ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAP bloggerWelcome to the ASSAP paranormal blog! Though this blog is aimed at anyone interested in the paranormal, it will be of particular interest to the paranormal research community. Updated frequently, but not regularly (don't expect something new every day!), it covers any paranormal topic, as well as highlighting recent changes to the ASSAP website. You may not notice it but this site changes on an almost daily basis.

Whenever new information becomes available on a subject ASSAP covers, it is added to the relevant pages of the website straight away. So, just because you've read a page, don't assume it will still be exactly the same when you next look. That way the ASSAP website remains an up to date research resource.

The photo (above right, pic by Val Hope) is the ASSAP blogger himself, out looking for anomalies wherever they are to be found, so that you can read about them here.

Important note: If anything in this blog does not make sense, try following the links in text! If it still doesn't make sense, that's probably my fault ...

Previous blog pages ... (including ghosts, UFOs, poltergeists, flying rods, miracles, orbs, hypnotic regression, big cats, vampires, near sleep experiences, premonitions, shadow ghosts, paranormal photos, auras, river monsters and dozens of other subjects)

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

30 December 2011: Thirty years on, the 'ASSAP approach' proves popular

ASSAPOur biggest conference, our biggest issue of Anomaly (including papers from the conference), our highest ever membership, recognition as a professional body and even a mention in New Scientist all made for an eventful 2011 for ASSAP, as we celebrated our thirtieth anniversary.

Seriously Strange, our weekend residential conference in Bath in September, was the official celebration of our thirty years of existence. It was well-received by those attending. Given the way that our subject tends to produce such polarized opinions, it was gratifying to see a 'mixed' audience of 'believers' and 'skeptics' all enjoying the conference together. The very broad subject range did not seem to bother people either, with many attending a high number of the different lectures.

What it showed was that ASSAP's wide subject range and neutral approach to anomalous phenomena has a popular appeal. With signs emerging this year that the 'ghost hunting boom' may finally have peaked, perhaps the 'ASSAP approach' will provide a popular way forward for those still serious about the subject once the dust has settled.

29 December 2011: A prediction too far?

'She's gone too far this time', I muttered out loud. 'You've gone too far this time' the character in the TV drama said. I laughed! I had predicted word for word (given the difference in context) the line that one character would utter to another in a drama I'd never seen before. It was a mildly impressive bit of prediction. Or was it?

I say 'mildly' impressive because I knew the context of the situation so it was not that hard to predict. And that is a problem with many apparently psychic premonitions that are not quite as impressive as they might, at first glance, appear. Supposing, for instance, you correctly predict an incident that has only a 1 in 100 chance of happening in any one fixed period of time. That sounds pretty good! But 'incidents' don't usually happen without causes. Almost no events in the universe are truly random. There are sometimes signs that something unusual may be about to happen, for those who can recognise them. Or, even if there are no precursive signs, there may be an inevitability about an incident to those who are aware of how something works.

If you study accident reports you will find that most such incidents are not as unpredictable as they might seem. Indeed, if you know all the circumstances just before an accident it may have been all but inevitable. People talk disparagingly about hindsight being a 'wonderful thing' but, in many cases, incidents HAVE been correctly predicted by those with relevant background information. Take the 2008 credit crunch, for instance. Not only was it predictable but some people 'in the know' actually predicted it. But they were ignored.

Going back to my example of someone predicting an event with odds of 1 in 100 against. Suppose that person had special knowledge of the circumstances of the event which meant they knew the odds were actually only 1 in 3 of it happening during one special period. Suddenly it doesn't seem like such a fantastic prediction any more.

Some people may be able to 'read' a situation from experience to get a 'gut feeling' that something is about to happen, even though they could not say the precise reasons why. For instance, if you're watching a football match you may 'know' the result after just watching the first 5 minutes. Though the match may appear evenly balanced to most people, you may spot, quite unconsciously, nervousness in one team and so be able to correctly predict that they will lose. At the end of the match you may feel you have vindicated your 'hunch' when, in fact, unconsciously you have made a reasoned assessment of the team's performance and predicted the result through logic.

So, when you hear that some one has predicted an event that, at any given time, may be be considered highly unlikely there are a few points to consider:

  • was the unlikely event, in fact, reasonably predictable given a knowledge of the prior circumstances
  • did the person making the prediction have expert knowledge of what might happen
  • did the person have extensive practical experience of similar situations that could have informed their 'hunch'

Any, or all, of these factors could dramatically reduce the odds against that person making a correct prediction. It is important, when looking at such situations, not simply to look at theoretical odds but also actual circumstances, and particularly the person who is making the prediction. Many seemingly amazing predictions might not be as fantastic as they, at first sight, appear. If you'd walked in on my TV drama incident just as it happened you might have considered it astonishing. But if you'd seen the whole drama, you'd probably think it merely a well-informed guess.

28 December 2011: Encountering missing time

Time goes slower in dreams! I got that gem from the latest edition of New Scientist (yes, the one that features ASSAP!). It made me wonder about the 'time loss' often experienced in UFO close encounter experiences.

