, what might we find?

First of all, the quality of the data would be extremely variable depending on who did the investigating. Sadly there are no accepted standards among investigators. If the database also included uninvestigated reports, like newspaper articles, the quality of information would be even more variable. In addition, not all investigators record the same things about a case and they rarely have the same instruments to allow comparison of readings. All this would make valid comparisons difficult, as the database would give equal weight to all these highly varied sources of data.

Secondly, the huge amount of xenonormal material would dwarf the small number of unexplained reports that might, potentially, contain genuine paranormal effects. This means that any correlations found would most likely have xenonormal, rather than paranormal, causes. Trying to separate the two would be difficult as some paranormal researchers regard some xenonormal phenomena, like orbs, as actually paranormal! There are even disagreements between researchers about which cases can be explained by natural causes and which cannot.

It might be possible to put together a useful database of ghost sightings some day. All the material included would have to be properly investigated to a minimum common standard, with most old cases being inadmissible. Data categories (eg. date, location, weather) would need to be drawn up carefully to avoid spurious correlations. Those cases with a known xenonormal cause would need to be separable from unexplained ones. Then, it might be possible to extract some useful information, about xenonormal causes if nothing else. But until such a database is created, I will treat all reported correlations derived from surveys of sightings with extreme caution.

19 August 2010: What causes a sense of presence?

Witnesses to hauntings sometimes report a feeling that someone is 'in the room with them' but invisible! They may also feel they are being watched when alone. This 'sense of presence' is generally interpreted as a ghost. But are there any natural causes for such a feeling?

The ever helpful New Scientist (11 Aug) last week contained an article that might shine more light on the sense of presence. The article outlined how people with visual impairment are using sound to 'see'. A device called vOICe scans a visual scene and reproduces the shape and positions of objects in it as a frequency soundscape. After around 10-15 hours of training, fMRI scans reveal that users start using their visual cortex, as well as their auditory cortex, to interpret the sounds. Some report seeing 'drawings' of objects in their mind.

From this, and other research, the idea that the visual cortex is only used to process vision is being increasingly questioned. Instead, it may be that areas of the brain traditionally thought to deal exclusively with sight may actually process things like shape or texture, from whichever sense they receive that information (such as touch). They only appear to deal purely with visual input because that is where most of their information normally comes from. We already know that sensory pathways in the brain mix at some point, as shown by synaesthesia, but now it seems that our brains may use whichever sense provides the most relevant information in order to recognise objects.

If input from one sensory organ gets processed by a brain area normally associated with another, it could lead to strange, unfamiliar feelings. If someone is alone in a house and hears sounds apparently typical of another person being present, it might lead to a strange feeling that some one is there but somehow invisible. The sound might be processed by the visual cortex, giving the impression of a human figure being physically present while nothing is actually visible. It might be felt as a peculiar 'sense of presence'.

If a similar sound was heard in poor viewing conditions, such as low light, it might encourage misperception. If such sounds were heard in near, or complete, darkness there might even be a visual image seen. This might explain the extremely rare reports of glowing ghosts. Such a 'phantom image' might only be visible when there was no competing strong visual image, such as in an illuminated scene. This is, of course, all speculation at present. However, it suggests some interesting avenues for future research.

In another New Scientist article in the same issue, research is described showing how inhibiting the left Anterior Temporal Lobe (LATL) can reduce errors in visual memory. The LATL is concerned with using context to recognise objects. By reducing its activity, an observer can more easily see what's really 'out there' in the physical world, rather than allowing their brain to assume what it might be from its context. This may relate directly to how misperception works. People with a particularly active LATL may misperceive more readily than others.

17 August 2010: Ghosts in historical costume

Recently I was in a restaurant in France and I gave the waiter a tip. He looked askance at the money I'd given him. I then realised I'd given him a Swiss Euro note instead of a French one. I offered to swap it but he was not interested. Perhaps he was more unhappy at how little I gave rather than where the currency was minted!

