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

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

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

29 Jan 2010: Another day, another ghost!

I walked into a well-lit room recently to see, in the 'corner of my eye', a figure standing motionless to my right. Startled, since I knew I was alone, I turned to look straight at the figure. Instead I saw several objects that happened to line up to form a long thin shape with dimensions resembling a human figure. I was, however, amazed that I had misperceived this collection of objects as a single figure for several reasons.

Firstly, the objects were different colours and one of them wasn't even an object, it was a shadow! I saw the whole assembly as a figure dressed in dark brown! Secondly, the objects were not all stacked vertically. The lower part of the 'figure' was lying on the floor but it still gave an impression of a vertical standing body!

It is well known that colour and shape perception are poor in peripheral vision. So, I could understand how the different objects were melded together in my brain as a single object with one main colour. But the inclusion of a shadow with other objects was a surprise, as was the fact that part of the figure was formed by something on the ground, at a different angle to the rest. It goes without saying that my attempts to reproduce the misperception have failed. Without the element of surprise, it just doesn't work.

I've learned from this experience that shadows can act as extensions to misperceived objects. I've also learned the brain's interpretation of an object can even change its spatial relationship, making something on the ground appear vertical. It seems that if your brain is determined to turn a shape into a ghostly figure, it can adapt its raw materials with ease! The most important thing is the overall shape, not what makes it up!

I frequently report my misperceptions here and someone might legitimately ask, how do I know they are not really paranormal? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, I see these ghostly figures in all sorts of places, not just known haunted locations. Secondly, I've only started noticing these figures since I found out what misperception was capable of, having previously had no luck with seeing ghosts despite decades of trying. Thirdly, I've never shown any psychic ability, despite doing many tests. Fourthly, and most tellingly, I can usually SEE the figure plainly turn into the real object that I am misperceiving. It is even possible to work out what features of the tree, bush or other object suggest a face, clothes and other 'features' of the apparition.

However, I can see how it would be very easy for someone, who does not appreciate what misperception is capable of, to interpret their sighting as a ghost. Indeed, the scenario of a figure being seen, when it should not have been there, which then vanishes, is typical of many sightings. If only witnesses were to examine the scene of their sighting at the time, they might solve the mystery themselves. Of course, usually such an experience is a complete surprise (and indeed it might be a precondition for misperception to work) so few people will consider the possibility. Just as people new to orbs will continue to report 'mysterious white circles' in their photos, so witnesses unfamiliar with misperception will continue to report poorly-seen trees as ghosts.

Perhaps a more interesting question is, why do people sometimes notice misperceptions but mostly do not? I suspect it may be to do with the situation or, more specifically, the psychological state of the witness. If you are in a spooky place you may notice misperceptions that you would completely ignore walking along the street.

28 Jan 2010: Do we love mysteries too much?

I sometimes think most people prefer mysteries to explanations, whereas I love solutions. Look at almost any web page, TV programme or magazine about the paranormal and it is all about mystery rather than explanation. There is almost a note of triumph in the final statement of most haunting reports where the events are described as 'not yet explained'! In other fields, such a conclusion would be seen as a prompt for more effort.

One of the problems seems to be that people always look at the same evidence in the same way. Inevitably, that means they will reach the same conclusions, usually none. For instance, everyone who has ever organised a ghost vigil knows that there are a few hot spots of paranormal activity within a haunted building and little or nothing happens elsewhere. What is more, the same kind of activity tends to always take place in the same hot spot. So, there might be one room where the apparition of a man is sometimes seen while, in another, footsteps are heard and in a third, dragging sounds are heard. These hot spots are clearly a major clue to how hauntings work and yet virtually no one appears interested in them.

There are lots of other things that can be said about haunted places and ghosts which are often observed but seldom mentioned, far less analysed. Perhaps it is because these clues don't fit into assumption-led ideas of investigation so they are not noted. Or maybe it's because people really do prefer a mystery to an explanation!

27 Jan 2010: Why some people are more easily hypnotised than others

In another interesting article in this week's New Scientist (23 Jan) there is an account of some new research into hypnosis. Any scientific research into hypnosis is to be welcomed because, despite its long history, it is still a largely mysterious phenomenon, which is why ASSAP looks into it.

