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)

31 December 2010: How many words is a video worth?

My own 2010 ASSAP website highlight of 2010 is the new video gallery. There are thousands of videos about the paranormal on the web, many appearing to show it in action, but our gallery still manages to be a little different!

The videos in the ASSAP gallery were made on xenonormal principles. In other words, they show apparent paranormal phenomena without using anything that would not already be present in the environment around a reported sighting. They attempt to reproduce apparent paranormal phenomena using no props and no special effects. Many are simply straightforward videos of a scene, like the apparent shadow ghosts here and here and the UFO. Other videos more deliberately capture weird phenomena. So you can see flying rods hover for instance. Another video is more of an artificial setup as it features a bright torch deliberately placed to illuminate dust floating in the air. This is so that you can actually see dust turn into orbs and back into dust as the focus changes. But even in this last example, the dust is completely natural and the torch is only substituting for a camera flash that normally produces orbs. It is a way of 'slowing down' the normal process of orb production. It also shows how video orbs are produced!

Videos can tell a story in a way a written article never can. Some people even make their points on web forums, not with a typed argument, but a link to an online video! So it makes sense to use video, both to explore things that still photos cannot and to put across points in a succinct, visual way. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many is a video worth?

30 December 2010: The boom goes on and on

This is the time of year when people traditionally look back over the last twelve months, so why should I be any different?

The ghost hunting boom continues. This year we saw TV show Most Haunted come to an end. Does this signal the beginning of the end of the boom? I doubt it. While TV shows generally have a 'natural life span', genres don't! If the boom was started by the TV ghost hunting shows, it is now being sustained by the internet. So it is difficult to say when the boom will finally end.

The boom means that, though there was a great deal of activity around ghosts and hauntings this year, most of it was done using assumption-led methods. This inevitably led to little new objective evidence. Various cases came to public attention but were, as usual, fairly easily explainable in xenonormal terms. As I mentioned earlier this year, we do not seem to get any 'classic' cases any more and this year was no exception. Indeed, the trend seems to be more towards once-off incidents and, in particular, weird photos, videos and sound recordings. The ability to examine such evidence is valuable but, in almost all cases, it points towards xenonormal causes.

In parapsychology, Daryl Bem caused a stir with a novel precognition experiment. However, there have already been three unsuccessful replications of this intriguing experiment. This is generally the way things go when someone gets positive results in parapsychology.

If this all sounds a bit negative, there were some good things going on. The recently discussed microsleep with REM (MWR) phenomenon (see 29 Dec) has the potential to explain some otherwise baffling paranormal experiences. It is not yet been used to explain any specific paranormal cases yet but it is still a very new subject. While MWRs are generally recognisable by witnesses, they could be interpreted as paranormal by those unfamiliar with them. There is a lot of research required to find out how common MWRs are and see just what experiences they can produce.

No doubt lots of other exciting things happened within our subject this year. However, one of the problems nowadays is that publication has become fragmented. There is lots of stuff out there on the internet but finding the really interesting bits can be difficult. We lost the European Journal of Parapsychology this year which is a great pity! Anyone new to the subject would hardly know where to start. The ASSAP website attempts to provide a source of objective information on our subject but its coverage is inevitably patchy. Let's hope there is better coverage in 2011!

29 December 2010: Microsleep, TVs and road ghosts

ASSAPMy witness who experiences microsleep with REM (MWR) reported something new recently. They put their TV off using the remote control. Wow, you're no doubt thinking! Except that seconds later the TV was on again! Poltergeist activity? In reality, the whole action of turning the TV off was a MWR! The witness picked up the remote, pressed a button and the TV was observed to switch off, exactly as normal. Except, then they woke up, having done nothing at all, leaving the TV state completely unchanged.

What was interesting about this was that the MWR episode enacted what the witness intended to do. Reality 'continued' directly into a very short dream and things then 'happened' just as they would in real life! I've never heard of a hypnagogic episode where an action intended by the witness actually gets played out in the dream bit! That may only happen in MWR episodes, which are short and can happen suddenly without warning. It seems MWRs have some tricks that go beyond hypnagogia that could explain some otherwise formerly inexplicable paranormal reports.

