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, pic by Val Hope) 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)

ASSAP @ 30: A series of posts summarising what we have learned through thirty years of ASSAP, whose anniversary was 10 June. See here!

30 July: A psychic insight?

Though I'd passed the cupboard several times already that day, this time was different. I felt an odd compulsion to look inside. And there it was - the lost item I'd spent many fruitless hours that day searching for! And straight away I remembered how it had got there. I had placed it there temporarily, got distracted and completely forgot to return and recover it. How did I suddenly 'know' where it was - a 'psychic insight' perhaps?

Though the item I'd lost was not of great value, replacing it would have been inconvenient, time consuming and require cash! So I made quite an effort to find it. I retraced my steps in my mind but to no avail. I searched all the places where I might have left it, and others where I wouldn't dream of doing so, with no result. I'd given up looking by the time I got my 'odd compulsion' and was no longer even thinking about the problem.

So was it a psychic insight or something else? I believe it was straightforward memory because of the way it happened. Firstly, as with trying hard to remember something, the answer only 'appeared' after I'd stopped thinking consciously about the problem. Secondly, once I saw the missing item, the rest of the memory came flooding back. This is typical of the way a memory trigger (in this case, standing in the exact position where I first put the item down) can unlock an entire memory in an instant.

What about the fact that I'd walked past the cupboard many times that day without remembering? There were two things different about that last occasion. Firstly, I was no longer trying to remember (something which, counter-intuitively, seems to aid recall of stubborn memories). Secondly, I happened to stop, rather than simply walking past. I was stationary when I first lost the item and I suspect that factor, in addition to the location, was enough to trigger the memory.

When examining apparently psychic cases like this one, it is important to understand how the ordinary workngs of memory can produce these effects. Anyone not familiar with the way memory works may easily jump to conclusions that are not really supported by the evidence. A good working knowledge of memory is vital for paranormal investigators.

27 July: Is weird stuff being massively underreported?

Over the last few years I have had many weird experiences that, at first sight, appear paranormal or anomalous. Regular readers will recall my many accounts here of vanishing figures, unexplained sounds (including voices), OBEs, missing time, UFOs, unlikely coincidences, cold spots and more. You can find many examples here.

Here's just one example (from 3 Sep 2009): Walking along a street today, I noticed a woman in a red coat ahead of me on the pavement. A few moments later, I noticed she'd vanished. I was surprised because there aren't many places to hide in that street! I looked along various side streets but there was no sign of her. Had I really seen a ghost? Then I noticed a similar woman walking away along one of the side streets. But she wasn't wearing a red coat. That's because she was carrying it! It was clearly the same woman who had, while I wasn't watching, taken her coat off. So, no ghost after all!

There are two noteworthy things in this account. Firstly, it could have happened to absolutely anyone. Secondly, if I hadn't noticed the woman carrying a coat at the time, I'd probably still regard the incident as unexplained! In every such case that I've experienced so far, I have always found a xenonormal explanation.

If I am experiencing so many weird things, are lots of other people too? And if they are, why aren't we knee deep in their reports? Could weird stuff be being massively underreported? Well, the first point to consider is, am I a 'typical person'? The fact that I notice so many misperceptions (which nevertheless make up only a tiny proportion of the incidents I've reported) suggests not. But does that matter in this case? I think not, because of the nature of the incidents themselves. They are the sort of thing that anyone might experience at any time, just like the example above. So where are all those 'missing' reports of everyday weirdness?

I think there are two likely explanations for the underreporting of such weird incidents. Firstly, I think most people simply don't notice what's going on around them. I have actually witnessed bizarre things happening in public places while no one else around paid any attention. If anything, things have got worse in recent decades. It is now perfectly normal for people to walk around wearing earphones while staring at their mobile phone. An 3m tall alien could walk past them unnoticed.

My second likely explanation for people not reporting weird stuff is that they see it, but it doesn't 'register'. I have seen people plainly watching strange things happen and then simply walk away, apparently unmoved. It was as if they didn't see any significance to the event. Maybe they didn't! As a naturally curious person I cannot walk past anything weird without staring at it and requiring an explanation. In that respect, it appears I am not typical.

That lack of curiosity that many people show may explain why witnesses usually leave the scene of their weird incident without exploring any possible explanations. Though it could also be shock, or even fear, in some cases. Either way, in many cases the causes of weird experiences don't hang around for long! So, if you don't go looking for them straight away, they'll soon be gone, as in the example above. Investigators examining the scene days, weeks or even months later may find nothing of interest.

It is my belief that there are LOTS of weird incidents happening all the time but only a tiny fraction ever get reported. However, given that my own investigations have shown that a great many probably have xenonormal causes, perhaps it is not such a bad thing for investigators. Of those weird incidents that ARE reported, many probably only remain 'unexplained' because no one investigated them quickly enough. Speed is vital when investigating paranormal cases but, for reasons outside the control of investigators, almost always lacking.

So here's the thing, and I can't believe I'm saying this - some ghost vigils could be worthwhile for speedy investigation! In general, most ghost vigils are a waste of time because they use assumption-led methods. The remaining few, run on evidence-led lines, tend to be boring because usually nothing happens. But on the rare occasions when something interesting DOES happen on such a vigil, I think it should be investigated straight away. It's no use checking recordings later because the causes of any incident may well be gone by then. I know that vigils often have protocols that say no one should react if something weird happens but I think this might be wrong! Given the extreme rarity of 'interesting' stuff happening on evidence-led vigils, I think it is well worth investigating immediately.