The new research addresses the question of why there is so much variation in the population in susceptibility to hypnosis. Around 15% of people are highly susceptible, 10% pretty much impervious and everyone else somewhere between those extremes. New evidence suggests that susceptibility is highest in people with a marked difference in efficiency between the two hemispheres of their brain. It is suggested that hypnosis requires the right hemisphere to temporarily dominate overall brain function. This is easier in people who have an imbalance in the relative efficiency of the two hemispheres.

26 Jan 2010: Does human learning explain repeat witnesses?

FoxYesterday I discussed how recent scientific theories of human intelligence see us building unconscious 'models' in our brains of how the world behaves. This prompted a further thought.

The world generally divides into those who see ghosts several times in their life and those who never see even one! It is as though seeing one ghost sensitises the witness to enable them to see more. There may be a parallel here with the fact that once I started noticing misperceptions (noted in this blog frequently), they became a regular experience. There may be a further parallel with how some people think they are psychic. It is a belief generally set off by a specific weird incident, after which strange experiences become regular.

All of this made me wonder if, once someone misperceives a ghost, for instance, whether their brain might develop an unconscious 'model' labeled 'ghost', based on that experience. Then, any subsequent similar misperceptions will automatically be seen as ghosts too. It may be the brain 'model' of ghost (or misperception or psychic event) that makes similar experiences more frequent. Your brain starts to 'recognise' such experiences more easily and label them according to your first interpretation. This interpretation may, in turn, depend on the witness's prior knowledge of paranormal subjects, so someone who 'believes' in ghosts (or who just likes ghost stories or horror films) may be more likely to 'see' one (just as my understanding of misperception made me start to notice it).

This would certainly explain how some people never see a ghost while others see several during their lifetime. The same can be said about UFOs 'repeater' witnesses, who frequently see strange things in the sky that others don't notice. It could all be down to how the initial experience is interpreted. Misperceive a poorly-seen tree as a ghost once and you will probably repeat the experience again and again in similar circumstances!

Meanwhile, I'm still trying to repeat my mini-OOBE. On staring at the bricks again I have occasionally felt a little weird but I've never seen them up really close again. I am now on the lookout for a non-working escalator to see if this can do the trick. When you're in a hurry, with heavy luggage, such broken down escalators are easy to find. But look for one for scientific research purposes and they are all suddenly working perfectly!

And the photo of the fox? Keep your shoes indoors now as urban foxes seem to have become much more active recently in the UK, following the end of the cold spell.

25 Jan 2010: Intelligent oil?

In this week's New Scientist (23 Jan) there is an article about an experiment where a blob of oil acted intelligently (didn't that happen in the X Files?). The blob consistently, and correctly, made its way through a maze towards the exit with only a few minor diversions along the way. It was able to do this because there was a pH gradient across the maze from the entrance to the exit. Thus the oil blob was only obeying physical laws rather than exhibiting real intelligence!

However, two interesting things come out of this experiment. Firstly, it shows that inanimate objects can sometimes exhibit apparent intelligence when they are simply obeying physical laws. This is important in paranormal research because 'intelligent behaviour' is often claimed to show that a phenomenon is paranormal. For instance, it is often claimed that orbs show 'intelligence', in the timing of when they appear, for instance. In reality there is no evidence that orbs are paranormal and any 'intelligent behaviour' is usually simple coincidence.

The second interesting point is that some scientists believe that the way the oil blob moves may be a model for how animal (including human) intelligence may work. Specifically, we observe our environment with our senses and form models in our brains about how the world works. From this we can predict that an object released above the ground will fall vertically down, for instance, without ever needing to be told this. This explains how WSIWYG thinking works. We learn about the world unconsciously through personal observation. The problem is that science shows us that there is much more complexity in the universe than that we observe in day to day experience. So when we experience something unfamiliar (the xenonormal), we have a tendency to see it in terms of cultural memory (seeing poorly viewed trees as ghostly figures, for instance) so believing it to be paranormal when, in reality, it may be something perfectly natural.

22 Jan s010: Street light puzzle

Street light interferenceThe other evening I was out in the dark, chill air when I noticed a sodium streetlight kept blinking out. It was on for most of the time but, at what seemed random intervals, it would go out for several seconds before coming back on. Mindful of SLI (street light interference), I watched for a while to see if people were walking underneath it when it went out. Most of the time there was no one there when it went out but on two occasions there were. So there seemed to be no obvious correlation between people walking by and the lamp going off.