It was only when I woke up that I noticed the obvious mistake in this dream. Though it would be fun to escape this gloomy UK August, I fear I have not been to France recently at all - it was just a dream! The mistake, in case you haven't noticed it, is that the Swiss still use Francs, not Euros. However, during the dream I was nor aware of the mistake. This is a common occurrence in dreams were we happily allow all sorts of nonsense and contradictions to occur and accept them as real without noticing. The bit of the brain that spots mistakes is clearly turned off during dreams! It is also not working when we misperceive.

Supposing, while fully awake, I saw a figure in historical costume standing still in a wood. I might conclude it was someone going to a historical reenactment. I could equally think it was a ghost, as many other people might. I might even be able to date the figure by checking the clothes against pictures of people in historical dress.

Suppose the figure was found, on investigation, to be a misperceived tree (it wouldn't be the first one for me!). That would imply that the details of historical dress must be coming from my visual memory. So they could only be as accurate as my memory. However, if I was still convinced that I'd seen the ghost of a historical figure, I would assume they MUST be accurate. This might lead me to unconsciously confabulate - to alter my memory to fit a picture I'd seen a book.

So what is the point of all this? Only that, just because someone can describe, in perfect detail, a figure in historical costume, it doesn't necessarily follow they've had a paranormal experience. Even if they claim to know nothing about the historical period concerned, who hasn't seen costume drama on TV or in films? We undoubtedly remember far more than we can consciously recall. And if someone is convinced they've seen a ghost from a different time period, they may unconsciously confabulate to ensure their memory fits what they are 'supposed' to see. So seeing figures in historical dress, even if it is accurate and the witness claims no knowledge of the period, cannot be taken on its own as definitive evidence of a paranormal sighting.

It would be interesting to do experiments with this. Perhaps people could be shown glimpses of figures in accurate and inaccurate historical costumes (eg. mixing two periods) and then see what they remember, with and without being shown pictures from the period. We know that witnesses confabulate details when seeing people in contemporary costume so it would be interested to see how they cope with historical dress.

16 August 2010: SLI update

Looking out of a window the other morning, I was surprised to see a street light still on, despite the fact that it was broad daylight. I looked to see if any other lights were on and they were not. I concluded that one light might be faulty. However, turning around to look at the first light again I saw that it, too, was now off! The whole incident had, by an amazing coincidence taken place at the exact second when the street lights were going off! It happened in the time it took for me to look from one lamp to another. It would have been very easy for me to have imagined I had somehow influenced the lights in some way. Coincidence is the most overlooked cause of paranormal reports.

It reminded me that some cases of Street Light Interference (SLI), must be down to sheer coincidence. Others are no doubt due to intermittent faults with individual lamps. ASSAP has done SLI research in the past and continues to do so. Interest remains surprisingly high in this little known topic. ASSAP published what we believe to be the first book on SLI in 1993. You can read the whole book here! Hilary Evans, an ASSAP founder and author of that book, has written an updated account of the phenomenon in a book called Sliders: The Enigma of Streetlight Interference. If you are interested in the subject, these books are well worth reading. If you've had a SLI experience, please contact ASSAP investigations.

12 August 2010: Misperception is normal - no, really!

I have been noticing myself misperceiving ever since I first realised it a normal part of visual perception. There are situations, when a poorly-seen object is substituted for something else from visual memory (see visual substitutions). It doesn't look fuzzy or indistinct, it's just something different! This process happens to everyone and can explain many ghost sightings as well as other anomalous reports.

And yet, I've found a resistance to the idea of misperception, even among people who are not claiming to have seen anything paranormal, just something other than what is actually physically present. It is understandable that someone who thinks they've seen a ghost may be reluctant to accept it was really a poorly-seen tree! The incident might represent a special experience in their life and they may be reluctant to let go of it. But why should someone who has merely seen one common object as another common object resist the idea that it was a misperception?

They may think that misperceiving means that something is 'wrong' with them! It might be defective eyesight, an 'overactive imagination' or, worst of all, a hallucination! In reality, everyone has misperceptions and having them does not imply any of these things.

Another contributory factor may the over-reliance we place on eyesight. It is the one sense that we think of as being closest to a straightforward representation of reality. We accept that our other senses are fallible but eyesight shows us what is real. We believe what we see, even when it's weird. Optical illusions, which we know are 'wrong', are dismissed as artificial tricks that would never occur in real life. Ironically, optical illusions tell us a great deal about how perception really works and it isn't about a simple representation of reality.

