ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
Privacy and cookie information ASSAP mailing list

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 ...

29 Jan 2009: Do animals sense ghosts?

It is frequently said that animals, particularly domestic pets, can sense ghosts. This thought is often prompted by pets apparently looking at, or reacting to, things that cannot be seen by human witnesses.

Of course, many animals naturally see and hear things that we cannot. Some animals can hear higher or lower frequency sounds than us. They can also pick up fainter noises. So, if your pet is staring at an empty doorway, they may be able to hear something that you cannot, without it being paranormal.

Pets also react to the moods of their owners. An anxious owner can lead to an anxious pet. A pet might follow an owner's gaze, even when there is nothing to be seen, perhaps to see if there is a threat. This can give the impression that the pet can see something that the owner cannot.

And what about misperception? We know humans misperceive so it is perfectly possible that some species of animal may do so too. Sometimes they may react to unfamiliar objects as if they were a threat, again giving the impression they can sense something that we can't.

A lot of this is speculation but then so is the idea that pets can sense ghosts. If someone misperceives a tree as a ghost, they may pass on their state of anxiety at the sighting to their pet. The pet may then react towards the apparent threat, tending to reinforce the owner's impression that it is really a ghost!

28 Jan 2009: The NEW paranormal research!

People sometimes wonder why I keep banging on about misperception and the xenonormal. Shouldn't I be more interested in the real paranormal? Well, yes, if I could find it ...

That's the problem! Having studied the paranormal for decades, I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that the current paranormal research model simply doesn't work. Someone investigates a haunted house, talking to witnesses, holding vigils and so forth. They decide, albeit cautiously, that there is evidence of paranormal activity. So far so good, though it doesn't really say much about how the paranormal might work.

Then, years later, someone reads the report and realises that all the incidents could easily have been caused by misperception. Nine times out of ten, it is far too late to go back and test that theory. So what are we left with? A case that may, or may not, have been an example of the paranormal! It's not really much use to anyone.

The problem is that paranormal researchers in the field cannot possibly know all the likely prosaic causes to check for. Worse, recent advances in neuroscience (like misperception) mean that a huge number of old 'good' cases now look questionable. It is clear that this approach just isn't working.

This is why I am emphasising the 'new' paranormal research! Yes, people still investigate hauntings (though not using assumption led methods) but, in parallel, we investigate the xenonormal. The idea is produce tests that investigators in the field can use to look for xenonormal explanations. Without such research, we may all be wasting our time!

New article: The new paranormal research

27 Jan 2009: Who ARE the ghosts?

Many investigators and witnesses try to identify ghosts with specific people, usually former inhabitants of a building. Since most ghost cases turn out to have xenonormal explanations, even looking for such an identity reveals that assumption-led investigation methods are being used. Since such methods tend to be self 'confirming', rather than revelatory, they are hardly useful. Even when identities are 'established' it is usually on incredibly flimsy circumstantial evidence (eg. someone died in a house, therefore it must be them!).

So, if someone misperceives a tree as a person, who is it? We know that visual substitutions come from the witness's memory and yet, anecdotally, such figures are not usually anyone known to the percipient! This could be because, as mentioned yesterday, the details of the object being misperceived limit possible interpretations. It might also imply that we have a sort of archetypal 'human figure' in our memories, maybe an amalgam of everyone we've met! Our brains might use it specifically for visual substitutions (or it maybe part of the way our brains differentiate humans from camouflaged surroundings).

I said 'usually' above because there is some anecdotal evidence that familiar people or objects may sometimes appear in visual substitutions. This could give rise to reports of doppelgangers or crisis apparitions if the person seen is still alive (or a ghost if they are not).

From the above, it is likely that if the ghost witnessed is indeed a misperception, they are either likely to be someone known to the percipient or a person that has never actually existed. Either way there is no good case for trying to establish an identity. Unless there is some strong obvious identifying characteristic, seen by independent witnesses, it seems a pointless exercise trying to name a ghost. There is a good chance, in many cases, that 'they' never actually existed!

26 Jan 2009: Where are all the vampires?

The BBC's new series 'Being Human' started last night, featuring a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a house. There was a tinge of deja vu after Saturday's episode of ITV's 'Demons', also about vampires. The media seems keen on vampires right now, no doubt following the success of Buffy and Twilight!

