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. To contact the ASSAP blog, email 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!

NB: WDTHDWP = 'what does this have to do with the paranormal'

27 February: Will 'paranormal' orbs make a comeback?

OrbFew, if any, serious paranormal researchers now think there is anything mysterious or anomalous about orbs. They are out of focus bits of dust, water droplets, insects and so on. However, I get sent photos of orbs all the time from the general public who clearly think they are weird. Now, obviously, though paranormal researchers are likey to be familiar with the compelling evidence for the true nature of orbs (see here), most people in the general population are apparently not. It is clear that, in popular culture at least, orbs remain mysterious, possibly paranormal.

This is why I think they may make a comeback in the 'paranormal community' at some stage. My reason for this is the parallel with ghosts. Back in the 1980s most serious ghost researchers agreed that ghosts existed but few thought they were spirits. And yet, now the idea that ghosts are spirits is commonplace among ghost researchers, despite the lack of any compelling evidence to support the idea. If anything, the case for ghosts as spirits is even more tenuous that it was in the 1980s. Since then the new house effect and haunting hot spots have much better known and neither exactly supports the idea. So what has changed?

I believe that ideas from popular culture have managed to overwhelm the evidence from real life ghost cases through the 'ghost hunting boom'. And so we now have widely used assumption-led methods which only serve to reinforce the idea of a ghost as a spirit. Though the evidence for ghosts as spirits is weaker than ever, the idea nevertheless holds centre stage.

So, don't be surprised if the idea that orbs are paranormal makes a comeback! I mentioned yesterday that OBEs are now part of mainstream science but don't expect them to be generally considered 'normal' any time soon. Ours is a curious field of study where popular culture somehow holds inordinate power.

27 February: Should the rules change for rare sightings?

RedpollOK, I now think that the 'Waxwing' I mentioned yesterday was actually a Redpoll (pic right). The reason is that I heard the same call in exactly the same place as before but this time I saw the bird, albeit distantly. It looked much more like a Redpoll than a Waxwing. Now for me, that is pretty much all the evidence I need to say I'm 99% convinced, given that both species are exceedingly rare in the area. But suppose we were talking about a ghost sighting instead!

Let's stay with the bird sighting for now, though. I could say, the two birds MIGHT be different species and the fact that the call sounded the same each time was a coincidence. Similarly, the fact that they both turned up in just the same place a short period apart, despite both being rare in the vicinity, was also mere coincidence. So we cannot say for SURE that the first bird was a Redpoll, even if the second one was. However, most birders would probably accept that the evidence suggested that it was highly likely that the original 'Waxwing' was actually a Redpoll.

I've had discussions just like this one about ghost sightings, as I'm sure some readers have too. An investigator discovers a misperception at the exact location where a ghost sighting took place and it looks just like the description given by the witness (see here for instance). But this doesn't mean for SURE that the original ghost sighting was a misperception, it COULD just be a coincidence. Thus, to some people, there remains a 'distinct possibility' that the ghost was truly paranormal.

So when we are talking about birds, the witness would probably accept that the second sighting solves the mystery. But with a ghost, the witness may well think the mystery still unresolved. What is the difference? It would appear to be the 'psychological value' placed on a ghost sighting, compared to a bird. To be mistaken about seeing a fairly rare bird is disappointing. To be mistaken about seeing a paranormal phenomenon is much harder to take. This is perfectly understandable. However the method being used to identify the bird/ghost is much the same, so logically it should be applied equally to both cases.

I have, on occasion, missed certain rare birds that I will almost certainly never now see. It hurts! I've even tried to convince myself that a poor distant sighting of a bird is one that I really wanted to see. In reality, I know there is insufficient evidence to rule out other similar common species.

The fact that you really want something to be true doesn't alter the evidence for whether it is or not. I'd love to meet a ghost I could actually have a discussion with but, after many years looking, I doubt it's ever going to happen.

26 February: Of birds and OBEs

WaxwingI heard a Waxwing the other day. Regular readers will be aware that these beautiful birds (pic right) are rare in the UK. I went to see some a few weeks back as there has been an influx this winter. But the bird I heard more recently was in an area where none have been reported, so far as I know. I looked for, but could not see, the bird though I did only have a limited view of the scene.

So how did I know it was a Waxwing without seeing it? Well, the call is reasonably recognizable (although Redpolls have a similar call but I didn't see one of those either). However, there is another possible reason why I heard that call which doesn't involve the presence of a Waxwing (or even a Redpoll). There were a lot of Starlings around at the time. And Starlings are excellent mimics, regularly imitating the calls of birds they've met. I've been deceived by their mimicry before! So it's entirely possible that the Starlings have seen Waxwings in the area when I haven't!

So, WDTHDWP? Well, only a fairly experienced birder would have considered Starlings as an explanation for this otherwise puzzling occurrence. As paranormal investigators, we cannot be experts in every subject that might have a bearing on understanding an anomalous report. It is always worth consulting specialists before deciding that a phenomenon really is unexplained.