25 July: Turning rods into orbs!

Flying rod videoHow do you change flying rods into orbs? With surprising ease, as this this new video shows (certainly much easier than getting insects to spell). It's all about focus.

This brand new video replaces a similar, earlier one on the same subject. This one is much better because it lets you see the rods actually metamorphose into orbs as the focus visibly changes. It dispels any doubt, if there was any, that rods and orbs are just two different ways of looking at flying insects. Both views are photographic artefacts which is why we never see them with the naked eye (in common with many anomalous photos).

Some updates for regular readers: I spotted a flock of 12 magpies today! That is very unusual for summer months. Although the birds might have thought it was winter last week they can hardly have mistaken the blue skies, blazing sun and temperatures approaching 30 C today! I'm not sure what a flock that size does for my luck. Also recently, I spotted the 'doppelganger' at the door once again. This time I moved my hand, but not my gaze, just to prove to myself that it really was causing the mysterious dark 'figure' apparently standing just behind me. It was! This raises the possibility of deliberately creating animated misperception! Is it too late to get a patent?

PS: Talking of videos, the ASSAP Training Weekend 'trailer', here, is unmissable!

24 July: How do you get insects to spell?

Insect trailsIn trying to take some new photos of flying rods recently, I got this (photo, right) by mistake (or serendipity?). The 'doodling' all over the photo is caused by insects, or flying rods writ large in you prefer. Though I have cropped the photo a little, it still shows about two-thirds of the original frame. So those insect trails are really long! I would estimate that they are many centimetres each.

The exposure time is 1/3s which is rather longer than the usual 1/50s shutter speed associated with flying rods in videos. You can see a certain amount of motion blur in the trees in the background, though not that much. The insects themselves were in a swarm and most are in focus.

The insects were swirling around, mostly following intricate curved flight paths, as you can see. It looks just like someone has been drawing on the photo. I wondered what it might take to get the insects to spell out a word in the air. I guess it would involve arranging some food sources in a particular way, using wires to ensure it was not visible to the camera. It would also involve a study of how the insects fly around food sources. It's starting to sound complicated already.

There are two other possible ways of doing it. One would be to take suitable trails from the shot here and re-arrange them using photo editing software, though that would be cheating! Then there is always the 'infinite monkey' solution. I just take millions of photos until one, by pure chance, spells out a word. But that's for someone with far more patience than me. But wouldn't it make a fantastic art work as well as illustrating how flying rods form.

PS: ASSAP is organizing another Seriously Strange conference for the weekend of 28-30 June next year! Put it in your diary now!

23 July: UFO out of the blue

UFOSuddenly, a couple of months late, summer has arrived in the southern UK. And with it a rare opportunity to view the sun and blue skies. The photo, right, was taken today. It is a small part of a street scene, notable for a tiny mysterious white object floating above, and behind, a building, the top of which you can see bottom left. It is difficult to make out what the object is, so it qualifies as a UFO!

While this tiny blob hardly screams 'unexplainable', it is nevertheless unidentifiable from the photo. It was taken with a wide angle lens setting, which makes it appear smaller than it would to the naked eye. Luckily, the UFO was spotted at the time and a second photo taken, this time zoomed in, though not by much unfortunately.

In the second photo (below right) you can just make out its distinctive 'upside-down water droplet' shape (easier to see when zoomed in). It is now quite obviously a toy balloon, as confirmed by the witness who watched the object for some time. In many cases, UFOs are (like ghosts) only spotted in photos well after the event, making it impossible to take more photos or examine the object more closely with the naked eye.

UFOIf you are out with a camera and spot something that could be taken as a UFO, ghost or any other anomaly, take a photo of it. Then take a second photo, ideally zoomed in or from a different angle , so that it is obvious what the object really is. I do this sort of thing all the time so that, when I see a similar photo somewhere else I already have a pretty good idea what it might be. If all anomaly researchers did this, it could save a huge amount of time.

Currently, much time is wasted in our field with people becoming unduly impressed by 'mysterious' photos and recordings that could be explained in seconds if there was a xenonormal gallery to compare them with. Understandably perhaps, many researchers are more interested in the unexplained than the xenonormal. However, in my opinion, this is a mistake. Much of what is currently exhibited as evidence of the paranormal is the 'unrecognized normal'. And a lot of it comes from the use of assumption-led methods. There are genuine mysteries out there to solve but too much time is wasted on things that can be easily explained.

19 July: The enduring mystery of the haunting hot spots

The mystery is this - haunting hot spots are widely known while their implications for shining a light on the true nature of hauntings is routinely ignored. Why?

Haunting floor planBriefly, while buildings are said to be haunted, apparent paranormal activity is usually restricted to just a few small areas, typically individual rooms (or parts of large rooms). Even stranger, the 'activity' reported for such individual hot spots is typically always the same. In the (theoretical) example shown in the floor plan (right) here, for instance, in room A an apparition has been seen occasionally while in the hall, B, the sound of footsteps are regularly heard and faint music is sometimes heard at position C, in the corner of the largest room. These are haunting hot spots (see here for real examples).

The existence of these haunting hot spots is not disputed. Indeed, many accounts of hauntings and ghost vigils routinely list particular locations within a building where the same specific phenomena have been repeatedly reported by different witnesses. So clearly it is a consistent feature of hauntings. So why is it ignored? Given that we gave so few truly consistent features of hauntings, it would appear odd to ignore such an obvious, and potentially important, one when analysing the haunting phenomenon.