It has been proposed, on this website, that media and cultural influences inform the specific content of xenonormal incidents. In other words, people sometimes misperceive badly-seen trees as ghosts because, unconsciously, they equate the unknown with spooky phenomena.

However, this raises a question. The majority of xenonormal incidents are ghosts or UFOs. However, the content of horror and science fiction films are much more diverse, frequently featuring vampires, werewolves, zombies and so on. There are, however, very few reports of vampires in real life. Why is this, when they are so familiar from TV, books and films?

I think the reason is that misperception is not the same as hallucination - it isn't entirely subjective. A misperception involves seeing an object and then visually substituting it with something else. This means there are limits on size, shape and movement that depend on the object being misperceived.

So, if someone sees a figure in their peripheral vision (which is really a tree), that 'vanishes' when they turn to look at it, a ghost is a good fit. To turn that 'figure' into a vampire would require more specific 'vampiric' behaviour - like biting someone or turning into a bat, maybe! We recognise vampires, werewolves and zombies by their specific behavioural traits rather than purely by their appearance. Since most misperceptions are unlikely to include this specific 'behaviour', it limits our ability to see such beasties.

23 Jan 2009: How highlights become orbs

Water orbs

I took this photo recently on a damp, cold foggy day. It neatly illustrates how orbs form from highlights! Many people don't realise that orbs form from highlights, rather than a whole object. So, when an insect forms an orb, what you are seeing is the expanded, out of focus highlight of just the brightest part of its body. Sometimes an insect has multiple highlights, producing a tight group of overlapping orbs that some people misinterpret as a 'moving' orb!

In the photo above, you can see in-focus water droplets on the right. Note how, because of refraction, only the bottom part of each droplet is bright (it's actually an upside image of the scene behind where the bright bit is the sky!). Now look at the out of focus water droplets on the left. The shape of the bright area is different - it is now a series of interconnected bright circles (seen most clearly in the bottom droplet). These are orbs! Note how the bright orbs only form in the lightest area of the droplet.

Now imagine the water droplets are insects illuminated by a flash. It is easy to see how a relatively large object (compared to dust) might show up as a collection of interconnected orbs. Dust particles are so small that they only have one highlight, which is why they always form single orbs.

22 Jan 2009: The biggest question in paranormal research today!

What's the biggest question in paranormal research today? Hey, it's sunny outside and I'm going out. Actually, it's raining, so...

I read recently a paranormal 'believer' say, on a web forum, that 'skeptics' always had an answer for everything! It was meant as a put down but it got me thinking. There always DOES seem to be an alternative, prosaic explanation for every paranormal reports (like misperception and psychological suggestion). And even research in experimental parapsychology, which has produced a 'small' overall 'yes' for the paranormal experimentally, could be explained away by the 'experimenter effect'.

Why are there no Hollywood moments, like a talking ghost that responds to questions and appears on multiple video cameras at once, in front of several witnesses? Why are there no unchallenged, definitive lab experiments that demonstrate an obvious, large paranormal effect consistently?

These questions lead to the big one - why is the paranormal so incredibly elusive? It has left a maddening situation where many people 'believe' in it and many others don't. And no one can really say that either group is definitively right or wrong! It is what makes our subject so annoying! And fascinating!

21 Jan 2009: It's the flying rod season!

What's the biggest question in paranormal research today? Hey, it's sunny outside and I'm going out. The big question will have to wait for another day. It's the flying rod season!

Flying rods with plant

Still, sunny winter days are the easiest for getting photos of flying rods. You can find swarms of insects around (so much for people saying 'it can't be insects, they don't come out in winter'!) water and plants. Just get the sun behind the insects (though not in the frame!), focus on an object at the same distance (you can't focus on tiny moving insects - I've tried!) and go! To get decent shots you'll need a lot of zoom (or a telephoto lens) to get big images.

The photo above, taken today, shows typical results. Note how the more distant, out of focus, insects appear as orbs! The exposure time was 1/100 second, well within the normal range for a video camera. I used the twig to focus on. It's not a really sharp photo, due to the very high contrast which means the twig is over-exposed.

Note the range of shapes of rods. The insects were all the same species, as far as I could tell. The differences in shape are, I think, largely down to the angle of the insect to the lens.

