ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAP bloggerWelcome to the ASSAP paranormal blog! Though this blog is aimed at anyone interested in the paranormal, it will be of particular interest to the paranormal research community. Updated frequently, but not regularly (don't expect something new every day!), it covers any paranormal topic, as well as highlighting recent changes to the ASSAP website. You may not notice it but this site changes on an almost daily basis.

Whenever new information becomes available on a subject ASSAP covers, it is added to the relevant pages of the website straight away. So, just because you've read a page, don't assume it will still be exactly the same when you next look. That way the ASSAP website remains an up to date research resource.

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

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

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

28 June 2010: Are paranormal witnesses too focused?

Most people will have seen the 'gorilla' video (here's an updated version). In it, we watch a game of people passing a ball and are invited to count how many times passes occur. In the middle, a gorilla walks through the scene and is generally missed by about half of those who see it. The experiment shows how when we concentrate on one thing we generally miss other things going on in the same scene.

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, who devised the original experiment, talked to New Scientist recently (28 June) and explained that despite extensive research, they have not found any one group of the population who predictably miss the gorilla more than any other. I have some anecdotal evidence that may point to a group of people that almost always misses the gorilla - those interested in the paranormal!

I have seen the gorilla video shown at two lectures. Each time, hardly any of the audience (numbering 30 - 50 people) saw the gorilla, nowhere near the 50% you would expect. Both lectures were for people very interested in the paranormal. It seems highly unlikely that simply sharing a common interest would make people less likely to see the gorilla. So what else do such people have in common? Well, many of them became interested because they had a paranormal experience themselves, some repeatedly.

So, are people who witness the paranormal more likely only to see one unusual thing in a scene? To put it another way, are they unusually focused, not easily distracted? Since we know most paranormal reports are actually caused by things like misperception, this makes sense. In misperception, poorly-seen objects are seen as something else. There may well be clues to the real nature of such an object in its immediate surroundings. A tree that resembles a human figure, for instance, may be surrounded by similar-looking trees. But if witnesses are too focused on the 'ghost' they may miss vital clues to what it really is.

So, are paranormal witnesses really 'too focused'? There is some evidence, from witness statements, that they tend not to notice what else is going on when they have their paranormal experience. The usual explanation for this is that anyone is bound to concentrate on something unexpected and weird rather than other stuff going on around them. But what if paranormal witnesses are that elusive group of the population that tends to 'over-concentrate' on one thing at a time? And what if that makes them more likely to misperceive? Is this another major clue to explaining many paranormal experiences?

25 June 2010: A flying white ghost!

Your eyes are good at catching movement in your peripheral vision. However, if you see something in your peripheral vision you will not be able to make it out in detail and there will only be limited colour vision, often restricted to black and white. If you think you've seen something in detail when you've only seen it in peripheral vision, it is probably misperception. Effectively, your brain has guessed what you're looking at and filled in the details from memory.

Despite all this, peripheral vision is good at noticing moving objects, better than central vision. But what if you move your head while noticing an object in peripheral vision? I noticed recently that there appeared to be a bright white object moving in my peripheral vision every time I moved my head. When I looked directly at the scene, nothing was moving! However, there was a bright white post standing very still and conspicuous against a darker background. I think the movement of my head made the post appear to move when, in fact, it was my head that moved. It was probably the conspicuousness of the white post, and the fact that I noticed it first in peripheral vision (meaning my brain had not yet correctly identified it), that probably contributed to the illusion. When I tried moving my head again, after seeing the the post properly, no movement! My brain had decided the object could not move so I saw it properly, behaving more like a post!

The crucial factor here - as with the rare bird in 21 June entry - is unfamiliarity! Until our brains recognise a poorly-seen object, they are free to 'guess' what it is and sometimes they get it wrong! My brain may have thought that the white post was a white butterfly. Once it knew the object was a post, it no longer appeared to move, since my brain knows posts don't usually move! Where I talk about my brain here, as though it was something separate to me, I am referring to the unconscious bit which sorts out things like perception without conscious intervention. I have no conscious control over what this bit of my brain does, so it is 'separate' from 'me' in some ways!