The wide screen view in our heads that we think of as reality is really an edited product of sensory output and visual memory. Our brains actually tell us what we see is 'true' so it is difficult to accept it might not always be. By accepting the way perception actually works, I have no problem with seeing the odd object that I know isn't really there. I know that if I look a little harder I may see the real physical object out there, which could be quite different. And I know that some of the weird things I've seen down the years probably weren't what they appeared to be at the time.

Once people can let go of the idea that everything they see is real, and that it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with them, it will be much easier to explain most weird sightings.

9 August 2010: Poltergeist incident

I was standing looking out of the window a other day when I heard a 'plop' sound behind me. I turned to see a small object, the cap of a bottle, on the floor which I was sure had not been there before. I looked around but could see no obvious place where the cap had fallen from. Being alone in the room, the word poltergeist briefly flitted through my mind!

Then, with the aid of the owner of the bottle top, I worked out that it had fallen off a bed and rolled quite a long way off. That something should roll off a bed isn't so hard to imagine, given the usual rumpled nature of bedclothes. The cap could have been unwittingly left in a precarious position where the slightest vibration would have set it off on its path to the edge of the bed and then the floor.

It was the fact that the cap rolled a long way from the bed which made it appear odd. It was now much nearer to other bits of furniture where it was most unlikely to have fallen off. Had I not heard from the bottle top's owner when the cap started out, I might still being trying to work out where on earth it could have come from. And the idea of a poltergeist might still be occupying my mind.

What this shows is how we can so easily underestimate what the ability of everyday situations to generate mysteries in perfectly normal ways. If we only see the result of such an incident we could decide it was paranormal. In this case, had I not found out for sure where the cap had come from, I could have experimented to see what may have happened by letting it roll off various nearby bits of furniture. I may have got the right answer in the end. On the other hand, I might not.

If this all sounds terribly trivial, it is not unlike many incidents reported in actual poltergeist cases. The difference is that, once witnesses are convinced they are being haunted, every such incident becomes another act of the poltergeist!

5 August 2010: More UFO records released

More UK public records concerning UFO sightings have been released (see here). It is alleged that Churchill and Eisenhower met during WW2 to make sure a dramatic encounter between a RAF plane and a UFO was not made public, to avoid mass panic. It is interesting to note that the number of UFO reports peaked in 1996, when the X Files was on TV.

The release of public records about UFO sightings has become a regular event in the UK. It always gets media coverage because there is usually at least one good story in each release. However, overall the sightings reported to the Ministry of Defence are the same sort of thing that get organisations like ASSAP receive. The records tell us more about social history than aerial phenomena.

Ufology has become less popular in recent years. Perhaps it is because the reports are all much the same. Maybe it is the lack of any definitive evidence that UFOs are alien visitations. Maybe the people who were once interested in UFOs are now excited about ghosts instead. If so, it is probably to do with the huge media coverage the subject gets. Once UFO sightings were regularly reported in the press. Now there is not much coverage outside these public record releases. Perhaps that is the key to what makes any particular anomalous phenomenon be in vogue at any one time - how much media coverage it gets. If so, we need to keep looking at TV schedules to work out what will become popular next.

4 August 2010: Photos for analysis

Just a quick note to anyone who has sent in unusual photos for analysis by ASSAP. If you haven't had a reply, we apologise. Some emails do go astray occasionally and certain email addresses screen our replies out (probably thinking we are spam)! We try very hard to answer all photographic queries but if you've sent one in and had no reply, it's not through lack of effort here. It is almost certainly a technical problem. I know this doesn't help you with your photo but please understand that there are good reasons why sometimes we can't always reply.

Please note that we never publish or share photos sent in for analysis. It is a confidential service.

3 August 2010: Consulting experts

I think, as paranormal researchers, we should always be prepared to consult experts. Paranormal investigation and research covers huge subject areas, from physics to psychology. No single researcher, or even a group, can hope to be expert in all these fields. So we should be prepared to talk to specialists from time to time.

