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) 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 and dozens of other subjects)

30 December 2009: Paranormal research in the noughties: Part Two: Hope

Despite the problems in the noughties with almost everyone apparently being diverted down the cul de sac of assumption-led methods (see yesterday), paranormal research still progressed. Two hot topics in serious research were magnetic fields and infrasound as possible causes of hallucinations that might resemble ghosts or ghostly activity. Both ideas date from before the noughties decade but they became fashionable in this one.

The search was on to demonstrate that EIFs (experience inducing fields), magnetic fields used in the lab to produce ghostly hallucinations, could also be found in the field. The choice of Muncaster to test the idea was fortunate. That's because (a) the haunting is particularly well documented and (b) the 'haunted bed' could not be a case of a ghost emitting a magnetic field since it only becomes an EIF when someone lies in it! Though finding a source of an EIF does not definitively demonstrate that it is the cause of the haunting there, the coincidence (if that's what it is) is singularly striking. However, given the special circumstances, it is unlikely that EIFs are responsible for more than a small proportion of haunting reports.

The case for infrasound causing haunting reports is equivocal, despite more research being done in that field. As well as the difficulty of obtaining and using suitable infrasound detection, there is a problem with distinguishing it from EIFs. That's because the same situations that can cause EIFs may also give rise to infrasound. While it remains an interesting idea, like EIFs, infrasound is unlikely to be responsible for more than a small proportion of haunting cases.

Luckily for paranormal research, there was a field developing rapidly in this decade that had profound implications for our own field - neuroscience. While it had been known for a long time that most paranormal cases, on thorough investigation, proved to be caused by such things as misperception, sleep paralysis, coincidence, etc, there were many serious problems with such theories. The biggest problems were the highly detailed descriptions of ghosts, occasional multiple witness reports and 'impossible' actions like appearing and disappearing.

Many of these problems melted away as neuroscience probed perception with new technology like fMRI. It was discovered that when we do not see objects well (such as in low light) our brains unconsciously substitute them with their own best interpretation from visual memory! So a poorly-seen tree can become a human figure, complete with convincing details like hair colour, clothes and so on. Multiple witnesses may see something very similar because they see the same tree and the figure may 'vanish' if our brains suddenly realise what the object really is!

Similar research has uncovered a long-suspected connection between sleep paralysis, NDE and OOBEs. They share the phenomenon of REM-intrusion where dream images can intrude into real scenes producing paranormal-like experiences. Other research into how our brains decide if a noise is human speech can explain many cases of EVP. These discoveries, where we are experiencing the product of the unconscious parts of our own brains as if they were real, also explain how culture can inform the content of such experiences.

So, there is plenty to cheer about in paranormal research from the noughties. In the next decade we can research how these discoveries from neuroscience might actually work in the field in real paranormal reports. It provides plenty to do for serious researchers into the future. Happy New Year!

29 December 2009: Paranormal research in the noughties: Part One: A sea of troubles

Everyone else seems to be looking pack at the noughties, so why not me? It has, of course, been a dramatic decade in our subject which has left it looking more like a branch of the entertainment industry than a serious subject for research. To understand how we got to our current situation we should first briefly glimpse the previous decade.

In the 1990s paranormal research made solid, if unspectacular, progress. The biggest development was probably the widespread use of instrumentation on paranormal investigations. It was welcomed and encouraged by ASSAP, among others, who promoted the concept of 'blanket monitoring'. This meant looking at all possible environmental variables to see (a) what was different about haunted places and (b) if anything changed during a sighting. Sadly, opportunities for (b) rarely arose then, as now.

In the noughties, instrumented vigils came back to bight us, with avengeance! Worse, the rise of the reality TV ghost hunting shows led to widespread use of assumption-led (instead of evidence-led) investigation. It seemed someone had opened a Pandora's Box into our subject which, though it became very popular, drifted away from widespread scientific investigation (and some might say back in time) into a sea of troubles.