This peripheral vision movement effect is something to be looked out for on investigations. If an object in an anomalous report is only EVER seen moving and then only ever in peripheral vision, it would be worth checking the scene for something conspicuous that could explain the sighting. If there is nothing obvious there, maybe there really WAS something moving in the peripheral vision!

23 June 2010: Spooky summer

Occasionally, the UK gets something resembling a warm dry summer. It hasn't happened for a while but maybe this will be the year. Spookiness seems to be at a low during summer. Those long hot dry days just don't feel spooky at all and thoughts of ghosts and hauntings tend to drift to the back of peoples' minds. Indeed, on a bright sunny day there may be fewer misperceptions because there is lots of light around to see what things really are. So there are likely to be fewer reports of strange sightings in the summer. Instead, paranormal researchers seem to prefer to go to conferences and meetings to talk about their favourite subject.

Here are the places where ASSAP will speaking or running stalls over the next few months: Weird Weekend 2010 and Weird, both in August and in the spookier autumn at the Swindon Ghost Festival and Fortean Times Unconvention, both in October. More details will be available on these last two events nearer the time. If you are going to any of these events, do come along and say hello to the ASSAP crew.

21 June 2010: First visit effect?

Mystery birdI do a bit of birdwatching when I'm not chasing ghosts and other anomalies. It is always exciting to visit a new area, particularly abroad, to see birds you've not seen before. Here is a typical experience from such a trip.

Every area you visit as a birdwatcher has a mixture of birds, some easily seen and obvious, others less so. As the 'easily seen' birds of one area could be incredibly rare in your home area, it makes the first few hours exciting with lots of birds you've hardly ever, or never, seen before. During this time it is not unusual to see something rare that you've really been looking forward to seeing. On many occasions this rarity is only glimpsed briefly or only seen in the distance. There is a reason for this which will become obvious.

As you continue to birdwatch in a 'new' area you soon become familiar with the birds that are common there and perhaps catch up with some of the rarer ones, if you're lucky. Then you notice two things. Firstly, there is usually no further sign of the rarity you saw when you first arrived. Secondly, you notice a common bird that resembles that rarity! At this point you look back at your notes and reassure yourself you really did see the rarity! You feel better but there is still a nagging doubt, especially as the bird wasn't seen well.

This sort of observation is almost certainly a misperception. The clue is the fact that bird was poorly seen and not observed again (though a common bird that resembled it was!). Misperception doesn't always have to be about ghosts, UFOs and anomalous phenomena. Sometimes it is just something unusual that you either expect, or simply really want, to see, like a rare bird.

The fact that the observation happens when you first arrive in a new area is important. That's because you haven't yet had time to find out what is common and what is not. Not knowing what to expect in a place leaves you open to xenonormal experiences - misinterpreting the unfamiliar. If you saw a rarity at home you would know straight away it was highly unusual. But in an area new to you, you might misinterpret the common for the unusual.

It's a similar idea to the new house effect. I'm still toying with the idea of whether to give it a name, like 'first visit effect'. You certainly see it on ghost vigils. People who have never been to a particular haunted location before always seem to experience several interesting phenomena whereas old hands seldom do. That's because the old hands know which weird noises and strange lights have natural explanations.

The photo above was taken in Scotland in a place I'd never been before. On seeing this bird, I thought it might be a rare Red-throated Diver which is perfectly possible, if unlikely, for the area concerned. However, after watching it for a long time I realised it was a Cormorant. It certainly had me excited for a while!

18 June 2010: Telling ghost stories the wrong way round

I went on a ghost walk recently. It was fun but it did raise some interesting questions. For anyone who hasn't been on one, which can't be many people here, you are led to places by a guide who tells you ghost stories associated with them. What struck me about these ghost stories, fascinating though they were, was that they were told the wrong way round!