The research used lucid dreams to compare real time and dream time. I'm not a lucid dreamer but I have, on a couple of occasions, been aware when I was dreaming, which is the first stage of becoming lucid. Perhaps, with a bit of effort, I could control my dreams too. It is amazing that we don't realise we are dreaming, considering the bizarre stuff stuff that often goes on in them. If such things happened while we were conscious, we'd either think the world had gone mad or they were paranormal phenomena.

That time goes more slowly in dreams is an unexpected result. It often feels like we have had all sorts of stuff happen during a dream that takes much longer than the time we're asleep. However, this is because dreams tend to 'skip' about from 'scene' to 'scene', more like a movie than real life. And all the time we just accept it is as real and true without question, unless we go lucid.

What has this to do with UFO close encounter experiences? It appears that, in common with many other anomalous phenomena, different close encounter experiences have different explanations. And near sleep experiences may be the cause of some 'close encounters'. In such cases the witness would be in dream state or a part dream/part conscious state. If time is moving more slowly during such a dream state experience, it could explain apparent 'missing time' often apparent after such incidents. To the witness, it is an encounter with an alien spacecraft with time moving normally. To an outsider, it is the witness in a near sleep state underestimating how long they've been in it. For instance, the dreamer thinks that 10 minutes has passed (which it has but only in the dream) whereas, in fact, 20 minutes has gone by in the real world.

Of course, there could be a more prosaic explanation for such examples of missing time. If someone is in a near sleep state while experiencing a UFO encounter, they might just then move into a non-dream sleep for a while directly afterwards! So the missing time would then just be the same as what happens to us all every night when we appear to wake up not long after going to sleep!

This raises an interesting question. How fast does time move in hypnagogic experiences, which mix dream state and conscious perceptions? I used to get hypnagogic experiences many years ago but have had none recently so I've no idea what the answer might be. I do remember that things did not seem to operate as in the normal world. If anyone is getting these experiences now, I'd love to hear whether they feel that time is going missing during such experiences.

PS: Interesting article about Mokele-mbembe out today

23 December 2011: A winter's ghost tale

Red sunsetI pulled my hood tighter but still felt cold. I regretted having taken the scenic route home along a deserted lane with the light rapidly failing. I suddenly realised there was a more specific reason for my feeling of unease - there was someone following me! I could hear them walking closely behind. My hood must have prevented me from catching sight of them before. Anxiously, I turned around to look, trying to make it appear a casual manoeuvre. As I stopped the footsteps following me stopped too! Dismayed, I saw only an empty lane.

Putting it down to imagination, unconvincingly, I trudged on. But the footsteps followed, closer than ever. With a deep breath I stopped once again. The footsteps stopped too. As I moved my head there was a single muffled footstep. It was only then that I realised the steps were just out of sync with my own.

Gently moving my head and noting the response, I finally realised what was happening. The 'footsteps' were caused by a flap on my little-used coat hood knocking against by shoulder. It was swaying with the motion of my steps, but just out of sync with them.

Oddly, this knowledge was not as comforting as it might have been. I looked around for a final time to see the silent, empty lane in the gloom, quickened my pace and turned no more my head.

22 December 2011: Are ghost vigils missing ghosts?

If a ghost actually turned up during a vigil, would anyone notice? Ghost vigils have never been more popular but they are not producing much evidence for actual ghosts. There are many possible reasons for this, not least that ghosts are rarely seen. But what if ghosts actually turned up but no one present noticed? Surely not!

Ghost vigils are busy events these days. There is a lot going on with calling out, seances, Ouija, EVP recording, mediumship and so on, not to mention lots of instrumentation that needs monitoring. Outside vigils, in contrast, actual ghost sightings are usually reported in circumstances of ordinary life. Perhaps it would be better for people just to 'behave naturally', maybe sitting round chatting, to improve their chances of witnessing something.

In earlier days, it was usual for people to sit around quietly during vigils, notebook and camera in hand, waiting to see if anything happened. It rarely did! But IF it did there was at least a chance it might be paranormal, unlike most of the stuff that gets reported on vigils nowadays, like 'odd' EMF meter readings! One interesting observation from those earlier days was that many reported weird events actually happened between the official silent sessions, when people were 'behaving normally'. One obvious reason why this might be so is that many of the strange reports were probably generated by misperception. Misperception has a habit of 'sneaking up' on people who are not looking for anything in particular - in other words when they are behaving normally. And if some of these reports were genuinely paranormal ghosts then they, too, appear more often with people behaving naturally, rather than sitting waiting or observing instruments.

But, you may ask, even if everyone on a modern vigil is too busy to actually notice ghosts, wouldn't they still be picked up by all the instruments present? Unfortunately, there is no compelling evidence that ghosts can be recorded by anything other than humans. We definitely know that people see ghosts (even if it only subjective) so there is a chance they may be recordable by cameras. But even then, a ghost might appear somewhere that isn't covered by cameras. Surely an argument for fewer EMF meters and more video cameras.

An even bigger problem is that most modern vigils are, for some reason, held in the dark. Given that most ghosts are seen in normal illumination and are said to look like ordinary people, looking for them in the dark appears bizarrely counter-productive. A ghost could walk right through a room full of people, in the dark, completely unseen by anyone. Even if the scene is covered by night vision equipment, we don't know for sure that this can pick up ghosts.