For instance, MWR could explain some road ghost reports. Supposing someone who gets MWRs is driving along a monotonous road at night and they drift briefly into a MWR (microsleeps can be a definite hazard in night driving!). If the driver had been idly thinking about someone, a human figure might appear in the road (in the MWR, not in reality). Shocked, the driver applies the brake sharply. Now out of their MWR, the distraught driver thinks they've hit the 'figure'. However, there is nothing to be found at the scene except skid marks!

So why do some road ghosts recur in particular locations, like Blue Bell Hill, you may ask? Firstly, it is possible that the driver is aware, maybe only unconsciously, of the reputation of the place and the MWR plays out a memory that the location prompts. If the driver was actually thinking 'I wonder if I'll see the ghost', that could equate directly to the TV remote control experience (a case of be careful what you wish for!). Alternatively, a particular stretch of road may have shadows, or be prone to patches of mist, that might vaguely suggest human figures to a passing driver. This might trigger a road ghost experience if the witness drifts into a MWR when seeing a patch of mist or shadow.

Before we get carried away it is important to remember that MWRs are rare and barely researched! Nevertheless, they could explain many instances of people seeing ghosts briefly while apparently wide awake and where misperception is ruled out. We need to know a lot more about these experiences to see just what they are capable of. The experience described above, where an intention is carried out in a MWR state but not in reality, could explain some reports of apparent object movement. If someone 'moves' an object, but only in their MWR state, they may wake up and find it unmoved. It would be easy to blame a poltergeist playing tricks!

What else can MWR states do? Could someone do something while IN a MWR state while thinking they have not, almost like sleep walking? It's not been reported so far but clearly much more research is needed! The photo? Thinking of ASSAP while having a microsleep on the beach!

23 December 2010: What's it like to have a weird experience?

This might seem an unscientific question. Surely, what matters is the cause of an experience, not how it feels. But there IS a point! One of the interesting things you pick up, when interviewing witnesses to strange/ paranormal/ xenonormal events, is that they often seem to remember MORE detail some time after the event than they did earlier. Is this real or just confabulation filling in gaps in memory to 'confirm' their own theory about their experience?

I've had a number of weird experiences. I may not be representative of other witnesses but I do like to analyse what I am doing as a witness as soon after the event as possible. So I can remember what it is like to have a strange experience.

First of all, there are two main ways of feeling a strange experience. In one type, you don't even notice anything odd has happened until after the event. It FEELS normal at the time but only afterwards do you think 'what the hell was that?'. Then you try to replay the event in your head. Some people can replay their short term memory in this way, accurately noticing more things than they picked up at the time. It only works if you do it straight after the event and not everyone can do it accurately.

The second way to experience a weird event is when you are aware something odd is happening at the time. You may feel strange, perhaps anxious, even before you notice something weird is taking place. This sort of emotional reaction may produce a 'flashbulb' memory. While such memories are strong and long lasting, they may be no more accurate than other everyday memories. However, with their strong emotional connection, witnesses may FEEL they are a particularly accurate version of events. This may make witnesses hugely resistant to suggested natural explanations for what they firmly believe was paranormal.

Just after a weird experience, many people try to gather their thoughts, perhaps after a brief feeling of confusion, and explain what they have just witnessed. This is a problem for paranormal researchers! It would be better if witnesses just tried to remember, and ideally record in writing or to a sound recorder, exactly what they can recall, no more and no less. If, as is more likely, they try to explain their sighting for their own satisfaction, they may come to a premature conclusion about it that might then actually alter their memory of events. If they saw a human figure in an unexpected place, for instance, and decided it was a ghost, they might ' remember' it having historical costume, even though it would have been too dark at the time to make out such details.

I have to admit, I always try to explain weird sightings just after I have them. It is a natural reaction to try to make sense of what you've seen. However, unlike many other witnesses, I will also examine the scene of the incident, as soon as possible, to see what might really have happened. In this way, I've found that almost all my memorable strange experiences were caused by misperception.

So, unfortunately, the 'natural' reaction to experiencing something weird is not helpful or conducive to accurate recall. As paranormal researchers, we must bear this in mind. It is tempting, when faced with someone insisting that they 'know what they saw' to take their account at face value. However, we know eye witnesses are not impartial recorders of their surroundings (see here and here).

