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

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

Previous blog pages ...

25 Feb 2009: What does an orb mean?

I see many anomalous photos featuring orbs. Generally, people want to know what they are. Though orbs may be only too horribly familiar to paranormal researchers, they still fascinate many others new to them. Just occasionally, I am asked 'what does an orb mean in a photo?'.

This is a difficult question to answer. Since an orb is a photographic artifact, it has no more meaning than a shadow, a streak of light or lens flare. However, to many people, seeing their first orb on a photo, it may seem a significant event. They often try to link the presence of the orb with objects in the photo, like a spooky building, for instance.

Science doesn't really address the subject of meaning. Science is concerned with what is, not why it is. We humans are forever looking for patterns in everything, including nature. Science, too, looks for patterns to explain underlying principles and the causes of events. However, many people see meaning in patterns, as well as physical causes.

I usually sidestep questions about meaning. After I've explained that orbs are out of focus bits of dust, enquirers don't usually press the idea of meaning. Many people invest the paranormal with meaning. However, in my experience, it consists of many unconnected and puzzling events. I wish I had answer to the 'meaning of dust' but I don't!

24 Feb 2009: Decisions, decisions ...

We all make decisions all the time. Most are minor and many are unconscious. So, here's a question for ghost witnesses: 'When did you know you were watching a ghost?' Somewhere, during a ghost sighting incident, the witness decides, consciously or otherwise, that they have seen a ghost. But how likely is that decision to be right?

Research into decision-making has compared conscious ('rational') and unconscious (instinctive) kinds. The results are a bit surprising. The rational, conscious sort of decision making (weighing up the pros and cons) is not always the best! In some situations it is better to go with gut instinct! In the case of deciding that you've seen a ghost, the decision is likely to be instinctive most of the time. Maybe just a feeling that there is something 'wrong' or 'different' about a figure that you see. Or maybe the figure does something 'impossible', like vanishing.

So in what circumstances are instinctive decisions more likely to be correct than conscious ones? In complex situations, involving lots of different factors, is one. That seems unlikely to be relevant with ghost sightings, however. The other major time when instinctive decisions are shown to be more accurate is when you are in highly familiar situations.

Someone seeing something they are unfamiliar with, the definition of xenonormal, is less likely to make an accurate decision. This might explain why so many ghosts sightings turn out to have xenonormal causes. Indeed, it backs up the idea that, when faced with the unfamiliar, our instinctive decision-making lets us down.

So, if you think you've just seen a ghost, you should, perhaps, sit down and do a 'pro-con' list and decide rationally because your gut instinct is probably giving you the wrong answer.

23 Feb 2009: Crouching emotions, hidden memories

In this week's New Scientist (18 Feb 2009) includes a memorable quote: "Cast your mind back, says Walker, and you will appreciate that almost all of your memories are emotional ones." Matt Walker, a psychologist from the University of California, is describing his work on how poor sleeping can give people symptoms similar to psychiatric disorders as well as disrupting their ability to form long term memories. The idea that most of our long term memories are emotional made me think of hidden memory and psychics.

Most of what we experience we forget. If we didn't, we would be unable to function with a mind full of every detail of every shopping trip! So how do our brains decide what to retain? It is stuff that has an emotional significance, recent research implies.

Of the enormous amount of stuff we have in our memory, only a fraction of it is ever immediately accessible. You may know what the capital of Bolivia is, but it might take a while to recall it. That's because you don't need that sort of information on a regular basis, unless you live in South America.

Psychics regularly produce information that they do not consciously remember. However, that doesn't necessarily mean they don't have that information in their brain somewhere. It may take particular circumstances, maybe a seance, for the information to re-emerge. To the psychic, this feels like information popping into their heads from outside sources.

The feeling of information 'popping into your head' is not unusual. Sometimes I watch a TV quiz, if I'm bored, and I amaze myself by answering many of the general knowledge questions correctly. Amazed because I was not consciously aware of knowing the answers but, when the right questions are asked, out they pop, as if from nowhere. When I think about it afterwards, I realise where I probably knew the answer from - I've had many interests down the years.

So what is emotional connection? Well, much of the material produced by psychics is highly emotional. Perhaps, emotional content is the key to unlocking these hidden memories. Psychics inevitably deal with emotional material for much of the time. This might make them particularly good at accessing their own hidden memories.

20 Feb 2009: You weren't there, how would you know?

One of scarier things I hear from time to time is an investigator getting upset when you suggest a possible natural cause for the paranormal activity they have observed. Rather than seeing the question as helpful, constructive assistance, they become defensive. Sometimes they might say 'I know what I saw, it was definitely paranormal - you weren't there, how would you know?'

