ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAP websiteWelcome 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.

Previous blog pages ...

31 Jan 2008: The beliefs we ignore ...

Belief is rarely mentioned in polite paranormal research circles. We all know it's there and we all know it has a massive effect on our subject but we don't like to mention it. I suppose we're afraid we might offend someone. (I should clarify that I'm not referring here to belief based on good evidence but the sort of casual, highly varied 'beliefs' that propagate in paranormal research, like 'ghosts are spirits' or 'orbs are ghosts').

Belief is an odd thing. Experience tells us that most things in life are more complex the deeper you look into them, whereas belief is a 'black or white', 'take it or leave it' sort of thing. You can't 'half believe' in something. Belief makes people take a black or white attitude to things which are, in fact, every colour of the rainbow. This leads to things like assumption-led ghost research.

So why did humans evolve beliefs? How did we end up taking such a simplified, and often erroneous, view of so many things in our world? I think 'simplicity' may be the key! It may all be about how much you can remember. We haven't time to learn about everything and couldn't remember it all, even if we had. So we simplify things using beliefs. For all those subjects we don't have time to study, we just accept the beliefs and stereotypes we receive from our culture. Even for subjects we choose to study in detail, we can simplify things using beliefs. If you 'believe' in something, you can safely dismiss all contradictory evidence because you 'know' it must be wrong. You need only seek confirming evidence because you know your time won't be wasted.

Belief, then, is about simplifying our world view and keeping our memories manageable. However, while it may make the world more manageable on a day to day basis, beliefs are not useful in scientific research (or serious paranormal research). If we want to truly understand the paranormal, we have to learn to forget our belief-ridden assumptions and look at the world as it really is, however complicated it might be.

So there you have my theory on beliefs. Do I believe it? Well, maybe ...

29 Jan 2008: Half rod - half insect!

Insect turning into a flying rodIt was bound to happen. Yes, the flying rods are back! And this time they mean business.

Since we already have a photo of an insect turning into an orb, it was only a matter of time before a insect turning into a rod turned up too. These insects certainly lead an interesting life! They are always turning up as photographic artifacts, causing anomaly researchers all sorts of excitement.

In the photo, right, there is a group of rods visible. They are not particularly well focused but at least one (towards the top) shows the classic 'appendages'. The reason some are in focus and others not is that the insects were at various distances from the camera.

Now look at the curious object second from bottom. It looks a bit like an insect but it also has distinctly rod-like properties. It is sharper than the rest of the rods because it was slightly closer to the camera. It is not the best of photos, unfortunately, but it is not easy getting such half insect / half rod photos. The exposure time was 1/60s, so it is within the range covered by video cameras. In low light, their frame exposure times are typically 1/50 or 1/60s. This photo was taken today.

28 Jan 2008: Scientific vigils ARE exciting!

In my entry for 15 Jan, I may have given the impression that evidence-led, scientific vigils are a bit dull compared to the assumption-led variety (as seen on TV). This is untrue!

The fact is, we really don't know what ghosts are! So, in scientific vigils we are probing the frontiers of knowledge. How could that ever be dull? In assumption-led vigils, it is usually assumed that 'ghosts are spirits'. However, the best evidence is that ghosts and hauntings actually have a number of different causes, with 'spirits' actually being one of the least likely. Researchers studying survival ('life after death') almost always ignore ghosts because they know the evidence from them is so weak.

A very important point to consider in relation to ghosts is this - what are hauntings? Most hauntings do not even produce apparition sightings. So a ghost may not be required for a 'haunting' to take place! I realise this contradicts the dictionary definition but real life doesn't always reflect words! Different events (eg odd sounds, object movement) in a haunting may have different (often natural) causes. They may only be linked together as a haunting in the mind of the witnesses. Looked at that way, ghosts (or apparitions) are just another symptom of a haunting. Apparitions may, themselves, have different causes in different cases. Some are probably caused by magnetic fields, for instance.

How about this for an ideal scientific vigil. A witness would be wired up to detect their brain patterns and physiological activity. There would also be various items of monitoring equipment in place where the ghost appeared. The ghost itself would also be videoed when it appeared. So, if the witness claimed to see a ghost and none was visible, their brain and the environment would be monitored to see if anything unusual was happening. To date, we haven't got anywhere near this scenario but maybe one day we will. If we do, we might finally capture a real ghost! That is what I call exciting!