However, there are problems with consulting experts. Some researchers may be reluctant to mention that the reason they are asking for help is to do with the paranormal! They fear that an expert, such as a professional scientist, may be reluctant to get involved if they know what it's really about! So, this little fact may not be mentioned at all! The problem with that is that the expert may them form a false picture of what they are being asked about. If you ask about the effects of electromagnetism on people, for instance, without saying you think it might be causing people to hallucinate, you might get the right answer but to a completely different question!

Another problem I've seen with paranormal investigators consulting experts is where they have already decided the answer to a question and are just looking for confirmation. For instance, they may want an expert to confirm that something is 'impossible' to prop up the idea that it might be paranormal. If, however, they were to put the full facts of a situation before the expert they might get a very different answer. The expert may know of a completely different xenonormal explanation for an apparently paranormal incident, one the investigator never considered.

A further problem is knowing which expert to consult. For instance, a scientist may know a lot of theory while an engineer may have more practical expertise. When selecting an expert it is useful to find out, perhaps via the internet, what their specialty really is.

As you will see from the above, it is easy to get the wrong answers from experts. Not because the experts are wrong but because they were never told the full facts or asked the right questions. If you investigate a case and say 'experts agreed that this was impossible' you could end up looking silly when someone else points out a simple xenonormal solution to the incidents described! And the experts are unlikely to want to help you again!

So, my advice when consulting experts is (a) to be completely open about the problem and (b) provide ALL the evidence that you know of. Don't ask them simply to confirm your theory but ask them theirs. You may be surprised by the reply and find it helps enormously.

2 August 2010: Is infrasound a 'spookiness factor'?

There has been a lot of interest in the paranormal research area in infrasound. That's because it has been suggested as a source of hallucinations that could give rise to reports of paranormal experience. Despite the enthusiasm, little solid research has been done. This is because infrasound detection equipment is expensive and difficult to get hold of. Another problem is separating it from EIFs - magnetic 'experience inducing fields'.

There is a general, low, background level of infrasound pretty much everywhere. It has been suggested that where levels are unusually high it can lead to experiences that resemble the paranormal, like hallucinations. There are two main reasons for high levels of infrasound in a particular location:

  • a strong local source of infrasound like ocean waves, avalanches, earthquakes and certain wind conditions (eg. storms, hurricanes and wind shear around mountain ranges) and some motorised mechanical equipment
  • an enclosed space, like a room, of particular dimensions that can cause infrasound to resonate, effectively amplifying background infrasound

One problem is that one of the commonest sources of infrasound, motorised equipment, can also potentially cause EIFs. So any hallucinations in the vicinity of such equipment could be caused by EIFs rather than infrasound. You'd need to monitor for both EIFs and infrasound to be sure which was elevated (possibly both!).

South coast UFOSteve Parsons (with others), of Parascience, conducted some research at Mary Kings Close in Edinburgh in 2007. Some visitors to the place were, unknowingly, subjected to elevated infrasound while others were not. They were then surveyed about their experiences. There was a correlation between subjective paranormal experiences and elevated infrasound in about a third of the subjects. However, significantly, visual hallucinations were reported.

So far, then, there is little or no evidence that infrasound produces visual hallucinations that might be reported as ghosts. However, there is an indication that it may be one of the 'spookiness factors'. These are environmental factors that have been shown to encourage people to report paranormal experiences, however caused. The factors include low light, low temperature, high humidity, a location's reputation as being haunted, etc. They give a place a 'spooky' feel, especially when combined, hence the name.

There are several things that we know can directly induce reports of paranormal activity, like ghosts. From cases, we know the most common cause of such reports is misperception. The second most important cause of such reports is probably near sleep experiences. Another cause though probably rather rare, is EIFs. Whether infrasound can also be considered an actual cause of such reports, or just a contributory factor, is currently unknown. But it certainly seems to be at least a spookiness factor. As ever. more research is needed!

The lowest photo on this page shows a UFO photographed recently on the south coast of England. The full story is here.

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

Last month's (July) website figures are an average of 7995 hits per day. This is up on the previous month's 7744.


Previous blog pages ...

  • 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 2010