It might help to judge the reliability of a witness report if you ask them exactly how they reacted to the events at the time. Did they talk to any other people present? Did they retrace their steps to try to reproduce the phenomenon or explain it? Did they make any notes or take photos? Did they try to memorise what happened? And, most important, when did they decide on their own interpretation of events, assuming they have one. The earlier this happened after the event, the more likely that it affected subsequent recall.

22 December 2010: Seasonal ghosts

This is one of the two times during the year, the other being Halloween, when it is traditional to tell ghost stories. The association between this time of year and ghosts may only go back as far as Dickens, though it could be much older. But it is certainly likely that people see more ghosts in winter. The lower levels of lighting certainly contribute towards misperception. The lower temperatures, higher humidity and longer nights will give any location a more spooky feeling than in summer. I guess the additional media interest at this time of year must also contribute to a higher level of sightings, too.

I've certainly found that snow, much commoner this winter than is usual in the UK, can produce lots of visual effects. The stark contrast between snow cover and other objects, like trees, can give the impression of all sorts of weird shapes. The sound of melting snow falling behind you can make you jump when you know you're all alone. Thawing snow causes dripping noises in unusual places. Snow cover can also completely transform a landscape making it seem unfamiliar, even spooky. The snow also reduces echoes, so affecting sound as well. It would be weird if people DIDN'T have the odd strange experience in such circumstances.

21 December 2010: Shadow ghost in snow

With the UK still hit by cold weather, a video of a shadow ghost in the snow is suitably seasonal. The latest addition to the ASSAP video library shows a curious black shape, apparently bounding along through a snow field. It moves in an unlikely way, almost leaping rather than walking. The curious figure was only noticed when the video was reviewed, not at the time of shooting. This is typical of almost all paranormal photos and videos. It immediately suggests the 'figure' may be a photographic artifact.

In fact, it is more of a misperception. Like most misperceptions, and unlike most optical illusions, it only tends to work once. After you see what it really is, it is difficult or impossible to misperceive it again (try watching the video BEFORE reading the text to its left).

It is particularly interesting in being a moving misperception. Most misperceived objects are stationary. For a moving object to be misperceived, its motion must not seriously contradict what our brains guess it to be. This is quite a rare combination, which is why most misperceived objects do not move. In this case, the bounding movement, position and size of the object make it fit a distant, if rather odd, person or animal. The fact that it is a snow scene probably assists the misperception, with everything basically black and white. Even obvious bright colours would break the misperception. Have a look and see what you think.

20 December 2010: Hypnagogia and microsleeps

Here in the UK there is strange tradition with our calendars. It's usual to put a snow scene for December but something more spring-like for January! What makes this strange is that the actual weather is usually the other way round. It is much more likely to snow in January than December. My theory is that it is a sort of wish fulfillment thing. For some reason that I've never understood, lots of people want it to snow at Yuletide! This year, it just might! As I type this there is lots of snow outside and it's showing no sign of going anywhere.

My witness who gets 'microsleep with REM' (MWR) also has hypnagogic episodes. Here is a recent one. 'I was just going to sleep when I heard 9 regular, very loud knocks on the front door. It was a bit scary that late at night! Once I started listening to them more closely, eyes wide open, they stopped.' Needless to say, there was no one at the front door and no one else in the house heard anything.

It seems highly likely that someone with MWR would also experience hypnagogia. If they can go into REM state straight away in a microsleep then why not when they are in bed nodding off? So this may be another thing to look for when you think a witness has MWR. See if they get hypnagogic experiences too.

17 December 2010: Microsleep with REM and misperception

Following on from yesterday, how can someone tell the difference between a microsleep with REM and misperception? Both are short-lived and whatever weird thing is seen is likely to disappear. Both happen when the witness thinks they are fully awake and aware.

Clearly microsleep with REM is very rare so misperception is always much more likely. Misperception requires an object to be misperceived. However, this 'object' could sometimes be just a strong pattern of light and shadow. If the witness can remember what they were doing at the time of the sighting, that might help. Microsleep with REM seems to happen mostly when people are sitting down feeling tired. Misperception, by contrast, can happen pretty much anywhere, anytime with the witness in any state of alertness.

This is all pretty new stuff so any information is welcome. There is snow gathering ominously outside ...

16 December 2010: Microsleep with REM or how to fall asleep!

Lots more heavy snow on the way soon here in the UK, allegedly! What fun ... not! Guess I'm too old to see the point of all that cold, wet, slippery stuff which clogs up the transport networks.