To find the answer to this mystery, let's consider three of the most popular rival explanations for hauntings. Firstly there is the widely held belief that hauntings are the activity of sentient spirits. Then there is the 'recording' theory of hauntings and, lastly, misperception.

How do hot spots fit with idea of sentient spirits (as some people consider ghosts to be)? Not well! It would require spirits to affect only certain places and then only in very specific and limited ways, for no obvious reason. Where are the spirits when they are not in these hot spots? If there is something stopping spirits producing paranormal activity in other places, how do they 'jump' from one hot spot to another? There are lots of questions raised but no obvious answers. To make the spirit idea fit with hot spots you need to introduce lots of pretty arbitrary 'rules' for their behaviour for which there is no other obvious evidence.

The fit of hot spots with the idea of recording ghosts is much closer. If hauntings are really caused by some previous (human) activity somehow being 'recorded' in some way at a particular location, you would expect the same activity to be repeatedly 'replayed' in the same place. There are still some questions raised, though. Why, for instance, are only certain aspects of an activity, like its sound or visual image, ever recorded? Why not full movie-style images with surround sound on all occasions everywhere?

Finally what of misperception (quick explanation here with full details here)? The fit here is excellent. Misperception would produce exactly the sort of phenomena described for hot spots. Since misperception is produced by the presence of certain objects, it will not generally move around and will be confined to a small area. Such objects either produce misperceived sound or a visual impression but rarely, if ever, both together. Some people will see the misperception, others will not, but all of those that do will generally agree about what they have experienced. Misperception fits the hot spot phenomenon 'as is', without the need for special conditions or rules.

When considering rival explanations for some evidence, science usually goes with the one that requires fewest assumptions and special considerations. That's especially so when such 'considerations' have no other evidence to support them. Scientists have discovered, through trial and error, that the simplest theory tends to be the one that is correct. Perhaps nature likes to keep things simple! In this particular case, it is clearly misperception that fits hot spots best, with recordings a worthy second and spirits a poor third.

I'm not saying here that all haunting phenomena are caused by misperception, though it probably explains many cases. Investigations have revealed that haunting phenomena have several different causes. Some, like near sleep experiences, are clearly caused by hallucination. Of the remaining haunting phenomena some may, indeed, have a paranormal cause. If that is so, the existence of hot spots strongly favours recordings over spirits as a likely cause.

So why are the implications of haunting hot spots ignored by so many people? The obvious explanation is that these people have already accepted that ghosts are spirits, despite the lack of compelling evidence for that, and don't attach any significance of hot spots. Their use of assumption-led methods, most of which use the idea that ghosts are spirits as their base assumption, is evidence of that. So perhaps it's not such a mystery after all.

18 July: What plastic bags can tell us about UFOs

UFOHave you ever noticed how wind-blown rubbish always tends to gather in the same place? I watched a heavy plastic bag being blown by the wind the other day and it was easy to see how stuff tends to accumulate in one place. Instead of moving in a straight line, the bag moved in circles until it met an obstruction where it got stuck. Other stuff followed the same path.

Though the wind was blowing linearly, near the ground air flow becomes turbulent. It tends to produce eddies and slipstreams around the edges of buildings, trees and other large objects. There are even places where, whatever the wind direction, the air always moves in the same direction!

What has this to do with UFOs? Well, two of the most popular causes of UFO reports these days are sky lanterns and helium-filled foil balloons (like the one in the photo, right above). Both can, on occasion, look quite mysterious if you don't know what they are. The foil balloons, with their metallic sheen, can look like some sort of flying 'craft'.

One of the great problems with any UFO sighting is that, in most cases, there is no way for the witness to correctly assess the size, distance and speed of an aerial object. This is particularly so if the witness does not recognise the object for what it really is. A nearby small object can appear much like a distant large one.

Eurofighter One of the things that often convinces people that they are watching something out of the ordinary, in the sky, is an object performing apparently impossible aerial manoeuvres. For instance, sudden high acceleration or changing direction rapidly which would be impossible for a powered aircraft (even aerodynamically unstable ones like the Eurofighter, right).

But suppose the object is not a large 'craft' in the distance at all but something much smaller and closer. They could be sky lanterns or foil balloons, for instance. Both float and so are moved by air currents. They are often seen floating quite close to the ground, in the area where the wind forms eddies by interacting with surface objects. Just as a wind-blown plastic bag can suddenly change direction when caught in eddies, so can a foil balloon. Floating objects may also accelerate or decelerate dramatically when caught in slipstreams around buildings and trees or near hills. This could explain some of the sightings of UFOs performing what should be 'impossible' manoeuvres. When examining UFO reports, it is worth checking the local terrain if you suspect the object was actually smaller than the witness reported.

17 July: The great ghost clothes mystery!

I look at the weather forecast. I look out of the window to check. Then I dress appropriately and go outside. But then, once I've been out for a while, the weather changes. There am I stuck in a heavy coat in warm sunshine. Or in shirt sleeves in pouring rain. That's the British weather for you! But here's the mystery. I look around the street and everyone else is dressed appropriately for the actual weather at that time! I'm the only one in the 'wrong' clothes.