While we're on birds, I saw an owl perched on a chimney pot recently. Thinking it highly unlikely, I was somewhat relieved when a different angle revealed that it was really two Woodpigeons huddled together! Ever since my brain started letting me see its first guess at things I can't see well (misperception), I have seen some truly bizarre stuff! Most people, most of the time, don't see or don't notice these 'first guesses' but those who do may well report them as paranormal occurrences.

Meanwhile this week's New Scientist reports that scientists have come closer to finally understanding how OBEs work. Work by Olaf Blanke of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 2011 induced some participants to experience watching their own body from above, the classic OBE (see here). And once again, temporoparietal junction (TPJ) part of the brain has been implicated in producing the experience. This looks like one weird experience that will soon be seen as normal.

25 February: A ghost walks!

AlleyI was daydreaming as I walked along when something caught my attention - a sticker on a lamp post. As I turned to look at it I noticed, in my peripheral vision, someone a few metres behind me. As it was an alleyway, I thought it best to move out of the way, so I resumed walking forward. Then something odd struck me. I could not hear any footsteps behind me. I turned to look and saw no one there!

While it is possible that it was a real person who suddenly decided to reverse the way they'd come and get out of the alley, that seemed unlikely. I had only gone a few steps before turning back and they would have had to run fast to be out of sight so quickly. And I'm sure I'd have heard that. The most obvious, if rather unlikely, explanation was a ghost! If so, the ghost was wearing light clothing overall and I could not make out any recognizable facial features. What was particularly interesting was that the ghost was walking, unlike others I have seen which were stationary. As is often the case in ghost sightings, I believed the figure to be an ordinary human when I saw it and never suspected a ghost until I turned to look back,

I returned to the same spot later to see if it might be a misperception. I noticed that, when standing in that precise spot, by the lamp post, I could see a vague 'figure' in the direction I'd seen the ghost. I say 'figure' but it was actually a concrete bollard with a metal signpost behind. When the two objects overlapped they give the vague impression of a roughly human-shaped object, albeit rather thin! Although this would convince no one that it was a human figure while in plain sight, it might if seen just briefly in peripheral vision or low light. The overall impression was light coloured with no obvious 'head', which would explain the lack of 'facial features'. Interestingly, this was the only point in the alley where the two objects were aligned. This may be why I've never noticed the 'figure' before.

But if it's a misperception, as seems likely from the available evidence, how could it be walking? Bollards and signposts don't generally move! However, when I replayed the incident in my mind, just after it had happened, I realised I had not actually seen the 'figure' move. It was an assumption my brain made on my behalf. The logic goes like this. There is a figure behind me in an alley. It is not far behind me so it must be moving in the same direction as me. I saw the figure so briefly that I would not necessarily have noticed actual movement.

We make these sort of unconscious judgements about how the world works, based on long experience, all the time. When something behaves unexpectedly we may well misperceive. We see what we EXPECT to happen rather what really happens. Another interesting point is that I was daydreaming when I had this experience. I've noticed being distracted as an important factor in misperception before and here it is once again.

And, finally, what was the sticker on the lamp post? No idea!

25 February: Where ghost stories come from?

ITV starts showing a new ghost story, Lightfields, this week (in the UK). Is it just me or have there been more ghost stories on TV over the last couple of years compared to the previous decade? If so, I wonder if it has been prompted by the ghost hunting boom, which would be ironic indeed.

I always watch TV ghost stories despite the fact that the events portrayed are rarely like any real-life ghost case. As a bit of fun, I like to rewrite the plot in my head, only without the ghosts. It is surprising how little the ghostly elements contribute to the plot! And just as you can remove the 'spirit' element from many a ghost story without affecting it too much, the same is true of real life.

There is no compelling evidence in real-life cases that ghosts are spirits. So where do the ubiquitous 'assumption-led methods', so popular in the ghost hunting boom, come from? The most obvious answer is ghost fiction. If ghost cases really did play out the way they are typically shown in ghost stories then assumption-led methods might make some sense! Has the unavoidable influence of ghost fiction led some people to try, albeit unintentionally, to impose 'stories' on ghost cases which, in real life, look more like meaningless events?

Many people assume that the current ghost hunting boom originated with the reality TV ghosting shows. But with any 'boom', you need a fertile soil first for it to grow in. My own theory is that the recent upsurge in the popularity of role playing and video games may just have blurred the formerly obvious line between fiction and real life a little. Enough, perhaps, to make the boom possible. How else can you explain the fact that few serious ghost researchers thought spirits were involved in hauntings back in the 1980s and 1990s? Something significant changed over that period in the zeitgeist.

22 February: Feeling things that aren't there!

WaterfallI don't like being splashed! I don't suppose I'm the only one but, in my case, if I hear something splashing I will instantly look for the source and try to get out of the way. So far, so almost normal! But sometimes, in spite of my rapid reaction, I feel the tell-tale pin-prick sensation of a tiny droplet of water hitting my skin. Now here's the weird bit! Sometimes I know I must be physically too far away from the splash to get caught, even in wind-blown spray! And just to confirm this, I've felt myself getting 'splashed' when there is a solid wall between me and the water. And that's indoors with no chance of any wind propelling the spray around!