However, if I happened to be walking by when that lamp went off it would be tempting to view it as a case of SLI. Indeed, such things have happened to me on a couple of occasions in the past at other lamps. One of them went off whenever anyone walked by, implying some sort of fault in the light itself. If lights often went off when I walked by it would be well worth researching. However, a couple of times in a lifetime is probably just a coincidence.

ASSAP was involved in early SLI research and continues to maintain an interest now. If anyone has street lights going off (or on) regularly when they pass (either in a car or on foot), please get in touch with the research department.

20 Jan 2010: Are newspaper reports of paranormal activity worth keeping?

One of the major problems in paranormal research is that many people base their knowledge of ghosts and other weird stuff on second-hand reports, like newspaper stories, books containing traditional legends or accounts from friends of their own experiences. In many cases, such reports have never been thoroughly investigated. Or they HAVE been but only using assumption-led, rather than evidence-led, methods. All of this explains why so many people have ideas about the paranormal that are not supported by the available evidence.

So, is it worth keeping newspaper reports of paranormal activity? Such reports are certainly a good starting point for initiating your own investigation. But what about researching such questions as the distribution and habits of ghosts or UFOs? The problem is, we know from experience that if all these newspaper reports were properly investigated, most would turn out to have xenonormal explanations. Thus you are not looking at a single phenomenon but many different ones, with differing explanations. Comparisons would be likely to produce spurious information.

There is one good reason to keep newspaper reports - they can help build up a picture of what has happened at a particular site. They can provide invaluable background material for possible future investigations. Provided you realise their limitations as a research resource, newspaper reports can be worth keeping.

18 Jan 2010: Who is afraid of ghosts?

In fiction, it is always taken as read that ghosts are frightening. In real life too, when people report seeing a ghost, it can be a distressing experience. But who is really afraid of ghosts, and why?

In the case of someone experiencing something weird and unknown, it is natural that they may be anxious. The unknown is always a significant source of fear for most people. Many witnesses only decide they've seen a ghost AFTER the event! This might be because the 'figure' vanishes or walks into a wall or simply 'shouldn't be there' (perhaps because the witness is alone in a locked house). But during the sighting, the figure may appear quite normal and rarely, if ever, reacts to the witness, and so may not be obviously threatening.

Sometimes the witness may be anxious during the encounter, if seeing any figure is completely unexpected for instance. But if they only realise afterwards that they've seen a ghost, that may be when they start to feel fear. In the first case, where the witness is surprised by what they see, the fear may simply be of the unknown. In the second case, it may come because they are 'supposed' to be scared of ghosts because that is the common belief.

When people experience ghosts, or haunting activity, regularly they may stop feeling anxious about it. Some ghosts are given nicknames and may even be missed if their presence is not noted for an extended period of time.

In summary, most of the fear associated with ghosts probably originates either because (a) it is an encounter with the unknown (which in many cases is xenonormal - an unrecognised but natural phenomenon) or (b) because witnesses have been conditioned, by every horror film they've seen or ghost story they've read, to believe that ghosts are scary.

15 Jan 2010: Inducing OOBEs

My fascination with OOBEs (out of the body experiences) continues. I've been looking at how people deliberately induce them (see here for instance). ASSAP's original Project Merlin included a module on the Christos Technique. Briefly, this involves someone lying in a darkened room while one person massages their forehead and another their feet. The subject is then asked to imagine they are growing in size.

What is interesting here is that the sense of vision is negated by the darkened room and massaging can fool the 'touch senses' about where the edges of the body are. So this supports the idea of at least two the TPJ's (temporoparietal junction) sensory inputs giving inaccurate information. Many methods of inducing OOBEs also include using the imagination. It may not simply be enough to have two sensory routes delivering wrong data for an OOBE to occur. It is possible that our brains need to also be in a particular state.

When I had my recent mini-OOBE, I don't remember thinking about anything in particular. I was just walking along. This 'neutral' state may have a similar effect to actively imagining something other than what you are currently doing. Walking is an automatic activity that allows us to think about other things, or nothing special, as we do it.