The problem here is that whether an incident is paranormal, or not, does not depend on who witnessed it. Some people are certainly better observers than others but we are all subject to things like misperception. In science, the idea is to determine evidence objectively, irrespective of the observers involved

If someone is defending their observation in this way, perhaps they haven't fully described all the precautions they took to eliminate natural causes. Or perhaps they didn't take enough precautions in the first place and realise it. Either way, it is not something we want to hear in serious paranormal research.

18 Feb 2009: Multiple causes for cases

One of the unspoken assumptions made by anomaly researchers, whether they are looking at xenonormal or paranormal explanations, is to assume that each incident in a case has a single cause. Indeed, sometimes they assume that all, or many, incidents have the same cause (eg. 'the ghost', ' the magnetic field'). While it might seem 'neat' to assume a single cause, there is no logical reason why it should be so. On the contrary the irreproducibility of many cases may be a tell-tale sign of multiple factors needing to come together.

Venus BerlinIf someone sees a UFO, and it is known that Venus (white dot in photo, right) was in the right part of the sky at the time, an investigator may assume Venus is the cause. But what if the observer was familiar with Venus? It then becomes an unlikely explanation. Maybe an additional factor, like thin high cloud giving the planet an unusual appearance, contributed to it looking unfamiliar.

Some ' natural explanations' can be so simplistic that they seem less likely than a paranormal cause. This will often lead the witnesses to reject such an explanation even if it is, in essence, correct. There could be more factors involved.

If no single explanation seems to fit a case, you should always consider the possibility of multiple factors. Many cases, when analysed, turn out to rare coincidences. You should always try to keep the number of different contributing causes to a minimum but don't go with a single cause if it doesn't fit. Coincidences aren't just for premonitions - they may apply to most paranormal cases.

Updated page: Coincidence: the roots of the paranormal?

17 Feb 2009: Glances lead misperception so far

Replies to the misperception survey continue to trickle in, for which I thank everyone who has taken part. There are too few, so far, to come to any conclusions. It is possible that the new drop down menus, on the website, will help to bring more replies. No complaints on those, so far, but I wait with trepidation.

Back to the survey - it is noticeable that 'glance' type misperception is the commonest reported so far, with all respondents reporting it. On reflection, I think it is probably the type of misperception that I notice most, as well. On the exceedingly slim anecdotal evidence so far, it looks as though limited time, rather than poor viewing conditions, may be best for producing visual substitutions. It is interesting that most people reporting 'glances' decided, in the end, that it was not paranormal, even when they first thought it was a ghost. This was usually because a second view revealed the true nature of object. By contrast, 'corner of the eye' phenomena tended to retain their 'paranormal' status after a second view.

16 Feb 2009: Could everyone see auras? PLUS new menus!

Some psychics see a coloured glow around people and objects that they call an aura. They say they can tell things about people from the colour and shape of their aura.

A common explanation put forward to explain people seeing such auras is synaesthesia. This happens when two or more (normal) senses appear mixed up so that you can 'see' sounds or view numbers as coloured. It was thought to be caused by connections in your brain between areas dealing with different senses in particular individuals. There seems to be genetic component to the condition, which is very rare.

New research, discussed in this week's New Scientist (11 Feb 2009), demonstrates that it may be possible for anyone to become synaesthetic. Volunteers were hypnotised and acquired some abilities typical of synaesthesia. This implies that the condition may not be caused by hard-wired brain connections, present at birth, after all.

People with synaesthesia tend to have enhanced memory abilities. This is interesting because people who appear to have psychic abilities may well have enhanced memory. Thus we have someone who sees colours that are not present and has unusually well-developed memory abilities. Anyone with this combination of unusual mental abilities might easily consider themselves psychic. And maybe we could all develop such abilities!

PS: New menus! Notice anything different about the website today? I've rolled out a new menu structure using drop down menus. It should work on all popular platforms but please let me know if you have problems! The old second menu at the bottom of pages has been withdrawn. All the old menu items are still there but some are now in drop down. The 'Articles' menu should be particularly useful as it interfaces with the site map to make most pages just a couple of clicks away!

12 Feb 2009: Seeing patterns

We all have an ability to recognise patterns. It is probably a survival adaptation from the days when you needed to be able to see a 'tiger in the long grass' because your life depended on it. We are not, however, always right about patterns, sometimes seeing them where there are none.

Research has shown that our pattern recognition ability goes into overdrive in stressful situations. This makes sense as, if you are worried that there IS a tiger in the long grass, you need your pattern recognition abilities more than usual. Human figures may feature frequently in misperceptions because they be seen as a threat (like a shadowy figure in a dark alley).