In most cases we were told of some tragedy in someone's life and then how that person returned as a ghost to haunt the place where it happened. Though chronological, this way of telling a ghost story does not correspond with how ghost cases actually work. Take two examples of how such ghost stories might actually arise.

In the first scenario, there was indeed a terrible and well-publicised tragedy. Someone, who knew all about it, then reported seeing a ghost in the area where the events took place soon after.

In the second scenario, someone witnesses a ghost and, following the popular idea of ghosts as spirits, they look into the history of the area and turn up a tragedy, previously unknown to them, that took place there. They then assume that the ghost was associated with the tragedy.

In both scenarios, the story should really start with the sighting of the ghost. After all, it is a ghost story, not a tragedy! In the first scenario, the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the well-publicised tragedy may have led people to interpret strange sightings, actually caused by misperception, as being related to it. Such psychological suggestion primes people to expect strange events and interpret them in a particular way, encouraging misperception. In the second scenario, it is the assumption of the witness that ghosts are spirits (despite the lack of evidence for it) which leads them to examine the history of the locality. In both cases, it is unlikely that the ghost will be positively identified, by comparing the sighting with a photo of the supposed haunter in life, for instance. It is just an assumption based on the popular idea that tragedies give rise to hauntings!

This way of telling a ghost story the 'wrong way round' inevitably biases listeners to thinking it is the only logical interpretation of an apparition sighting. If you start, instead, with the sighting itself, you can ask the more sensible question 'what exactly did the witness see?'. In many cases it was not a human figure at all but another object misperceived.

I notice that when people tell ghost stories, like those you hear on ghost walks, they concentrate more on the tragedy than the ghost sighting. That could be because the sighting actually had a fairly obvious xenonormal explanation or maybe that it was a legend rather than a real event. Of course, a legend may be based on a real event but altered over many retellings.

I like ghost stories and value them as a part of our culture. However, they affect paranormal research in an unhelpful way because they bias the way many witnesses interpret ghostly sightings. If only they were told the right way round ...

14 June 2010: Asking the right questions about the paranormal

It used to be a big mystery to me, how little progress there was in paranormal research. As a serious subject of scientific enquiry, it's been around for well over a century now and yet there are very few solid results you can point to. There is a problem with underfunding, certainly,and a lack of interest from the 'scientific establishment' but there are still plenty of people doing serious work out there. So why so little solid progress? My answer - we are not asking the right research questions!

The questions that current research tends to address are difficult ones to answer, like whether spirits exist or if telepathy is possible. These are questions that have confounded great minds for millennia, not just a century or so. They are clearly not easy to answer! I found myself battering these same big questions for decades without result until I slowly realised there was a better way to make progress - by asking simpler questions that CAN be answered!

Here is an example of a question that addresses the paranormal and CAN be answered by diligent research. Instead of, 'are the voices heard in EVP really spirits', how about asking 'how do our senses distinguish between human speech and other noises'. The first question involves so many facets and assumptions t is almost impossible to answer. The second question is simply a matter of scientific research. If there are certain sounds, which are interpreted as voices by humans when in reality they have other origins, then some EVP recordings may not be voices at all. By finding out in what circumstances humans interpret noise as voices, it should be possible to develop analytical tools to detect such sounds and eliminate them from investigations. See here for more info on where this question might lead.

Another example of an easier question is, instead of asking 'are orbs spirits', try 'why are orbs so much more frequent with digital cameras'. Again, the answers to the latter question are fairly easy to discover and highly relevant to answering the former question. It turns out that there is no real evidence that orbs are anything other than out of focus bits of dust, insects, water droplets, and so on, caught by a camera flash. The reason they are so common with compact digital cameras is because their lenses have a higher depth of field than film cameras, bringing the 'orb zone' into existence.