The central problem is that modern vigils use methods based on certain assumptions about the nature of ghosts. Unfortunately, there is little or no evidence from actual ghost reports to support those assumptions. People may be looking in completely the wrong way to see ghosts!

So, as I said recently, it would be better to dump most of the equipment and just use lots of video cameras to cover as many places as possible (ideally from multiple angles). And instead of people sitting round quietly, hoping to see something, perhaps they should just behave normally. This might seem counter-intuitive because it means that people's movements and the sounds they generate are uncontrolled. But with video cameras monitoring everything it should be possible to see if there is anything, or anyone, who shouldn't be there. And if people on the vigil actually see something weird, it can then be checked on the video. Perhaps the best way to do a ghost vigil is for a bunch of people to sit in a haunted room, surrounded by cameras, playing a board game! Given the lack of results so far, it's worth a try.

PS: There's an article in the current edition of New Scientist on ghost photos that features ASSAP. Given that I often mention articles from New Scientist here, it is nice to see them return the compliment.

21 December 2011: Hair apparent

Hair in front of  the lensWhat does it look like if a hair gets just in front of the lens when you are taking a photo? For a daylight shot you are highly unlikely to see it as it will be too close to the camera to be in focus. But if you are using flash there are two other possibilities. You can see both in the photo, right.

The most obvious feature is a bright orb! This is not so surprising when you consider that when objects are out of focus, the highlights become circles of confusion - see here - which are what orbs are. If you look closely, you'll see that the bright orb, bottom right, has a faint hazy white transparent 'trail' going left, with the same width. The 'trail' is the hair stretching across the frame. Where there is a highlight in the hair, such as a kink, it shows up as a bright orb, like the obvious one here. The other object, top left, is actually part of the same hair (it is looped), appearing as another white trail.

If you look closely at the bright orb, you'll see it has a fuzzy left edge. This is because it is not just one orb but several, closely overlapping. And the white 'trails' are also made up of closely overlapping orbs. However, they are too faint there to allow you to see the individual orbs. This is what a thin, linear object looks like when it is out of focus. The reason it is white is simply because it is reflecting the flash which is nearby. Without a flash you would see nothing but the background.

The point of all this is to show the sort of thing you can do to reproduce anomalous photos. Photos just like this one are often reported as anomalous, particularly if they were taken in a haunted house. In reality, they are usually caused by the photographer's own hair getting in front of the camera lens.

If all you have is the apparently anomalous photo, showing orbs and strange 'white tubes', it may not be obvious that it is caused by hair or thread. That's why it is useful to do experiments with cameras in advance. You can start by asking yourself questions like: what does it look like if a hair gets just in front of the lens when you are taking a photo? It won't be long before you see a photograph that you recognise as caused by this situation.

20 December 2011: Anomalous photos - the ones professionals throw away

Tailed orbWhen people get an anomalous photo they often go to a professional photographer for their opinion. But is that the right person to approach? The problem is that professional photographers specialize in producing photos as near to perfection as possible. Anomalous photos, by contrast, are usually caused by photographic artefacts or what a professional would call a 'mistake'. They are the photos that professionals delete without a second thought.

In order to understand anomalous photographs you need to try to reproduce them. And reproducing 'mistakes' is not a top priority for a professional photographer. That is why, though they may be able to explain in general terms what a photographic anomaly is, they are unlikely to know the interesting details, like "why do I get orbs in one photo and not another taken 10 seconds later" (see here for answer). Also, a professional photographer may only see one or two odd photos from time to time so they are unlikely to have much experience of the subject.

There do not seem to be many people around who are reproducing photographic anomalies deliberately. This is a pity because such knowledge is invaluable when faced with a new anomalous photo. The problem is that, compared to saying a photo is 'unexplained' (and by inference paranormal), trying to reproduce it by deliberately messing around with camera settings can appear unglamorous. But there really is no substitute for reproducing such photos if you are looking for explanations.

Reproducing photos can reveal unexpected things about how anomalous photos work that might never be anticipated by simply thinking about the problem in theory. In the tailed orb picture, above right, for instance, it turned out that if the falling water droplets were too close to the camera they look multicoloured, instead of the 'classic' orb white. Further away this effect declines and you can get a nice tailed orb effect.

So, we cannot rely on professional photographers to explain anomalous photos. Instead, it is up to paranormal researchers themselves to reproduce the odd photos they come across. It is something to do when there is nothing more exciting going on!

19 December 2011: What do ghosts really look like?

Shadow ghostWhat do ghosts look like? Those who know the literature of ghost investigations will probably answer that ghosts usually look like ordinary people. But what about the great majority of people who are not familiar with that literature? A great majority that includes most actual ghost witnesses!

I ask this question because I often see photos supposedly showing ghosts which are definitely NOT of ordinary people! They may show apparent faces, shadows, mists, blurred objects, orbs, amorphous blobs of light and so on. So how did people decide that any of these objects, which are clearly not human figure, might actually be ghosts?