When people have spontaneous OOBEs in a near-sleep state, they may well be getting REM intrusion, meaning they are partly dreaming and partly awake. It would seem likely that this is a similar brain state to actively imagining.

So perhaps there are three elements required, overall, to having an OOBE without specialist equipment. At least two of the senses that inform our brain of where our body is in space must be giving inaccurate, or no, information and we need to be in a particular mental state - like imagining, dreaming (including day dreaming) or meditating. That's probably why I am having trouble repeating the experience, despite revisiting the exact spot where it happened regularly. My brain is simply not in the correct state. I need, I suspect, to be day dreaming and not thinking about having OOBEs!

14 Jan 2010: Winter insects!

Sun through snowy treesAfter another big snowfall, we are now in the midst of a major thaw here in the UK. I noticed a lot of insects around today, despite the temperature still being only a few degrees Celsius. I have also seen insects flying around on even colder days. This may come as a surprise to many people who associate insects flying with much warmer conditions. However, it is a common to see a cloud of insects gathered over a body of water on crisp, cold winter days.

The reason this matters is that insects can produce flying rod and orb photos. If such a photo was taken on a cold day in winter, some people will claim it could not have been an insect, which is incorrect. Indeed, winter is the best time of year to take flying rod photos in the UK because the sun is low (to allow good back-lighting) and it is possible to predict quite easily where insects will by flying.

I've also been hearing lots of strange noises today, like animals moving around, in bushes and other vegetation. Looking at the area concerned reveals no further movement. The most likely explanation is not animals at all but melting snow falling to the ground! Woods can sound alive with movement on such days, despite a lack of animals and people. Anyone unaware of the cause might feel, perhaps uneasily, that they are not alone!

12 Jan 2010: What triggers OOBEs?

I've been thinking about the mini-OOBE (out of the body experience) I had recently. It made me wonder about what triggers the feeling of seeing the world from a different viewpoint to the usual one of 'behind the eyes'. The most common trigger seems to be near-sleep experiences. This is not so surprising now that we know that going to sleep in a complex process. Effectively, out brains change to a sleep state gradually and at any time during the process some bits may be asleep and others still awake.

We know the TPJ (temporoparietal junction) in our brains maintains our sense of where we are in space using sight, touch and 'balance' (from the inner ear) to do so. If the TPJ were to lose touch with its sources of information, if some of them were in a sleeping state, it might trigger an OOBE. Apart from sleep, other known OOBE triggers include trance and meditation, certain drugs and sensory deprivation. In a lab experiment, it has been done by showing someone an image of themselves as well as using touch.

In my own experience it appeared to be a loss of spatial perspective that was the trigger. I was not convinced that such a visual trick was enough on its own, particularly as I have been unable to reproduce it. But then I remembered that, in addition, I was looking downwards while walking which would might have confused my inner ear's balance sensors. Just as touch was required, in addition to vision, in the lab experiment mentioned above, it may take two inputs to the TPJ to be confused for a trigger. If it didn't, people would be having OOBEs all over the place!

The same confusion of two senses might apply to the case of people feeling weird on motionless escalators (described below). In this case the combination of losing perspective through the striped stairs and the balance problem (because we expect such stairs to move) might combine to trigger an OOBE.

I recall many years ago getting caught in a white-out. This is when you are in a heavily snow-covered landscape under a grey cloudy sky so that the sky and ground look so similar and featureless that they seem to merge together. It is very disorientating and I remember feeling strange. The only way I could see where I was going was to look down at my own footsteps and retrace them. Possibly this situation induced a mini-OOBE too. I was effectively in a state of sensory deprivation, barely able to distinguish up from down.

So it looks as though the TPJ may be fooled into producing an OOBE if two or more of its sensory sources, like vision and balance, are supplying inaccurate information simultaneously.

Another interesting aspect of OOBEs is that they demonstrate dramatically how what we see is a construct of our brains, rather than a direct sensory feed from our eyes. How else could our brains construct a view from somewhere outside our heads, sometimes staring back at our own bodies? Although some people regard OOBEs as paranormal, there is little hard evidence to support this idea and much neurological science to show how they are a brain thing. Information gathered during OOBEs can usually be attributed to other senses (particularly hearing and touch) and memory.