The use of instruments led to all sorts of 'new' phenomena which, on investigation, turned out to be largely equipment artifacts. So the widespread use of new digital cameras led famously to orbs which, though they date to 1990s, became really popular in this decade! Though we now have the orb zone theory, which explains such things, and the vast majority of investigators accept they are dust or water droplets, orbs continue to be reported by the public as paranormal all the time. Cheap high quality video camera brought as flying rods. And EVP, once very much a minority pursuit within paranormal research, often done with specialist equipment without microphones to eliminate stray noise, became popular on vigils, where there is virtually no control of ambient noise at all! Then there is problem of EMF meters, seen by some as 'ghost detectors', despite the lack of evidence.

While the use of instruments sounded great in theory, the problem with understanding what constituted normal and abnormal readings turned out to be a major problem. Just looking at one popular instrument, the digital camera, there are many possible sources of artifacts, all of which lead continually to reports of paranormal photos. But this problem was overshadowed by an even worse one - the widespread use of assumption-led methods. Though such methods have always been used by a few researchers, they were, quite rightly, never considered scientific and organisations like ASSAP did not use them (except occasionally at the insistence of witnesses!).

The 'problem' with scientific vigils is that they tend to be very boring! Too boring, in fact, to make good television. This is probably what prompted the media to use the 'assumption-led' method of 'ghost hunting' when they started their popular reality TV shows in the noughties. The shows are, no doubt, responsible for the boom in the popularity of paranormal research groups. Though many groups do not slavishly follow the methods on the TV, they still encompass a similar ethos. The emphasis has moved from witnesses, who've actually experienced something, to investigators who rarely do. It is the need for investigators on vigils (which form so much of the research process they are actually now called 'investigations'!) to 'experience' something, that probably led to the widespread adoption of assumption-led techniques. While things are regularly experienced on such vigils, whether they are paranormal is open to question. The result of using such methods always, inevitably, leads back to the first assumptions of the investigators with the result that research progress is pretty much nil!

So has it been all bad for paranormal research in the noughties? Indeed not! Pandora's Box contained Hope, as well as many troubles! See Part Two!

23 December 2009: The world's prettiest 'orbs'?

Snow and treesOrbs generally only occur in photographs, though people sometimes claim to see them with the naked eye. Other lights seen by the naked eye have a completely different cause and are not the same as orbs. Today, I saw something with the naked eye that resembled orbs, only much prettier.

It is cold hereabouts with lying snow and ice all around. When walking under a metal shelter, with no side walls, I was greeted by hundreds of tiny sparkling objects floating in the air ahead of me. They flashed briefly but brightly as they reflected the sun and then vanished again. It soon became obvious that they were tiny airborne ice crystals. Despite my own advice, I didn't have a camera with me so you'll have to take my word for how pretty they were - a Yuletide treat better than any string of coloured lights.

I'm not sure how the crystals became airborne. They may have fallen from the roof of the metal shelter. Or they may have been associated with the mist hanging over the nearby snow (something that happens when the sun starts to melt extensive snow fields). Or the shelter may have created eddies that trapped the crystals blown from nearby lying snow (although this seems less likely as there was very little wind). They were definitely only seen under the shelter, not outside. I wonder what a psychic would have made of them!

Nature presents an endless series of wonders to those who look for them. And for those who do not recognise them for what they are, they may appear paranormal. Anyone reporting 'naked eye orbs' in freezing conditions, with snow about, might be seeing airborne ice crystals catching the sun or torchlight! Happy Yule!

PS: I just looked at a steamed-up window and saw a 'face' in it! In reality, it was a pattern of three less steamed-up bits in the approximate positions of a human mouth and two eyes. The human ability to see faces everywhere is just amazing!

22 December 2009: Is this how it feels to be psychic?

Misperceived ghostSnow and ice on the ground, shops full, travel chaos, it must be Yuletide! It's a festival that's supposed to make us feel better about it being winter. The problem is, it's in winter!

Anyway, since I've realised how misperception can make you see things as other things, I see strange things regularly. In the right conditions I see poorly-seen plants, bushes or trees as ghostly figures, like the 'woman in grey ghost' in the photo (right - for full circumstances see here).

