ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAP blogWelcome 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.

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27 July 2008: The problem of consciousness

Consciousness is one of the 'difficult' unsolved problems of science. That doesn't mean no progress is being made towards understanding it, though. In paranormal research, consciousness is a much used concept. There is the idea that it provides a link to the subatomic world and may allow ESP, for instance (though quantum theory, the supposed link, does not actually include any mention of consciousness). There are also altered states of consciousness, that some people speculate may allow us to somehow travel outside our physical bodies.

The picture that is emerging of consciousness, from neuroscience, is decidedly odd and unfamiliar. For instance, despite what we might imagine, much of what goes on in our brains happens in the unconscious bit. So, for instance, perception is a not a straightforward 'display' of incoming sensory data but also includes memories, and sometimes poorly seen objects are substituted for others. Even more disturbing, when we 'consciously' make a decision, it has in fact already been decided in the unconscious part our brain and we are merely being made aware of the results! Our conscious mind then attempts to rationalise the decision after it has already been made!

If all this sounds a little unlikely, consider the following example. You are trying to remember someone's name, it is on the 'tip of your tongue', but you just can't recall it. Hours later, the name pops into your head, as if from nowhere. Clearly, the unconscious part of your brain has been working on the problem, unknown to your consciousness, and solved it. Also, consider when you are riding a bike. Your brain is controlling all the muscles required to operate the pedals, without any conscious intervention, leaving 'you' free to concentrate on steering and watching for obstructions.

The traditional 'paranormal' view of consciousness is that it is the seat of your personality, the essence of your character, that may sometimes somehow venture beyond your physical body. However, neuroscience has shown that a person's character is really completely tied up with their memories. If you wipe out someone's memories, they are still conscious but not the same 'person' any more.

The new view of consciousness is that it is a sort of overall monitoring mechanism, being fed by your unconscious which does most of the hard work. This new view of consciousness, containing neither 'personality' nor even decision-making ability, does not accord with the 'paranormal' view at all. Paranormal ideas concerning ESP, OOBEs and so on may need to drop the idea of 'consciousness' being involved and look for other theoretical mechanisms.

22 July 2008: Detecting hoaxes

Digitally manipulated photoIn my experience, hoaxes are rare in the paranormal, but they do happen. The rule of 'is it too good to be true' seems to be a good indicator that something may not be quite right. Most paranormal reports are far-from-perfect records of events that took their witnesses by surprise. The well-planned hoax, however, is designed to appear convincing!

Paranormal researchers are usually positively impressed by the witnesses they interview. Most come across as honest and sensible. However, it is a mistake to assume that hoaxers will appear 'shifty'. A good hoaxer likes to make a favourable impression, otherwise their hoax may fail. It is better to look for discrepancies in the evidence, rather than try to judge someone's character, when deciding if a report might be a hoax. There is a new page to help you further in spotting hoaxes.

Further reading (new page): Hoaxing - a spotter's guide

20 July 2008: Paranormal theories

Many years ago I devised a theory to explain paranormal phenomena using an extension of quantum theory. It was a simple theory and, on mature reflection, not a good one. Others have followed a similar, if better considered, path but I still find I have no reason to think their theories any more compelling. Quite simply, quantum theory, the sometimes bizarre set of rules governing subatomic particle interactions, does not include 'consciousness' and has no need for an 'observer' for it to work. The universe works perfectly well whether anyone notices it in action or not.

I tend to be unenthusiastic about paranormal theories in general, not just the ones based on quantum theory. The reason is that a scientific theory is only required when there is good evidence that needs to be explained. And yet, most paranormal theories explain things for which there is no good, consistent evidence.

For example, I, like many others, once thought the 'stone tape' theory an attractive idea. That a ghost is a 'recording', somehow made in the surroundings, and replayed in suitable circumstances, sounded highly plausible. I took it as read that ghosts behave as if in a film - they appear and do the same things on every occasion. How did I know this - from popular books about ghosts? However, in my own personal experience of investigating, I have never come across even one such case. Indeed, ghosts are quite rare in hauntings and, when they do appear, they do not slavishly act out some scene or other, as if in a film. Instead, they are generally just seen momentarily before walking away, vanishing or the witness quitting the scene! In my opinion, stone tape theory is trying to explain something for which there is no obvious major body of evidence.

So, whenever I come across a new paranormal theory these days, my main question is this: 'what well documented, properly investigated case is best explained by this theory'? For most theories, the answer is probably 'none'. There are often many different, more plausible explanations, like misperception or EIFs.

I think we first need to define the xenonormal properly, so that we can separate it from the real paranormal. Only then can we begin to say how ghosts really 'behave' and start to formulate theories to explain them.

Further reading (updated): Paranormal theories

18 July 2008: Sex differences in reporting paranormal experiences

Given that most apparently paranormal experiences turn out, on investigation, to be xenonormal, you might wonder if there is a sexual bias in the numbers of such reports. That's because, as most apparently paranormal experiences are probably caused by misperception, any sexual differences in our brains might be reflected in a reporting bias.