So I think we're clearly into the territory of feeling a touching sensation without any physical stimulus! My theory is that it is an inter-sensory phenomenon based on expectation. We all know that smell affects taste. Less well-known is that all the senses interact to some extent. So could the sight and / or sound of splashing water cause me to 'feel' it, even when I'm out of physical range? Well, it's reproducible (for me anyway) so apparently the answer is yes.

I guess it's probably an example of a conditioned response. It is well known that a feeling of being touched without physical stimulus is possible through things like the cutaneous rabbit illusion. Interestingly, this illusion also seems to rely on some kind of (unconscious) expectation in the subject.

So WDTHDWP? It made me think about times when people report physical sensations in paranormal cases. For instance, in several road ghost cases, a motorist apparently runs over a pedestrian only to find that there is no physical evidence for that person having ever been there. But, intriguingly, the motorist often reports hearing or feeling a bump at the point where they hit the ghost. Maybe there was no 'bump' at all but the motorist was expecting one so they 'felt' it.

And what about people who report being touched in some ghost cases? It would be interesting to know if these reported touches ever correspond with some other sensory stimuli, like a certain sound or smell. There could be something similar going on to the non-existent splash.

When someone reports being touched, with nothing visible that might be responsible, it is easy to think 'ghost'. But there are other possible non-paranormal reasons for this sensation to consider too.

21 February: On the Origin of Ghostly Sounds

Ghostly soundsStanding in a familiar room, I heard a faint mechanical squeaking sound occurring every few seconds or so. It sounded strongly like it was in the room, which was highly surprising to me. Despite the fact that I knew there was nothing that could cause such a noise in the room, I searched it anyway. Finding nothing, I listened in the part of the room furthest from the window and then next to it. The sound was loudest near the window but not by much. So it COULD be a sound source outside the building OR inside near the window. I could not decide what direction the sound was coming from. Later, when I went outside, I heard the same sound but much louder. I was then able to pick up its direction. It appeared to be coming from a gate which was being pulled around by the stiff breeze.

So what did I take from this less than riveting experience? Firstly, the fact that I couldn't tell which direction the noise was coming from when inside should have given me a clue that it was coming from outside. The sound will have been partly transmitted and partly diffracted (see diagram: routes T and D) making its origin difficult to tell inside the room. Secondly (WDTHDWP), it reminded me that people who record EVP on ghost vigils will often say the voice cannot have come from outside the building. They say this on the basis that the windows and doors were all closed and curtains drawn. However, if you stand in an empty building with all the doors, windows and curtains closed (and no appliances on) you will find that, in most cases, you CAN hear sounds quite plainly from outside! Unless the building has double glazing and sound proof doors, some noise will almost certainly get in from outside, including voices. And at night (when most ghost vigils are held) voices from outside are easier to hear because there is less background noise, both inside and outside.

So, if you get a really convincing-sounding unexplained voice recorded on a ghost vigil, bear in mind that it COULD be a real voice coming from outside the room (and maybe outside the building). Sound recorders are often highly sensitive and able to pick up faint (but real) voices that nearby witnesses can't hear, or don't notice. And being a totally real voice, it's going to sound pretty convincing evidence that something paranormal is going on.

When making sound recordings during paranormal investigation, it is better to use multiple recorders (all of the same model and with the same settings) simultaneously, rather than just one. For instance, suppose you placed your 'main' recorder in the centre of a room, you could put others by every window and door to the room. If an interesting sound appears on several recorders you can then compare them. When analyzing sounds, a second recording of the same sound is very useful indeed.

Suppose you get an apparent human voice on the 'main' recorder in the centre of the room and a sound also appears at precisely the same time on one of the other recordings. That other recording may be recognizable as something other than a voice, like a creaking chair or paper being shuffled. This would tend to indicate that the 'voice' has mundane origins ('formant noise'). You could, thus, eliminate that recording from consideration as possibly paranormal.

But what if the same voice is heard on a second recorder, only clearer and more distinct? If that recording was made by a window, it makes it likely that the voice originated outside the building. This means that you cannot then rule out the possibility that it was an entirely normal human voice. So, again, you could eliminate that recording because it would be impossible to show it did NOT have natural origins.

Thus multiple recorders can help to eliminate some recordings where natural causes cannot be ruled out in a way a single recorder cannot. For more on analyzing EVP recordings, see here. For more on recording weird sounds see here.

19 February: How a misperception can act like a recording ghost!

Shadow ghostI glanced down at a piece of paper and noticed it had rather a good line drawing of an animal on it. It looked like the work of a professional cartoonist. But then, suddenly, it had turned into writing together with a much smaller cartoon drawing of something quite different! It was clearly a misperception. What was striking, however, was how clear and detailed the 'animal cartoon' was. Every bit as sharp as the writing it subsequently turned into, in fact! I've never seen such a well-defined misperception before. It was so clear, I could remember the animal in my head afterwards.