Some people feel stress in 'spooky' places. Indeed, you could define a spooky place as somewhere you feel discomfort because you think there may be ghosts present. Thus people may well recognise patterns that are not really there more often in spooky places. This could certainly contribute to misperception. So, in such situations, a tree in shadow might easily be misperceived as a human figure and interpreted as a ghost.

New article: But why ghosts?

11 Feb 2009: Why we misperceive ghosts and not buses

People sometimes misperceive objects they cannot see well, or are unfamiliar with, as other things from their visual memory. But why do ghostly figures feature so frequently in these visual substitutions? Why not letter boxes, buses or book cases?

The answer may lie in the way our brains work. We understand the difference between living and inanimate objects from an early age. We view living and non-living objects in quite different ways in our brain. This 'dual view' leads our brains to treat bodies and mind separately.

This appears to be a 'default' way of human thinking. It leads naturally to the common concept that mind and body are separable entities. It is just a small step from there to the idea of spirits. Despite the lack of compelling evidence, many people think that ghosts are spirits. This probably arises culturally. It is thus not too surprising that misperceptions often feature ghosts or other paranormal phenomena, rather than more mundane objects.

New article: But why ghosts?

9 Feb 2009: Was that the paranormal (part 2)?

Many witnesses to apparently paranormal events only realise what has happened afterwards. An example might be someone noticing a person in a room only to discover later that they were actually completely alone there! Only then do they feel the 'wow!' factor.

Because the witness was not aware they were watching the paranormal, they have no 'shock' excuse for not noticing what is going on around them. However, since they saw nothing special about the person, nor is there any particular reason to observe them closely. So, once again, vital clues as to whether the sighting could have been xenonormal are missed.

It is a bit of a Catch 22 - realise you're seeing a ghost and you'll be too shocked to notice much else - not realise you're seeing a ghost and you have no reason to observe anything in detail. Even on vigils, investigators prepared for sightings can still fail to notice anything but the apparent phenomenon.

Does this mean witness testimony is useless? Far from it! If several witnesses see broadly the same thing in the same place, without any knowledge of each other's sightings, there is clearly something there worth investigating. However, witness testimony on its own is never going to establish the reality of the paranormal once and for all.

8 Feb 2009: Was that the paranormal?

Those of us who have witnessed something paranormal will know the feeling of shock. I have witnessed several events down the years that, at the time at least, I thought were paranormal (though I'm not so certain now). I remember the sudden stunning realisation that I was witnessing something out of the ordinary. What I don't remember is what else was going on around me at the same time!

There is a problem with this understandable reaction to something truly weird - you stop noticing other things! You rarely have the presence of mind to think of possible natural causes for the phenomenon, far less actually investigate them. You're generally too busy thinking 'Wow!' By the time you start to wonder if you've really witnessed something paranormal, it can be too late to notice all the circumstances.

Most xenonormal events are rare coincidences, when several factors happen to come together briefly. So, there is a good chance you won't notice all the vital clues while you are still marveling at our extraordinary experience. It is human nature and even warning you about it in advance won't help. But when you ask someone who has witnessed something extraordinary more and more details about their experience, you have to wonder how much of their recollection is accurate and how much confabulation.

7 Feb 2009: UFOs and windows

Light UFOI took this photo recently and did not notice the UFO until I looked at it later. Luckily, I knew what it was straight away. The photo was taken through a window and the two UFOs are reflected lights. I noticed the lights at the time I was taking the photo and tried to exclude them from the shots. Unfortunately, one or two still crept in. I normally avoid taking photos through windows but in this occasion it was unavoidable. If you look carefully, you can see that the UFOs are 'spotlight' illumination.

Sometimes you can seen reflections with the naked eye (ie. not in photos) that can make it look as though objects are in a different place (like the UFOs in the sky in the photo). The situation arises when you look at a scene through a window and there is something strongly illuminated behind you. It can occur in cars and buses, and other forms of transport, which have windows on both sides of the vehicle.

I recently saw a dramatic example of this sort of reflected illusion. It made it look as though a street sign was in the middle of a wood! When strange objects are seen from cars, you should always consider reflections as a possible cause.

6 Feb 2009: The missing links

Hilary Evans, prolific author and one of the founders of ASSAP, is a prominent proponent of psychosocial hypotheses of UFOs and alien encounters (not to mention ghosts, fairies and other entities). These theories explain UFOs by psychological and social means.

In these theories, it is noted that science fiction and the cultural background of witnesses strongly affect the specific content of their reported encounters with UFOs. It is such a striking connection that it obviously forms part of the explanation for such experiences. Obviously, if UFOs were alien spacecraft, one would not expect such a connection.