20 Jan 2009: Unused survival instincts

In the modern world, we don't need our ancient survival instincts much any more. It's unlikely you'll see a lion on the way to the supermarket (not in the most of the world anyway). However, those survival instincts are still there and it is possible that they may be responsible for many apparently paranormal experiences.

For instance, our tendency to see 'faces' or 'figures' when we see shapes that resemble them, could be important to survival. You need to recognise the presence of other humans and, ideally, recognise if they are friendly! Similarly, they way we strongly detect movement in our peripheral vision is probably a survival mechanism to detect possible threats. Nowadays, both of these aspects of normal perception can lead to our seeing 'ghosts' (or thinking we do) when it is really misperception.

The xenonormal, which is responsible for many apparently paranormal experiences, is caused by a witness misinterpreting something they don't recognise. Again, there is a survival value in treating what you don't recognise with caution and even fear. Such fear might trigger the association with the paranormal. This is speculation, of course, but worthy of study, I think.

19 Jan 2009: WYSIWYG thinking

Flying rod and orb
The paranormal has too much WYSIWYG thinking and not enough of the scientific variety! WYSIWYG - pronounced 'wizzy-wig' - is a term most commonly used in computing. It stands for What You See Is What You Get. It refers to the idea that what you see on the computer screen is the same (or very close to) what appears when you print it out.

WYSIWYG thinking is a similar idea but applied to life in general and the paranormal in particular. Specifically, it means trying to understand things by taking them at 'face value'. So, with WSYIWYG thinking one might conclude that the Earth is flat because that's the way it looks. Of course, we all know that the Earth is really spherical and it is never more convincingly demonstrated than by seeing a photo of it from space. Although the Earth was shown to be spherical centuries ago by various means, the image of the planet from space is still a much more powerful argument. We humans have an in-built tendency to trust what we see as being reality.

Science has shown us that almost nothing is just the way it looks. Every object you see, and the air you can't, are made up of tiny invisible atoms. The sun doesn't rise out the ground every day and cross the sky - the Earth rotates on its axis. Obviously, most people know these things because they are 'common knowledge'. However, when it comes to the paranormal, 'common knowledge' lets us down.

It is 'common knowledge' that 'ghosts are spirits'. However, this 'common knowledge' is not supported by real evidence and is, in fact, largely derived from legend and fiction! Unfortunately, science has not, so far, provided definitive explanations for paranormal phenomena. This is probably why legend and fiction fills the gap in 'common knowledge' instead.

Essentially, the WYSIWYG approach looks at an 'effect' (or phenomenon) and 'explains' it from 'common knowledge'. Science, by contrast, attempts to reproduce the effect by testing various theories experimentally. The WYSIWYG approach might work occasionally, more by luck than anything else, but the scientific one should work nearly all the time. That's because the scientific approach looks for factors other than the effect itself - factors that are not immediately obvious but are nevertheless present.

With orbs, for instance, all we have is the circles. We cannot usually see the dust responsible when we take photos. However, it is possible to reproduce orbs by scattering dust close in front of a camera lens while taking a flash photo. The dust shows up as 'orbs' because it is out of focus and strongly illuminated by the nearby flash. Thus, science can reproduce the conditions of orb formation using only conditions known to be present when orb photos are taken. What is more, the 'orb zone theory' can be tested because it makes predictions that cannot be explained by rival theories (such as 'orbs are spirits').

The photo, taken a few days ago, is a rare example of an orb accompanied by a flying rod. The photo isn't great - the flying rod (half way up the left side) is obvious but the orb is less so - it is the orange blob to the right and just above the rod. It is rare to get rods and orbs together because orbs are out of focus while rods are IN focus. However, with a bit of luck and an insect swarm it is possible. The 'rod' insect must have been around the same distance from the camera as the 'in focus' leaf top right. The orb was caused by a more distant insect. Exposure time was 1/100 second, showing that rods aren't restricted to 1/50 or 1/60 only. WYSIWYG thinking would find flying rods mysterious but doing tests with insects reveals their nature.

New article: Avoiding WYSIWYG thinking

16 Jan 2009: The paranormal escalator

There is a tendency, once a place is regarded as haunted, for whatever reason, for the label to stick. Indeed, as it attracts tourists, journalists and ghost researchers, they inevitably witness odd events that tend to confirm the reputation. This can apply equally whether the place is really haunted or not.

