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)

28 June 2011: Two fine days and a thunder storm

The English summer is said to consist of two fine days and a thunder storm. So welcome autumn! After a dismal June we had our two fine days (oppressively hot and humid in reality) and now we're having some hefty thunder storms! They have even caused delays at Gatwick Airport!

One thing that struck me was that the thunder today sounded 'funny'! Instead of the usual long roll after the initial clap, this thunder seemed weirdly perfunctory! Wasit a different kind of thunder or a true anomaly? Good questions but not easily answered without extensive research.

This reminded me of many paranormal reports I've read. A witness describes something as paranormal because it is 'too loud', 'too bright', 'too green', 'too short', 'too long', etc. An otherwise normal phenomenon was thought to be paranormal because it is behaving strangely (within the experience or knowledge of the witness). But was it odd in terms of nature?

Few, if any, of us are experts on everything we see every day. So, just as I can't really say if the thunder I heard was 'within known bounds', neither can many paranormal witnesses, who are not experts on the phenomena they witnessed. Until suitable experts have been consulted we should be wary of labelling something we've witnessed as even unusual, far less paranormal!

As for the mystery thunder, I suspect the length of the 'roll' probably depends on local geography, particularly the location of nearby hills. It would also, no doubt, depend on the distance and location of the source of the thunder, as well as its type. It's interesting to note that I heard more 'normal' thunder rolls later on, by which time the storm had moved. I'm willing to bet the thunder I heard was actually well 'within parameters', as they say these days.

27 June 2011: Expecting the unexpected

I have recently had experiences of (a) the expected NOT happening and (b) the completely unexpected actually happening. Between them, both of these experiences are similar to many paranormal reports I've come across.

Firstly, the expected. I was alone in a building but expecting someone to return at any moment. On two occasions I distinctly heard the unmistakable sound of the a key being turned in particular door. However, on both occasions, no one arrived and clearly the sound must have been something else! I am not sure what the origin of the sound was but I'm convinced it was real (as opposed to pure imagination) - something mechanical I think. I suspect that if I heard the same sound at some other time, when I was not expecting someone's imminent arrival, it would have been perceived as something quite different. It was striking how realistic the sound appeared, to the extent that I actually went to look! This was clearly an aural misperception heavily influenced by expectation!

Second, the unexpected. This also involved someone's arrival, this time completely unexpected. I was totally absorbed in doing something at the time and felt utterly confused when I heard unexpected sounds that were inexplicably loud and nearby, compared to normal background noise. It took several seconds for me to work out what was going on. Being in a locked building alone, expecting no one at all, you can appreciate my shock when I heard someone enter! The incident was, it turned out, perfectly innocent.

The 'expected' case reminded me of people who are experiencing an on-going haunting. They, too, sometimes describe hearing things like keys turning even though the relevant door remains firmly closed and no one enters. I can see how this kind of effect can arise naturally now! I think if you have had several odd experiences at a particular location you start to expect them. Similarly, if you were on a ghost vigil and knew there was a report of doors being unlocked, it would be easy to turn a suitable similar noise into that of a key turning through aural misperception.

The 'unexpected' case is interesting because it is what one might expect all first time paranormal witnesses to report. To experience something totally unexpected and bizarre is likely to leave anyone bemused. Oddly, not that many people report such a reaction. In some cases that's because the witness only realises something odd is happening afterwards. For instance, seeing a perfectly normal-looking human figure in a room only to realise later that the room was locked and empty! In other cases, the lack of shock may be something to do with the psychological factors associated with a particular witness. Or it might indicate that misperception or near sleep experiences were responsible for the report. I have had several of both and, in all cases, I never felt any shock or bemusement at all. This may be because the brain is both producing the image and telling you it is correct! This would, no doubt, feel re-assuring!