So, why was it so sharply defined? I think because the paper was much closer than is usual with most misperceptions, less than a metre away from my eyes. It seems my brain had to produce a visual substitution that fitted in realistically with the objects around it. So it had to be very clear and detailed. With the usual, more distant, misperceptions they too must fit in with their surroundings and so are naturally less detailed. I love the way our brains always show us what we expect to see, whether it's real or not! If you're wondering why I misperceived something so close, I think it was because the lighting was low and I'd never seen the paper before. Plus, it was an unexpected place to find a piece of paper!

As usual, I could not get the misperception to work again. I tried looking in even lower light but it made no difference. I even tried taking my glasses off. I am short-sighted so everything went fuzzy. But in order to see the 'cartoon/writing' in focus, I had to get up close, leaving no possibility for misperception! I guess misperceptions ARE possible if you are short sighted but they will be fuzzy, like everything else, so you'd probably never even notice them.

Then I had an idea and, astonishingly, it worked! I closed my eyes and looked towards the 'cartoon/writing'. Then, without opening my eyes, I visualized what the 'animal cartoon' I'd originally seen looked like. Then I opened my eyes. I was not looking straight at the 'cartoon/writing' but quickly shifted my gaze to it and saw the cartoon animal once again! After about a second, it reverted to the writing it really was. Being so clear and detailed, I was able to see exactly how the cartoon changed into writing. It did not rearrange itself or suddenly change. Instead, the whole image went fuzzy, just briefly, and emerged as the writing! I've never managed to catch that conversion before, usually because misperceptions happen unexpectedly and I'm not ready to take in all the details. Frustratingly, the trick did not work again. I believe this was because I couldn't get the real writing image out of my head and replace it with cartoon again. It may work again if I leave it for a while without looking at the writing.

So what new stuff have I learned about misperception? I already knew that misperceptions are made to fit in with whatever visual context is around but this latest incident provided a beautiful illustration of that. I've found out how misperceptions change into the real thing by going fuzzy temporarily. But, most interestingly, I've found a conscious way to re-activate a misperception, even though it isn't particularly reliable.

Applying this to a ghost case (WDTHDWP), it is easy to imagine how someone will see exactly the same ghostly figure every time they see the same misperception. So a witness to a particular misperception will certainly form the opinion that they are seeing exactly the same ghost each time and it will 'behave' in the same way. This is because their memory of the first sighting will feed back into any subsequent sightings. So we may now have a plausible mechanism for why a misperception can be seen to appear and behave exactly the same way every time a particular witness sees it. So, it appears there is no need to invoke recording ghosts for some sightings after all.

18 February: What you don't know can be weird!

Red AdmiralThe other day I spotted a Red Admiral flying! To answer the obvious questions, it's a common butterfly in the UK. However, it is highly unusual to see butterflies flying in February in this country. The Red Admiral is, however, an exception being occasionally seen in winter. Though most of the population is migratory, it appears that a few individuals spend the winter here.

So WDTHDWP, or 'what does this have to do with the paranormal'? As I write that phrase so often, I thought it merited its own acronym though sadly it is not snappy. Anyway, it is to do with why people report weird experiences.

When I first saw the butterfly I didn't think anything of it. I have often seen butterflies in that particular location. The sun was shining, which usually tempts butterflies onto the wing. And with the weather unusually spring-like for the time of year, the scene looked unremarkable. But something was nagging me, a feeling that there was something wrong. That was when I realised that butterfly + February does not compute, so I went to do some research which was how I found out about Red Admiral's unusual habits.

I wondered if this nagging feeling might be what prompted some witnesses to report things they'd seen. Here are some likely examples I thought of: a figure seen in a place thought to be empty at the time; someone in historical costume walking along a street that no one else seems to notice; a light in the night sky that is not obviously a plane or helicopter. All of these circumstances could prompt a report of an anomaly.

If you get a nagging thought that there is something wrong with a scene, where does it come from? I think it is a matter of knowledge. I did not know that Red Admirals are sometimes seen in winter in the UK, so I felt there was something 'wrong'. In the examples given above it may be a similar lack of information causing that nagging feeling. The light in the sky might be a sky lantern, which the witness is not familiar with. The person in historical costume might, unknown to the witness, be walking away from a street festival so that no other bystanders are surprised by their appearance. The figure in an 'empty' place may have some perfectly legitimate reason for being there unknown by the witness.

That last example happened to me the other day. I was visiting a castle that is open to the public. It was closing time and everyone was ushered out. I happened to turn round, outside the exit, and I thought I saw a figure still in the castle. My first thought was that there shouldn't be anyone there. But, of course, it could have been a warden or cleaner or someone else with a perfectly good reason to be there.

It is important in similar cases to these, when questioning witnesses, to ask them why they think there was something odd about their sighting. It might simply be that they are not in possession of all the relevant facts. And it is the investigator's job to obtain those facts.

15 February: Objects that move on their own!

Water surfaceI put down the bowl and prepared to pour food into it. Except the bowl started to move, of its own accord. Just momentarily the word 'ghost' flicked through my mind. But I soon decided it must be aquaplaning. I'm sure all readers will be familiar with this spooky-looking phenomenon.