I don't know the answer so I can only speculate about how this odd situation has arisen. I don't think we can, for once, blame the media. In fictional representations of ghosts on TV or in movies, they are usually ordinary human figures, sometimes transparent ones or ghostly white. What they do NOT usually look like is orbs, mists or amorphous blobs of light. So where do these ideas come from?

I suspect it is NOT a case of having a preconceived idea of what a ghost looks like so much as seeing something weird in a photo and deciding it must be a ghost! It is as if the paranormal is the 'default explanation' for anything weird when there is apparently nothing better on offer. I guess this is how the idea that orbs are paranormal (or ghosts or spirits) may have first arisen. There is nothing obvious about an orb that screams' ghost', after all.

There is another aspect to this, though. In many cases when people think they have a photo of a ghost, even if it is just a slightly unusual patch of light, there may be something significant about the circumstances of the photo. For instance, the photo may have been taken in a graveyard. Or it may be a photo of something associated with a lost loved one. This may be what prompts the idea that any weird thing seen on the photo is in some way a 'sign' of some sort to the photographer.

Although I said earlier this was not down to the media and culture, they are still an indirect cause. After all, ask yourself how did the spirit/ghost idea become the 'default' explanation' of choice in the first place? It can only have come from popular ideas about the paranormal.

In all the weird photos I've examined personally, the various oddities reported always had xenonormal explanations. So, though I remain convinced that ghosts look like ordinary people, I realise it not so obvious to most people.

PS: The never ending story of Roswell goes on and on ....

15 December 2011: Ghostly faces in photos

Ghostly faceVisualize a pair of those 'comedy tragedy' masks associated with theatres. Now take one of the two masks and add a sinister-looking moustache. Then look right. Do you see one such mask, looking left ('his' right) in the centre of the photo? If you can't see it, I wouldn't be surprised. Seeing 'faces' and 'figures' in photos of inanimate objects is an 'ability' that varies a lot from person to person. It will also vary a lot depending on the visual display you are using to view the image. As a clue, if you can't see it, the 'mask' is tiny, just below the very centre of the frame and apparently trails two blue 'attaching strings' stretching out above and right wards, as if blowing in the wind.

When analysing a paranormal photo, it is important to look at the picture as a whole. It is easy to concentrate on the 'ghost' or 'face', while ignoring important clues about what is going on, which are contained in the rest of the photo. What you can see in this photo is vegetation, some green, some more like straw. The whole photo looks blurred which is a key point. It was taken with a shutter speed of 1/8s and there is noticeable camera shake, blurring everything in the picture.

Having experimented with producing 'face' pictures in this way, I've noticed that a little motion blur is very helpful in producing images of this kind. A lot of motion blur is distracting and produces obviously unreal images. Really sharp images can still produce 'faces' but they are much rarer, more like conventional simulacra which don't really convince anyone. I've also noticed that vegetation is good for producing 'faces', because of the many different shapes produced by overlapping leaves and stems. I can't claim I discovered this totally by experiment. It is what I've noticed from examining many photos taken by other people that purportedly show ghostly faces. Vegetation and a slight blurriness are a common feature of such photos.

Ghost unmaskedI'm not sure of the precise mechanism but blurriness seems to actually make non-existent shapes, like 'faces' and 'figures' in photos of inanimate objects, actually appear clearer! It is a paradox. It is reminiscent of misperception where our brains substitute clear images of something from visual memory for objects they cannot recognise. Once the unrecognized object is seen more clearly, the substitute vanishes abruptly. It is not quite the same with blurry photos, however. The 'mask' in the photo above, if you can see it, appears as blurred as the surrounding objects, unlike in visual substitution. Also, it is persistent, unlike most misperceptions. But the brain mechanism involved is clearly similar.

Compare the image above with the one below, to the right. The lower photo is a much sharper image of the same scene. Clearly, there is no 'mask' or 'face' to be seen! Its place is taken by part of a plant, probably an open seed pod. The blue 'attaching strings' are actually blades of grass BEHIND our 'mask'! Most curious of all, there is no sign of the 'moustache', 'eyes' and other features of the mask, though you can match up certain parts. The 'mask' has, quite simply, completely vanished! This is despite the fact that the second photo was taken just 30 seconds later, so nothing much can have changed, even the lighting, in the meantime! The angle of view may be slightly different but only by a few degrees.

This is where the blurriness factor is so important. The 'features' of the the 'mask' were clearly produced by camera shake blurring objects into each other. The blurring of separate real objects by the camera has produced a brand new visual object in the photograph. Even with this knowledge, it is difficult to see what particular elements made up the mask! In the vast majority of cases, only a blurry version of the photo is available, so it can be difficult to persuade someone that the 'face' they see is probably not real! It is not as if there was anything face-like visible at the time of taking the photo!

So, clearly, part of the explanation for such 'faces' lies in the photographic process itself, namely the blurring of objects into one another. That would explain why such images are persistent (assuming you see them in the first place). However it is a brain process that tends to turns such shapes into 'faces' and 'figures', rather than cuckoo clocks or sports cars. And if cars or clocks in a bush sounds too absurd, consider how likely it is that a tiny moustached mask should be there either! And yet such 'faces' are reported regularly in photos!

