ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
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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, river monsters and dozens of other subjects)

30 July 2010: Sherlock's last bow

OK, I promise this is positively the last time I say how great Sherlock Holmes would be as a paranormal investigator, for at least a long time! Even though it's true!

When Sherlock is between cases he gets very bored and irritable. To fill in the time, he performs experiments that contribute to his understanding of future cases. This is something paranormal investigators would be well advised to do, though I doubt many actually bother. How many investigators have tried to reproduce famous paranormal photos? How many have used an EMF meter around there home to see what causes it to give higher and lower readings? Who has investigated what actually causes strange noises in non-haunted buildings?

In my view, all investigators should do these things. If they don't, they could end up coming up with ludicrously unlikely 'natural explanations' for incidents reported in live cases. When these ridiculous 'scenarios' are tested and, unsurprisingly, found not to account for the incident, some people go on to declare 'it must be paranormal'! This sort of thing does nothing for the reputation of paranormal research! However, by researching realistic natural causes of weird sounds, sights and smells in advance, such embarrassing scenes can be avoided.

Hovering dragonflyCompletely unrelated, I've had a couple of weird sightings myself recently. A large grey crescent-shaped object, seen falling directly in front of a window I happened to glance out of, turned out to be a Woodpigeon. I also saw a dragonfly, flying high past the same window. Dragonflies are common enough in summer near water but this was nowhere near any stream, pond, lake or river. What is more, the delicate creature had that dragonfly habit of briefly hovering, when it was easy to see, and that darting off at speed, giving the appearance of having vanished completely! I can easily see how this might produce paranormal reports of strange small UFOs that suddenly vanished (miniaturised alien monitoring technology!). Or maybe someone would think they'd seen a flying rod! Either way, away from water dragonflies can appear and disappear in a disconcerting way. Holmes would no doubt list them in his list of possible causes of paranormal or mini-UFO reports.

28 July 2010: The immense power of belief

When I was a kid (possibly even a teenager, I forget the precise age) I had a series of dreams in which I could fly. I would just launch myself into the air and get around with swimming motions. However, even during the daytime, in that period, I also believed I could fly. Despite repeated failures to take off, I continued to believe. Gradually, it dawned on me that I could not translate what happened in dreams into reality, however much I tried or believed. But for a while I really honestly believed I could fly if I just tried hard enough. My excuse was that I never quite got the technique for taking off right.

The episode taught me about the extraordinary power of belief, which transcends evidence, argument and even personal experience. That is why I find it easy to see how someone who is convinced they are living in a haunted house will interpret all sorts of normal events as paranormal. Even if someone else can show them that these events have natural causes, it will often make little or no difference. A strong belief can conquer all. It is something we need to look out for when interviewing witnesses. It doesn't mean that a strong believer will interpret everything as paranormal but it is likely they may not detect normal events easily. So we need to investigate each reported incident very carefully, however much the witness is convinced they've seen something paranormal.

26 July 2010: Holmes on the case part two

I watched the BBC programme Sherlock and was impressed by how they'd updated the characters to the present day. One thing that struck me about Holmes's methods was that he knew lots of stuff about almost everything! This ability would be immensely useful to a paranormal investigator, given the wide scope of possible xenonormal explanations there are for reports. I fear that, too often, witness reports are taken pretty much at face value, without any serious attempt to look at alternative explanations, simply because some alternative explanations are quite obscure.

While I think I a thorough knowledge of possible xenonormal explanations for paranormal reports would be hugely useful to an investigator, I would not go as far as those who advocate only trained scientists for this role. For a start, there are very few trained scientists interested in investigating the paranormal compared to a great many others who would love to do the job. Secondly, scientists tend to specialise whereas a broad knowledge and skill base is most useful for paranormal investigation. For instance, not many scientists would know how to get as much accurate, useful information as possible from interviewing a witness. Like Sherlock Holmes, the ideal investigator would need to 'specialise' in almost everything, from neuroscience to physics! While being trained in the scientific method is obviously an advantage, its rudiments can be taught to non-scientists.