I realise I must have misperceived before I knew what is was (just like everyone does) so why do I only notice it now? I suppose I used to dismiss misperceptions as 'a trick of the light', illusion or imagination. Now I have psychologically 'given myself permission', unconsciously, to see these misperceptions as ghosts! So I see ghosts regularly, having before never seen one during decades of trying.

I can see the human features, clothes and so on that definitely make the misperceived figure a human. I could describe their gender, hair, face, clothing, how they were standing and so in, in detail. And yet, the figures usually vanish in seconds, leaving only a bush or tree!

It occurred to me recently that this is what it might feel like to be psychic! Suddenly you see ghosts that others just can't see! There are many reasons for feeling that you might be psychic (see here) but the most striking is seeing things, particularly human figures, that others can't. One big difference is, of course, that psychics believe they are seeing spirits while I know I am misperceiving. I wonder is those who decide they are psychic pass through any similar psychological process, perhaps coming to believe that any weird things they experience are indeed paranormal? Happy Yule!

18 December 2009: Are ghost stories too formulaic?

SnowThe Yuletide season is approaching, a traditional time for telling ghost stories. Many ghost stories are also set in winter. Perhaps the unusual light at night, thrown up by white lying snow, lends an eerie quality to the season. And the cold is certainly associated with ghosts. It is unusual in the UK for there to be snow so early in winter but we had some recently (pic right taken today).

I like ghost stories, in theory. Though they are rarely like real ghost cases, it is always fascinating to see how authors interpret the subject. I wonder how many of them have ever encountered a real case. What tends to let many ghost stories down, in my opinion, is the plot and particularly the ending.

In many stories the plot involves someone who does not believe in ghosts having to confront an apparently real phenomenon. Then there is usually a lot of stuff about finding out who is haunting the place and why. The hero must then either resolve the 'problem' (to stop the haunting) or falls victim to it. The ending often tries to strike a mysterious note but by then I have generally lost interest.

Is there some unwritten some rule that says ghost stories must follow this same pattern? If there is, I wish people would rip it up and write something more unexpected and interesting from time to time. Who knows, it might feed back into real cases!

17 December 2009: Paranormal spirals

I have recently been watching some classic episodes of the X-Files. It has worn well, still relevant and modern though the cell phones look enormous (a sure way to date any recent contemporary drama). Though there are many 'paranormal drama' shows these days, few cover the range of phenomena that the X-Files did.

Another important characteristic of the X-Files was how many of the stories were based on real cases. Of course, the character of the original cases may owe a lot to legend and fiction themselves. So we have a circle of ideas going back and forth from fiction to real cases and back again. The content of fictional and real cases have evolved over time. There are few reports of the ghosts of nuns and monks nowadays and since 1948 most unknown aerial objects are taken by their witnesses to be alien spacecraft (though many recent ones seem to be Chinese or sky lanterns!). Fiction too has evolved, sometimes drawing on real cases and sometimes on imagination. The tales of M R James, excellent though they are, appear dated nowadays while the use of EMF meters in ghost hunting has already appeared on TV in the Sarah Jane Adventures!

So the idea that culture feeds the content of some paranormal experience is only half the story. The experiences feed back into fiction to complete a circle, or perhaps more accurately a spiral, because they evolve together.

16 December 2009: Where no bird sings!

RobinHere in the UK we are getting an early taste of real winter with snow and ice around. In such weather, few birds sing as they are too busy just finding food in the short dark days.

It reminds me of something I've seen in several paranormal reports - areas or times when 'no bird sings'. This is usually taken to indicate the presence or imminent arrival of paranormal phenomena. I've also seen the same idea in various fictional accounts of the paranormal. It makes me wonder if the idea is borrowed, in both cases, from legend.

It is difficult to substantiate the idea of an unusual case of 'no bird singing'. Certain spooky locations are said to have this attribute - I've visited one without any definitive results. But the thing is, whether birds sing depends crucially on season, time of day, the weather and the presence of other animals (including humans). Birds sing a lot more during the breeding season and in early morning and in the evening but rarely during wet or cold weather.