So, on to more exciting stuff. Microsleeps are fairly well-known but the version with REM, where you go straight into a dream state, is rare and could be an indicator of a sleep disorder. But it could also be a potent producer of paranormal-like experiences. So how would an investigator recognise one when interviewing a witness, given their rarity?

I know only one witness who has these things regularly so the following cannot be taken as representative. But we have to start somewhere, so here goes. Ordinary microsleeps are fairly common. Many people may have them and probably don't even know it. Unlike when we doze for a few minutes in front of the TV, it is hard to notice any obvious 'gap' in our conscious recollection because microsleeps are very short, just seconds typically.

When you get a microsleep with REM it is quite different. My witness reports that it usually happens when reading! This is interesting because it suggests the brain is consciously engaged in doing something before the microsleep episode. Maybe this is why it goes into a dream state. Such engagement may be a pre-requisite for microsleep with REM.

The experience itself is quite distinctive. It starts with a feeling of 'falling' (literally 'falling asleep'!). Then the witness is instantly in a dream, usually in quite different 'surroundings' to those when previously awake. Then, usually almost immediately, the witness is back awake. They are usually fully aware that they have just come back from a dream. However, sometimes it is not so obvious. If the dream is similar to the actual surroundings the witness was in consciously, it is more likely to lead to confusion - a feeling of 'what the hell was that?'.

Finally, there is the REM intrusion microsleep. This is the rarest version and the weirdest. This does not seem to require reading or some other conscious engagement. Instead, it may happen while doing something monotonous like gazing out of a window. There is no feeling of falling, or any other 'start' marker, nor is it obviously a dream. Instead, dream elements may intrude into the 'conscious world', just like hypnagogia. So something odd may appear in an otherwise normal, real scene, perhaps a human figure where there is none. This could obviously be interpreted as a ghost! Once out of the microsleep, which only lasts seconds, the weird bit will vanish! This element of a figure or oddity vanishing is typical of misperception and hypnagogia and obviously is likely to 'confirm' the impression of seeing a ghost. It is only after the experience that the witness might realise they had a microsleep.

So faced with a witness, why would you suspect microsleep with REM? Firstly, the paranormal episode would generally be short, though it might appear longer to the witness themselves. So any time discrepancy between the witness and any other people present would be worth noting. Secondly, it is likely that the reported experience would not be isolated. You could ask if they fall asleep when reading and, if so, do they instantly dream or feel like they are falling?* You could ask if they have any problem sleeping, are sleep deprived or if they nod off during the day a lot and so on. To an outside observer, someone in microsleep may look awake, often with eyes open, but unresponsive.

The REM intrusion type microsleep is an obvious source of paranormal reports. However, the more common 'falling asleep' version could also give rise to weird reports, maybe of things like alien abductions. Suddenly finding yourself 'somewhere else', while supposedly fully awake, might easily be interpreted as an abduction episode or perhaps a spontaneous OOBE.

I cannot discover if microsleep witnesses go into paralysis briefly, like sleep paralysis episodes. Though microsleep with REM is rare, it could clearly be an important source of paranormal reports, which are quite rare themselves! Such episodes are important because the witness will believe they are fully awake throughout and not in circumstances typical of hypnagogia. It is definitely a case where much more research is needed!

*The feeling of falling may occur because some bits of the brain go to sleep before others

15 December 2010: Why xenonormal research?

I was asked recently why I did xenonormal research rather than straight paranormal research. I would say that doing xenonormal research has given me insights into paranormal research that no end of vigils and interviewing witnesses could have given me. Xenonormal research is also much more satisfying than straightforward paranormal research because you can make steady progress. Because you're dealing with the 'known', as opposed to 'unknown', it is possible to use conventional scientific methods, including replication. By contrast, paranormal research never seems to get very far and still relies too much on interpretation and belief rather than solid repeatable scientific evidence.

In a paranormal case, like investigating a haunting, the idea is to eliminate the 'normal' so that what is left must be paranormal. But what if it if there really IS a normal but it is so rare you don't recognise it? Or what if someone discovers something in future that shows your case had a 'normal' explanation all along? Or what if you simply missed some vital clue in your investigation that, had you seen it, would have pointed to a natural explanation? You are always left with a feeling of uncertainty and doubt when you declare something unexplained. Just because YOU can't explain it, it doesn't mean someone else couldn't!