The reason I thought 'ghost', albeit momentarily, was because the surface the bowl was sliding over looked perfectly dry, from all sorts of angles. It was only when I felt it with my hand that it was clearly wet. There was a very thin film of water present. Perhaps just a tiny bit of soap was present in the water to reduce surface tension and make the puddle more of an invisible film. I didn't even see any reflections (like in the picture).

This sort of aquaplaning can often account for observed object movement involving level surfaces, like table tops, in haunting cases. It is unlikely the witness will remember whether the surface was wet after the incident. And they might not have noticed even if it was, as my experience illustrates. It might be possible to replicate the effect by wetting a surface where object movement has been reported. And you could try adding a little soap, if it is an area where that may have happened accidentally.

Vibration, from machinery for instance, can also cause objects to move across level surfaces. Certainly, whenever objects are observed sliding over a flat surface on their own, these sort of causes need to be considered.

PS: Can anyone see figures, faces or other apparent objects in the picture?

14 February: When people just appear out of nowhere

ConcourseSomething odd happens whenever I'm on the concourse of a major railway station. No matter where I stand, and no matter how busy, or not, the station is at the time, I'm always in someone's way. It even happens when, as I usually do, I stand deliberately in a place where I don't think anybody wants to go. And yet still, within minutes, I'm likely to be knocked, barged into or have to move smartly away to avoid being knocked over.

I am quite a large person and, you would think, difficult to miss visually. And yet, people still walk into me as I stand there, perfectly stationary, while they approach with eyes wide open. And this 'concourse effect' predates the time when most people started to walk around while studying their mobile phone. It has been going on for as long as I can remember.

Here is my idea of how the 'effect' works, looked at from the point of view of the person doing the walking. I am at a station. I want to eat / catch a train / get a coffee / meet someone / whatever. What I want is at point B, whereas I am at point A, so I walk in a straight line from A to B. But what if there is someone standing at a point C, somewhere directly between A and B? Actually I don't consider that last bit. That's why I bang into the obstructing person, even if they are large. So why can't I see this obvious obstruction? This is where we enter the land of purest speculation. It is probably because I am totally focussed on achieving my goal of getting from A to B. So I go into a sort of mental autopilot mode which makes me less observant than usual. Well, that's my theory, anyway.

And what does this have to do with the paranormal? Sometimes witnesses report figures, or other things, appearing as if from nowhere. Like a ghost! It might be worth asking such a witness what they were doing at the time they suddenly saw the ghost and what they were thinking about. If they were in a hurry or preoccupied by a personal problem, they might well have been in the same state of mind as those people who bump into me on station concourses. This might explain how something large and obvious could 'appear' out of nowhere!

PS: Yes, the photo really is a concourse. I'm thinking of entering it in the 'dullest illustration' category of a photographic competition. I think I'm in with a genuine chance!

12 February: Stop the vigil, I've just seen a ghost!

VigilYou're sitting in a ghost vigil and you suddenly see a shadowy figure walk past. You know that there should be no one in that position at that time. Could it be a ghost? Could a video camera have caught it? What do you do? Do you investigate it immediately, and disturb the vigil, or note down what you saw and tell people later?

Traditionally, the approach has generally been the latter, to make notes and investigate later. However, such 'traditions' have not yielded great results. Maybe the time has come to say 'stop the vigil, I've just seen a ghost'. The best time to investigate any paranormal sighting is when it happens. That's because environmental conditions, like lighting, temperature, and so on, change all the time. By looking into the sighting straight away, these conditions will be just the same as during the experience. Misperception, for instance, can depend on the exact lighting conditions and position of the observer. If you try to investigate the incident later, the lighting will almost certainly have changed and the exact position of the witness will probably have been forgotten.

As I explained yesterday, even a single ghost sighting needs extensive investigation to establish whether it might have paranormal or xenonormal causes. So, while investigating at the time of the incident is a big advantage, there will still be many possible natural causes to be considered and tested. Since it is not possible to eliminate even the most obvious natural causes in just a few minutes, the vigil has to stop! If done properly, the investigation process could take hours. It should also involve as many people as possible. This is so that you have access to as broad range of expertise and ideas (for xenonormal possibilities to check) as possible. So it would probably be a good idea to get everyone on the vigil involved, if possible.

No doubt some people are now thinking, this is going to ruin the vigil for what may well turn out to be just a natural shadow! Whether it is 'ruined' depends on your attitude to vigils. Consider the following. Suppose you ignore the sighting and wait until later to investigate it. With conditions having changed, it may no longer be obvious that it was a 'natural shadow'. Instead, the sighting may well be logged as 'possibly', or even 'probably', paranormal when it was nothing of the sort. So the scientific value of the vigil is actually enhanced by stopping it and doing a thorough investigation of any significant incident.

Of course, you may miss something that might have been noticed later, had the vigil continued as normal. But then, since a single vigil at any location is fairly pointless (due to the new house effect), you may always pick that up on a subsequent return visit.