So when someone gets 'spooked' in a wood by hearing no birds singing, it is highly likely to be a coincidence rather than anything paranormal. If the witness returned to the same location at a different time, they might well be bombarded with bird song. There are so many factors involved, some difficult to control or measure, that the few such reports of 'no bird singing' cannot be taken to indicate any paranormal connection. I doubt we'll hear much birdsong in the coming days, with cold winter weather predominating, but it is unlikely to be for any paranormal reason.

14 December 2009: You can't beat personal experience!

Those who attend ghost vigils regularly sometimes get annoyed with those who comment on their reports, referring to them as 'armchair critics'. Scientists would say that most evidence collected on vigils, especially the common 'assumption-led' variety, is anecdotal, or essentially an unverifiable story!

I think there is something in both sides to this argument. With paranormal reports, even on a vigil, we are usually talking about human experience, so inevitably it will be 'anecdotal'. The best solution to this problem would be instrumental confirmation of such experiences but that is currently rare. As a compromise, perhaps the solution is to simulate the experiences in vigils and anomalous reports in controlled conditions. Then such conditions could be looked for and recognised on vigils.

It isn't easy producing such conditions experimentally. Misperception is a key cause of paranormal reports. However, it highly sensitive to conditions, including factors involving the witness (such as their state of mind, whether they are short-sighted, etc). But it IS possible to spot misperception in everyday life, if you are looking for it.

If you stop what you're doing when you misperceive, you may be able to prolong or reproduce the state. In such rare moments, it is possible to see vividly how people might report a tree as a ghost or a balloon as a UFO. It would be useful to carry round a camera (ideally a video camera) at all times to record such circumstances. Almost anyone could do this, if they don't mind lugging round equipment most of the time. Of course, it would mean getting up out an armchair!

11 December 2009: The Norwegian UFO

A spectacular UFO was reported in Norway on Wednesday. The bizarre spiral light, witnessed widely, could not be explained by astronomers or meteorologists. The sighting was widely reported in the press.

Now, it seems, the Russians have admitted that it was a failed missile test. Rarely are UFOs explained so quickly and decisively. It is almost a shame that the mystery was so brief. It would have been interesting to see what rumours might have circulated. Indeed, the rumours may well continue. It is often the case that mysteries like this are widely reported while their solution is not.

PS: Many paranormal researchers have no doubt equipped themselves with the new brighter, longer-lasting (both battery and bulb) LED torches. Some of them have a strange way of showing when the battery is nearly drained. Instead of getting fainter, the light flashes and then goes out! It could easily be interpreted as a faulty torch or even something ghostly happening! Try changing the batteries if it happens to you!

9 December 2009: Paranormal moving objects

Naturalists are sometimes caught out, when looking for animals or birds, by other moving objects. A plant blowing in the breeze, partly obscured by a bush in front, can give the impression of a moving animal. Movement is one of the main ways that field naturalists spot animals, many of which are wary of humans and don't just walk out in front of them. So a slight movement in peripheral vision often indicates an animal or bird.

There can be a tendency among paranormal researchers to see movement as a sign of something paranormal. So something seen moving in peripheral vision may be taken as a ghostly figure. Indeed, any unexpected movement in a haunted house is likely to be interpreted as paranormal activity.

In such cases, it is important to get a good view of the moving object, or better still a photo or video of it. Otherwise, any mundane object movement, like an object falling off an unstable pile, is likely to be seen as paranormal. There are many natural reasons for object movement, like moving in a breeze, slipping down a slope or falling (or even a moving shadow or reflection), to be considered before something can be considered paranormal. If the object is available to handle, it can be instructive to put it back in its original position to see what happens. Best of all, use continuous video in good places so movement is captured for later analysis.

8 December 2009: The limits of perception

There is a book out recently called Seeing through illusions by Richard L Gregory that I think should be of interest to any paranormal researcher. It explores the causes of optical illusions. In doing so, it probes the latest research into how visual perception itself works. I would definitely recommend it to all readers.