24 June 2011: Interpretation, confabulation and lies!

Do you ever suspect a witness to an apparent paranormal event may be lying to you? In my experience, such things are rare but not unknown. If you suspect such a thing, there are techniques you can use to try to detect lying (as explained in this week's New Scientist). Telling lies requires more cognitive effort than telling the truth. So, if you ask a witness to recount the events in reverse order or ask them to draw the scene, they will find it hard and may make revealing mistakes.

It is important to differentiate between lying and confabulation. Confabulation is effectively inventing details of a memory so that it makes more sense. It is an unconscious process and the person doing it totally believes their new version, even though it differs from what actually happened. Therefore, it is not the same as conscious lying and will not be susceptible to the detection methods mentioned above. Confabulation is surprisingly common with paranormal reports. In many cases the precise events surrounding an unusual incident are not remembered well and witnesses have a tendency to add 'details' when asked, to fit their own interpretation. This is normal and should not be seen as intentional deceit. Often such 'invented details' can be checked and eliminated by comparing different accounts from either the same witness or others. Careful site examination can also help with this. People who firmly believe they have witnessed something paranormal have a tendency, when questioned, to 'recall' details, not previously mentioned, that support their interpretation of the events.

Why should that be? In another article in this week's NS, they may have an answer. It seems that once we interpret an apparently random pattern, we cannot ever see it as random again. The interpretation might change. You may see a 'face' in some vegetation that then becomes a 'rabbit', for instance. But you will never see the vegetation as a random jumble of leaves and branches again! You cannot reverse interpretation!

So once someone is convinced they've witnessed something paranormal, they are unlikely to change their minds unless someone comes up with a BETTER explanation! By better, I mean it has to fit the experience more closely than the witness's own paranormal interpretation. So if an alternative explanation is suggested, the witness may confabulate to support their original interpretation! Only if the alternative explanation fits exactly with the witness memory or explains hitherto inexplicable details is it likely to be accepted. It is easier to explain things like paranormal photos because they do not rely so heavily on memory.

15 June 2011: Hyper-vigilance and the hum

Twice recently I've been alerted to nearby unseen animals by birds calling. One previously unnoticed animal was a fox, the other a heron flying overhead. In both cases, the birds were keen to see off largish animals they regarded as threats to either themselves or their chicks (being that time of year). We look upon such incidents as involving 'animals', sometimes forgetting that we humans are also 'animals' and have a lot more in common with other species than we care to admit.

Even the boldest human can feel a little uneasy walking alone through a deserted lane or alleyway at night. It is, perhaps, an ancient fear we share with other animals that their may be some unseen threat lurking nearby. For people in the industrialised west such a threat is unlikely to be a large animal but it could be another human or maybe something paranormal, like a ghost or monster.

It is this ancient animal instinct that may explain why people can become convinced they are in a haunted house when all the 'phenomena' they witness are shown to have a natural explanation. People can become 'hyper-vigilant', noticing things that most of us ignore in everyday life.

If you hear a single faint 'knock' from another room in a deserted building do you (a) ignore it, (b) think it is just something expanding or contracting with temperature changes or (c) think it is a ghost? Most people would probably reply (a) and many others (b). But a few 'hyper-vigilant' people might reply (c). Such people would not necessarily be hyper-vigilant all the time. It may be something that happens from time to time.

Most reported cases of the paranormal seem to be more about witnesses than actual events. These reports may be caused by misperception or near-sleep experiences. Or they could be about witnesses becoming hyper-vigilant for some reason. In most cases, the only evidence we have of anything weird going on is the witness testimony. So it is vital to try to assess we what state witnesses was in when they saw something strange. This is something that ghost vigils simply cannot tell you!

Meanwhile, I notice 'the hum' is back! I cannot improve on the link in explaining what this is all about. I have never investigated the hum personally but I've always found it intriguing. It all comes down to whether the sound is objective and measurable or not. I wonder if some 'hum' sufferers might have become hyper-vigilant to low intensity background noises that most of us would never notice.

10 June 2011: ASSAP is thirty today!!!!!

ASSAPSo here we are, thirty years on from the official foundation day of ASSAP. And how far have got in achieving our core goals of promoting and developing the scientific study of the seriously weird?