How does everyone else manage to dress appropriately except me? They can't all pop home and change. Many are at work or on a trip so that's not possible. And since they must have experienced the same change in the weather as me, where are the 'other' clothes they must surely have been wearing a little earlier? Do they keep several sets of clothes at work? Or in a locker somewhere?

So what's my solution to this enduring mystery? That the people on the street must mostly be ghosts, of course! Apparitions are, after all, almost always described as looking perfectly normal and solid (unlike in the movies). So, presumably, you could walk through a street full of them and never notice. And being ghosts, they can presumably wear whatever clothes they like without having to store them anywhere.

There IS an alternative theory, however. I only ever 'notice' that everyone else is dressed appropriately when I recall trips out. So it could be a case of selective memory rather than insightful observation. So recently I tested the idea.

We've been having a weird summer here in the UK. It's been unusually wet and cool (to the extent of breaking rainfall records), punctuated by the odd warm day. And it's been pretty unpredictable too. So, the other day I decided to look around at a busy street scene to see who else had been caught out by a sudden change in the weather. It turned out that most people had! There was a mix of clothes, ranging from heavy coats to tee shirts but most, like me, were not wearing the optimum for the prevailing conditions. This is exactly what you would expect given that few people can change their clothes when out.

I think this shows that my 'observation' that everyone is always more appropriately dressed than me was wrong and probably based on selective memory. I must have decided, after a trip out, that I'd seen everyone else wearing appropriate clothes for the weather when I was not. However, my memory was, unconsciously, affected by my decision AFTER THE EVENT about what I'd seen. But actual relevant observations on site, at the time, showed that my impression was incorrect.

Now, suppose I'd seen something that, after the event, I decided was paranormal. My memory might be equally selective, 'remembering' only things that supported my conclusion. In reality, had I looked carefully at the time of the 'paranormal sighting' I might have noticed things that directly contradicted my later interpretation.

When talking to paranormal witnesses, I have often found that any line of questioning that might uncover factors contradicting a paranormal interpretation is sternly resisted. Witnesses suddenly recall details, never mentioned before, that all just happen to support a paranormal interpretation. I'm pretty sure that, in many cases, we're looking at selective memory, influenced by the witness's interpretation of what they saw. It's a type of confabulation. When a case looks 'perfect', it probably means that it is too good to be true! It would be interesting to test the observational skills of actual paranormal witnesses to see just how selective their memory is - a research idea for someone!

16 July: Things we know that we didn't know we knew

Watching Wallander on BBC TV last night, the plot took the eponymous detective to Latvia. There was mention of a town called Ventspils. I felt odd as I realised that I KNEW that name! It was bizarre as I know next to nothing about Latvia. I've heard of Riga but nowhere else in the country.

What explanations could there be for me knowing the name of Ventspils? It could have been a premonition of the TV programme. Or maybe I picked up the name clairvoyantly. Against such paranormal theories, I have never shown any obvious signs of having psychic abilities.

The fact is, we all know so much more than we can ever consciously recall. Sometimes, when I watch a TV quiz show featuring general knowledge or trivia, I will know the answer to a question correctly, despite having no idea why I know it! Some of you will recognise this experience. You could call it cryptomnesia (see here). There are things we know that we didn't know we knew!

In many cases we don't know how we know an apparently obscure fact. In such cases it can feel as though it is a psychic inspiration. In reality, it is just that we forget the context but not the fact. Luckily, in my case I eventually recalled the context. I watched a football match on TV around 6 years ago between Newcastle and Ventspils! I had certainly never heard of the place before then. In time I may well forget HOW I ever heard of Ventspils. These memory fragments can FEEL like psychic inspiration but it's just the vagaries of human memory.

12 July: Why are more blurry photos being reported as anomalous?

Blury photoOnce dominated by orbs, the world of anomalous photos is seeing increasing numbers of blurry ones appearing instead. That's if the photos received by ASSAP are any guide. Why might that be? One reason appears to be the increasing use of 'night mode' on digital cameras. On some camera models, night mode uses long exposures to compensate for low light, something the photographer rarely realizes.

Take the photo here, right, for instance. This was not taken in night mode but used a long exposure of 1/2s deliberately. It shows a woodland scene dominated by branches and shrubs, though that may be hard to tell. It illustrates some of the characteristics of motion-blurred anomalous photos.

Most of the motion blur in a photo like this is caused by the camera being moved by the photographer, who doesn't realise the shutter is still open, once the photo has been 'taken'. Since the blur is caused by the camera moving, all the objects are blurred in the same direction. If there is an object actually moving during the exposure, it may be blurred in a different direction, looking particularly weird.

In the photo you can see lots of light trails produced by the lighter sections of the photo. Only the brighter bits produce light trails because only they send enough light to the camera sensor to show for the entire length of the exposure. Darker areas, by contrast, don't produce enough light to show up as trails. So the tree trunk, on the right, and the dark green bush, bottom left, in this photo, appear relatively sharp. Indeed, dark objects only show up at all if the camera was kept relatively still for a reasonable portion of the total exposure time. If the camera was in motion throughout the exposure, dark objects might be missing completely from the photo, which would also look strange!

All of this can give the erroneous impression that some objects in the photo are in motion while others aren't. Another clue that camera shake is the real cause is that all the light trails visible will be parallel with each other, as in this photo. Sometimes, there is only one bright object in the photo giving a single light trail which looks bizarre (see here). It may be this odd mix of apparently 'sharp' and blurred objects, they gives rise top the idea that there is something paranormal going on.