24 Jan 2008: There are no experts in this field

You come across this phrase a lot in paranormal research: 'there are no experts in this field'. Are there be any other fields where people would say that of their own subject? I doubt it! I don't actually agree with the sentiment. There are people who have studied the subject seriously for many years and have learned a lot. Of course, there are also people who have studied it for a long time and learnt little but that's no different to many other fields.

I suspect the statement is actually another way of saying that 'everyone is entitled to their own opinion' on the subject. That's another phrase you come across a lot in our field. It reflects the fact that there is still very little hard evidence around. Unfortunately, this fact has encouraged the rise of 'assumption-led' ghost research. Such research starts with certain assumptions and then tries to find evidence to confirm them. Science, by contrast, starts by gathering evidence and then produces a theory to explain it.

The trouble with 'assumption-led' research is that it tends to lead you back inevitably to your initial assumptions, right or wrong. It is time to return to the tried and trusted methods of neutral, scientific research which has worked so well in other fields.

Further reading (new page): Scientific ghost research

19 Jan 2008: Bees in January!

Honey bee as flying rodDid you know that honey bees fly in January? It's enough to give a cryptozoologist a headache! I took this photo of catkins today (Alder, I believe, unless anyone knows better). There are bee hives near this tree. Apparently, bees clump into a tight ball (in their hive or natural roost) to keep warm during the winter. However, they do sometimes fly, particularly from late January onwards. And with the recent unusually high UK winter temperatures this month, there are catkins about which attract the honey bees.

You might have trouble spotting the honey bee as it was flying while I took the photo. It's that strange arrow-shaped blur in the centre of the frame. You can see the top of a branch with a catkin just below it. The exposure time was 1/30s which explains the movement blur.

You can see the bee's wings as a faint blur along the sides of the 'arrow' shape which is the body of the insect. By coincidence, the overall effect is remarkably similar to certain kinds of flying rod - the ones with a 'membrane' along the side.

So cryptozoologists beware! Animals can appear out of season as well as out of place. I was certainly surprised by the sight and no doubt others would be too. (I only mentioned flying rods once so I think I got away with it ... )

17 Jan 2008: Fancy seeing a ghost, being invisible and photographing a UFO?

UFOIf you answered 'no', I wonder why you're reading this blog. To start with, here's a trick that can make you invisible and allow you to see ghosts!*

Walk alone slowly through a crowded shopping mall. Unless you are behaving strangely, oddly dressed, or not dressed at all, there is a good chance that no one will see you. If you are really lucky, people will continually bump into you, proving that they can't see you. Try standing still to increase your chances of being bumped. The only people who will see you are those who want to sell you something - they appear to be psychic! Now you know what it feels like to be invisible!

So why don't people see each other in a crowd? It's because they are wrapped up in their own personal world that they carry around with them. This is true even of the ones who aren't listening to a music player or talking to someone who isn't present on a mobile phone.

When casual witnesses report seeing apparitions they usually say that they look completely normal (not translucent or glowing like in Hollywood). They also say that apparitions act as though they are not aware of the presence of the witness. Look around at the people passing you in the mall. They match the description of an apparition well! Who knows, maybe one or two of them actually are ghosts! Now you know what it feels like to see a ghost! Spooky, isn't it?

We pay so little attention to what is going on around us these days that it is not surprising when people report figures or objects in photographs that 'weren't there' when they took them. Or at least that's what they say! The truth is, a camera has a much better memory for what was really there than the photographer. If you took the photo above and found that odd flying object on it, would you think it was a UFO, even though you hadn't noticed at the time? Why not a UFO that can only be seen in photographs but not noticed by the naked eye? In reality it's much more likely to have a mundane explanation. The flying object in the photo is a bird - a Kestrel - seen flying sideways on. For some more examples of 'found UFOs' (that were only noticed in photos after the event) visit our UFO Gallery. Still no rods ...

* OK, so not literally but it sure feels like it!

15 Jan 2008: So who made vigils exciting?

Ghost vigilWhat makes watching paint dry feel like a white knuckle ride? Staring at the already dry paint on the walls of a room where nothing whatever is happening! That was how ghost researchers amused themselves in vigils in the late twentieth century. It wasn't surprising when you looked at the task they had set themselves. They wanted to witness, and hopefully instrumentally record, phenomena seen by previous casual witnesses to haunting phenomena. Even very active hauntings might only produce a few reports a week, so the chances of something happening during the few hours of a vigil are always low. In spite of that, unexplained events were recorded from time to time.

Compare that with the exciting vigils of today! There is EVP, orb photos, mediumistic readings, seances, 'calling out', trigger objects, EMF meters (mis-)used as 'ghost detectors' and much more happening! With all that going on, it's not surprising that vigils are much more exciting than they used to be. But are the results useful?