The fractured 'weird' scene of 30 years ago would look alien to today's anomaly researchers. In those days you were either a ufologist or paranormal researcher or monster hunter (et al) and that was all. Nowadays many (most?) people interested in anomalous phenomena eagerly follow a whole variety of different weird subjects. This was already a minor trend in this direction when we started and it has gained momentum ever since. So whether ASSAP can take much of the credit for this is debatable but we certainly always provided a natural home for those wanting to pursue cross-disciplinary anomalous studies.

Just as science often leaps forward when scientists see parallels between different disciplines, so it has proved with anomalous phenomena. Whether someone waking in the middle of the night to see a weird figure in their bedroom interprets it as a ghost or an alien is probably largely down to what movies they watch! Either way, a near sleep experience, like hypnagogia, is almost certainly the root cause of the sighting. Similarly, an unrecognised object floating in a lake might be seen as a monster while one hovering in the sky will be interpreted as an alien space craft. In both cases, the most likely cause of the sighting is actually misperception with the physical context providing the route towards a specific interpretation. Such sightings often get 'wrapped up' in dramatic detail, reinforcing a particular interpretation, making them apparently undeniably anomalous. But even such dramatic accounts may not be what they at first appear to be.

And what about the 'scientific' part of our brief? Well, we've contributed to papers in learned parapsychological journals and some of our online studies have been used as educational resources by universities. ASSAP's own journal Anomaly is also now peer reviewed. By contrast, the current popular 'ghost hunting boom', which ASSAP has not been part of, has markedly moved away from scientific methods. To some 'boomers', a ghost vigil can be described as 'scientific' if there is instrumentation involved! But it is the methods, not the tools, that make a study scientific. To help the scientific cause, ASSAP provides information online outlining how scientific methods (including appropriate use of instrumentation) can be applied to researching anomalous phenomena. Clearly, though, there is a lot more to be done in this area in the future!

I'd like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to some of the pioneers who helped found ASSAP and get it going. They include, in no particular order; Alan Hughes, Alan Cleaver, Hilary Evans, Jenny Randles, David Christie-Murray, Dennis Bury, Hugh Pincott, Janice Bagnell, Vernon Harrison, John Merron and many others.

So let's celebrate 30 years of ASSAP! It has made a useful contribution to the field of researching anomalous phenomena but there is much more yet to do. If you want to join in the celebrations, why come to the Seriously Strange conference. See here for details.


8 June 2011: ASSAP @ 30 - the paranormal and nature's cruel trick!

Just two days to go now until ASSAP is 30! Way back in the early days, some of us optimistically thought that hanging around in haunted houses or at seances must eventually bring us into contact with the paranormal for sure! And for a while it looked as though it was only a matter of time before that would actually happen. But over time we found that early promising reports started to unravel. We started to realise that the paranormal was a lot rarer than we'd ever imagined and that nature had played a cruel trick on us. It turned out that there are a lot of things (the 'xenonormal') that closely resemble the paranormal but are not it!

So someone sees a human figure in a locked room, where no one could possibly have access, and reasonably concludes it is a ghost. The figure even obligingly disappears after a few seconds confirming its paranormal status! Except that, in reality it is a misperception caused by a house plant! Another witness wakes up in the middle of the night to see a shadowy figure at the end of their bed which also disappears. Surely a ghost this time? No, much more likely hypnagogia, a type of near sleep experience!

There is an endless list of other examples covering any anomalous phenomenon you can think of. It turns out that identifying the paranormal is a lot more difficult than in the movies! There are any number of things out there that could be mistaken for the paranormal, but aren't! In reality, it is not nature that played this trick so much as popular culture. It turns out that the ghosts of the movies (that answer questions and are mostly transparent) don't really exist! The real ones ones are surprisingly difficult to distinguish from ordinary people! Similarly, the UFOs of video games are easy to tell apart from balloons and satellites, unlike the real ones.