I've been on many frustrating vigils in the past that ended up noting lots of things that 'might' be paranormal but it was impossible to say one way or the other. So the overall result of the vigil was inconclusive. If you could get just one significant incident really well investigated it could mean that the vigil ends with a more definitive result, even if it is only that a ghost was caused by misperception.

11 February: Can witness testimony be scientific?

There are those who dismiss all witness testimony as 'anecdotal' and consequently of no scientific value. If this is true then we are all wasting our time studying anomalous phenomena as most of our evidence comes from witnesses. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some people who accept almost any paranormal anecdote they hear at face value. This last course is likely to lead to a confusing and inaccurate picture of anomalous phenomena. So is there a case for accepting at least SOME anecdotal evidence concerning the paranormal?

Firstly, a high proportion of reports of anomalous phenomena are found, on close examination, to be most likely caused by misperception or hallucination. The latter is almost entirely subjective and former largely so. In such cases, our only realistic form of access to such material is through witness testimony. Even when considering such subjective factors, we are dealing with a real experience, with specific causes, rather than an 'overactive imagination' or delusion.

Secondly, the witness testimony we have for various anomalous phenomena is consistent across locations and through history. Ghost reports, for instance, are reasonably consistent across huge numbers of independent witnesses over many centuries, countries and cultures. Even more interesting, ghost reports consistently differ significantly from their well-known fictional and cultural representation. In the case of hauntings, for instance, the same phenomena may be reported at the same location by independent witnesses over a long period of time, indicating that there must be factors involved independent of the witnesses themselves. This gives rise to 'haunting hot spots', a remarkably consistent feature of real hauntings, though not of their well-known fictional and cultural counterpart.

So, I believe there IS a case for accepting anecdotal evidence but only if it is rigorously collected. I would NOT consider the following as useful sources of such evidence:

Legends - it is said that legends are usually based on some germ of truth. This may well be so but it means that most of the tale is essentially invented. Even worse, we don't know which bits of the story are real and which are not!

Media reports - anyone reading a media report of a ghost sighting, for instance, will immediately be struck by the fact that it invariably raises more questions than it answers. Such reports tend to be brief and often contain irrelevant background information. For instance, a report of a ghost sighting may include speculation about the historical identity of the apparition. This is despite that fact that there is frequently little or no relevant information pointing to any particular individual.

Personal anecdotes - most people have a real life 'ghost story' to tell from their personal experience. Unless these incidents were investigated by competent researchers reasonably soon after the incident, however, such testimony is unlikely to be sufficiently accurate or detailed to be of scientific interest. As well as the universal problems of misperception and unreliable recall, many witnesses tend to 'form a view' on their experience, especially with the passage of time, which can bias their retelling of the incident. It is interesting to note that such anecdotes typically differ markedly in their content from carefully investigated cases. This suggests that memory drift and witness interpretation may often affect such accounts.

FOAF - friend of a friend (FOAF) stories are like personal anecdotes but even less reliable. This is because the person relating the story is not the original witness. This inevitably introduces 'Chinese whisper' effects making the material highly likely to be changed, albeit unintentionally, from its original form. Furthermore, you cannot question the original witness for further details.

Most vigil reports - a great many 'ghost vigils' these days use 'assumption-led' techniques. Since such techniques cannot ever question their own assumptions, and since they are perfectly capable of producing 'positive' results anywhere, whether at a haunted location or not, they have little or no value in producing useful evidence.

So what kind of anecdotal WOULD I consider scientifically useful?

The most useful witness testimony comes through a formal investigation by competent paranormal researchers. Such researchers will use cognitive interviewing techniques to gain the highest proportion of reliable information from original witnesses. They will also interview any other witnesses who were either present at the time or saw the same phenomena at a different time or place. They will examine the site of the experience to check if it corresponds with witness testimony and if any obvious xenonormal causes for the report are apparent. They will also look for other, less obvious, possible xenonormal causes as well as trying to reproduce the events described by the witnesses. They may well consult with experts in relevant fields who may suggest further xenonormal causes to consider. They may hold a vigil but only if it is considered relevant or likely to be useful and never using assumption-led techniques.

So, when I say that there is little compelling evidence that ghosts are spirits or that they cause hauntings, that's the kind of evidence I'm thinking of. There is an expanded version of this post here.

7 February: Were ghosts grey in the 1950s?

Shadow ghostI've never come across any reports of grey (or monochrome) ghosts* but it doesn't mean they aren't out there. Ghosts are sometimes shown as grey in TV or movie ghost stories but the ones in real life are usually described as just like normal people. But I would not be surprised if there were a few reports of grey ghosts, particularly from the 1950s. How so?

Firstly, we know that some ghost reports are generated by near sleep experiences, where dream states mingle with real life scenery actually being viewed by the witness. Secondly, a report in last week's New Scientist mentions research which shows that most people dreamed in black and white in the 1950s but, by the end of the 1960s, in colour. It is thought that the transition of television from monochrome to colour over that period may be responsible. I had a dream recently which was clearly set in the past, some time in the 1950s I think. It was in colour, as my dreams are. But where did my brain get the imagery for the 1950s? I suspect it was from television or movies!