Blurring can also cause separate physical objects to apparently blend into each other, producing 'new' objects that were not seen at the time of the exposure. They weren't seen because they really weren't there! For instance, the 'white object', a bit like a streaky cloud, at the top, about a third of the way across from the left hand side, actually comprises a group of small gaps in the canopy. But they are blurred together, by the camera motion, to look like a single white 'object'.

So I can see why people see odd things in blurred photos. However, to me, if a photo is blurred by camera shake then whatever you are seeing is likely not to be real. It is mostly photographic artefact. The first thing to check with such photos is the exposure time, from EXIF data attached to the photo. If it is much longer than 1/10s then motion blur is almost certainly responsible for any weird blurry objects visible. Even if there WAS a real ghost in blurry photo, how could you tell it apart from the artefacts?

PS: News for those following the 'fox-wall misperception' - the fox has now appeared exactly in front of the patch of wall that I misperceived as the animal itself! I've a feeling I won't see that wall as anything but a wall in future! That's because, when there is a real fox present, it looks utterly different!

11 July: Glowing yellow eyes!

Glowing yellow eyesIf you took this photo (right) what would you think? To me, it looks a pair of glowing yellow eyes! It certainly caught my attention as being distinctly weird, and quite possibly anomalous, when I first saw it.

Apart from the 'glowing eyes', the photo appears unremarkable. It shows various bits of vegetation of different types. The 'glowing eyes' appear to be topped by dark green 'bushy eyebrows', contributing to the overall malevolent look!

So what are the eyes? They are clearly not orbs because their shape is irregular. They are obviously out of focus, presumably because they are quite close to the camera. There are further bits of the darker green patches in the top right and top left of the photo, which may provide a clue.

One obvious possibility is that they are leaves. But if that is so, why are they bright yellow, bordered by darker green? One clue is the background, which is also predominantly yellow, though not as bright. That, too, appears to be vegetation but apparently a different colour to the rest.

Yellow eyesNow look at the second photo, left. This shows the same scene but now the 'eyes' are in focus. It is clear that the 'eyes' are areas of a leaf that are directly illuminated by strong sunlight, making them appear bright yellow. The rest of the leaf looks darker because it is lit by diffuse light. The sunlit patches (as we shall now call the 'glowing eyes') look much more dramatic when they are out of focus. The overall mixture of yellow and green in both photos depends on which areas are lit by direct sunlight.

If you only saw the first photo, with the yellow 'eyes', you might well be considered weird, even anomalous. That is why it is so useful to examine other photos of the same scene, taken at the same time. Unfortunately, other such photos of the same scene are often not available when mystery photos come to light.

That is why it is useful to check all your photos as you take them. If any look odd, you can try to explain them on the spot or, at the very least, take more photos from different angles for later comparison. If someone, in future, takes a photo showing weird 'yellow eyes', it will be possible to compare it with the ones here to see if they might provide an explanation.

9 July: Ever felt an unseen presence?

Recently I entered a building not knowing if there would be someone already in there or not. Short of shouting out 'hello', which can go badly, how could I tell? As it was somewhere I knew well, I could have looked for objects not being in their usual place or maybe unfamiliar smells. However, the most obvious thing, which would work even if I'd never been in the building before in my life, would be to listen. People rarely make no noise when they are in a building. They move about, they operate appliances, they watch TV, listen to the radio, they move stuff about. What they hardly ever do, even when alone, is make no noise at all. So a careful spot of listening is usually the best way to know if you're alone or not.

One of the things people often report in haunting cases is the feeling of an unseen ghostly 'presence'. How do you 'feel' an unknown presence? One obvious way would be to hear unexplained noises when you know you are alone. Such noises might suggest the presence of an unseen person or ghost. I have, on occasion, been startled by unexplained noises when alone. A quick investigation usually finds the source of the noise. Perhaps an object has fallen or slid because I didn't put it down carefully enough. Or maybe some appliance, like a fridge, has done something automatically, creating a noise. Or sometimes it's just the normal noises produced by buildings (see here).

So I wonder, how many reports of a 'presence' are essentially about unexplained noises? There are certainly other possible causes of reports of a 'presence'. EIFs, experience inducing (magnetic) fields, can do it, for instance (see here). Another possibility is that a 'presence' may be produced by a variation of an out of the body experience (OBE). No doubt there are other possible explanations.

The OBE suggestion was prompted by my recent 'doppelganger' experience. Briefly, I thought there was someone behind me because I saw a black triangular shape. On turning round there was no one there! It turned out to be a reflection of my own hand seen in peripheral vision! At the time I had a definite feeling of a 'presence', though admittedly it was not 'unseen' (there was the black triangle). But what was interesting was that I had a distorted experience of where my body was in space, like an OBE. Other situations that produced OBEs might also produce a feeling of an unseen presence, maybe without anything 'unusual' being visible.

Like most anomalous phenomena, there are probably many different explanations for apparent unseen presences. Different reports may have differing causes. Whether there are true paranormal presences that we can sense, I've no idea. But it is a field that clearly needs a lot more research before we can come to any firm conclusions.