So what to do? Well, you could just hope life really IS like the movies after all and use assumption-led methods of research. The trouble is, such methods won't yield scientifically useful information. Luckily there IS another way but it is not easy and few people are doing it. It is xenonormal research. The idea is to actually study those things that appear to be paranormal, like misperception, to make them easier to recognise in the field. That way, such natural causes can be eliminated more quickly and surely.

This is not just an attempt to recreate a phenomenon during a ghost vigil. Though this is always a good idea, xenonormal research goes so much deeper. Take, for instance, our studies of orbs, flying rods (pic right) or EVP. These research projects look at all the natural conditions required to produce effects that closely resemble, or are even identical to, paranormal phenomena. Armed with knowledge from such studies you can look for the distinctive signatures of xenonormal effects. There is ongoing work going on into examining the conditions that give rise to misperception, a massively important producer of paranormal reports, and how to recognise it in the field.

This sort of research is not a quick fix. But having tried the 'quick' way, by simply turning up at haunted houses and looking, and failing, it may be the only practical way to reach the paranormal.

7 June 2011: ASSAP @ 30 - reducing the known unknowns to find the unknown unknowns

If you study ghosts (or UFOs or other anomalies) you are likely to get very confused by all the conflicting evidence (see here). BUT if you study ghost REPORTS, suddenly things start to make sense! You soon realise that different ghost reports have different causes, like misperception and near sleep experiences.

This is a lesson some longer term ASSAP researchers have benefited from. Unfortunately, most people in the 'ghost hunting boom' are still studying ghosts and getting nowhere fast. Instead many are stuck with assumption-led methods (ALM) of ghost research. Unfortunately for them, there are good reasons why ALMs will never work.

In scientific experiments the aim is usually to discover the relationship between two variables in a particular natural system. Specifically, we are usually looking to see if one thing causes another, like a variable magnetic field inducing a current in an electrical conductor, for instance. To do that, you need to see if the two variables change in a predictable way relative to each other. But you also need to remove the possibility that other variables may be affecting the changes. So you try to control all other variables that might affect your results. In essence, you minimise changes to all other variables during an experiment, so you can clearly see the relationship between the two you allow to vary. If that is not possible, or if there are unknown variables involved that could affect your results, you monitor all background variables so that they can be 'subtracted' from the experimental results to eliminate their effect.

In paranormal field research there will always be variables we cannot control or whose effect is unknown. So we take the second approach of monitoring any variables we cannot control. Here's an example.

In the MADS experiments we wanted to see if certain magnetic fields (EIFs) were present in haunted locations causing people to have magnetic hallucinations they interpreted as ghostly phenomena. So we took two identical magnetometers and set them running continuously a short distance apart. One was placed in a known haunting hot spot while the other was nearby in the same room at a place where nothing had been reported. We knew there were all sorts of things that could affect the magnetic environment temporarily in a domestic environment. For instance, electrical circuits might activate when appliances elsewhere were switched on or off. We could not predict or control such variables but, over the short distance between the sensors, the effect would be much the same for both. What we were looking for was a consistent difference in the magnetic fields in the haunted location while ignoring background changes. By running the sensors continuously, in parallel, we could see changes that affected BOTH sensors as well as those that only occurred at ONE. So, in effect, all the variables we were not interested in were accounted for (as they occurred at BOTH sensors) and we could concentrate on anything consistently happening ONLY at the 'haunted' sensor. Thus we were eliminating all the variables, known and unknown, that we were not interested in.

In ALM, instead of reducing unknown variables, they are usually ADDED to! For instance, if you use a psychic medium on an investigation you are adding unknown variables that you can neither control or measure. No one knows how a medium obtains their information. Certainly it is possible that some information may actually come from natural if unobvious causes - see here. Some information might also come from paranormal sources, which are certainly unknown variables. Either way, you are adding in many new unknown, and unmeasurable, variables compared to other methods that don't use mediums. This makes the results impossible to analyse with any certainty because you've no idea what all your variables are or what effect they might be having. You can see the same problems with using things like seances, dowsing and so on. Even apparently scientific methods, like using instruments, can be compromised by using temporal, instead of positional, baselines (see here). Such inappropriate use of instruments adds uncontrolled or unknown variables rather than reducing their numbers.