There is a sort of 'paranormal escalator' (see pic below) where public interest tends to conspire towards confirming a place as haunted. Like an escalator, it is always moving upwards, the reputation tending always to be strengthened over time. Even if proper scientific investigations reveal that initial witness reports were misperception, those who continue to 'believe' will point to all the 'other reports' that have emerged since.

In fact, many of these 'other reports' are probably the result of psychological suggestion. If you visit a dark, spooky place and see a 'figure', you are more likely to report it as a ghost if you think the place is haunted.

Paranormal escalator

Some places acquire a haunted reputation even when there are no clear witness reports. Just 'looking spooky' can sometimes be enough to attract the attention of people searching for ghosts. Using assumption-led investigation methods almost guarantees 'results', tending to 'confirm' the 'haunting'!

Once a haunted reputation is acquired, it is almost impossible to shift. When did you last hear of a place that was investigated and pronounced 'definitely not haunted'?

All of this can make it tough for serious ghost researchers. The important thing is to look for independent witnesses (with no prior knowledge of the case or each other) reporting similar phenomena. And even then it could still be misperception or some other mundane explanation. There are probably rather fewer haunted places in the world than is generally thought!

New page added: The paranormal escalator

15 Jan 2009: A haunted path?

Haunted pathI visited this (pic right) spooky-looking path (alley, lane?) between two sides of a graveyard recently. The gloomy day, cold and fog added to the eerie, uncomfortable atmosphere. It certainly looks as though it ought to haunted!

At one point I looked at this precise scene, having been gazing in a different direction for some time, only to see a dark figure walking away from me. It struck me as very strange because it is a narrow path, bounded by fences (as you can see) and no one could have got past me without my noticing them. Could it have been a ghost?

For some reason, which I don't quite understand, I stood there thinking about the possibility of an apparition, with a camera in my hand, and never took a photo! I will, in future, have full sympathy with those people who say they saw a ghost but forgot to photograph it. I was too busy debating whether it could be a ghost, by which time the figure had gone!

Luckily, I decided it probably was not a ghost after all. Firstly, the person could have walked towards me, while I was looking the other way, and decided, before reaching me, to turn back for some reason. Maybe they'd changed their mind or had just forgotten to bring out their money. Who can say?

However, on closer inspection I realised that there was another route onto the path. If you look carefully, on the right about half way up the picture, there is an open gate. This allows access to the graves. I hadn't noticed it when I walked along the path myself. Anyone could have come through that gate and walked along the path away from me, just as I observed.

This case illustrates how important it is to examine all natural possibilities before declaring that you have seen a ghost. Oh and, don't just freeze if you see a ghost and have a camera in your hand - take a photo!

14 Jan 2009: A disturbing speculation

If there was no such thing as psi, how would lab parapsychology experiments turn out? You might imagine they would produce 'chance' results overall. In fact, that's unlikely. Instead, there would probably be small deviations from chance due to (a) small sample sizes in some experiments, (b) incorrect calculations of odds (against arriving at a result by chance) and (c) bias unintentionally designed into the judging process.

Further, it is likely that experiments designed by those who believed in psi would tend to show more favourable results than those who did not. This is because of a slight unintentional bias in any judging process the experiment may contain. That doesn't mean the judges are biased (double blinding could eliminate that) but the design of the judgment process could subtly favour, quite unintentionally, a positive outcome for those expecting one. Disbelievers could, similarly, unintentionally design in biases towards negative results. This might explain the experimenter effect where believers tend to get more positive results than skeptics. Since the number of studies done by people believing in psi tends to outnumber the disbelievers, a small positive bias would emerge overall.

What is disturbing is that meta-analyses, statistically summing the results of many psi experiments, reveal pretty much that result - an overall slight result in favour. So, it could either mean (a) psi exists but it is a tiny effect or (b) it does not exist at all! A sobering thought!

Updated page: Evaluating the paranormal

12 Jan 2009: How much do you notice around you?

JayYesterday I was walking along a street when I heard very loud screeching noise. I turned to look and saw exactly what I expected to see - a Jay (pic right). Curiously, I noticed other people walking by did not take any notice of this large (size of a crow), colourful bird, even though it continued to call loudly.