So, if people dreamed in black and white in the 1950s, would they have seen monochrome ghosts when they were caused by things like hypnagogia? Though it's a tempting idea, personally I doubt it. Our brains try to make sense of whatever we see, even if that means editing things a bit. So I suspect any hypnagogic ghostly figures would be of 'normal' colour, even if the witness usually dreams in black and white. Indeed, witnesses I've spoken to who experience hypnagogic experiences say the 'additional' dream elements look 'normal' compared to their surroundings. It is as if our brains adjust the dream elements to fit in realistically, however fantastic the hallucinated objects are. Whether it is a perfect fit, like getting shadows correct, I don't know but it is usually good enough to convince the witness that what they're seeing is real.

If anyone does have any reports of monochrome or grey ghosts, from any period, I'd love to hear about them. Of course ghosts, just like real human figures, will probably look grey anyway in low light conditions, so that isn't what I'm looking for. I want to know about any ghosts that look conspicuously grey against a well-lit background. If any investigator meets a witness who reports a grey ghost, it would be worth asking if they dream in black and white.

PS: I recently heard a weird, unearthly scream that appeared to come from the sky, though no obvious cause was visible. I did, however, have a restricted view as it was through a window. I tried 'replaying' the sound in my head and my conclusion was that it was most likely a large gull. Who knows what someone unfamiliar with gull calls would have made of it!

*Apart from the the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui which may, or may not, be a ghost but is in any case hardly typical. I've been near Ben MacDhui but never encountered the 'man' alas.

5 February: Can a ghost look sick?

Can a ghost look sick? I've never heard of it before but my acquaintance who gets microsleep with REM (MWR) recently saw one. Once again it happened during a brief microsleep on public transport. A young person's face appeared from nowhere, close up, and looked very sick indeed! Seconds later, the face was gone. It was an oddly disturbing experience for someone used to having their quiet moments interrupted by short bouts of weird stuff.

People experiencing MWR, which is a tiny proportion of the population (who probably have a sleep disorder), may think they are seeing ghosts, if they are not aware of their condition. My acquaintance has noted that the type of MWR experienced seems to change slowly over time*. For weeks it might be someone talking, then it might a visual scene (like the 'sick ghost') for a while or maybe snatches of music. The 'visual scenes' sometimes replace what is really physically visible or they might be incorporated into it (like hypnagogia). The visual stuff is easily the weirdest! It is so real, it feels odd when no one else around sees it! The imagery in such visual sequences is as unpredictable as normal dreams. This latest incident recalled a horror movie!

I can't recall any ghost witnesses mentioning particular expressions on the faces of apparitions. Maybe they just don't notice. Or, if the apparitions are caused by misperception, I can see why they would be expressionless. My own investigations in this area appear to indicate that misperceived figures, though drawn from the witness's own visual memory, are archetypes rather than any specific remembered person. There seems no obvious reason why an archetype should have any facial expression! It would be interesting to see if figures more obviously drawn from a dream state, like hypnagogia or MWR, are more likely to have obvious facial expressions than other apparitions. If anyone knows of a case where a ghost appeared to have particular expression, other than neutral, I'd love to know about it.

*The number of MWRs per day depends entirely on when suitable conditions, like sitting reading or in transport, arise. It could be none one days and a handful the next.

4 February: Far away is close at hand

CrowI looked out of the window of the London underground train, as you do, and saw a Raven hopping across the adjacent tracks. I knew it was a Raven because it was like a crow, only much larger!

We all have embarrassing memories like this one. For some reason I still squirm when I recall taking a photo with the flash pointing backwards. It wasn't some attempt at bouncing flash, I just got avoiding red eye all wrong and ended up with a hopelessly dark photo. The people whose photo I was taking looked at me in puzzlement, as well they might. They probably forgot the incident in minutes but it has stayed with me ever since!

Anyway, anyone who knows anything about birds in the UK will quickly realise that, outside of the Tower, you don't Ravens in London! And Ravens are not just big crows, they are different in a number of obvious ways. But I didn't know that all those many years ago, before I took up birding!

So what made me think this bird was a Raven in the first place? I think it was mainly the size - it looked so big. I had, of course, seen crows many times but they were never that big. The reason this particular crow looked so huge was that I was unusually close to it. Crows are wary birds, rarely allowing humans to approach closely. However, they are used to trains, which they soon learn pose no threat unless you get right in front of one, so they approach them quite closely on occasion. So there you have it - I thought it was a Raven because I'd never seen a crow so close up before and had not realised just how big they are.

The point of all this is that many reports of apparently anomalous phenomena involve people reporting things that only ever seen before in quite different circumstances. In particular, on seeing something up close for the first time, it can often look rather different to your previous impressions. So much so that you may think it is something quite different! Take the photo here (above) - do you recognise the bird? It's just the usual common crow seen over most of the UK. But, up close, it doesn't look too familiar to most non-birders. Unbelievably, I've heard other people (non-birders) admit that they've seen 'Ravens' in areas of the country where they definitely never occur. Unlike migratory birds, Ravens hardly ever leave their territories so it's highly unlikely they were just wandering about!