We have, over 30 years, refined techniques to reduce unknown variables in field research. It is not always easy but the rewards are high.

6 June 2011: ASSAP @ 30 - can machines detect the paranormal?

When ASSAP started, few people used instruments beyond a camera and tape recorder to investigate paranormal cases. Nowadays, there seems to be a new gizmo appearing every month, or at least an old gizmo being used for the first time in pursuit of paranormal evidence. But there is still an unresolved question hanging over the field, just as it did 30 years ago, namely can any instrument actually detect the paranormal?

As discussed below, the arrival of digital photography threw up orbs which tested the credibility of paranormal photos to, and perhaps beyond, their limit. A similar process has now taken place in other fields of instrumentation leading us to ask what it would take to show a 'paranormal' reading.

I should make it clear that ASSAP was an early adopter and advocate of instrumentation in paranormal investigation. The basic idea then was to see if there was anything different between a haunted and non-haunted location by examining every environmental parameter that could be easily measured. The results of that worthy endeavour remain equivocal.

However, there has been a more widespread adoption of technology in paranormal investigations which has gone in a quite different and problematic direction. I do not know if ASSAP's own extensive use of instruments was in any small way responsible for this. I know that many people went on ASSAP Investigator Training courses, which we've run almost since the start of the association, and some went on to develop their own methods as a result. Whatever the cause, the now popular idea that a machine can detect a ghost has little or no empirical evidence to support it. The most commonly held variant of the idea is that EMF meters can detect ghosts - an idea explored here.

From many serious ghost investigations down the years, we know that most sightings are caused by misperception or near sleep experiences. In both cases these are subjective experiences (though with misperception a physical object is usually the trigger). In such cases you could, in theory, build a ghost detector (let's call it SCANGHOST) by using a brain scan to see what someone is perceiving and comparing it with a video of the same scene. Any 'additional' human figure appearing in the brain scan could be reasonably described as a ghost. Various other possible causes of ghost sightings, such as infrasound or temporal lobe epilepsy, would also work with SCANGHOST. One problem is that brain scanning technology is not yet up to producing perceived images. However, in a few years it probably will be.

Of course, there will be instances where people see a ghost both in their heads and in reality. See here for instance. Such instances might be described as ghosts, or not, according to the witness interpretation.

So, in a few years time we might be able to actually measure people seeing ghosts! But what about strictly paranormal ghosts? We would not be able to decide between a paranormal ghost and misperception (and other natural causes) with SCANGHOST. We do not know exactly what a paranormal ghost would appear like. At the moment, the vast majority of ghost sightings have xenonormal explanations, so it's difficult to characterise paranormal sightings. But that hasn't stopped people speculating about how they might detect such a ghost.

So how would you design such a detector if you can't wait for SCANGHOST? Well, you could have an instrument running continuously at a haunted location and watch its readings. You would also have a set of human witnesses present noting when they observe a ghost. Tying the two records together, you could see if any particular instrumental reading consistently fits with every ghost sighting. So far as I know, no one has actually done this, not surprising considering that the rarity of ghost sightings would make this an incredibly long term experiment. There is also the difficulty of separating out cases where ghost sightings might be CAUSED by particular environmental factors, like magnetic fields. Note how we need human witnesses to verify the presence of ghosts!

So far as we know, seeing ghosts is a purely human experience. There is little or no evidence to suggest that instruments, or indeed animals, can detect them. Even if you get a weird recording on an instrument, without a human seeing a ghost at the same time, how can you know it was caused by a ghost?

But what if we jump ahead of the available evidence and say there may be paranormal effects that don't require a human witness. Could an instrument witness these effects? What if, for instance, you get readings from an instrument that cannot be explained by local conditions or, in the extreme case, even by normal physics!