Gregory explains how perception is partly a top-down and partly bottom-up process. In other words, what we actually perceive, as opposed to what is really physically out there to be seen, depends not only on the visual stimulation to our eyes but also on our brain's attempts to interpret the view (a concept that should be familiar to regular readers - see misperception), which depends to a large extent on our previous experience (explaining the importance of the xenonormal). He gives an example of someone who was blind from birth but who gained sight through an operation. The subject could only see objects they had previously touched when blind (and so were familiar with). Everything else appeared as 'meaningless patterns'.

The ratio between top-down and bottom-up varies all the time depending on viewing circumstances and whether what is being viewed has been seen before. The varying factors are complex but there is little doubt that in poor viewing conditions, or when seeing things we've never seen before, much of what we perceive will originate from our brain's memory rather than the outside world. Our brains work by forming a hypothesis of what is really there and showing us something that 'makes sense' in that scenario. This will often not be what is really physically present.

Optical illusions happen because there is a mismatch between our brain's hypothesis of what is present and reality. So we end up seeing impossible or confused images. In misperception we may see what we expect to see (or even fear or hope to see) rather than what is there. The book summarises much of the science (with references) behind this field which is very important to understanding paranormal reports, many of which are either of things not recognised by the witness or made in poor viewing conditions, or both.

7 December 2009: Haunting phenomena from the movies and geology maps

I read a dramatic report of a haunting recently and was struck by one of the reported phenomena. I had never come across it before in any investigated case before. However, I HAD seen precisely the same thing in several horror movies! It certainly brings home how closely the media depiction of the paranormal feeds into real life cases.

Does that mean I doubt the phenomenon (which I can't mention for confidentiality reasons) actually occurred? Well the witness doesn't claim the phenomenon was literally real but more of a thought or impression. However, after the story has been retold a few times it may well be reported as definitely physically real! Maybe they'll make a movie about it!

Paranormal researchers sometimes wonder if there is a connection between various phenomena, especially hauntings and UFOs, and geology. Now you can see 1:50000 UK geological maps online free. So now it should be easy to check out the geology of a haunted building or UFO sighting.

4 December 2009: Assumptions shape paranormal research

The vast majority of paranormal researchers believe in the paranormal which is hardly surprising! However, there are consequences of this simple, obvious fact to the way the research is done. Serious paranormal researchers naturally try to put aside their beliefs and study in a neutral, scientific way. However, that is not always necessarily enough.

For instance, what happens when we witness an apparently paranormal event on a vigil? We look for possible natural explanations to eliminate them. Then we test these theories in situ, if possible, to see if any apply. However, people who believe in the paranormal tend to come up with fairly obvious suggestions for such natural explanations. Those who don't believe are usually willing to examine additional possibilities, including more unlikely explanations, perhaps based on rare coincidences. It might be unlikely that someone would be walking past a window in fancy dress at 3am but it is not impossible!

Critics will say that such outlandish suggestions are an attempt to 'explain away' a ghostly observation. But the point is, outlandish and unlikely things DO happen from time to time. And if the people on the vigil don't examine such possibilities at the time, it may be impossible to dismiss such suggestions afterwards.

It would, therefore, paradoxically be better for researchers to assume that all incidents are NOT paranormal, even if it is against their natural beliefs. This will allow them to think of and eliminate a greater number of possible natural explanations for each incident. Researchers don't have to change their beliefs, but would benefit from the flexibility to think like those with different ones sometimes. Indeed, it shouldn't be too difficult for those who believe in the paranormal to believe in extremely unlikely possibilities.

PS: The UK MOD has closed its UFO unit, including its hotline. It said " the unit had received thousands of reports, although none had yielded proof of aliens or any security threat to the UK". Luckily, there are still many willing amateur researchers out there ready to take up the slack and continue to investigate UFO sightings, including ASSAP. Long may they continue!

3 December 2009: The dark month in a non-haunted house!

Here in the UK, December is the darkest month. And with trees leafless, the countryside has a somber air. Ghosts and other paranormal beasties seem just out of sight, hiding among the long cold shadows. Almost any building can look spooky at this time of year.