I think we should be practical and use all the available talent at our disposal when investigating paranormal reports. Investigators can be trained in how to conduct a case from a scientific approach. One of the most important things they must learn is to approach cases from a neutral point of view, neither assuming the paranormal is involved nor that it is not. They must avoid assumption-led methods, whatever their thoughts on the paranormal, because these tend simply to lead back to the initial assumptions rather than the truth of a case.

Holmes would indeed make a superb investigator but, alas, he is merely fictional. We must harness the real-life talents of those interested in our subject as best we can, while consulting specialists whenever possible.

23 July 2010: Observing like Sherlock Holmes

The BBC launches a new TV incarnation of Sherlock Holmes this weekend, this time set right now. Many of the forensic ideas used by Holmes in the original stories are now standard investigative procedures. So what is there left for Holmes to do? The answer is to be an acute observer and to deduce what happened and why.

I often think that paranormal investigation could do with the kind of observation and deduction that a real Holmes could provide. So often, once it has been accepted that a place is haunted, people stop looking too hard for xenonormal explanations for individual incidents. This is a mistake for two reasons. Firstly, even if some unusual incidents in a case have a paranormal cause, it doesn't follow that they all do. It is important to know which is which if we are to make sense of the paranormal. Secondly, many cases can appear paranormal but when carefully examined are found to have xenonormal causes. Witnesses can become 'sensitised' so that they think many quite normal phenomena are paranormal (see haunting sounds for instance). It is easy to start thinking that anything slightly unusual is just another sign of the paranormal.

I can't help thinking that a real Sherlock Holmes would deduce the origins of most paranormal cases with ease. The character has the skill to observe clues that most people miss. He also forms theories to explain his observations quickly. These theories lead him to look for other clues that might confirm, or not, his theory. These are exactly the sort of skills that make for a great paranormal investigator. Some people no doubt have such abilities naturally but it may well be possible to train others to do the same thing.

The other day I saw a Blackbird in the distance. At least it looked like a Blackbird. But it didn't move! As any naturalist will tell you, movement is usually the easiest way to spot an animal. After waiting a minute, I decided the 'bird' was really a piece of black litter. NO Holmesian observation skills obvious there! Except that a few moments later, the Blackbird hopped away ...

20 July 2010: Birds not cryptids

White tailed LapwingThe photo shows a White tailed Lapwing (brown blob very centre of photo), a rarity in the UK, that I recently photographed. My excuse for the poor quality photo is that the bird was a long way off, with lots of water in between, and it was very windy! Some birders were lucky enough to get closer views.

Like many other birders, I always feel a special frisson when seeing a bird rare to a particular area. Such birds are sometimes a very long way from their natural range, even on the wrong side of the world. This is where birding overlaps with cryptozoology, which is concerned with unknown animals or those far away from their normal range (like big cats in Britain). It may come as a surprise to some anomaly researchers that there is a well organised informal network of birders in the UK (and other countries) that quickly spreads the news of rare sightings by phone and internet. If only there was such a network of observers looking for some of the weirder beasties of cryptozoology! Of course, given the tiny number of sightings of such creatures (many of which may not even exist!) it might be difficult to keep enthusiasm high.

Birders travel extensively to see birds, often ending up in remote areas, far beyond the normal tourist trails, just like cryptozoologists. Typically, birders don't bother to swap their inevitable amazing tales of adventures in remote spots except with other birders. Many birders become excellent naturalists. One wonders if, in their travels, they ever come across the kind of animals that cryptozoologists mount special expeditions to see. You can read some of the amazing things these unsung amateur naturalists get up to in Mark Cocker's book 'Birders'.

It has long been accepted that birds can end up a long way from home, especially during the migration period. For this reason it is only really out-of-place land animals that are considered by cryptozoologists in the UK. Even then, some such land animals may have escaped from zoos or collections so making their presence not particularly mysterious. Some birds have even been known to hitch a ride on ships and it is no beyond the abilities of small land animals to do the same. I can't help thinking some dedicated birders would make excellent cryptozoologists if only they were introduced to the subject!