Many of the 'new' techniques have a built-in assumption that ghosts are spirits (which is not supported by much prior evidence). Why else invite mediums to attend? Why 'call out'? Why hold a seance? All of these things are well worth studying in their own right but doing them on a vigil just makes things hugely complicated. It introduces not only extra variables but many complete unknowns. If anything weird does happen it is more likely to be the result of all the extra techniques introduced (all of which have their own problems) rather than the haunting itself, which the researchers are supposed to be studying.

It is time to make vigils simple, and scientifically useful, again, even at the expense of making them dull. Researchers on vigils should concentrate on studying the haunting itself, instead of trying out all sorts of other fun stuff. At the same time, mediumship, EVP and seances etc. should be subject of their own separate controlled studies. Each of them is far too complex to be studied together with other techniques.

So who do we have to thank for the 'modern' vigil with its confusing complexity, unjustified assumptions and doubtful value? The media is the obvious suspect. A properly run scientific vigil would look dull on TV. So the 'ghost hunting' reality TV shows decided to spice things up a bit. TV 'ghost hunting' vigils may be exciting but they don't contribute anything useful to scientific ghost research. It's time to get back to the idea that a dull vigil is a good vigil! And not a flying rod in sight!

11 Jan 2008: Oh no, not more flying rods!

How am I going to justify yet another photo of flying rods? OK how about, no more rods for a while after this.

Flying rod swarm

What is interesting about this photo is that, because the insects are flying in various directions in this swarm, some look quite different to the 'classic' rod. There are 'twisted' ones, for instance, presumably reflecting a change of flying direction during the exposure. Those insects flying directly towards or away from the camera just look like an irregular blob. Others, flying side on, resemble falling leaves floating in the wind. There are also a couple of much smaller insects present, producing very thin lines. One such thin line crosses in front of (or behind) one of the 'main' rods, making an overall strange-looking 'object'. If someone saw that 'object' on its own, what would they make of it? A fairy? An angel? The might not guess two insects! The exposure time was 1/60s for this shot. OK no more flying rods for a while ... definitely ... seriously ... absolutely ... promise ...

9 Jan 2008: Rare close-up of a flying rod!

Hot out of the camera, this dramatic new photo was taken today! With a low winter sun encouraging insects to swarm over water, it was a perfect opportunity to get some new 'flying rod' shots (ie. sunlit insects - if you need an explanation of why these should be 'rods', see here). It really is quite easy to get 'rod' shots in these conditions. This one came as a nice surprise - easily the best of the lot and much better than last time . A telephoto lens was used to get a large image of the 'rod'.

Flying rod

You can really see the detail in this version which used a exposure time of 1/60s (similar to low light modes in video cameras). The movement of the insect wing shows up as rectangular 'flaps' on the near side. You can also see a faint 'surface' under the 'flaps'. I assume this is the bottom limit of the flapping action. It probably shows up because, as the wing changes direction from downward to upward it will effectively slow its motion momentarily.

Another interesting point is that the body of the insect itself also appears to change shape as it flies. It doesn't really change shape, of course, but it may be possible to see more or less of it as the wing flaps in and out of the way of the view from the camera. I make it about 5 wing beats in this exposure, equating to about 300 per second, similar to last time (I presume it is the same species).

Further reading (page updated): Flying rods

8 Jan 2008: Surely orbs can't be dust ...

Those who believe orbs are paranormal are constantly coming up with novel reasons to deny the fact that they are simply photographic artifacts. Whenever I come across a new one, I add it to the 'Frequently Put Objections to orbs as dust' page, which is getting rather long now.

Some people feel uncomfortable with any process they cannot see. Science is, of course, largely about demonstrating processes that you cannot see but some people still think 'seeing is believing'. Thus, one fairly basic objection from such people is that they cannot actually see orb formation taking place. This was answered recently by photos showing a swarm of insects where some were orbs while others were in focus.

But what about dust? How can you take a photograph of a tiny bit of dust that you can't even see with the naked eye? The answer is that the dust must be very close to the camera (for it to be resolved) and brightly lit (to show up). It's not easy taking photos of dust in the air with an ordinary camera but it is possible. You need a very bright light source close to the camera lens.

Dust in the air In this photo, two bits of dust are seen floating above a bright light source. The dust particles appear as light trails because a time exposure of 2s was required to take the photo.