If you sit alone in a non-haunted house, maybe your own, in the middle of the night, you will often hear strange noises, like clicks, creaks or knocks. You may never have noticed them before because they are usually drowned out by other sounds, from inside and outside, particularly in daytime. When you move to a new house you may notice these background noises because they are unfamiliar.

All these noise almost certainly have a natural explanation. However, if you heard them on a vigil in a haunted house, you would make a note of them and might consider them paranormal. I think everyone who goes on a vigil ought to try listening to the sounds of their own house at night first. It would put into perspective what are the normal sounds of a building and what are unnatural ones. The fact that a building looks or feels spooky doesn't make it have more, or less, natural background sounds.

2 December 2009: The river monster!

River monsterRegular readers will probably have deduced that I like photographing wildlife. So when I visited a tidal river in search of waders (shorebirds) and the like recently, I got excited to see this unusual-looking creature (photo right - the creature is just below the centre). I first saw this creature with my naked eye. I thought it might be a wader working the water line which is quite common behaviour. The fact that it didn't move did not trouble me. Birds often stand stock still for seconds or even minutes.

I quickly became suspicious, however, because the shape appeared 'spiky' which was difficult to reconcile with a 'smooth' bird. Had I discovered a river monster instead? I took some photos (including the one above), just in case it was something exciting, before moving cautiously closer to get a better look.

River mudThe creature did not fly or swim away as I feared. Instead, the truth was slowly revealed (photo right), not so much because of getting closer but due to the changing angle. The 'creature' soon became several large pieces of mud sticking out of the water. They had just happened to line up, from the first position I'd seen 'it', to suggest a body with a smaller head on top.

The second photo is closer, lighter and from a different angle. It is now difficult to see how the mud lumps could have produced the 'river monster', but they did. The fact that it was a silhouette undoubtedly contributed to the impression of a single creature. It even has a short shadow! This was a case both of misperception (it was seen first with the naked eye) and paranormal photo.

Had I only noticed the 'monster' in photos when I got home, I might still be under the impression that it was a bird or some other animal. There is an important lesson here. With digital cameras, we can view photos we've just taken straight away. I think it is useful to review photos on site as much as possible. Then, if there is anything weird on them, it can be investigated at the time. It is ALWAYS easier to investigate such photos on site, at the time, than later.

1 December 2009: Imperceptions!

Blue TitMany paranormal reports are caused by people misperceiving. They see an object as something else, like a distant tree seen as a ghostly figure. But some paranormal reports may also be caused by the opposite effect- imperceptions.

An 'imperception' is the failure to see an object in plain view. There are many haunting cases where objects are reported to move around on their own or disappear for a while only to re-appear in their original location. The paranormal explanation is that the objects are subject to materialisation or teleportation. However, in at least some cases, imperception may be the explanation.

The other day I was looking for a small object but could not find it. I looked in the most likely place but it wasn't there. Later, however, I found that it WAS there all the time, I'd simply completely failed to see it. That was because it was in front of a curved reflective surface. I didn't see the object because my brain had decided that all I was seeing was a distorted reflection of something behind me! I experimented and it was weird! Sometimes I could see the object, but occasionally I couldn't, even though I knew it was there all the time, in plain view!

While there is one main cause for misperceptions, there are many for imperceptions. In the case I've mentioned here it the cause was a sort of camouflage. However, more commonly any kind of inattention will cause imperceptions. We see only a tiny percentage of what is going on around us. In the photo above, for instance, you may see a vague fuzzy shape in the tree trunk, just above and to the left of the centre. It is, in fact, a Blue Tit that has just taken off and is blurred by movement. Most people never notice wildlife, and much else, when they are walking around. In this case they probably wouldn't see the bird until it flew and maybe not even then. It is little wonder that people miss things in plain view all the time.

PS: For all those who went to the ASSAP Training Weekend over the last couple of days, there are comments and photos on the facebook site. Please do add your own!

This month's (November) website figures are an average of 12272 hits per day - only marginally down on last month's all-time record of 13759 ! It is normal for hits to rise sharply in October because of Halloween!


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© Maurice Townsend 2009