Popular psychology books have told us how different men and women are. Psychologists have told us that these differences are exaggerated and just due to hormone levels. An article in this week's New Scientist (19 July 2008), however, reports that significant sexual differences have recently been found in brain structures. Some brain structures vary a lot in size between the sexes and others are used in a different way. So, maybe the popular psychology books weren't so exaggerated after all - we really are like two different species.

I don't know of any formal study of sexual biases in reporting the paranormal, though I've no doubt the data exists somewhere. However, I am always struck by how many more women than men send anomalous photos to ASSAP for comment. It is something like 60% women to 40% men. It isn't a proper survey, for many reasons, and so we cannot draw any conclusions from it. It does make me wonder, however, if there is a significant bias in overall paranormal reports. This might be a nice project for someone to try.

14 July 2008: Are you psychic?

I was once told by a psychic that I had 'the gift' too. Sadly, all it did was to make me doubt that they had it! That's because, in common with many paranormal researchers, I have never shown any psychic ability. Despite spending many hours in haunted houses, I've never yet seen a ghost. I never know what people are about to say, I've never seen an aura and I am disturbingly 'average' at Xener cards.

I recently wondered if there might be people who think they are psychic when, in fact, they are not. It turns out that there are several people are 'former psychics' who admit that they deceived themselves into thinking they were 'gifted'. It sounds unlikely but it's true. These people even had 'clients' for whom they did readings. They never intended to deceive anyone because they really thought they had a sixth sense.

How is this possible, you may ask? If you are the sort of person who can 'read' people, using just their body language, and can make educated guesses about the history of a place you've never visited before, it could be you. Similarly, if you 'just know' stuff, when it is actually something from your own memory, you may think you're psychic when you're not. If other people think you are psychic, that also helps a lot, though not in my case. It makes you wonder how many people currently claiming to be psychic may in fact not be 'gifted' at all. Why not try our new page on the subject (link) to see if you are really a psychic.

PS: I'm still seeing visual substitutions - maybe I'm psychic after all ...

Further reading (new page): Am I psychic?

10 July 2008: More visual substitutions

I know it's only a matter of time before someone accuses me of having terrible eyesight or of being 'on something'. But the fact is, I can't stop noticing 'visual substitutions' now I know about them. Today, while out walking I saw two!

Stopping to look at something in an alley, I thought I could see, in the corner of my eye, someone watching me from a window. I'm aware this sounds paranoid but it is, perhaps, just a sad reflection on life these days in the UK. We tend to view being watched by a stranger as suspicious, particularly when in an alley. Anyway, looking straight at the 'window', it turned into a small tree! I felt rather silly - not even a window, never mind someone looking through it. Just minutes later I did it again! I glanced at a house and thought I saw someone at a window. Closer inspection revealed it to be a pot plant! At least there was a real window this time.

In both cases, I had a poor initial view of the object in question. In the first case it was in my peripheral vision that was the problem, while in the second it was the too brief duration of the view. In both cases, however, my brain made an educated guess at what was there. If I hadn't been aware of visual substitutions, I probably wouldn't have even looked a second time at either object. I would simply have accepted each as someone at a window and probably just forgotten about it. Both incidents were trivial but what if I thought I'd seen a ghost or a UFO?

As an exercise, see if you notice anything odd, or unlikely, in your peripheral vision next time you are out. Then look directly at it and see if it is what you thought. You may be surprised! Don't try too hard, though. If you are super-attentive it won't work. Just wait for it to happen on its own.

It illustrates how some of us go through the world without paying real attention to our surroundings. It is easy to see how such poor attention could give rise to anomaly reports. There is now a new web page examining how paranormal researchers might detect the possibility of visual substitutions in witness reports.

Further reading (new page): Detecting visual substitutions

9 July 2008: Why ghosts wear clothes

Shadow ghostWhy do ghosts wear clothes? It is a question often put by those who doubt that apparitions are spirits. There may now be a new answer to that vexing question, though it doesn't exactly support the spirit idea. We know that our brains may 'substitute' images from our memory when we can't see things well (if this idea is new to you, see misperception for the background). So, if you see a shadow in the distance, that vaguely resembles a human shape (see photo, right), your brain may 'substitute' in a human figure from your memory. Unless you're a nudist, there's a good chance the figure will be clothed.

So, just because a witness gives you a detailed description of an apparition, it doesn't automatically follow that it has to be a ghost or nothing! It would be worth asking questions about how far away the ghost was and what the viewing conditions were like. If it seems unreasonable that such a detailed view could have been had in the circumstances, it might be a 'substitution'. If the sighting seems too good to be true, it probably is.