All of this demonstrates how even a minor degree of blurriness can have a profound effect on a photo. It is vital, when examining photos featuring ghostly 'faces' or 'figures' to check for even minor blurriness.

PS: Has it rained apples? See here for the story. For ASSAP's own 'falling frogs' case, see here.

12 December 2011: Strange water creature

Strange water creatureWhat is it? The photo (right) is nice and sharp so it should be easy to identify this creature but it isn't. An otter perhaps? A seal maybe? Without any other objects visible in the frame it is difficult to judge the scale (the picture is cropped but even the original contains only water and the animal). If it is at sea, then those waves could be quite large making the creature big too. The waves look shallow, though, judging by the shadows, so it is probably inland water, like a lake, reservoir or river.

Could it be a limb or head poking out of the water? Are those black dots on either side of the 'head' actually eyes? And what is that dark 'mass' spreading out in front of the object? Are we into lake monster territory here, perhaps?

It is easy to speculate with limited information, as we have in this photo. Even if you know the story behind a shot, it does not always help. In the case of paranormal photos, the photographer will very often not recall seeing anything odd at the time of the exposure. And the reason for that is simple - there WAS nothing odd going on at the time. It is still photography's ability to freeze an instant in time that can cause weird, unidentifiable images like this. Luckily, the history of the photo is well-known, as is its subject.

Little GrebeHere's the same animal photographed less than one second (!) before the shot above. It is a Little Grebe, a water bird. These birds dive from the surface of water bodies to look for food underwater. That is what it is doing in the shot above. It has to launch itself downwards to overcome its natural buoyancy. The 'dark mass' behind the bird is water churned up by the launch. The 'black dots' are the tops of the legs of the diving bird.

The details of this sort of action cannot be seen witnesses in real time because they happen too quickly. Any photo that features moving objects can produce this sort of oddity. Unless the photographer is fully aware of everything that is going on in the scene, it may be difficult to identify such weird images afterwards. It is always hugely useful if several photos are taken of the same scene at the same time. Anyone taking photos on ghost vigils, for instance, should always take two or three shots around the same time. It makes subsequent analysis so much easier.

9 December 2011: Can ghost vigils be made more useful?

Nearly a decade of intensive ghost vigils have not produced compelling evidence on the true nature of ghosts or hauntings (see yesterday). So could they be improved to become more useful?

One reason for the nonappearance of compelling new scientific evidence about ghosts from all those vigils (that I didn't mention yesterday) is that such experiences may be purely subjective. We know that ghost sightings caused by misperception and hallucination, which form a large proportion of those carefully investigated, are certainly subjective. Even those ghost sightings that may be caused by something paranormal could be subjective too. It has been proposed, for instance, that ghost sightings may be caused by telepathy or retrocognition.

So we need to consider the possibility that the nonappearance of unambiguous ghost recordings from all those ghost vigils might simply be because they are not actually possible! In that case, we will have to wait until it is possible to display and record what people are thinking, a technology which is not far away, to finally record ghosts.

But what if there ARE some objective elements to ghosts and hauntings? It would be fantastic to catch such action, if it is indeed possible, and ghost vigils appear to be a reasonable forum to look for it. But they need to be designed in ways to improve the chances of capturing such data. The current assumption-led methods and ever widening toolbox of gadgets has not worked so far, suggesting a more targeted approach is desirable. So what might it look like?

Firstly, it is important to concentrate on locations where there are reliable recent reports of apparent paranormal events happening regularly and frequently. Then there is at least some chance of being in the right place at the right time.

Secondly, we need to look at how ghosts and paranormal activity are actually witnessed. They are usually reported by people using their ordinary senses, particularly sight and hearing. In contrast, there is no compelling evidence for ghosts producing electromagnetic fields, for instance, so all those instruments measuring things we cannot sense are probably surplus to requirements (until there is new evidence that says otherwise). One instrument that combines sight and sound is, of course, the video camera. So that should be top of the list of equipment. Cold spots are also quite frequently reported, so an array of cheap thermal sensors, linked to a data logger, set up in a place where such spots are regularly reported, would be useful too.

Thirdly, people should be present on the vigil to act primarily as witnesses. This might seem obvious but we KNOW people see ghosts, we don't know for sure that instruments do. If someone reports seeing or hearing something, we can see if it comes out on video. For this reason, people should stay in one place during any given session within a vigil. And the area where they are should be monitored by several video cameras from different angles. It would make sense to choose hot spots for people to sit for sessions. Ideally, they would not be aware what to expect but, unfortunately, most haunted venues are extensively documented on the web.

There is lots of other stuff that could be considered but the basic model for more useful ghost vigils appears fairly obvious:

  • dump the existing assumption-led stuff and plethora of instrumentation, whose readings can be easily misinterpreted
  • keep things simple with groups of witnesses at hot spots monitored by multiple video cameras
  • only hold vigils in places where there is a high likelihood of current activity
  • environmental conditions, such as illumination and time of day, should be as close to those of previously reported incidents as possible

As you can see, the basic idea is to move towards trying to see what the original witnesses might have seen. It was, after all, their report that will have prompted the idea that a location might be haunted. If such simplified vigils produced interesting results, there could be further developments, maybe involving deploying further instrumentation, depending on early results. But that trend would be driven by actual evidence rather than relying on assumptions.