With xenonormal research, by contrast, the idea is simply to explain what witnesses experience. The challenge is to do so using only those natural factors which were, or probably were, present at the time of the experience. So the idea of reproducing the experience is central to xenonormal research. Of course, paranormal researchers do this as well but usually never to the extent that xenonormal researchers might. That's because paranormal researchers are, essentially, looking for the absence of a natural explanation while xenonormal researchers are actively seeking one out, refusing to give up at the first failure. Statements like 'there is no physical way this can happen' or 'the experience is inexplicable by natural science' are not the ending points for xenonormal researchers but the start. They are a challenge to be overcome, often involving knowledge from the very frontiers of science.

But won't xenonormal research 'squeeze out' the paranormal we all seek, you may ask? Not at all! If there is positive evidence for an effect that even xenonormal researchers cannot reproduce, it is much stronger evidence of the paranormal than can be obtained by existing investigation methods. Xenonormal research aims to eliminate that lingering uncertainty and doubt!

10 December 2010: The curious incident of the CCTV in the night-time

Tree seen as ghostSome interesting information about the United Kingdom: it is said that the UK has more ghosts than any other country. It does appear true our citizens have a huge interest in the subject of ghosts, possibly more than any other country. So maybe there are just more people looking for ghosts!

The UK is also said to have more CCTV cameras per person than any other country. Our country has almost one mobile phone for every inhabitant. Many of these phones can take still photos and a lot do video too. In addition, many people own a digital camera and some, a camcorder. If you compare this situation with a couple of decades ago it becomes obvious that there has been an enormous increase in the photographic coverage of the country.

Putting these facts together you have to ask, why are there not many more photos of ghosts around than there used to be? Certainly, you can see ghost photos in newspapers, on the web and elsewhere, many taken with mobile phones or from CCTV recordings. However, when closely examined these photos almost invariably prove to be well-known photographic artifacts just like so many 'ghost photos' of the past (see here). So the question remains: where all the good ghosts photos?

One possible explanation is that it simply is not possible to photograph a ghost. In almost every case of a ghost photograph, nothing special was seen when the photo was taken. This is because most of these 'ghosts' were photographic artifacts. I've come across one or two cases of someone actually photographing a ghost which they could see but what appears in the final photo is often quite different. This suggests misperception may be the explanation! Obviously, if you misperceive a tree as a ghost, you'll end up with a photo of a tree (like the one in the pic, right, that was actually misperceived as a human figure).

Thus, there is not sufficient evidence to say yet whether ghosts can be photographed or not. I've yet to come across a case where someone photographed a ghost and it looked just as it had when they took the shot, though these may exist (and I'd love to see one). Unfortunately, taking a photo of a ghost which does not then appear on a photo taken at the time is not much good as evidence. It could easily happen if the ghost was misperceived. So what we need is a photo of a ghost that looks exactly like it did when witnessed! Even then, there could be natural explanations, like someone in historical costume!

This is a deeply frustrating subject. We ought to have seen many more interesting ghost photos in recent years than we have. Instead, we've just seen more photographic artifacts. Maybe this IS evidence, albeit negative, that ghosts cannot be photographed after all.

9 December 2010: Dumbing down the brain!

Over the last few years my admiration for the way human brains work has increased hugely. Neuroscience is finally starting to shed light on its internal mechanisms, previously the subject of (and for some people still) mere speculation.

So I get a bit fed up when some paranormal theorists talk about the brain in a dismissive way. In trying to show that paranormal experiences require unknown forces or entities to explain them, they say the brain is not capable of producing such things naturally. An extraordinary experience cannot, they claim, be 'only' the product of 'mere' brain states! Well, actually, it can!

I think that people who theorize in this way view the brain in a 'traditional' way, using our very limited state of knowledge before the neuroscience revolution. Anyone who designs computers or software knows that there is a limit to how fast you can process information. And yet, our brains maintain a continuous sensory view of the world around us, apparently requiring massive processing power, so that we can react in a fraction of a second to any external event. How does the brain do it? The answer, of course, is that it takes clever short cuts, just as computer hardware and software designers do.