6 July: How can you misperceive a wall as a wall?

FoxThe 'fox-wall' mystery continues to surprise (see here). Briefly, I have recently noticed that a fox has taken to sleeping regularly in the daytime at a location that I can only view from a distance. As someone who takes a lively interest in natural history, I always view this area whenever I am passing to see whether the animal is present or not. However, on one occasion recently I had some binoculars and realized that what I thought was a fox was actually an dark orange brick wall, partially obscured by vegetation to give a similar shape to a sleeping animal. And after that, whenever I looked at this 'object' with the naked eye I SAW it as wall, not a fox.

So far, so obvious, I guess. However, consider this. Before I used the binoculars I never saw that brick wall even once. Afterwards, I only ever saw a wall. And yet, I could see the object no more clearly (with the naked eye) afterwards than before. Even weirder, a few days later I saw the same object as a fox again though binoculars then revealed as still a wall. Today, I see it as a wall. So what is going on?

It is important to understand that foxes are seen frequently sleeping just metre es away. So there is every chance that a fox could, indeed, be present in front of the wall.

The most obvious explanation for the 'seeing' a fox, then a wall, at exactly the same location at different times, when nothing has obviously moved or changed, is misperception. I believe that I cannot physically see the distant 'object' well enough to know precisely what it is, so my brain does a visual substitution with the thing it considers most likely to be there. But why would the content of this substitution ever change? More information, I believe, is the answer. Having seen the wall through binoculars, my brain uses a brick wall as the visual substitution from then on.

So why revert to seeing a 'fox' a few days later? Again, it's about information. The unconscious bit of my brain that affects perception knows there's a brick wall there. But it also knows a fox could easily sleep in that same location. So why alternate between two radically different guesses? Well, the lighting varies through the day and it may be enough to tip the guess one way or the other, depending on overall appearance.

But seeing a brick wall 'as a brick wall' is hardly evidence that I am misperceiving! How do I know I'm not just seeing the wall as it really is in the best of the lighting conditions and failing to do so at other times (and then misperceiving instead)? Firstly, I never saw the object as a brick wall even once before using the binoculars, despite viewing the area many times. so I only started to 'see' a brick wall once I knew there was one present. Secondly, whenever I look at the wall in binoculars it always comes as a surprise. It is not simply a bigger, more detailed, version of what I see with the naked eye. It is quite different! It is actually hard to describe how I see the wall with the naked eye. I definitely 'see' a brick wall but I couldn't draw it for you or tell you how many bricks there are. It's just a ' brick wall'. My interpretation of this observation is that I am only seeing a brick wall because I know it's there, not because I can see it well enough to describe.

There are other examples of misperceiving objects as they really are. Take peripheral vision, for instance. This is generally so poor, compared to central vision, that is shows us little than crude shapes, little colour and no detail. But if we are in familiar surroundings, our brains know what should be in peripheral vision and substitutes in what it remembers to be there. We see a table in the 'corner of our eye' because we know it is really there, not because we can actually view it well enough to be sure. In unfamiliar surroundings we can make many more mistakes. The 'table' in the 'corner of our eye' might then actually be a poorly-seen cardboard box! Our brains unconsciously guess at a table, rather than a box, but it is more likely.

While this may seem a lot of fuss about a fox and a wall, it is important in understanding misperception. And eliminating misperception is vital to interpreting reports of anomalous phenomena like ghosts or UFOs. As I mentioned in a recent post, before we can pronounce something paranormal we first need to know the full extent of the normal.

5 July: Jizz and ghosts

JayOne of the disconcerting things that happens when you are with an experienced birder is observing how they can casually identify birds, without binoculars, so far in the distance that all you can see is a dot in the sky. If you look at a birding field guide, it's all about plumage and body shape. How can anyone possibly tell all that from a dark dot in the far distance?

In fact, experienced birders use something called 'jizz'. It is a combination of factors that characterise a particular species. These might include the way it flies, its general shape, characteristic movements, habitat and location. Put together these can often point to a single species.

For instance, the size and shape, flapping style and a characteristic flash of white while flying will tell most birders in the UK straight away that they are looking at a Jay (right). You pick up the combination of characteristics associated with particular species by observing them many times. That's why only experienced birders can use jizz. Sometimes jizz amounts to not much more than an 'overall impression' rather than a specific combination of easily defined characteristics. This can lead to mistakes but not as many as you might imagine.

So what has this to do with ghosts? The connection is misperception, which is what most ghost sightings turn out to be when investigated. When someone views a poorly-seen tree stump as a human figure, or ghost, there is usually more to it than simply the object's shape. For instance, in my own experiences, objects seen as a human figure were invariably in a place where you might expect to see a person. These included near to paths, in chairs, in front of windows and so on. This context no doubt contributed to the misperception - they added a jizz of human figures. In the case of ghosts, there are other factors that might cause someone to misperceive an inanimate object as a ghostly figure. The location is one - people are more likely to misperceive ghostly figures at a place they know, or believe, to be haunted. You might say such places contribute to a ghostly jizz.

We all misperceive all the time but we only notice it occasionally. And only very rarely do we misperceive a human figure or ghost. I think the reason is jizz. Some locations and situations lend a particular object the jizz of a human figure or apparition. And just as experienced birders identify many more birds, so some people see many more ghosts than other people. Most people might see one ghost in their lifetime or none at all. But a small minority, which now includes me, see them regularly. Perhaps I have a feel for their jizz!

PS: The 'fox-wall mystery' continues! Today, in spite of my expectations, I thought I saw fox again (see last two days for what this is about). When I looked in binoculars it was the brick wall once again! So it seems misperceptions can 'wear off', even when you have NOT forgotten them. And now I see the bricks again with the naked eye. I wonder if binoculars should be standard equipment when looking for ghosts. They certainly are excellent for dispelling misperception!