PS: The initial consultation about ASSAP's professional body status has been completed and the results and recommendations are now available to view here.

8 December 2011: Are ghost vigils a waste of time?

VigilThe results are in and they do not look good! An informal 'experiment' has been running for almost a decade as ghost hunting has boomed. It is probably safe to say that there are unprecedented numbers of people regularly holding ghost vigils in many countries. This should allow us to gauge the effectiveness of ghost vigils as a form of paranormal research. Though phenomena are usually infrequent in haunted locations, the sheer number of people out there and all the time they've spent, means that we must surely have some highly significant results by now. However, looking round the web this does not seem to be the case. There is plenty of evidence on display but much of it is ambiguous at best and easily explained at worst. Anyone looking for a ghost videoed simultaneously in high definition from multiple angles is likely to be out of luck!

So what does this negative 'experimental result' mean? It certainly does not mean that ghosts don't exist. There is enough reliable evidence around to suggest that people certainly experience ghosts and hauntings.

Could it be that ghost sightings and haunting activity are simply too infrequent to be caught by vigils? There is certainly a case to be made on these lines. Some 'classic' haunted locations may only record a ghost sighting every few decades! Equally, there are cases where residents at a location record multiple events on a daily basis. Unfortunately, ghost vigils are more likely to take place in the former kind of location. Indeed, some locations selected for vigils may not be haunted at all. There may only be legends of a haunting or maybe just one or two vague reports of odd happenings. In some cases, a location might be chosen just because it looks spooky! So, in many cases, the odds of actually being around when something happens are very small indeed.

Another key factor in explaining the lack of interesting unambiguous results is the way vigils are done. In scientific experiments, the idea is to control as many known variables as possible, to make the unknown variables more obvious by their effect. So, by controlling all normal variables in a situation, for instance, you can see the affect of any paranormal variables that might be present. However in the popular assumption-led methods used in so many vigils, the opposite happens - unknown variables are multiplied! For instance, compare videoing a ghost to talking to one through a medium (assuming, for the sake of argument, that other natural variables have been successfully eliminated). In the former case, you only have to worry about photographic artefacts to eliminate natural causes. In the latter case, there are all sorts of ways a medium may have obtained any accurate information they give, some paranormal, others not. Many assumption-led methods, such as holding seances or sitting in darkened rooms listening to odd noises, would produce 'positive' results in any building, haunted or not.

Now compare ghost vigils with more 'traditional' methods of investigation. In 'traditional' methods, investigators carefully interview witnesses who have had weird experiences. Investigators will also closely examine the site of the experience and attempt to recreate it. With such methods there is definitely SOMETHING to investigate whereas a ghost vigil may happen at a site which isn't even haunted! In the traditional method, it may be decided, if the phenomena has been reliably reported by multiple witnesses and happens frequently, that a vigil is justified. The main aim of the vigil will then be to record previously witnessed phenomena. Generally, such vigils produce very few results, which is what you would expect given the infrequency of most phenomena.

So, are ghost vigils a waste of time? Assumption-led type ghost vigils, which form the majority of the 'experimental data', do not seem to have delivered. This still leaves me amazed! Even given the methods used, I would have thought one or two people might have got lucky and recorded some unambiguous evidence of paranormal activity. Perhaps it is time to drop assumption-led methods once and for all.

PS: Pendle witch's cottage discovered?

6 December 2011: Has the public lost interest in orbs, too?

The number of orb photos being sent to ASSAP has declined markedly in recent months. This is despite the overall numbers of anomalous photos being sent in staying around the same for the period.

Serious paranormal researchers lost interest in orbs some time ago as it became apparent that they had a normal explanation (see orb zone). Even the weirder orbs have now been successfully explained (see orbs FAQ). It is even possible to show people dust actually turning into orbs on video now (see here). All of this has left has sapped the interest in orbs of almost all paranormal researchers. But what of the general public?

When someone sees an orb for the first time on a photo they've taken, they are naturally curious. A quick search of the web will quickly come up with a paranormal interpretation of the phenomenon. Chatting with friends is likely to do the same. So people who are not paranormal researchers are still more likely encounter a paranormal explanation rather than a natural one. So why should the number of orb photos be declining?

One possible reason is that it is symptomatic of the decline in the ghost hunting boom. Another is that people are using cameras less prone to producing orbs ie. ones with physically larger sensors (not megapixels, millimetres). A third explanation is that the media may be showing less interest in orbs. Any interest the media shows in a subject always produces a corresponding flurry in the public. It could be all of these things combined.

There will always be an interest in orbs but I think it has now definitely peaked once and for all. I think that is a good thing because it has been a massive distraction from serious paranormal research. Unfortunately, there are still many other distractions out there but the fact that one is showing signs of finally disappearing is encouraging. It shows that, when the evidence for a paranormal explanation of a phenomenon is demonstrably lacking, it will eventually fall from favour.