The light from a camera flash unit is also very bright but only lasts around 1/1000 s so freezing the dust into a single circular orb. The very fact that it is so difficult to get photos of dust in focus like this explains why we don't see them in normal photos. However, when they get closer to the camera (and out of focus) they are bright enough to appear as orbs.

Further reading (new page): Orbs - photographing dust

7 Jan 2008: Anomalous phenomena in 2008

Why do we think that journalists are any more prescient than usual at this time of year? Do those headlines proclaiming 'predictions for 2008' really make any difference? Keep the pages from the newspapers claiming to predict what will happen this year and have a good laugh reading them again in December. So what will happen in the world of the paranormal in 2008? I've really no idea! I just study psychic phenomena but don't claim to have any gifts myself.

Anyone living in the UK who is not 'super young' may remember a TV comedy show called 'The Goodies' from three decades ago. There was one moment from the programme that stands for anyone interested in anomalous photos when the 'team' go to Loch Ness to look for the monster. Part of the equipment they take is a specially designed 'monster' camera that takes only fuzzy pictures!

It is, alas, true that some photos allegedly showing monsters, ghosts or UFOs are a bit fuzzy. However, the usual reason why the monster/UFO/ghost is indistinct is because it was not the intended subject of the photo. The anomaly was only noticed afterwards, when the photo was examined carefully. It is generally a tiny object in the background. It may only consist of a few pixels! It is hardly enough to claim that you have photographed a ghost or UFO. Enhancing the photograph often just introduces artifacts ie. something that was never on the original photo but was produced solely by the enhancement process. All enhancement alters the photo and the more you apply the less of the original survives.

There are two lessons to come from this: (a) always set your camera to its maximum resolution / highest picture quality setting (= use all megapixels) - you can always compress photos later, (b) sometimes an 'anomalous' picture just isn't good enough! You have to learn to walk away sometimes, however painful it might be.

4 Jan 2008: New home page

To try and give people a better idea of how big the ASSAP website (over 200 public pages!) has become and how often it is updated, the front page has changed. It is designed to get people into the nitty-gritty quicker while also emphasising what's new. That is why there is no 'real' blog entry today. More 'real' stuff soon.

3 Jan 2008: Ghostly shape floating in the trees

Ghostly white shape floats among treesA ghostly white shape floats through the trees, a bizarre sight on an English winter's day (photo right). It is clearly behind the trees as there is a branch in front of it. It cannot, therefore, be a reflection or photographic artifact. What can it be?

Anyone who has read yesterday's entry first will probably guess. It is, in fact, a bird - a Little Egret. It is the same bird as that pictured below. It is a small white heron, virtually unknown in Britain until a couple of decades ago. A casual observer could, therefore, be forgiven for not knowing what it was. Some people might even think it was a ghost, though only those unfamiliar with serious paranormal research. Reports of apparitions usually say they look just like a normal person. Floating white or transparent shapes are more Hollywood than parapsychology.

People sometimes notice strange objects or shapes in photographs that they didn't notice at the time of exposure. For this reason they may conclude that the shot may be anomalous. In reality, it is easy to miss background details when you are taking a photograph, especially if you are concentrating on the main subject of the photo. Had the white shape in the photo above not been noticed by the photographer at the time, it would indeed have looked odd later on. Alternative explanations might have included a paper bag blowing in the wind. Or it might just have remained a mystery.

2 Jan 2008: When animals move!

Little Egret - once rare in BritainLess than two decades ago, a birdwatcher finding this bird (right) in the UK would probably have called up his friends in excitement and so started a 'twitch'. Little Egrets (a kind of heron) were then confined to the continent, apart from rare visits to Britain. Nowadays Little Egrets breed in Britain and are becoming increasingly common in the south, particularly near the south coast. The bird in the picture was photographed today, in a suburban park. Pure white, it made an extraordinary sight flying around among the bare winter trees. It is easily distinguished from a swan because it is much smaller and its flight more graceful. To anyone who isn't aware of egrets in the UK, it makes an exotic sight resonant of warmer Mediterranean climes.

Does this matter to anyone, apart from birdwatchers? For one thing, its move north is often cited as a possible example of an effect of global warming. For crytozoologists it is also an object lesson. Just because someone reports an animal a long way from its normal range, don't assume there is anything odd about it. Ranges change and are likely to do so more in the future with climate change. Another exotic large white bird, the Spoonbill, may make a permanent home in the UK soon as well, as the climate changes.


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This blog does not contain ALL changes, just the major ones. Minor updates occur all the time.
© Maurice Townsend 2008