I've noticed this behaviour many times before. There will be a large bird (or maybe a fox or some other big obvious wildlife) in plain view, maybe calling loudly and persistently and yet I seem to be the only one present who notices. One wonders how loud and big something needs to be for some people to notice it.

I realise that, as humans, we are mostly attuned to what other humans are doing. Interestingly, I sometimes notice people, noticing me, noticing wildlife. They look the way I look and probably see nothing of interest. For them, it's just some bird.

To be fair, I am sure there are many things that I don't notice when I'm out and about. But what if someone who doesn't notice a noisy, colourful bird in front of them, reports experiencing something paranormal? How seriously can we take their paranormal report when they don't notice much that's going on around them?

Personally, I take ALL reports of the paranormal seriously. I think they are all equally worthy of proper investigation, irrespective of the circumstances. However, it is easy to see why so many paranormal reports turn out, on investigation, to be xenonormal. If people don't notice what is right in front of them, almost anything they DO see could be taken as paranormal, in the right context (like low light). I think if everyone noticed more about their environment, there would fewer paranormal reports.

9 Jan 2009: The forms misperception takes

Our misperception survey is already turning up some useful results (thanks to everyone who has contributed so far), spreading the net of witnesses and experiences. One useful area it is illuminating is the many forms that misperception takes. Obviously, there are various apparently paranormal phenomena but there is much more. I hope to grow this list (hugely), which currently stands as follows:

  • figures and faces (eg. a 'ghost') (note 1)
  • things feared (eg. a watching 'person', a 'shadow ghost', unexplained movement)
  • UFOs (note 2)
  • things that used to be there (note 3)
  • things hoped for (note 4)

Note 1: There is a specific area of the brain (the right middle fusiform gyrus) apparently dedicated to facial recognition - other objects are recognised by other areas. It is, perhaps, unsurprising then that sometimes objects are misperceived as faces. People are also prone to 'over-recognising' human figures for social and survival purposes - you need to know if there is a person present and if they are a possible threat or maybe a friend. The ghost connection probably arises if the figure vanishes on closer inspection.

2: The word UFO is, of course, widely taken to mean 'alien spacecraft' in popular culture. This probably explains why unidentified flying objects are typically interpreted as 'flying saucers'.

3: When we misperceive, objects are substituted from visual memory. While these can be fictional objects (from films, TV programmes, etc) they can also be real. It is therefore not surprising if we 'see' things as present that were once there but have been removed. We might still sometimes glimpse a once treasured possession, in half light, when it has been thrown away. This, also, feeds into the idea of ghosts as 'recordings'.

4: When naturalists particularly want to see a species they've never encountered before, they can sometimes 'turn' a similar but more common animal into it (when not seen well!). They are convinced they've seen what they desperately wanted to see even though it is not so. This no doubt happens in other circumstances when people particularly hope to see something (or even someone) not actually physically present!

Keep the survey forms coming in, so we can see the full extent of misperception. It is extraordinary that this field is no neglected. Perhaps the reason is that most people interpret misperception as paranormal and immediately make assumptions that affect how they research it.

One respondent to the survey wrote: " Saw a man standing in a heavy fog near my house, but as I turned to get a better look, there was no one there, only swirling fog." Also: " I was sure I saw a large iguana underneath an overpass, sitting up in the support beams. When I climbed up for a better look, I found that it was simply a glob of errant concrete that was growing some lovely green moss across the top. Several others also "saw" this creature at the time."

PS: The Guardian reckons the 'wind farm UFO' (see yesterday) was caused by fireworks.

8 Jan 2009: UFO hits wind farm?

UFOWhen does the failure of a couple of wind farm turbine blades become exciting enough for the national newspapers and BBC to report? When someone claims it was caused by a UFO! Balls of light were seen 'flying' in the vicinity of the wind farm, at Conisholme near Louth, on Sunday (4 Jan) as well as an unidentified aircraft. Local ufologists say they have had many UFO reports from the area.

The problem with media stories like this is that reporters arrive soon after the event before any conclusions can be reached. The damaged turbine blades have been sent away for analysis which should determine what caused the damage. They could, for instance, have been damaged by ice thrown from one turbine to another. Ice throw is one of several recognised possible causes of wind turbine failure. We have, in the UK, been experiencing an unusual 'big freeze' for many days.