Let's use an electronic thermometer as an example. Suppose such a thermometer registers a drop of several degrees in a minute. Examining the local area, there seems no obvious explanation for such a drop. And what if the thermometer then shows a drop of twenty degrees in a minute? There seems no obvious explanation in physics for such an unusual sudden drop in temperature in any normal domestic environment. The first drop is an example of something that seems inexplicable in the local circumstances. The second drop appears to defy the very laws of physics!

Both such temperature drops may be seen as evidence of a paranormal effect, however there are a number of other possibilities to be considered first. What if the thermometer, supposedly left in an unoccupied room, was actually being held by someone. When they let the sensor go, it would have dropped from an elevated temperature caused by being handled by a warm human body. So to exclude such a possibility you'd need to monitor the thermometer with a video camera to confirm that nobody (and no animal) actually went near it. That's just one theory that needs to be explored. There are many others that could explain the weird results.

The type of instruments used on paranormal investigations tend to be cheap consumer units, not intended to be as accurate or reliable as scientific lab equipment. I once came across a case where an electronic thermometer apparently went from 12 degrees (or similar) to -12 degrees Celsius over a short period. Had such a radical drop in ambient temperature really occurred, anyone in the area would have definitely noticed it (which they did not)! The question was, did the ambient temperature really drop 24 degrees suddenly or was it an equipment malfunction that caused the 'minus' sign to appear temporarily when it should not have? Or did the minus sign on the LCD display just show up faintly due to the angle at which the display was being viewed? To eliminate instrument malfunctions like this you need to deploy multiple instruments measuring the same quantity at the same place (and ideally working on different physical principles!).

The use of instrumentation puts a responsibility on users to understand thoroughly what can cause readings to change. They need to know how what are typical readings, including 'normal' ranges, for a particular location. A few minutes doing a 'baseline' measurement is not enough. You need at least 24 hours of data from one place to have any chance of understanding local variations. Then you also need to know all possible causes of varying readings that could occur during a vigil. For instance, an EMF meter can show a 'spike' in readings if someone walks close to it while carrying something made of steel!

I once had to attend an office where I worked because an alarm went off in the middle of the night. When experts appeared they told me that a passive infrared (PIR) motion detector (commonly used on ghost investigations) had been triggered by a spider! My night was interrupted not by a ghost but an arachnid! If this happened on a ghost vigil, where there would no PIR experts around, it would no doubt be recorded as unexplainable or even a ghost!

So, to summarise, here's what we know. Most ghost sightings are subjective with natural causes. There may be a ghost sightings with paranormal causes but we don't know if they have an objective element and, if they do, if it is detectable by instruments. There is not, so far as I'm aware, research to demonstrate that any instruments have detected either xenonormal or paranormal ghosts.

So, after 30 years there is a lot more instrumentation involved in paranormal research. Unfortunately, a lot of it is not being applied usefully. While there is certainly a role for judicious use of instrumentation, inappropriate and indiscriminate use can be worse than useless.

3 June 2011: ASSAP @ 30 - the contradictions that weren't in the brochure!

Read a book (or website) about ghosts (or some other anomalous phenomenon) and you would be forgiven for forming the impression that there is a coherent picture of what they are. For instance, many sources will tell you that ghosts can disappear, usually look solid but sometimes transparent. Other sources will tell that ghosts can also appear as areas or mist or balls of light. Yet other sources will tell you that ghosts appear as fleeting shadows in the corner of your eye that vanish when you look straight at them. Some ghosts are said to cast shadows and reflections while others do not. You will, however, rarely find all these claims together in one source. So who is right?

Each source will generally paint a consistent picture of what a ghost looks like and its behaviour. But few mention other reports that contradict the overall picture being painted. For instance, does a ghost cast a shadow or not? Some reports say yes, others no. Ghosts, and other anomalies, turn out to be highly contradictory phenomena! The pictures of ghosts built up in books and other sources tend to gloss over these contradictions. It is the old idea of 'one problem requires one solution' mentioned below. The usual theory is that ghosts are spirits, despite the fact that the evidence doesn't tend to support this idea.