However, for me, there has always been a 'missing link' in these theories, ie. what prompted the experience in the first place and how do they work? Some experiences certainly sound like hallucinations, often hypnagogia. But simpler experiences, like seeing Venus as a flying saucer, have always puzzled me. How could anyone describe portholes on the side of a 'craft' when they are actually seeing a bright planet?

This is why I find misperception so exciting. Here, at last, is a specific documented mechanism whereby images from fictional or factional sources can replace what is really being witnessed. The concept of the xenonormal is also part of this explanation. Not recognising something is the reason WHY the brain chooses to substitute one visual image with another.

I've always known that Hilary (and others) was on to something. Now other parts of the jigsaw are falling into place. A large chunk of paranormal cases may now be explainable.

5 Feb 2009: Moving immovable objects

I was looking out of a window recently, just as it was getting dark, when I saw someone, dressed entirely in black, walking nearby outside. I was shocked because they were in an area where I would not expect to see people and moving in an unlikely direction.

If I add that I was turning my head when I saw the person, things may become clearer. Turning back, I realised it was a decidedly stationary black dustbin! This was an example of the 'rapid head turning' misperception which often produces apparent movement in still scenes.

What amazes me about misperception is (a) how common it is, once you look for it, (b) how convincing it can be ('real' looking figures or 'ghosts') and (c) how it hardly seems to have been noticed before by paranormal researchers. While researchers have long talked vaguely about 'tricks of the light', until now it was hard to reconcile such things with detailed descriptions of ghosts from (sometimes multiple) witnesses. Add in a bit of confabulation and we now have a plausible theory that makes sense of even amazing sounding anomalous experiences.

4 Feb 2009: The great divide

One of the things that irritates me about paranormal research is the great believer / skeptic divide. Other subjects and research areas are subject to controversy, but not like this. When talking to a fellow enthusiast or researcher, you first have to decide which side of the 'fence' they sit on. This is important if you don't want to start an argument unintentionally (or, indeed, intentionally!). You then have to alter how you say things, otherwise it is likely the person you're talking to may 'switch off', or worse! It can get tedious!

Another big difficulty is that when you read books or articles about the paranormal, they often read more like 'the case for the defence/prosecution' than a simple factual account of a subject. There is always the suspicion that 'contrary points' may sometimes dismissed or omitted from such accounts. This makes a lot of literature not as useful as it could be.

I wish the 'great divide' would go away and we could all just get on with paranormal research in a neutral, scientific fashion. Unfortunately, I don't see it happening any time soon.

2 Feb 2009: Ghost in the snow

Snow sceneToday will be remembered in the UK for the 'big snow'! I was out taking photos. Few motorists were attempting to drive along the snowy roads so many people were walking along them. It was oddly quiet, as it often is when snow is lying. The snow absorbs sound well, so it's no great mystery.

What WAS mysterious was how I thought someone was walking behind me. I only heard them! When I turned to look, there was no one there. I should say I was wearing a hooded coat, to keep out the snow. I think what I may have been hearing was my own footsteps! I think it sounded like someone behind me because my hood meant I could only hear sounds in front of me. The muffling effect of the snow and the 'directional' effect of the hood probably combined to play tricks with my sense of the where sounds originated. Either that or it was a ghost!

1 Feb 2009: Winter ghosts

WaxwingThe UK is experiencing its coldest winter for over a decade and we are just entering another particularly frigid few days. Winter (and autumn) is the time of year when people appear to be most interested in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena.

The long dark nights are obviously one reason for this interest. Many people associate ghosts with the dark though, in fact, they appear at any time of day. So strong is the mythical association of ghosts and the dark that many groups hold vigils in (almost) complete darkness, despite the obvious problem with misperception. Some people have even come up with theories to explain why ghosts only appear at night!

But there may be other, more subtle, associations between winter and ghosts. The best way to think of this is to look at the reverse case - if you are out for a walk on a sunny warm day in summer, are ghosts likely to be uppermost in your mind? Probably not. But on a cold winter's night, thoughts of a spooky nature seem to creep up on us more readily.

The bird, photographed recently on a bitterly cold day, is a Waxwing. They normally live in remote, cold forests of northern Europe and Russia so even this cold winter must seem quite tame to them. They appear unpredictably every few years in the UK - true winter ghosts indeed!

Flying rods with plant

PS: The latest ASSAP website stats stand at an average of 7355 hits per day (not including crawlers and bots!) for January.

PPS: The flying rod photo above? See January's blog ...

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© Maurice Townsend 2009