Even the UFO report itself is problematic. One witness saw lights approaching the wind farm hours before a loud crash was heard. Whatever the UFO was, there seems no obvious reason to link it directly to the turbine failure, given this big time gap.

What we have is an, as yet, unexplained wind turbine failure and a UFO report several hours before the likely time of the failure. That doesn't really add up to a UFO hitting a wind farm. Nor does the presence of a UFO imply that alien spacecraft were involved. The vast majority of UFO reports have mundane explanations. The remaining reports are usually only unexplained due to a lack of evidence.

It might make a good news story but, even at this early stage, before a proper investigation has been undertaken, the incident doesn't really justify all the media interest.

PS: After I wrote the entry above, various news organisations, including the BBC (as you will see if you follow the link above), started mentioning the 'ice throw' theory! I wonder if they read it here ... :)

7 Jan 2009: A decent TV programme on the paranormal!

I congratulate Channel 4 on producing a remarkably even-handed mini-series of TV programmes over the holiday period entitled 'Tony Robinson and the Paranormal'. The affable Tony Robinson presented three programmes on Helen Duncan, Frederick Bligh Bond and Arthur Guirdham. Readers may be familiar with some or all of these cases (especially Bond whose story was featured in ASSAP's Anomaly vol 23).

Helen Duncan was a medium who became famous for announcing the sinking of ships during WW2 before the news was officially released to the public. Frederick Bligh Bond used automatic writing to predict where previously undiscovered foundations of parts of Glastonbury Abbey were subsequently excavated. Arthur Guirdham was a psychiatrist who had a patient whom he was convinced he had met in a previous life as a Cathar.

The programmes were a pleasant change from usual 'factual' TV programmes about the paranormal which tend to weigh in heavily as either 'believing' or 'skeptical'. Though this series sometimes felt slightly like a 'quest', the programmes nevertheless allowed people from both 'sides' to fairly argue their case. It would be great if this series could become regular!

One of the things that struck me was that in each case, whether mediumship, automatic writing or reincarnation, it was likely that the supposed paranormal element originated from the unconscious part of someone's brain. We now know that the conscious part of our brains do far less than the rest. Consciousness seems only to give us a picture of what is going on and the ability to take long term decisions. Everything else, crucially including long term memory and perception, is in the unconscious bit outside our voluntary control.

In the case of mediumship or automatic writing, these may be ways of accessing bits of our unconscious that are not normally readily accessible. In particular, memories and ideas we weren't aware we had might come to light. Bond, for instance, may have had his idea of where to find a lost chapel not from dead monks but his own unconscious thoughts. The automatic writing may have been a way to access those ideas and memories that would never have otherwise emerged. As such, these methods might be a key to creativity.

When people assume they have gained information paranormally, as a psychic for instance, they may actually be underestimating the power of their own brains. Had Bond decided he was really talking to his own unconscious through automatic writing, he would have been seen as a genius. Instead, his reputation suffered hugely. Several famous scientists have admitted getting some of their best theories from visions or dreams, without invoking the paranormal.

It would be interesting to see if a 'normal' way could be found to access these same unconscious ideas. Perhaps, by temporarily 'switching off' the 'logic filter' that tries to make sense of everything, we could gain access to such ideas without the need to invoke the paranormal. That sounds like a future research project!

6 Jan 2009: Why no 'ambiguous stimuli'?

Regular readers of parapsychological literature may have come across 'ambiguous (sensory) stimuli' as an explanation for some ghost sightings. An 'ambiguous sensory stimulus' is one where there is insufficient data available to decide which of several possible sources may have produced it. So a vague scratching sound, for instance, could be a mouse, furniture under stress or a finger scratching wood or something else.

We have not used this term here because it only forms a small subset of the wider xenonormal (which includes anything the witness does not recognise). As noted in the 5 Jan entry below, there is a specific brain mechanism that logically unites all the xenonormal as an explanation for most paranormal reports. This makes it more logical to consider the xenonormal as a whole, rather than divide it into subsets. Further, it is not the 'sensory stimulus' that is important (ambiguous or otherwise) but how it is perceived.