Then I wondered about dark vigils. This is when we look for ghosts at haunted locations in subdued light or total darkness. Such conditions immediately remove one of the TPJ's sensory inputs. Other experiences in the dark, such as being touched, could therefore induce a OOBE so leaving the witness disorientated. It reminded my own 'hand in the dark' experience. I now see that I could easily have misunderstood the position of my hand during that experience. I wonder if any other apparently paranormal experiences during dark vigils and seances could be accounted for by mini-OOBEs. It could cause confusion about where the observer is in space and where other objects are too.

11 Jan 2010: Legends of the thaw

Here in the UK, the cold spell is gradually easing. There is still snow everywhere and it is still cold but there is a slow thaw taking place. It is time to watch out for weird foot prints in the snow. However, you have to be aware that the prints are probably only weird because they have partially melted rather than 'something wicked' has this way come!

I was standing in a bus shelter recently when I heard a strange thumping noise behind me. Since I knew there was nothing behind the bus shelter except bushes, I was naturally intrigued. Watching for a while I saw the source of the noise - snow was melting on the roof of the shelter and falling off in large chunks.

Again, recently, I was looking out of a window at what should have been a static scene when I noticed movement in the corner of my eye. It was caused by water droplets falling from melting snow, catching the sunlight. It would look even more dramatic if it caught moonlight (though that is unlikely as clear skies usually corresponds with a frosty night in winter).

As always, there is nothing like investigating strange phenomenon at the time they are witnessed. It can be hard to reproduce the exact conditions of a sighting at a later date.

8 Jan 2010: Still cold!

More snow!No sign of the end of the UK's cold spell, alas. I was watching a man walking along a snow-covered street today and it was easy to hear his footsteps crunching loudly on the hard white surface. Except something felt wrong! The footsteps were much too fast for his cautious gait. Then I saw why - the footsteps I could hear were from another man walking quickly on the other side of the road. If I'd never seen the fast walking man, I would still be left wondering how I could hear one thing and see another. It gave me a weird feeling watching it. Such contradictions between the senses can easily give rise to reports of the paranormal.

I had another weird experience yesterday though this one is a regular event. There is a van, parked in the same place more or less every week day, that I see often. Behind the driving seat there is usually a jacket hanging with a cap just above it. Needless to say, it gives the impression of someone sitting in the seat, when glanced at casually. Unlike misperceived trees, this same 'illusion' seems to catch me out every single time! I walk near the van, get a feeling I'm being watched and look up to see only the jacket. I think it is much more powerful than the average misperception because it is what I expect to see - a person in the driving seat of a car. When I misperceive a tree as a human figure, it usually comes as a surprise.

7 Jan 2010: The cold goes on!

KingfisherThe big freeze goes on in the UK with snow and ice all around. Such freezing conditions can produce unusual sightings of nature. These, in turn, can produce paranormal reports from those not familiar with such phenomena.

For instance, various animals can be easier to see in such conditions. That's because ice and snow may reduce the number of places where they can look for food. You might see a brilliant blue streak flashing across a rare patch of unfrozen water and wonder what it is. As the motion-blurred photo, right, shows, it is a Kingfisher (taken a few days ago). You might even see a hint of the orange underside if you are lucky. To anyone unfamiliar with these spectacular birds, the whole sighting might only last seconds and remain unexplained. You might also notice unfamiliar birds, like Redwings or Fieldfares, visitors from Scandanavia, in large numbers during cold weather. Other, more familiar, birds might vanish from an area as they seek less frozen places.

Ice and snow can produce their own strange sights too. Snow can look oddly blue when it reflects the sky on a bright sunny day, for instance. And it can sound odd, like crushing cardboard, when you walk on it. The snow also absorbs noise making the great outdoors sound strangely silent. And at night everything can appear oddly light, due to the white snow. Newly fallen snow can be blown around in tiny local whirlwinds, resembling ghostly white figures when seen from a distance. Ice can appear odd colours too when it forms thick icicles or sheets (on frozen waterfalls).

Then there are mysterious footprints! Apart from human ones, most will probably be made by pets, in urban areas, as well as foxes. But some seem to defy recognition! This may be because they have partially melted and deformed. Or maybe something truly rare walked by when you weren't looking!

6 Jan 2010: In the bleak midwinter!

SnowAs the UK shivers in its longest coldest spell for decades, there is fluffy snow falling gently outside (with more on the way) onto an unusually picturesque white scene. It looks as though someone dropped a huge bag of flour over everything!