A witness may say something like 'it definitely wasn't a plane' or 'it definitely wasn't a crow'. In the case of such statements, it is important to discover just what their experience of the thing that it 'definitely wasn't', actually is. If I'd been interviewed just after my 'Raven' sighting I would have said it 'definitely wasn't' a crow! But I'd have been wrong! I've come across many Ravens since and, once seen, they are unmistakable.

1 February: Why night is not as scary as it could be

Orange eyeWhy aren't the overwhelming majority of reported ghost and cryptid incidents taking place at night? The reason I ask is that conditions for misperception, which is responsible for a great many ghost reports, occur much more frequently at night.

Take the photo here (right), for instance. It looks to me like a tall, thin creature with orange eyes, one partly obscured by a snout, staring towards me through the darkness. Depending on its size, I'm not sure I'd want it to get too close! It could certainly be a bizarre cryptid of some sort. Indeed, when you walk around at night there are lots of partially illuminated objects which could easily be taken for something weird. So why don't we?

One reason, I believe, is that most of us spend most of our time in places we are familiar with. So, walking along a street we know well at night we may see lots of things poorly but our brains substitute them with what it remembers they really are. When we go somewhere we don't know at night, misperception does indeed increase. You see this in the new house effect, which is a significant problem for those going on a ghost vigil to somewhere they've never been before.

So what happens when something new appears in a location you know well and you only see it for the first time at night? This happened to me recently. I saw something ill-defined and white apparently hovering above the ground in an area not well illuminated by street lights. But here's the odd thing - I felt no alarm or even wonder at this apparently paranormal occurrence, though I was puzzled. For some reason I never, even for a second, felt there was really something hovering, despite what I was seeing. Instead, I reasoned that it was a white object sitting on top of something black, which I couldn't see in the gloom. Next morning, I came across the mystery object and my deduction turned out to be correct. It was a black rubbish bin with something white overflowing.

So why did I never feel it was paranormal? I think that we may have a higher threshold for seeing weird stuff at night. If I saw something hovering low above a street by day I'd straight away think it was bizarre. But by night, no. I think this threshold adjustment comes from the perception system in our brains having long experience of the fact that things naturally look weirder at night. If the sensory threshold was not raised, we would find a walk out in the evening a quite terrifying experience. Interestingly, if this threshold effect is real then it means we may actually be missing real weird stuff at night because our brains tend to readily dismiss it as 'not as it appears' and of no consequence!

I suspect the overall effect of this changing threshold is that we misperceive at around the same rate night or day. I should say I'm talking about 'normal' conditions here. So by night time I mean illuminated by house lights, street lamps and so on, whatever you are used to from every day life. It is does not mean that having ghost vigils in the dark is a good idea because complete darkness is not 'normal' illumination for most people. All of this would explain why the number of ghosts is not much higher than those reported in the day.

The photo is actually a tree. The orange 'eyes' are stubs where branches have been removed. The photo was not taken at night at all, it was simply darkened to simulate it. You can get some weird effects by darkening photos, showing you what our brains may be accepting as 'normal' at night! Such photos remind me of those 'day for night' filming effects you get in old movies.

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

Last month's (January) website figures are an average of 10528* hits per day. This is similar to the previous month's 10563 daily average.
*This month's figure is estimated due to a temporary problem collecting statistics.


Previous blog pages ...

  • Jan 2013 (including a big problem with ghost vigils, time distortions, cryptids, snow ghosts and rods, causes of hauntings)
  • Dec 2012 (including mysterious injuries, ghosts versus people, voice from nowhere, experimenting with a ghost)
  • Nov 2012 (including reflected ghost, isolated EVPs, ghosts talking to each other, invisible presences)
  • Oct 2012 (including ghostly presence, shadow ghost, strange pigeons, window ghosts, hallucinations)
  • Sep 2012 (including yellow grass, weird waterfalls, vanishing buzzard, ghost vigils, slowing down time)
  • Aug 2012 (including seeing unknown animals, glowing lampposts, EMF meters as an accident of history)
  • July 2012 (including turning rods into orbs, psychic insight, making insects spell, glowing eyes, haunting hot spots)
  • June 2012 (including doppelganger mystery, not expecting ghosts, anecdotal evidence, credible witnesses)
  • May 2012 (including lenticular cloud, ghost encounter, ghost train, weird stuff in a tree, van Gogh, resolution)
  • Apr 2012 (including naturalists and ghosts, odd feelings during OBE, wrong kind of sound, voice from nowhere)
  • Mar 2012 (including jogging and ghosts, misty ghosts, image noise, full spectrum photography, EVP of machines)
  • Feb 2012 (including ghost car, analyzing anomalous photos, ghost at rock concert, OBEs and motion sickness)
  • Jan 2012 (including stopping flying rods, photographing fairies, time warp, a ghost tie, ghostly fingers, New Year UFOs)
  • Dec 2011 (including missing time, improving ghost vigils, anomalous photos, ghostly faces, seeing fiction)
  • 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 2013