The most important short cut is that what we think of as an accurate real-time multi-sensory view of the world is an illusion. For a start, everything we see is at least a fraction of a second out of date, the time taken for sensory input to be processed. To compensate for that, our brain produces a projected image of how it thinks the world will look in a fraction of a second and we call it 'now'. Next, our brains and eyes cannot possibly produce the apparently detailed real-time view that we 'see', so we get edited highlights instead, with some objects substituted in our visual field from memory! Next, different senses interact and influence each other to produce a 'corrected' (for which read 'best guess') overall view of the world. And there are lots of other short cuts, many of which we have no doubt not even discovered yet.

Some paranormal researchers, not aware of this recent scientific knowledge, view witnesses as, essentially, objective recorders of their surroundings. Therefore, anything anomalous that is reported must be objective too! In reality, we all see a 'version' of reality, one that differs from witness to witness, depending on experience and psychological suggestion, and none of these versions is 100% accurate. In many cases, anomalous experiences result from an unconscious 'best guess' by our brains which turns out to be wrong!

I won't bore regular readers with details of how our brains can produce apparent paranormal experiences. Instead, I will refer newbies to Key Concepts -> Key causes of many paranormal reports. One example worth mentioning, however, is how we now know our brains can, on occasion, produces views of the world different to the 'behind the eyes' viewpoint we are used to. I have experienced this myself (seeing a scene from much closer than my actual physical position) and it can be readily reproduced experimentally. This certainly puts OOBEs in perspective!

I think the reason why some paranormal theorists like to disparage the human brain's abilities is because there is no compelling objective evidence that most apparent paranormal experiences are anything other than the result of brain states. So, to show the paranormal is involved, they put a 'limit' on what brain states are supposedly capable of, though without producing any evidence to back this idea up.

So let's hear it for our amazing brains! They do so much more than most of us imagine. Next time you see a paranormal theory that talks about something being beyond 'mere brain states', ask yourself if that is true and treat the idea accordingly.

8 December 2010: Video shows orbs forming

A new addition to our video library shows dust turning into orbs and back again. This is where the medium of video comes into its own. It's difficult to argue when you can see dust transforming into orbs! The trick is accomplished by the dust going out of focus, as the video zooms in. Orbs are, of course, out of focus bits of dust, insects, water droplets and so on, which are strongly illuminated. The illumination is provided by the flash with a still camera and by a bright torch in the case of this video.

Some interesting new information came out of the making of this video. It seems that only the brightest bits of dust become orbs. The rest are just too faint to be seen once they go out of focus. This explains why most orb photos only show a handful of orbs. There is a lot of dust in the air at any one time but only the largest bits form orbs. It is also interesting to see the way the dust/orbs are in constant motion. They float around quite vigorously following thermal air currents and static electric fields. This explains why one still photo can show many orbs while the next, taken seconds later, may show none at all.

Orbs hardly register these days with most paranormal researchers. They have largely accepted that orbs are mostly bits of dust caught by a camera flash. Curiously, there are many different natural explanations for orbs around. Beyond the fact that they are bits of dust illuminated by the flash, which just about everyone agrees on, the physical details beyond that can get extraordinarily convoluted in some accounts! Many miss the very obvious point that the dust is out of focus, which explains why they appear circular (or more rarely diamond-shaped) in the first place! The explanation that fits all the facts most simply and easily, and which has been tested successfully, is, of course, the orb zone theory.

A few paranormal enthusiasts cling to the idea that while most orbs are natural, a few are not. The supposed differences between natural and paranormal orbs have been fully dealt with. There is, at present, no compelling evidence that ANY orbs are paranormal.

One persistent idea that supposedly identifies 'paranormal orbs' is their apparent 'intelligence'. This is supposedly demonstrated by orbs appearing at 'significant' moments or places or even when summoned by people. As mentioned above, it is quite normal for orbs to appear in one photo and not another taken just seconds later. Only the largest bits of dust show up so they are relatively scarce within the small orb zone. It is, thus, easy for a big bit of dust to be present momentarily in the orb zone but be gone again just a fraction of a second later. The fact that orbs appear at 'significant' moments is easily explained by coincidence. If orbs were to appear repeatedly and consistently on command that might be different though so far no one seems to have reported that. Even if it happened, you would then need to look at things like static charge distribution. There may still be a natural explanation even for such an unlikely scenario.