I am reminded that in traditional folk tales and ghost stories, winters are always cold and snowy. In recent decades, UK winters have been historically mild (until now)! However, it is unlikely that all winters in previous centuries were particularly cold. It is more likely that it is only the snowy dramatic winters that are remembered, hence their regular appearance in traditional tales and gothic horror stories.

We obviously remember the extraordinary rather than the common place. It is what makes us susceptible to the xenonormal. Paranormal experiences are clearly unusual. However, in many cases such experiences are not paranormal at all but unrecognised natural occurrences. This includes rare coincidences, misperception and unusual brain states, like near-sleep experiences.

It is not so surprising, then, that many of our traditional tales revolve around exceptional weather, rare natural events and apparent paranormal experiences. In an ironic feedback loop, such tales then inform the content of modern paranormal experiences. This is probably why so much modern paranormal research revolves around traditional beliefs rather than concentrating on a strictly scientific, evidence-led approach. The traditional tales and ideas appeal to something deep within us - a desire to see and touch the amazing, the extraordinary. Even a fall of snow can turn a familiar landscape into a magical place. Somehow it seems the inevitable backdrop to something extraordinary. No doubt people will report some bizarre and fantastic experiences in the snow scenes all around over the next few days.

5 Jan 2010: Not getting the whole picture

Lens flareAs we shiver through the coldest UK winter for decades, possibly a century, more snow is on the way! At least it's always warm in cyberspace!

The photo, right, was taken on a recent very cold day and is a nice example of lens flare (the orangey glow top and bottom), which causes many reports of paranormal photos. It was taken pointing towards the setting sun. However, it also illustrates something else - the difficulty in judging perspective that can occur both in photos and even in real life. It was my problem with perspective that probably caused me to have a mini-OOBE recently (see below).

The scene in the photo might be of a lake or a puddle, it's difficult to say just from the photo. It looks like a lake, seen down a hillside, with peninsulas intruding into it. In fact, it is some winter flooding in a flat field (bigger than a puddle but smaller than a lake)! The water is probably no more than 20m away! The 'hillside' in the foreground is just uneven ground. The reflected sun adds to the effect of a lake shimmering in the sunset. Without a proper context, judging size, depth and perspective is difficult.

I doubt such a scene would cause a mini-OOBE (out of the body experience) as it wasn't difficult to judge depth on site. I've walked past the same spot where I had my own mini-OOBE (see below) several times since and deliberately looked down to try to reproduce the effect with the bricks. However, it did not happen! I suspect that surprise plays an important part in such events. If your brain is expecting to be confused, it isn't! The same may well apply to misperception. I've walked past all of the locations where I've had misperceptions before, several times, subsequently but never had one again in the same place. Perhaps the unconscious bit of my brain knows what to expect and won't get fooled again.

So surprise may be an important factor in having xenonormal experiences. This would certainly explain by waiting around in a ghost vigil can prove so unrewarding! However, ironically, psychological suggestion is known to make such experiences more likely. This would explain why my studying misperception meant I suddenly started to experience it. These seemingly contradictory biases arise because we are dealing with the unconscious part of the brain which is difficult to affect consciously. So, if you want to see a ghost you should expect to do so but when it happens it will come as surprise!

4 Jan 2010: I see an Orange UFO!

Just minutes into the New Year, as fireworks filled the air, I saw something more mysterious crawling slowly across the dark sky - two bright reddish orange glowing lights. Luckily, I had binoculars and could examine the mysterious UFOs more closely. Each light was surrounded by a faintly glowing 'shroud'. They were clearly Chinese (or sky) Lanterns! It was easy to see why people report them as UFOs. Unlike fireworks or aircraft they appear to hang motionless, or move very slowly, in the air. Some flares do this as well, though they are very rarely seen, being used primarily by the military and in rescues to illuminate the ground.

Then I noticed something else. Someone near me was attempting to launch another lantern. It proved more difficult that I had imagined. I didn't see how the lantern was eventually launched as it happened out of view. But what was presumably the same lantern drifted low in front of me seconds afterwards before gaining height quickly. In a few more seconds it became a distant glow like the earlier lights. The flame was yellow and flickering at low altitude but became a steady reddish orange glow higher up.