Instead of addressing the hard questions ('what are ghosts') directly, we should be concentrating on the easier, more practical, ones ('what precisely did the witness see'). Not only do these questions generate actual answers (see misperception as a cause of ghost sightings) but they address the bigger questions as well, albeit indirectly. For instance, there are books full of evidence from ghost research. It seems reasonable that we should distil this evidence and see what it tells us about the true nature of ghosts. However, what if much of this 'evidence' was actually produced by misperception unrecognised by the original case investigators? Suddenly, putting all this evidence together does not appear such a good idea!

Indeed, this could be another reason why paranormal research does not progress much. If a large part of the data gathered from spontaneous cases actually has xenonormal causes, it is little wonder it yields an inconsistent and probably inaccurate picture. It may tell us a lot about human perception but not much about paranormal phenomena!

9 June 2010: Anyone seen the Loch Ness Monster recently?

Loch Ness MonsterI visited Loch Ness recently, famed around the world for its monster of course. I can't say I saw anything weird but I was struck by the fact that, looking at the history of the monster, there does not seem to be much recent news about it, compared to last century. Nor do there appear to be many sightings reported of late. So what has happened to Nessie?

One of the things you notice when you visit Loch Ness is that it isn't easy to get to the shore in many places. Though there are roads down both sides, they are generally well above the loch and trees frequently obscure the view. The loch itself is wide and, as a result, it is difficult to judge the scale of objects in the water. What might look like something large and distant, like a monster, may actually be something close and small, like an otter. This problem is magnified hugely in photographs where there may be nothing nearby in the frame from which to judge the size of an object. Even if there IS something nearby, like a boat, it is difficult to say whether it is at the same distance as the unknown object (and therefore a useful comparison). Because of the foreshortening effect of the bank side perspective, an object that looks just a little further away from the unknown one could, in fact, be a large distance from it making scale comparisons difficult.

There are many possible causes of Nessie sightings, apart from a monster. As well as animals, like otters, seals and birds, there are floating trees, wakes from boats and bubbles of gas. With so many things around that could be reported as a monster, when seen from a distance, it is perhaps surprising there aren't MORE sightings. While there were many sightings and expeditions to look for Nessie from the 1960s to the 1990s, things seem to have gone quiet recently.

In the photo above I attempted my own 'monster' pic at the loch. You can see what appears to be an animal, with broad shoulders beneath a short neck and tiny head, leaving an obvious wake as it swims away from the camera. The overhanging trees are much closer to the camera and give no help when trying to judge the size of the object. In fact it is not one object but two that happen to overlap in the photo - it is a pair of Mallards! Such a photo taken anywhere other than Loch Ness probably wouldn't be examined in such detail!

OSouth coast UFOne possible reason for the decline in sightings is the BBC sponsored sonar survey in 2003. The survey, which covered the whole loch and could spot objects much smaller than the supposed monster, found nothing. To many people this perhaps was the 'end' of the monster! Not that you will get any such impression by visiting the loch where enthusiasm for it remains high!

Another possible reason for the decline in sightings may be that people are simply more interested in other strange things. There has been a similar decline of sightings, and interest, in UFOs over a similar period. This may reflect the huge upsurge in interest in ghosts, promoted by the reality TV ghost hunting shows. Unlike monsters or UFOs, whose appearance at any one location is very difficult to predict, ghost activity is usually restricted to a few rooms in a single building! Perhaps we prefer to study ghosts because it is simply so much easier (though no less puzzling)!

On a train journey recently, I saw what I thought might be a buzzard flying quickly past. I saw it for no more than a second. Someone seated looking in another direction also saw the object but for several seconds! They identified the flying object as a plastic supermarket bag blown along by the wind! My initial feeling of sheepishness was replaced by one of triumph. It was a splendid demonstration of a 'glance-type' misperception!

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 (May) website figures are an average of 8887 hits per day. Though marginally down on the previous month's 9107, it is up (by 1%) on the same month in the previous year.


Previous blog pages ...

  • 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