If you stick with the idea of one solution to one problem, anomalous phenomena will remain insoluble forever. They present too much contradictory evidence for any single solution to ever work. Once you accept that most anomalous phenomena actually have multiple causes, the contradictions start to make sense. Take the problem of whether a ghost casts a shadow or not. The evidence says some do, some don't. Now consider possible causes of ghost sightings. Misperception is caused by the presence of a physical object (usually). Such objects will clearly cast shadows and reflections. So any ghost caused by misperception could indeed have a shadow or reflection. Another popular cause of ghost sightings is a near sleep experience. In these you are, in essence, dreaming while awake. Since the normal laws of physics don't necessarily apply in dreams, a ghost might, or might not, cast a shadow or reflection in such a case. The contradictory evidence is thus resolved by the fact that different ghost sightings have different causes.

What of ghosts as patches of mist or balls of light? If you saw a patch of mist or a ball of light would immediately conclude it was a ghost? Obviously not! It would depend on the circumstances. But why should a bit of mist seen in a haunted lane be any more ghostly than one in another non-haunted lane nearby? Whether such things are considered as ghosts seems to depend entirely on the physical context and the beliefs of the witness rather than anything objective and measurable. The idea of ghosts as mists or lights probably comes from the idea that they are spirits. It is derived from an assumption rather than the actual case evidence.

You could legitimately argue that unexplained mists or lights may be considered haunting phenomena. But to say they are actual ghosts would require evidence. Of course, if a mist or light transformed into a human figure, it would be evidence that it was indeed a ghost. However, as far as I'm aware, no one has ever reported such a transformation.

When you are part of a group that follows a particular interpretation of the available evidence, it can make you blind to contradictions. This may explain the strange phenomenon of collective amnesia. Maybe ghost researchers have never made much of very obvious haunting hot spots simply because they did not fit into a spirit view of ghosts. As in any field of science, contradictions tell you that you don't have the complete picture of a phenomenon. We ignore them at our peril.

2 June 2011: ASSAP @ 30 - how digital technology sabotaged the paranormal photo!

There was a time, quite early on in ASSAP's history, when it seemed as if we had rediscovered thoughtography. We received several bizarre unexplained photos produced by a few people. These photos certainly baffled our photographic experts at the time, perhaps not surprisingly given the tools they had available then. Then came digital cameras, and orbs, and everything changed!

Firstly, digital cameras greatly simplify photography and remove a whole layer of the picture-taking process. With no developing or printing to do, a whole class of possible photographic artifacts is removed at a stroke. Furthermore, it is now possible to look at photos on the back of camera while actually taking shots. This means that strange photos can be investigated on site at the time, though sadly this rarely happens. Add in EXIF data and photo editing software and analysing photos is much surer and simpler. Secondly, with the arrival of orbs, paranormal photos have come under scrutiny like never before. From a few people producing a handful of odd photos, we now have many thousands shooting millions of seemingly paranormal photos. Such a radical change looks highly unlikely, to say the least!

And so it has proved! ASSAP was one of the first bodies to show that you could easily reproduce orbs by flashing photos at dust nearby. Some people claimed that the new digital technology suddenly made 'paranormal orbs' visible because the sensor chips were sensitive to infrared. However, camera manufacturers build an infrared filter into almost all digital cameras so that only normal light forms the photos we see. ASSAP did extensive research into the precise mechanism behind orbs and came up with the orb zone theory which showed they were the out of focus highlights of tiny objects just in front of the camera lens. And the theory answers the many queries people have about orbs (see here). Few paranormal researchers think orbs are anything other than natural nowadays.

As well as orbs, lots of other apparently paranormal photos started circulating (like flying rods and transparent ghosts). Part of the reason for this was camera automation. Those of us brought up on manual cameras, where you soon appreciated things like depth of field, focal length and film speed, could see that photographic artifacts were responsible for many of these apparently weird photos. Camera automation hides things like f-stops and shutter speeds from users but the rules of optics still apply and the kind of weird photos seen on recent cameras were familiar as the 'problem shots' from old manual cameras.