Chinese Lanterns are the bane of modern ufology. Increasingly common in the UK, they are generally released in groups (an important clue when examining reports). I would not be surprised to hear that quite a few were released at New Year. I fear they will become even more popular and cause mini-flaps around holidays and festivals.

If only all UFO witnesses would carry binoculars, and maybe a camera too, life would be a lot easier for ufologists. OK, I admit it was just luck this time!

1 Jan 2010: I have an OOBE and predict the future!

Misperceived ghostHappy New Year! I had today's blog entry planned (and it follows below) until a weird experience I had yesterday changed everything. I blame it on studying illusions and misperception. I'm sure it makes you more susceptible to experiencing such things. That was Richard Gregory's experience mentioned in his outstanding book Seeing through illusions (2009, Oxford University Press).

Anyway, I was just walking along when I happened to look down at the brick pathway underfoot. It suddenly appeared to me to be very close, as if I was floating just above it rather than looking from normal walking head height! The illusion quickly broke and I walked off, bemused. I believe this particular experience is a kind of mini-OOBE (out of the body experience). I was seeing the world from a perspective outside my physical body. It reminded me that something similar had happened to me before, though only a few times in my life.

Unlike many reported OOBE experiences, I was not lying in bed nor close to sleep! The experience was mercifully brief! At least when lying in bed you can't do yourself too much harm by suddenly changing perspective! I'm pretty sure my particular experience was triggered by the uniform pattern of the bricks. It is difficult to say how far you are away from such a uniform flat surface with a regular pattern (of bricks) and no shadows (the weather was overcast). I, thus, lost depth perception and my brain did its best to make sense of the scene.*

The TPJ (temporoparietal junction) in our brains maintains our sense of where we are in space and it uses sight, touch and 'balance' (from the inner ear) to do so. However, our sight is the sense that overrules others on many occasions and that is what I think happened this time. It would be interesting to see if I can reproduce the experience in similar conditions! Sadly, though, it rarely seems to work when you try it deliberately. I guess your brain has to be 'surprised' to get fooled!

OK, back to what I was supposed to write for the first blog entry of 2010! When I was a kid, any TV programme set in 2000 was called science fiction and usually involved flying cars and space tourism, though no internet! It was rare that anything was set in 2010 as that would have been too far ahead to predict! But here we are, anyway, and it's not so different to those days of yore. Looking out of the window I see no flying cars but space tourism is about to take off, apparently, for those who can afford it.

Having illustrated the folly of making predictions, I will try it anyway, as it is traditional at this time of year. I'd love to predict that paranormal researchers will turn, en masse, away from assumption-led methods but I am too realistic for that.

Instead, I will predict that we will be able to demonstrate directly how many ghost sightings are misperception within a few years, maybe even this decade. It is already possible to 'read' someone's brain with suitable instruments to say what they are looking at. It is done by looking at what brain activity is generated by perceiving a particular object and then detecting when that pattern is repeated (when the subject sees the same object). Unfortunately, the precise pattern of brain activity generated by a seeing a particular object varies from individual to individual. Nevertheless, I will stick my neck out and say we will soon be able to generate a computer graphic showing what someone is actually seeing! And with that technique we will be able to watch as people misperceive things that they do not recognise and report as ghosts! So, using science we may soon be able to show how and why people misperceive unrecognised objects as ghosts, UFOs or aliens.

*A similar depth perception problem, leading to a similar sort of mini-OOBE, can occasionally occur when walking down non-moving escalators. Many escalator steps appear as uniform shiny lines with dark lines between (when viewed from above), forming regular stripes. In this way they resemble the regular brick layout in the example above, making depth judgment difficult. In addition, it is fairly common to find movement awkward when walking down a motionless escalator. This effect, which is thought to be because your brain expects the escalator to be moving, may contribute to the less common mini-OOBE by confusing the TPJ. Something to look out for next time you walk down a motionless escalator!

For info about the 'grey ghost' photo above, see here.
For a review of paranormal research in the noughties, see here.

This month's (December) website figures are an average of 10752 hits per day. Though noticeably down on last month's 12272, that is to be expected in a holiday month! It is still substantially up (by 73%) on the same month in the previous year, when the number of hits was only 6217 average per day!


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© Maurice Townsend 2010