PPS: Thanks to Bill Johnson for finding a fascinating newspaper story here. Read the article headed 'Tunnel Mystery Ends'

4 July: First define normal!

Everyone knows what the paranormal is. It's ghosts, telepathy and all that weird stuff. Its those strange experiences 'beyond' the normal that cannot be explained by current science. But in order to understand the paranormal, you first need to know what 'normal' is and what 'current science' can actually explain. And that's where the term xenonormal comes in handy. Because most reported paranormal experiences prove, on investigation, to fall into that category.

The 'normal', it turns out, is a lot weirder than most of us suppose. Yesterday I discussed how misperception works, which prompted comments. In particular, the idea that seeing a brick wall as a brick wall can hardly be described as 'misperception'. In the example, I thought I saw a distant fox but binoculars revealed the orange shape to be a brick wall. Subsequently I always saw the object as a brick wall when viewed with the naked eye (I've checked today and it STILL works). So am I still misperceiving? Well, what if a fox actually sat in that position, just in front of the wall? Would I still see only a brick wall? Probably yes! The point is, my eyes cannot really see enough detail to tell if it's a fox or a wall. So my brain is substituting the orange object, from my visual memory, with its best guess. That's the way NORMAL perception works! When we cannot see something well enough to recognise it (because it's too distant, badly illuminated, in peripheral vision etc) our brains make a guess and that's what we actually see.

So when someone says they saw a mysterious ghostly figure while out for a walk at night, it could easily be something else, like a tree. They are more likely to have a xenonormal, rather than paranormal, experience. The term xenonormal encompasses those unfamiliar or rare experiences that are, though weird, entirely explicable by current science. In some cases the science may be obscure or very recent. We've only known about visual substitutions in normal perception, for instance, for a relatively short while.

That is why I spend much of my time researching the xenonormal, rather than the paranormal. You can only say something is 'beyond normal' if you know exactly what the limits of 'normal' are. With things like perception, 'normal' can be every bit as weird as 'paranormal'. For instance, most of what you see when you look at a scene is either out of date or comes from your own visual memory! But it FEELS totally detailed, now and completely real. But that's only because that's what our brains tell us! What you see isn't exactly an illusion, but neither is it an accurate image of reality. So understanding when our visual system is deceiving us, to a significant degree, is crucial in deciding if weird experiences are paranormal or xenonormal. And that's before we even consider the way our memory edits the recall of experiences! To a large extent, we see what what we believe!

PS: The fox was present again today, though not quite in front of the brick wall, so two orange blobs visible! I only noticed where the animal was sleeping when I happened to see it arriving the other day. I wonder how many times, before that day, the fox was actually present in plain view but I didn't see it because I thought it was a heap of dead leaves!

PPS: According the US's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there is no evidence for the existence of mermaids! So there you have it! See here for the statement.

3 July: Reproducible visual misperception?

I was looking for a distant fox. Regular readers will know that natural history is one of my passions. I saw an orange patch in a place where I knew a fox regularly slept in daytime. But the shape was vague and I couldn't be sure it was an animal, so I used binoculars to get a better look. However, instead of a fox, it was the orange brick of a wall. The 'shape' of the object was produced by surrounding overhanging tree branches and thick foliage.

But here's the interesting bit! After looking at the scene with binoculars, I looked once again with the naked eye. But this time I could clearly see it was a brick wall, even though it had appeared 'fox-like' before! I looked again several times and, on each occasion, it was still obviously a brick wall! This appears to be a way to reliably reproduce visual misperception!

Obviously I could not physically see the wall any more clearly with my naked eye, after using the binoculars, than I had previously. So the reason I could clearly see the brick pattern after using the binoculars must be because my brain then KNEW what it was looking at and did a visual substitution! I could not have drawn the wall accurately from my naked eye view, it was just a 'some bricks'. I'm not sure if the substitution was derived from the actual recollection of just seeing the real wall (a scaled down version presumably) or an archetypical 'brick wall' from general visual memory.

All of this suggests a practical way to study how misperception works in everyday life. One could, for instance, look into the question of whether the visual substitution in this case was specific or a generalized. And how long do such misperceptions last? For instance, will I still be able to 'see' that wall with my naked eye, in a week's time? Or a year? I suspect that, once I forget the binocular view, I will revert to seeing an orange blob, or even a 'fox'!

PS: Bill Johnson has kindly reminded me about the Butterfly Alphabet which, I believe, is what I was vaguely recalling yesterday. It is described here. It is different to my example from yesterday in that the letters were not photographic artefacts but chance real patterns on butterfly wings. There is no suggestion that the Butterfly Alphabet is the result of any anomalous phenomena at work, just a rare wonder of nature.

2 July: Writing on a butterfly

Writing ob butterflyI was looking through some recent photos when I saw something truly weird. It appeared to be writing on a living butterfly! As phenomenon go, that's pretty anomalous! I remember reading reports of words (and symbols and pictures) apparently written on insects before but I can't find them now and the web isn't any help. If anyone knows of any such reports, please let me know.