19 July 2010: Noctilucent clouds

Just a quick entry today to point out the excellent audio-visual presentation about noctilucent clouds on the BBC website here. These mysterious and rarely seen clouds have been suggested as the explanation for some UFO sightings. So anyone dealing with UFO investigations ought to know something about them.

16 July 2010: Why is the paranormal so normal?

I've been studying xenonormal reasons for paranormal reports for years now. My reason for doing this is that we need to be experts in natural explanations before we can say something is not natural or paranormal. Too often people pronounce their experiences paranormal simply because they come across something unfamiliar. We cannot all be experts on every obscure natural phenomenon that masquerades as paranormal but, as paranormal investigators, we should at least make the effort.

What has struck me in studying the xenonormal is that almost all paranormal reports actually feature 'normal' things rather than obviously paranormal ones. Someone sees a human figure and reports it as a ghost. Why? Because it was in a supposedly empty house. Other than that the figure was entirely unremarkable. People report photos as paranormal. And yet they show recognised photographic artifacts offering no way to distinguish them from a normal photo. People report weird sounds in their house and think it is haunted. But the sounds are indistinguishable from the normal creaks and clicks you get in all buildings all the time (see paranormal sounds).

So why does the normal get reported as paranormal? It often comes down purely to context, which can be difficult to pin down. Did the person who saw a figure in an empty house actually check it was really empty at the time (almost never)? Did the person taking a paranormal photo actually see the same thing as the camera recorded (virtually never)? Was it possible to show the strange noises were not the same as ordinary building sounds (not usually)?

When I started investigating the paranormal I imagined it would be a bit like the movies. You would meet ghosts and talk to them and it would be obvious that they were spirits. It hasn't turned out like that.

So I am stuck with the question - why is the paranormal so normal? I think the answer is that the vast majority of paranormal reports are really xenonormal. Which is why we need to understand the xenonormal so much better. Which is also where I came in!

14 July 2010: Haunting sounds

The most commonly reported phenomena in haunting cases are unexplained noises, particularly clicks, knocks and raps. But how can you tell the difference between a paranormal sound and a normal one? There is no obvious difference in the actual sounds between those which are supposedly paranormal and normal ones. The difference comes down to context. If there are sounds suggesting a person is present in a room which is known to be unoccupied, many people would conclude it must be a ghost.

In real life haunting cases, it is never that clear cut. Ghostly sounds tend to come one at a time. If several came together they might suggest the presence of someone or something in an unoccupied room. However, coming singly, such sounds can usually be accounted for by the normal noises heard in buildings. Additionally, it is difficult to locate the origins of sounds if they are not in the same room. So weird sounds might not be coming from an unoccupied room at all.

We miss most of the normal faint sounds that can be heard in all buildings because our brains automatically block out such background noise. If someone starts to think they are in a haunted building, however, they start to notice these sounds. It can appear as if there are a whole lot of 'new' noises present that were not there before. Naturally, these may sometimes be attributed to a ghost!

Any building, and the objects in it, is regularly exposed to physical stress. The changing temperature during the day makes objects expand and contract slightly. Floorboards are physically stressed by people walking on them. Furniture is stressed by people sitting on it, lying on it or placing objects on it. None of these structures, whether within the fabric of the building or furniture within it, is perfectly elastic. That means that when a load is placed on a chair, for instance, it will bend slightly. When the load is taken away, the chair returns to its original shape. Or at least it would if it was perfectly elastic. In real life, the chair will not quite return to its original shape. And this slight residual distortion, rarely visible, leaves a small amount of physical stress (unreleased physical forces built up in the fabric of the object) within the chair. This may be released over time, sometimes causing audible clicks or creaks.

Read (and hear) more at the new page Haunting Sounds.

12 July 2010: What ARE hallucinations exactly?

Hallucinations are responsible for some paranormal reports. Therefore it would be useful for paranormal researchers to understand them and know in what circumstances they might be suspected. But what exactly ARE hallucinations? It is easy to define them, as experiences or perceptions generated internally in someone's brain. They have various causes and can affect 'normal' people as well as those with some kind of brain dysfunction. But what ARE they exactly?