In practice, most paranormal cases involve sensory stimuli that are not at all ambiguous, simply unrecognised by their witness. For instance, many people in the UK are familiar with the 'too-wit-too-woo' call of the Tawny Owl. But how many are familiar with its other calls or the eerie hissing and screech of the Barn Owl? The call of a nearby Barn Owl would be completely unambiguous, to a birdwatcher, but utterly unfamiliar, and chilling, to most UK residents. And consider orbs. To a serious photographer orbs are easily recognised as circles of confusion. However, orbs are continually reported to ASSAP, and other paranormal research organisations, by people who are puzzled by them and consider them paranormal. They are not ambiguous, just unrecognised by non-specialists. The same is true of vigils. Most xenonormal sights and sounds encountered on vigils are not ambiguous but easily recognisable to some people (eg. the sound of water in plumbing faintly resembling whispering) but many don't recognise them and interpret them as paranormal, given the context.

So, while ambiguous stimuli are certainly a cause of paranormal reports, they are a minor subset of the more general xenonormal.

5 Jan 2009: Can the xenonormal be explained by a quirk of our brains?

Our brains have a a strong in-built urge for 'logical' explanations that could be responsible for many xenonormal experiences (which appear paranormal). I put logical in quotes because, sometimes, it can give rise to our perceiving, or recalling, things that are not strictly real!

For instance, you might see a tree on a dark night as a person. Your brain has substituted the figure of a person for the poorly seen tree. This happens in the unconscious part of your brain so that, by the time it is presented to your consciousness, it appears to be fact. You will really 'see' the person, not the tree, and believe it.

What is more, when you remember seeing the 'person', you may recall extra 'details', like clothing, on the figure that you couldn't possibly have seen. This extra detail comes from another process, a quirk of memory called confabulation. It , too, is your brain's attempt to make sense of a vague memory by 'filling in' spurious details to make it more logical or self-consistent. After all, if it was a real person (or ghost), they were almost certain to have been clothed (this may explain why ghosts are almost always seen wearing clothes which seems unnecessary if they are spirits).

What is interesting is that both misperception and confabulation share the same quirk - the 'need' by our brains to make sense of incomplete information. This single quirk of our brains (a sort of 'logic filter') may be responsible for most of the reports of apparently paranormal events ever recorded! That's quite a thought for the New Year!

2 Jan 2009: New Year new meme

So here is 2009. I can't say it feels much different to 2008, so far. So, back to memes. Just to recap, memes are ideas that self-replicate and propagate within our culture. Some memes are obviously 'true' while others, like 'orbs are spirits', don't appear to be supported by evidence. There are a lot of such unlikely memes in the field of the paranormal. This is why paranormal researchers should make an effort to understand them.

What is curious is how such unlikely memes survive at all? If I said that I had seen many oranges that were blue with yellow dots (rather than the usual orange), most people would be rightly skeptical. It is unlikely that such an idea would propagate as a meme. The reason is obvious. We can see oranges in any supermarket or, if we're lucky, in a tree and we know they are orange in colour.

Compare that with the meme that 'orbs are spirits'? Orbs are quite common, just like oranges. However, and here's the difference, the mechanism that causes them is not. A serious photographer would recognise an orb at once as a circle of confusion. However, most people would not. This leaves a 'gap in information' for a large section of the population for the 'orb spirit' meme to fill (as it has).

Water RailI think it is such 'gaps in information' in sizeable sections of the population that lead to unlikely memes. Indeed, it takes us back to the concept of the xenonormal, where someone sees something they are not familiar with and interprets it as paranormal. And why do witnesses reach for paranormal explanations when there is a 'gap'? It is likely to be the influence of the culture.

Another curious thing about memes is, why do they propagate at all? Why do some ideas become incredibly popular while others go nowhere. It is clearly not simply because they are untrue. I think it comes down to a strong human tendency to imitate. We feel more comfortable doing something if someone else has done it before - particularly if it is someone we know. It explains fashions, where everyone wants the same thing at the same time. It also helps if people hang out with other people who believe the same meme.

PS: The latest ASSAP website stats stand at an average of 6210 hits per day (not include crawlers and bots!) for December.

PPS: The bird photo? See December's blog ...


Previous blog pages ...

© Maurice Townsend 2009