If 'substitutions' come from the witness's memory, why don't people report recognising ghosts as people they already know? Sometimes they do - in the case of crisis apparitions and doppelgangers, for instance. In other cases of visual 'substitution', the figure 'seen' is probably an amalgam of the object being misperceived (like a shadow) and some generic human figure from memory. Our brains are always trying to make sense of what we see with all the sources of information available, like my phantom pigeon!

Visual 'substitutions' might explain why so many supposed extra-terrestrials in UFO cases are humanoid in appearance. Scientists studying astrobiology (the study of extra-terrestrial life) say it is extremely unlikely that extra-terrestrial life would have evolved on other planets in a similar way to ours. So extra-terrestrials are most unlikely to look human.

The impact of new science, from all disciplines on paranormal research, is potentially huge. As paranormal researchers, we really need to recognise and understand the xenonormal before we can hope to isolate the paranormal.

Further reading (new page): Causes of the paranormal?

7 July 2008: Yet more TV coverage of 'ghost hunting'

I have heard of at least two new TV series starting shortly about ghost hunting. From their description, it sounds like yet more of the same ie. assumption-based investigations in the dark. Is there really an audience so many similar programmes? Are we about to see the 'TV reality ghost hunting' bubble burst? And, if it does, what will be the consequences?

As we know from financial bubbles, the aftermath of a burst is usually grim! We might see a huge drop in interest in the paranormal as viewers finally become fed up of watching people sitting around in the dark doing very little (who would have thought so many people would watch this stuff).

By contrast, a new series about UFOs, bravely screened by Channel 5 in the UK (three cheers to them!) has, if the first episode is anything to go by, set a new standard in balanced coverage of anomalous topics. The programme is Britain's Closest Encounters, on C5 at 8pm on Wednesdays. It would be fascinating to know what viewers think of it. If it is successful, perhaps some TV station might take the brave step of doing a series about serious ghost research. Well, we can always dream ...

3 July 2008: Tunguska still controversial and seeing owls

Back in February I reported how scientists thought they might have found a fragment of the comet that many believe caused the massive Tunguska explosion in Siberia, which happened just one century ago on 30 June 1908. Now, in a report in New Scientist (30 June), that idea is being challenged. Lake Cheko, thought by some to have been created by the explosion and to be hiding a buried fragment of the comet, is now thought to be much older than 100 years.

Instead, there are new theories about what caused the Tunguska explosion. They both involve gas emerging explosively from under the ground. In one theory the gas is methane, common in the area, while in the other it is carbon dioxide. Scientists are returning to the area right now, seeking new evidence to finally solve this mystery.

WoodpigeonFrom the sublime to the mundane - this morning I thought I saw an owl! So what, you think? Knowing the unlikelihood of seeing an owl in daylight, I looked at the bird (in the middle distance) more closely and it turned out to be a Woodpigeon! What was interesting was that I saw the bird in the centre of my vision, not the periphery where such illusions are quite common. This was clearly a case of my brain substituting an 'owl' for a 'Woodpigeon' in broad daylight in my central vision! It really did look like an owl until I stared intently. Once you realise the way perception works, you start to notice your brain's mistakes as they happen.

It is well known that your brain can 'substitute' objects in your vision with others from your memory, when you can't see them too well. Though I expected this with poor peripheral vision, I was shocked that it could happen in my acute central vision. It may have been due to the fact that I only glanced at the bird at first, thus limiting the information reaching my brain.

I have seen owls before, as well as Woodpigeons, so looking more carefully at the bird, my mind 'corrected' the image. But suppose I saw something that I didn't recognise. My mind might never show the real thing in such circumstances and I could be convinced I'd seen something paranormal. It goes a long way towards explaining why many paranormal reports are often of natural things people don't recognise - the xenonormal in fact .

1 July 2008: Flying rod reflection

Flying rod - insectorodSpying that rare thing, an English sunny day, I decided to venture out and see what anomalies I could find. Having thought that flying rods were easier to capture in winter, I was pleasantly surprised to get some good new ones today.

Among them was a stunning new 'insectorod'. These strange beasts are part flying rod, part insect (their unlikely appearance betraying their flying insect origins). The one on the right apparently has three distinct diaphanous insect wings, on one side only. Further, the 'body' displays various bizarre stripes along it, quite unlike your average flying rod. The exposure time was 1/100s, so well within the capabilities of a video camera. The reason the insectorod is so large and the image so detailed is because the photo was taken with a telephoto lens.

This insectorod probably only has 'wings' on one side because that is the angle where the single wing, of the insect that caused the image, happened to reflect the sun strongly. If you look carefully, there are three wispy 'plumes' trailing above the insectorod which are probably caused by the original insect's other wing. Presumably, this other wing did not hit a good angle to show up so well. If you are not following any of this, you had probably better read the page on flying rods now.

Red admiral

PS: This photo? See June's blog ...

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© Maurice Townsend 2008