In this week's New Scientist (10 July), there is an article about the function of brain rhythms, like alpha, beta and theta waves. These waves of overall brain activity with characteristic frequencies, measured by EEGs, will be familiar to many paranormal researchers. That's because some, like alpha and theta are thought to be associated with altered states of consciousness which some people have speculated might be connected to paranormal activity.

Despite being known about for a long time now, the function of these brain rhythms is still not yet fully understood. It is thought that they coordinate activity between different parts of the brain. Our brains work in parallel, meaning they split functions between different areas of the brain to speed up processing. So, if you look at an object, one part of your brain may concentrate on its shape while another processes its colour. These different bits of an image are reunited to be seen and recognised in our visual field. It is thought that brain rhythms may coordinate such activity so that all the bits of an image, for instance, are re-assembled at the same time.

But what happens if these rhythms are disrupted* or do not reach all parts of the brain? Bits of an image may arrive at different times leaving an unrecognisable visual 'object'. We know from misperception that when our brains don't recognise an image they substitute it in our visual field with an object from memory. This could explain what hallucinations really are - images drawn from memory and placed in our field of vision as if they were real! If this is so, then hallucinations and misperception are not so different. When are brains are functioning normally, they only misperceive poorly-seen objects and we barely ever notice it. When are brains are not functioning normally, we may misperceive objects in plain view and, disturbingly, 'see' things that are not physically present.

It is possible that there is a range of such misperceptions, varying from the unnoticeable to the completely obvious, that varies from person to person depending on how their brain is operating. It could also vary from time to time so that people under stress, for instance, may misperceive more readily as their brain function is temporarily altered. Certain drugs may have similar effects.

This is informed speculation at present but it would be interesting to see if there is evidence to support it. Do people under stress notice misperception more? Do they start to misperceive objects in plain view? Are such misperception episodes persistent, unlike 'normal' ones which are brief? All research questions worth examining and paranormal cases could present just the material for such a study.

*It is interesting to note that EIFs, complex varying magnetic fields that produce hallucinations in certain people, share the same frequency range as brain rhythms. Could they work by disrupting brain rhythms?

7 July 2010: What is it like misperceiving?

We all misperceive all of the time, it's just that most of us never notice it. At any one time it is likely that at least some of your visual field is not a true image of what's really 'out there' but something your brain has inserted there based on a good guess. This is particularly true of your peripheral vision or anything you cannot see well because it is too distant or poorly lit. But because your brain has already accepted the image as 'true' you never question it. If something odd catches your eye, you will look at it more closely. That usually allows your eye to collect more information so that the 'substitute' image can be replaced by the real thing. That way you never realise that some of what you are seeing is really fiction!

However, you might occasionally notice a misperception. You might notice something that does not 'look right' or it changes shape or even vanishes before your eyes. You will dismiss it as a 'trick of the light' or a 'figment of your imagination'. In reality, it is just the normal way our brains deal with inadequate sensory information. Rather than show a 'hole' or 'fuzzy shape' in our visual field, they put in their own best guess as to what it might be, taking the substituted image from visual memory.

There are a few people, which I'm glad to say includes me, who recognise misperceptions for what they are. Well, very occasionally anyway! So what do I ACTUALLY experience, you may ask? Firstly, I see the substitute image, often a human figure, put there by my brain. It is usually completely unremarkable, accepted by conscious me as normal and real. But then the image changes or vanishes, to be replaced by a poorly-see tree, bush or whatever else is causing the misperception. This is when I realise I've just had a misperception. I usually stop to examine the object more carefully, usually surprised how little it resembles the misperception. On several occasions I've thought I was being watched from a house window only to see that it is a large pot plant! Such plants don't look that much like a person but they occupy the space where a human MIGHT stand if they were watching me.

There is always an odd feeling when the misperception changes or vanishes. It is that feeling that draws attention to the misperception. I am sure I miss many more such misperceptions because they don't produce an odd feeling. Until recently, I failed to notice ALL such misperceptions, in common with most people. How did I start noticing misperceptions? Just knowing they exist! Maybe you'll start noticing them now too!