7 December 2010: Misperception and context

Following on from yesterday, and with thanks to comments from regular correspondent Bill Johnson, more detail on how misperception may work. Research has shown that context plays a vital role in ghost reports. Essentially, the more spooky a location (cold, damp, dark, old, etc), the more ghost reports it produces. And since most ghost reports are produced by misperception, is this the link with fictional representations of anomalous phenomena? We know that psychological suggestion affects perception and this is usually how such context research is interpreted. But what if there is a more direct connection?

Today I found myself humming a song I hadn't thought about in years. It was only a little later that I realised that a prominently displayed word which sounded similar to the title - it wasn't even the title itself - was on the web page I was looking at. I had not consciously noticed it until then. It seems I saw the word, unconsciously read it, noticed it sounded like a favourite song title and I started humming the song. Psychological research shows that memories can be prompted in such indirect ways.

Now, suppose you visited a spooky castle. It may have reminded you, quite unconsciously, of similar locations from movies you'd seen about ghosts. Just as seeing a word got my humming a song, seeing a spooky castle, like a movie set, might put ghosts into your mind, albeit unconsciously. If you were then to misperceive a pattern of light and shadow in the castle as a human figure, there is a good chance you might think it is a ghost, especially if the figure 'vanishes' when look at it closely (as misperceptions do). The same experience in a less spooky location may be dismissed as a real human figure that just walked quickly out of sight or even recognised as a misperception.

So, it may be that context is key to how misperceptions are interpreted from fictional sources. If we are in similar surroundings to ones we've seen in a movie, where there was a ghost, UFO or monster, that might increase the chances that we misperceive that particular anomaly. It could explain why some anomalies, like ghosts and UFOs, are reported so much more frequently than others, like vampires. It's because UFOs and ghosts have 'typical places' where they repeatedly appear in movies, while vampires, for instance, are depicted in many different locations. Ghosts are usually seen in movies in spooky places, like old buildings, while many UFO movies feature the 'typical' scenario of someone driving along a lonely road at night when an alien spacecraft appears.

So, this might explain why we misperceive something that came from a fictional source. It is not JUST a ghost we 'see' but the whole context. Even if our brains unconsciously know the difference between fictional memories and real ones, the overall context may override that consideration sometimes. One poorly-seen tree is just a human figure. The same tree in the courtyard of a spooky castle at night is a ghost.

6 December 2010: How xenonormal and misperception interact

Bored already by the title? Most of our snow has gone but there is still enough to cause problems. The paths are icy and I've decided it's safer to slide along them than attempt to walk. I still nearly fell, though.

OK, suppose someone sees an object they don't recognise (a xenonormal observation). It might be because they've never seen that kind of object ever before or simply a familiar thing seen in poor viewing conditions. What do our brains do in this situation? They do a visual image substitution, of course (misperception)! But what with?

It appears that our visual memory keeps a library of 'generic' images of all types of object previously seen. So, our brains will chose something that resembles what we can see. In many cases, the match will be correct. A poorly-seen tree will be substituted by - a tree, albeit generic! but sometimes our brains guess wrong and a poorly-seen tree will be substituted with a human figure, for instance, which may be seen as a ghost.

But what if the closest match in our 'visual library' is something fictional, only ever seen on TV or in a film? A flying saucer, perhaps? Why should the unconscious brain chose something that it must have known was fictional when it was 'added' to the visual library?

This is clearly something that needs to be researched. There appears to be no correlation between whether a witness consciously believes or disbelieves in something that they report as anomalous. Maybe some who consciously disbelieves in the paranormal may unconsciously believe in it, or vice versa. Or perhaps the brain just goes for the closest visual match irrespective of whether it had a fictional source originally. Maybe there is no 'flag' accompanying the generic image saying 'this was not seen in real life'! Until relatively recently, in human evolution, everything we saw would have been entirely real. It is only in the last few centuries we have produced convincing images of completely fictional objects. Maybe our unconscious brains have yet to catch up and can't yet tell the difference!

3 December 2010: Anthropomorphism!

If the title of this post is putting you of, I could always talk about all the snow we've had here instead - huge amounts, by UK standards anyway! It's soft, cold and white and is causing transport mayhem!