ASSAP has been examining anomalous photographs for years now. From a study of those photos, we have shown how most weird photos fall into several broad categories, the vast majority of which are known photographic artifacts. Almost all strange photos can now be explained quite easily.

It was, then, the digital revolution in photography that led pretty much directly to most strange photos becoming easily explainable, including many classics from the age of film! The sheer number of weird photos that arrived with digital proved the paranormal photo's undoing! Well, almost! You may ask, are there ANY paranormal photos out there? Is it even possible to photograph the paranormal? My answer is, I don't know. We keep on examining weird photos in the hope that one day we might find one which is truly inexplicable. But on the whole, the paranormal photo has pretty much disappeared as credible evidence during the first 30 years of ASSAP after early promise.

1 June 2011: ASSAP @ 30 - in search of a single answer - not!

So here we are in June, only a few days before our thirtieth anniversary. I am doing a series of blog posts at the moment concerning what ASSAP has learned collectively over three decades. There are further ASSAP @ 30 posts in the May page.

One of the oddities I've noticed over the last 30 years is that people are constantly coming up with 'the' answer for ghosts, UFOs, monsters, etc. And yet, if we have discovered one thing in the years of ASSAP it is that most anomalous phenomena have multiple causes. The clearest example is UFOs. There are any number of causes of UFO sightings, from clouds to balloons and satellites to chinese lanterns. Less obviously, ghost sightings also have many different causes too. And, as mentioned recently, it is another strange case of collective amnesia. The main causes of ghost sightings were already known when ASSAP was formed, and probably for decades before, but people keep forgetting them and looking for new 'ultimate' answers.

The current most popular 'answer' for ghosts is infrasound! This is despite the fact that there is no unequivocal evidence that infrasound can cause visual hallucinations. Before infrasound the big 'answer' was magnetic fields. The next 'answer' looks like being temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) whose symptoms have recently been found to be more common in the general population than previously assumed. I have no doubt that all of these explanations cause SOME reports of hauntings, as do several other things (maybe even including the paranormal!). However, all require specific environmental and/or specific kinds of witness to work. The same restriction does not apply to the main two causes of ghost sightings, which we have known about for decades but periodically seem to forget.

The big two causes of ghost sightings are, of course, misperception and near sleep experiences. We know this through careful investigation of cases where the characteristics expected for such mechanisms were found. For instance, hauntings usually involve 'hot spots', where the same odd phenomena are witnessed repeatedly, fitting well with misperception. In some cases it has even been possible to recreate the haunting phenomenon directly by manipulating the objects responsible for the misperception. Many cases of hauntings happen to people lying in bed. Strange things seen when a witness is on the point of going to sleep or waking are characteristic of near sleep experiences.

By contrast, determining if magnetism, infrasound or TLE might be involved in a case is more complicated. It is difficult to see how anyone examining detailed case histories could come to the conclusion that such mechanisms are even common, far less universal. Misperception and near sleep experiences, unlike the others, do not require special environmental conditions or particular types of witness. We all misperceive and just about everyone will have a near sleep experience or two during their lives.

So why do people keep coming up with 'the definitive' explanation for ghosts? I suspect it is the appealing idea that 'one problem' requiring 'one solution'. However, ghosts are not, as anyone who examines the case histories soon discovers, 'one problem' at all. The idea of ghosts as a 'one solution' phenomenon may also derive from the popular idea that they are spirits. Whatever the reason, if ghosts were that simple, I'm sure they would have been 'solved' long before ASSAP even came into existence!

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

Last month's (May) website figures are an average of 8369 hits per day. This is slightly down on the previous month's 8745 daily average.


Previous blog pages ...

  • 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
  • May 2008
  • April 2008
  • March 2008
  • February 2008
  • January 2008
  • December 2007
  • November 2007
  • October 2007
  • Even older
  • H

© Maurice Townsend 2011