6 July 2010: Stick with science!

Though most paranormal investigator agree that the scientific method is the one to use, they sometimes become frustrated with it. They might sometimes say they do not believe science can really explain the paranormal.

This idea is not really supported by the evidence. In fact, science already explains the vast majority of reported paranormal cases which have xenonormal causes. Having already been so successful, it seems odd to advocate dropping it at this stage. In reality, the frustration is probably more to do with the fact that evidence from well investigated cases does not generally support certain popular assumptions. For instance, it is popularly supposed that ghosts are spirits. However, the evidence from actual cases does not generally support this idea. This gives rise to the idea that it is the methodology (science) for collecting such evidence that must be at fault. It might be better to question prior assumptions rather than the methodology.

If we look at the paranormal cases that remain unexplained, can we expect science to explain these too, in time? I think so. Suppose the paranormal really is some effect beyond the reach of science. At some point it must have an effect on our universe, even if it is only an experience within the brain of a witness. Once such an effect occurs in our universe, science can examine it. And if the paranormal is an effect within our universe, it should be possible to examine it and explain it scientifically. So there is no reason to abandon the scientific method when doing paranormal research.

2 July 2010: Are we becoming worse as eyewitnesses?

Regular readers will already know that there are many problems with eyewitness testimony (for more info see here and here). But things may be getting worse due to recent social trends. If you walk along almost any street it won't be long before you see someone listening to music through headphones. Or they might be using their mobile phone. Or sometimes both at the same time!

All this sensory stimulation inevitably distracts people. If something unusual happened right in front of someone texting on their phone, would they even notice? Or if they did notice, could they recall many accurate details? Despite the modern fad for multitasking, our brains are not well suited to paying attention to more than one thing at a time. While I'm typing this I have music playing but I am not listening to it that intently. Sometimes I realise I have missed tracks completely because I've been concentrating on the writing. I have to stop typing to appreciate the music properly and turn off the music to check what I've written for mistakes. It is almost impossible to write sensibly and concentrate on listening to music at the same time.

Music appears to be a uniquely human thing. It affects our mood and can change our state of consciousness. Someone walking down a street listening to music in both ears will be a world of their own. Not only are they less likely to notice things going on around them, but what they do witness may be affected by the type of music they are listening to. A similar affect can occur when listening to music while driving.

Even without the distractions of music and mobile phones we can miss things from familiar surroundings. I noticed something the other day, when walking along a familiar street, that I realised must have always have been there but I'd simply never seen it before. Someone might report such an incident as paranormal - an object appearing out of nowhere. We often use the time when walking the streets to consider problems or opportunities in our lives and rarely notice what is right in front of us. Modern electronic devices simply make the problem worse. Paranormal investigators should ask witnesses if they were listening to music or using a phone round about the time of any reported incident. It could affect the reliability of their testimony.

1 July 2010: Seeing things!

Burnet MothThe other day , I saw a Moorhen. As a birdwatcher I have seen Moorhens, a form of aquatic bird, many times. However, this one rapidly changed as I watched it. It turned into a tussock of grass, surrounded by mud, growing out of a gap between two slabs in a pavement along a suburban street! The object was, maybe, 20-25m away and was observed in reasonable light.

It was clearly a 'glance-type' misperception (see here). What struck me, though, was the context. Had I misperceived a Moorhen somewhere near a lake, river, pond or marsh it would have made perfect sense. This one was nowhere near any such body of water. It was, quite simply, a bizarrely out of place misperception. The grass tussock WAS rather smaller than a real Moorhen and obviously the wrong colour. However, there was a gap between the two paving slabs, forming a black line, in such a position as to vaguely suggest legs. So the proportions were correct but certainly not the size or colour! All of this says interesting things about misperception works. It seems that it might be the proportions and shape of an object, not its size, position or whereabouts, that is important in producing a misperception.