OK then, a recent article in New Scientist (what else?) explained that scientists are now seriously studying anthropomorphism, the human tendency to see objects and animals as being like us. Anyone who has ever cursed their computer, an inanimate machine, has unwittingly indulged in it!

Until recently citing 'anthropomorphism' was seen as pointing out a critical weakness with any natural history scientific paper. Scientists are always wary of thinking of animal behaviour in terms of human character. Ironically, recent research suggests that we have more in common with other animals than we'd previously suspected. It turns out that there is pretty much nothing fundamentally different between humans and other animals, whatever we may think. We just have a particular combination of characteristics that makes us suitable to be the 'top species' on Earth, for now at least.

So what does anthropomorphism have to do with the paranormal? Well, it could explain why people see 'faces' in random patterns of vegetation. It might explain why people sometimes say things like orbs can display 'intelligent' behaviour. It could even explain why we have the concept of ghosts as spirits, when most sightings are misperceptions of inanimate objects.

Humans have always had a strong anthropomorphic tendency. By projecting 'human values' onto our environment, we try to make sense of it. We assign 'intentions' to random events with concepts like 'luck'. When we guess an unpredictable future event correctly, it is a premonition. We treat things whose behaviour we cannot easily predict as having 'intelligence', like when orbs appear in photos with strong emotional significance. Though they are just bits of dust, if they show up in a photo of a lost relative, they may be interpreted as 'spirit communication'. In other, less emotional, photos orbs are mostly ignored or seen as an annoying photographic fault.

Anthropomorphism is clearly a connecting factor between culture and the paranormal. As with most human attributes, it varies from individual to individual. It would be interesting to know if people who witness the paranormal repeatedly also give their car a name and treat pets as full members of their family! A worthwhile research project for someone beckons!

PS: If you have ever had a strange experience and would like to help someone with a survey about it, please go here. It is a PhD project by Rebecca Smith at the University of Coventry. And once you've done that, please don't forget our own 'weird things that vanish' survey here.

1 December 2010: UFOs - the explanation!

With snow still thick on the ground in the UK , there is a story from summery Australia about a likely solution to a UFO mystery, here. The unusual green fireball UFOs seen over Brisbane in 2006 may have been caused by meteors setting off ball lightning!

Gull UFOWhat struck me about the story was the headline 'ball lightning may explain UFOs'. I mistakenly took this to mean that someone had proposed an explanation for ALL UFOs, not just the ones reported in 2006. There have occasionally been attempts to explain ALL UFO sightings. The most obvious example is, of course, the idea that they are alien spacecraft.

Any proposal to explain ALL UFOs is, however, bound to fail. Anyone investigating UFOs quickly realises that different sightings have different explanations. Those people wedded to the idea that we are being visited by alien spacecraft would probably reserve the word UFO for those for which no obvious explanation has been found. But UFO simply means 'unidentified flying object', not alien spacecraft as popular culture appears to assume. Therefore UFOs can have many different natural explanations and still be UFOs. Technically, they become IFOs (identified flying objects) once their true identity has been recognised. But they are still part of the general UFO phenomenon.

The many different explanations for UFOs are why a general explanation is impossible. In many cases UFOs are misperceptions of more familiar flying objects, like aircraft (see here). In other cases they are simply things that the witness does not recognise, perhaps because they've never seen one before (like a satellite, Chinese lantern, etc). In all cases, such objects get reported as UFOs when, in many cases, the witness will at least suspect they may have seen an alien spacecraft. It is the central idea of alien spacecraft that unites UFOs, despite the fact that real examples have many different explanations. UFOs are a composite phenomenon.

The same is true of ghosts. While ghosts are generally thought of as 'spirits', actual sightings have many different causes, usually natural. Ghosts are, thus, a composite phenomenon united by the idea that they are 'spirits'. Just as many UFOs show no characteristics that make them obviously spacecraft, so most ghosts show no obvious signs of being spirits. In both cases, popular culture prompts witness reports that might otherwise never happen.

The lowest photo on this page shows a UFO photographed recently in Paris. The full story is here.

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

Last month's (November) website figures are an average of 10328 hits per day. This is marginally down on the previous month's 11499 daily average.


Previous blog pages ...

  • 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
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  • February 2008
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  • December 2007
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  • October 2007
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© Maurice Townsend 2010