2 December 2011: How do we know real memories from fiction?

I looked up and recognised his face but he was no friend! That’s the odd feeling I had recently when I saw famous actor on a train recently. The face was familiar and yet I’d never met him in my life. When we see an actor on TV they are playing a part. It can be difficult not to confuse that on-screen character with the real actor, who is probably a completely different sort of person. Indeed, it is often reported that a few fans of soap operas appear to think the actors are really the people they play, though I've no idea how true that is. 

What I’m really interested in here is how do our brains differentiate between what memories are real and which fictional. The odd feeling I had when I saw the familiar face of an actor I'd never met probably indicated my brain dealing with an unusual situation. In a world where reality TV and faction movies blur the distinction between fact and fiction, how do our brains know which of our memories are real? Are memories 'marked' in some way as real or fictional in our brains? The existence of confabulation tends to suggest they are.

Typical confabulation involves someone adding imagined details to a real memory. Crucially, the 'new' fictitious details are treated as perfectly real by the confabulator. Furthermore, these confabulated details will be treated as true memories from that time onwards. Only confronting the confabulator with incontrovertible evidence that their memory is mistaken is likely to change this situation.

What is interesting is that something in the confabulator's brain has decided, unequivocally, that a 'new' memory is true and 'marked' it as such for all time. This tends to imply that (a) the brain can 'mark' memories as true or fictional but (b) it will, in certain circumstances, get it wrong.

Compare the process of confabulation with misperceiving an unrecognized object, like a UFO. A witness sees a light in the sky and misperceives it as something else, but what? It could easily choose a fictional visual memory of a flying saucer, which originated on TV or at the movies. The witness would have known perfectly well that the flying saucer was fictional when they saw it on TV. Similarly, a confabulator knows what is true and what isn't about a memory they have, right up until the time when they start to confabulate! The processes are strikingly similar. In both cases, an unconscious part of the brain takes something fictional, adds it to a real memory and then marks the whole 'new' memory as true!

We know this process happens in confabulation. There is good evidence that it occurs with misperception. But where does it leave the question of how we know fact from fiction? The brain certainly decides unequivocally what is real and what is fictional. The problem is, what be brain decides might not always correspond to literal objective truth!

If that sounds bleak, consider this. Confabulation is a relatively rare process in most people, most of the time. And misperception using fictional memories is probably rare too, maybe only happening when a witness is faced with something they don't recognise. So most of the time it is not a problem. However, for paranormal researchers it is crucially important when assessing witness testimony. These are exactly the circumstances where confabulation and misperception may play a key role.

1 December 2011: The night I saw a fiction!

Against my better judgment, I saw a ghost the other evening! I noticed a mysterious white figure in the gloom heading into the shadows, away from nearby streetlights. Why would someone do that on a dark night, with no torch? The possibility of a ghost crept involuntarily into my mind. I watched!

The figure finally emerged from the dark shadows further up the road. A light came on in a nearby house, revealing the figure to be what I knew it must be - an ordinary person walking in the dark. The figure went into the house, presumably expected, given how the light came on. So why did 'ghost' enter my mind at all? Partly it was the slightly unusual behaviour. But mostly, I think, it was because the figure looked so white. Clearly it was wearing a light coat of some description.

What is weird is that the idea that ghosts are white is something that generally only happens in the movies. From my own reading of umpteen real life ghost reports, I know that 'white ghosts' are very much the exception rather than the rule. Most ghosts look perfectly solid and normal, like any real human figure. So why did I, who should really have known better, think 'ghost' initially?

You may recall that I said it was an involuntary thought. It was an instinctive reaction rather than a reasoned interpretation - that came seconds later. I think my brain matched up the figure with visual memories I have of fictional white ghosts from TV or the movies. My brain's initial best guess, given the poor viewing conditions, was 'white ghost', based not on personal experience but on a visual memory of something entirely fictional. It is essentially the same brain mechanism that turns a poorly-seen tree first into a human figure and then decides it is a ghost, just like in misperception!

If I ask you to visualize the word 'UFO', you will probably see a classic 'flying saucer' in your mind. But where does that image come from? For most of us, who've never seen such a flying saucer, the answer is TV or the movies or a picture in a book or on the web or in a video game. The least likely place it will come from is real personal experience. And that very same image may be recalled instinctively if we see a light in the sky that we don't recognise. From an unknown light, it becomes a flying saucer (through misperception) based on a memory of something fictional! The brain does not appear to differentiate between fictitious images and real ones in such cases. I've never seen a 'white ghost' in real life, but I've seen plenty of them on TV (all fictitious).

I should emphasize that this does not mean that human brains cannot readily distinguish between real and fictional memories. I suspect this sort of thing only happens in very special cases where we see something we don't recognize. In a typical misperception, for instance, someone may view a poorly-seen tree as a human figure. The image used for such a visual substitution comes from our own visual memory. In the case of a human figure, there will always be visual memories to use for this. But what about something we've never seen before (or don't recognise) like a UFO or the Loch Ness Monster? It appears likely that the brain goes for the best choice available - a fictitious visual memory!