I am, nowadays, used to misperceiving human figures, and occasionally animals, but usually in situations where they could conceivably be present in reality. This latest sighting represents a new departure. It could help to explain those sightings of apparently paranormal objects that are completely out of place. The unlikelihood of seeing something in a particular place is often used as an argument to support the idea of a particular sighting being paranormal.

South coast UFOFor instance, suppose someone reports seeing a human figure through the window of an empty house. They may, quite rightly, say that it is extremely unlikely to be a real person as the house was known to be empty and locked up at the time. But what if the 'person' was actually a misperceived pot plant that happened to have similar proportions to a human figure? Ridiculously unlikely? It's happened to me more than once (as reported in this blog)!

It is so useful being able to notice misperceptions, having failed to do so for most of my life, until I found out they were normal parts of human perception. Misperceptions happen all the time to everyone but most people never notice them. In order to notice them it seems you need to psychologically give yourself 'permission' to see them or your brain filters them out. Knowing they happen and are normal may form such a permission. Thinking you are psychic could be another.

Once you start to notice misperceptions it appears to become habitual, as I've found. If you interpret such repeated misperceptions as paranormal, they could easily convince you that you are psychic.

The other day I had a bizarre misperception. I saw a strange bright crimson flash in my peripheral vision while walking along a busy city street. It was certainly highly unusual and the sort of thing that could be reported as paranormal. At the time, I looked around to find that it was a Burnet Moth (see photo above). I wouldn't expect to see this showy day-flying moth in the middle of a city but clearly it happens. If the moth had landed (when they look less conspicuous) or flown out of sight before I found it, the bizarre crimson flash would remain a mystery! If I believed I was psychic I might have easily taken the sighting as paranormal!

The lowest photo on this page shows a UFO photographed recently on the south coast of England. The full story is here.

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

Last month's (June) website figures are an average of 7744 hits per day. Though noticeably down on the previous month's 8887, this isn't unusual in summer when interest in the paranormal usually falls.

ASSAP

Previous blog pages ...

  • Jun 2010 (including the Loch Ness Monster, gorilla video, getting ghost stories the wrong way round)
  • May 2010 (including ball lightning, Wem ghost photo, waking up twice, eyewitnesses, Robin Hood)
  • Apr 2010 (including causes of road ghosts, new orb evidence, bird UFOs, UFO photo, not quite seeing is believing)
  • Mar 2010 (including experiencing hypnagogia, consciousness, belief, prolonged misperception, doppelganger)
  • Feb 2010 (including visual continuity errors - AKA ghosts, near sleep experiences on trains, spontaneous OOBEs)
  • Jan 2010 (including intelligent oil, SLI, inducing OOBEs, orange UFOs, the bleak midwinter)
  • Dec 2009 (including review of research in the noughties, pretty orbs, imperceptions, river monster)
  • Nov 2009 (including EVP without a recorder, demons and entities, why only some people see ghosts)
  • Oct 2009 (including grey ghost, near sleep experiences, a triangular UFO and seeing David Beckham)
  • Sep 2009 (including latent memory, Tufted Puffin, Bermuda Triangle and garden poltergeist)
  • Aug 2009 (including official UFO files, partial ghosts, flying rods and miracles)
  • Jul 2009 (including garden poltergeist, big cat video, orbs and hypnotic regression)
  • Jun 2009 (including thoughts from nowhere, shadow ghosts, premonitions and metallic UFO)
  • May 2009 (including analysing paranormal photos, making ghosts and ghost lore)
  • Apr 2009 (including phantom bird, choice blindness and grass that gets up and walks away)
  • Mar 2009 (including deja vu, ghostly mists, weird UFO photo, white ghosts and naked eye orbs)
  • Feb 2009 (including hidden memories, coincidences, auras and window UFOs)
  • Jan 2009 (including animals sensing ghosts, vampires, flying rod season and a haunted path)
  • Dec 2008
  • Nov 2008
  • Oct 2008
  • Sep 2008
  • Aug 2008
  • July 2008
  • June 2008
  • May 2008
  • April 2008
  • March 2008
  • February 2008
  • January 2008
  • December 2007
  • November 2007
  • October 2007
  • Even older

© Maurice Townsend 2010