Anyway, here is the photo (right). Whether you see the writing will depend on what device you're using to view this web page. If you look at the wings of the butterfly, around half way along each is a white patch with what looks like letters on it. It is difficult to make out what is on the right wing because it is in the shade. But to me, the writing on the left wing is in black capital letters written lengthwise along the wing. The writing appears to be upside down, going left to right starting from the head end of the wing. I see it as (going towards top left of the frame) the bottom half of the letters HK <space> DF <space> O followed by a dark blob.

I didn't rotate the photo to make the writing a normal angle deliberately. The reason is that I originally saw the writing at the angle you see it here. I have tried rotating the picture but it doesn't improve the view. Most people have no problem reading writing at unusual angles anyway.

So what would be the significance of finding writing on an insect? Well, it could be a robot insect. These are reportedly being developed for remote data gathering! Given their purpose, I doubt the manufacturer would put writing on them! Also, the insect in the photo looks pretty convincingly natural so it is probably beyond our technology at present. Of course, it has been suggested that alien civilizations might spy on us by sending such insect drones (a lot easier than coming in person). I seem to recall an episode of the X Files on this theme. The obvious objection to this being an alien drone would be, of course, why would aliens put English letters on such a device?

Barcode butterflyAnyway, I decided to look more closely at the writing to see if it became clearer when you zoom in. The result is here, right. As you can see, the 'writing' has disappeared in this magnified view. Instead it is a fairly random pattern of light and dark. The 'letters' have vanished completely!

Butterfly wings are covered in tiny scales, which is the origin of their often striking and bold patterns. The patterns are meant to be seen from above, from where they can appear spectacularly colourful. However, what we're seeing here is a section of the underside of the wing, which is not so precisely patterned. It's a bit like the way a patterned pullover looks great on the outside, the bit we normally see, but can look a bit of a mess on the inside. The underside of butterfly wings are generally more patchy and less coherently patterned than the top side. And that is what I think the 'writing' is - a random collection of scales not intended for general display!

So why does it look a bit like writing? That's to do with the photo. When you zoom out of a photo, inevitably some of the detail is lost. Fine detail is stuck together to form broader 'blobs' which can, sometimes, by chance resemble other objects.

We humans instinctively see 'faces' or 'human figures' among random shapes. But once we learn to read we can also occasionally see 'writing' where it is not actually present. That is particularly the case where you have fine black shapes against a white background, resembling the conventional printed page.

It is a good thing this photo was quite high resolution. If it had not been, them a zoomed version would not have revealed the true detail underlying the apparent letters. So, not a robot after all. But with the pace of technological development, maybe one day it will be! Though I doubt it will have writing on it!

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

Last month's (June) website figures are an average of 9326 hits per day. Though noticeably down on the previous month's 11739 daily average, it is significantly up on June 2011's average of 8512.


Previous blog pages ...

  • June 2012 (including doppelganger mystery, not expecting ghosts, anecdotal evidence, credible witnesses)
  • May 2012 (including lenticular cloud, ghost encounter, ghost train, weird stuff in a tree, van Gogh, resolution)
  • Apr 2012 (including naturalists and ghosts, odd feelings during OBE, wrong kind of sound, voice from nowhere)
  • Mar 2012 (including jogging and ghosts, misty ghosts, image noise, full spectrum photography, EVP of machines)
  • Feb 2012 (including ghost car, analyzing anomalous photos, ghost at rock concert, OBEs and motion sickness)
  • Jan 2012 (including stopping flying rods, photographing fairies, time warp, a ghost tie, ghostly fingers, New Year UFOs)
  • Dec 2011 (including missing time, improving ghost vigils, anomalous photos, ghostly faces, seeing fiction)
  • Nov 2011 (including OBE video games, EVP and VLF, whatshisname, paranormal misconceptions, invisible ghosts)
  • Oct 2011 (including smartphone ghosts, similacrum, smell of ghosts, morphing UFOs, slowing time)
  • Sep 2011 (including tidy ghost, MADS, transparent ghost, big announcement, ghost fox, not alone)
  • Aug 2011 (including cold spots, spectral hound, triangular UFO, ghost photos, rushing air and being dragged)
  • July 2011 (including Hilary Evans, Harry Potter, witness investment, bias in paranormal research, TV detectives)
  • June 2011 (including ASSAP @ 30, detecting lies, hyper-vigilence, strange thunder)
  • May 2011 (including ASSAP @ 30, lone shoes, flying rods, bias, early memories, strange floating object)
  • Apr 2011 (including royal wedding, mirror touch synaesthesia, sleep disorders, new ghost sighting)
  • Mar 2011 (including roof heron, Atlantis, first time witnesses, comparing film to digital paranormal photos)
  • Feb 2011 (including predicting the future, ghost bird, time slip, weird floor, what do we really know about paranormal)
  • Jan 2011 (including the ghost hunting boom, orange UFO, EVP experiment, extreme normality)
  • Dec 2010 (including microsleeps and road ghosts, shadow ghost in snow, lack of ghosts in photos, anthropomorphism)
  • Nov 2010 (including EMF meters, auras, evidence for precognition, sensitisation, the ghost hunting boom)
  • Oct 2010 (including black orbs, UnConvention, mirror visions, levitation, flying rods and orbs)
  • Sep 2010 (including a ring tone from the roof, shadow ghost video, time slip explanation, daylight orb video)
  • Aug 2010 (including Parisian UFO, sense of presence, SLI, consulting experts, misperception)
  • Jul 2010 (including Sherlock Holmes as a paranormal investigator, haunting sounds, what ARE hallucinations)
  • 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
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© Maurice Townsend 2012