But shouldn't something in our brains say 'hey, that's not real'? That depends if visual memories are labelled somehow 'real' or 'fictional'. And, even if they are, the brain may simply be making the best of a bad job. It may have no better choice than to use a fictional image and tell us it is real! The business of how our unconscious brain sorts out concepts of reality and fiction is far too little researched.

So it appears to be literally possible to see something fictional. I've no doubt that, in most such cases, the witness will soon realize their mistake and then see what is really there, as I did. But in a few cases they won't and it might well be reported as paranormal.

PS: Trivia statistic: Of the videos on the ASSAP website, the most viewed has been seen over twice as often as its nearest rival. It is 'Orange UFO UK 2011'. If people are looking this up a lot it tends to support what ufologists are saying, that most reports of UFOs are sky lanterns nowadays.

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

Last month's (November) website figures are an average of 9375 hits per day. This is very similar to the previous month's 9305 daily average.


Previous blog pages ...

  • Nov 2011 (including OBE video games, EVP and VLF, whatshisname, paranormal misconceptions, invisible ghosts)
  • Oct 2011 (including smartphone ghosts, similacrum, smell of ghosts, morphing UFOs, slowing time)
  • Sep 2011 (including tidy ghost, MADS, transparent ghost, big announcement, ghost fox, not alone)
  • Aug 2011 (including cold spots, spectral hound, triangular UFO, ghost photos, rushing air and being dragged)
  • July 2011 (including Hilary Evans, Harry Potter, witness investment, bias in paranormal research, TV detectives)
  • June 2011 (including ASSAP @ 30, detecting lies, hyper-vigilence, strange thunder)
  • May 2011 (including ASSAP @ 30, lone shoes, flying rods, bias, early memories, strange floating object)
  • Apr 2011 (including royal wedding, mirror touch synaesthesia, sleep disorders, new ghost sighting)
  • Mar 2011 (including roof heron, Atlantis, first time witnesses, comparing film to digital paranormal photos)
  • Feb 2011 (including predicting the future, ghost bird, time slip, weird floor, what do we really know about paranormal)
  • Jan 2011 (including the ghost hunting boom, orange UFO, EVP experiment, extreme normality)
  • Dec 2010 (including microsleeps and road ghosts, shadow ghost in snow, lack of ghosts in photos, anthropomorphism)
  • Nov 2010 (including EMF meters, auras, evidence for precognition, sensitisation, the ghost hunting boom)
  • Oct 2010 (including black orbs, UnConvention, mirror visions, levitation, flying rods and orbs)
  • Sep 2010 (including a ring tone from the roof, shadow ghost video, time slip explanation, daylight orb video)
  • Aug 2010 (including Parisian UFO, sense of presence, SLI, consulting experts, misperception)
  • Jul 2010 (including Sherlock Holmes as a paranormal investigator, haunting sounds, what ARE hallucinations)
  • Jun 2010 (including the Loch Ness Monster, gorilla video, getting ghost stories the wrong way round)
  • May 2010 (including ball lightning, Wem ghost photo, waking up twice, eyewitnesses, Robin Hood)
  • Apr 2010 (including causes of road ghosts, new orb evidence, bird UFOs, UFO photo, not quite seeing is believing)
  • Mar 2010 (including experiencing hypnagogia, consciousness, belief, prolonged misperception, doppelganger)
  • Feb 2010 (including visual continuity errors - AKA ghosts, near sleep experiences on trains, spontaneous OOBEs)
  • Jan 2010 (including intelligent oil, SLI, inducing OOBEs, orange UFOs, the bleak midwinter)
  • Dec 2009 (including review of research in the noughties, pretty orbs, imperceptions, river monster)
  • Nov 2009 (including EVP without a recorder, demons and entities, why only some people see ghosts)
  • Oct 2009 (including grey ghost, near sleep experiences, a triangular UFO and seeing David Beckham)
  • Sep 2009 (including latent memory, Tufted Puffin, Bermuda Triangle and garden poltergeist)
  • Aug 2009 (including official UFO files, partial ghosts, flying rods and miracles)
  • Jul 2009 (including garden poltergeist, big cat video, orbs and hypnotic regression)
  • Jun 2009 (including thoughts from nowhere, shadow ghosts, premonitions and metallic UFO)
  • May 2009 (including analysing paranormal photos, making ghosts and ghost lore)
  • Apr 2009 (including phantom bird, choice blindness and grass that gets up and walks away)
  • Mar 2009 (including deja vu, ghostly mists, weird UFO photo, white ghosts and naked eye orbs)
  • Feb 2009 (including hidden memories, coincidences, auras and window UFOs)
  • Jan 2009 (including animals sensing ghosts, vampires, flying rod season and a haunted path)
  • Dec 2008
  • Nov 2008
  • Oct 2008
  • Sep 2008
  • Aug 2008
  • July 2008
  • June 2008
  • May 2008
  • April 2008
  • March 2008
  • February 2008
  • January 2008
  • December 2007
  • November 2007
  • October 2007
  • Even older

© Maurice Townsend 2011