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

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31 March 2008: How widespread is fraud?

In discussions with people interested in the paranormal, I've found that those on the skeptical side often mention fraud as a possible cause of some paranormal reports, while others rarely do. But how common is fraud in paranormal research?

I've noticed that many 'classic' cases (eg. amazingly good ghost or UFO photos or great poltergeist cases) are often seen as 'bedrock evidence' by some researchers, while others often assume they have long ago been proved to be fraudulent. Often, someone involved in such a case will, many years or decades after the event, reveal that it was a hoax. Interestingly, they rarely produce definitive evidence to prove that it was a hoax! For those of us not directly involved, it is difficult to come to any decision about such a case after such a long time.

In passing, it is interesting to note that, though there is more ghost research going on now than ever before, nothing very astonishing or novel has been revealed recently. Most of the dramatic or famous cases now seem to be very old. Why hasn't there been another Enfield poltergeist recently? Even our own Yorkshire poltergeist was nearly two decades ago.

As far as my own experience is concerned, I have unfortunately witnessed one or two obviously fraudulent cases down the years. However, the number is very low. In the vast majority of cases, I'm sure the witnesses and investigators involved were perfectly sincere. However, this doesn't rule out such natural causes as misperception and confabulation, where witnesses honestly believe that they have experienced something that they have not.

I think the skeptics overestimate the prevalence of hoaxes and fraud. However, I think many other paranormal researchers underestimate the prevalence of the xenonormal.

20 March 2008: Memory is our best access to ghosts

Do you remember the last time you saw a ghost? Are you sure about that? Almost everything we know about ghosts comes from eyewitness reports. Despite claims about ghosts producing electromagnetic fields or changing negative ion densities, there is little or no evidence that apparitions have any affect on the environment. Similarly, photographs of ghosts always seem to have natural causes. It seems we are left with witness testimony as our primary source of evidence about ghosts.

As discussed in previous posts, misperception is a clear problem with eyewitness reports. But assuming a witness wasn't deceived by misperception, we can at least rely on their memory, can't we? Maybe not! It seems that research suggests that we all confabulate, to some extent.

When we confabulate, we alter our memories to cover gaps or to make them seem 'reasonable', particularly in view of current information. As with misperception, this process is done unconsciously, so that we are not aware of it. Our memories may have changed over time but we still think they are complete and true. Memory, like perception, is clearly something that paranormal researchers should know more about.

Further reading (new page): Paranormal witness memory

19 March 2008: Misperceiving photos

Mystery faceI have closely examined thousands of anomalous photos. Most, naturally, are orbs, which are easily explained. Quite a lot of the remainder are mists. Most of these appear to be 'photographer's breath' - a newly common complaint with digital cameras on dark cold nights - also easily explained. But what of the remainder? Many consist of 'something' visible in the photo that was not noticed at the time the shot was taken. That 'something' is most frequently an apparent face or human figure.

I've never really understood why a detached face should appear in a photograph at all. The vast majority of ghosts are reported to look like perfectly normal human figures. A very small number of reports mention isolated legs or arms but I've never come across a detached ghostly face! It would seem to be an exclusively photographic anomaly. Of course, the obvious solution is that people have an in-built tendency to see 'faces' in random patterns. Humans also have a tendency to see human figures in suitably suggestive patterns. Typical 'suggestive patterns' include statues, gravestones, trees, hanging clothes and so on.

What these types of anomalous photos have in common is that the 'face' or 'figure' is often not immediately obvious. It is usually buried in detail on the very edge of the picture's resolution. Instruments, such as cameras, just record whatever they are asked to, within their operating parameters and limitations. It is we humans who interpret a photo as paranormal, anomalous or normal. Just as we can misinterpret things we experience directly, so we can also do it with instrumental readings and recordings. These photos therefore represent a sort of instrumental misperception which occurs for the same reasons as the ordinary sort. Generally, if the photo in question had been taken with a higher resolution, no 'face' or 'figure' would have appeared in the first place.

PS: For an explanation of the face in the photo above go here.

18 March 2008: Where's my arm?

'Right from the start of the seance people were being touched and the chalk and board moved. I could not believe it was [the medium] because he was heard to speak in his place when people were audibly being tapped at the other end of the room.

A warm hand was thrust into mine ... briefly. It was so warm and obviously solid that I naturally assumed it was someone next to me. Everyone denied it! That started me worrying. Next time I was ready for it. While my left hand tried (unsuccessfully) to restrain the hand, my right arm 'swiped' the space behind the hand vigorously. There was nothing there! This apparently solid, warm, human hand was attached to nothing at all.' (from 'A hand in the dark').

Investigating the paranormal is all about asking the right questions. How do you know an audio recording contains human speech? Why are orbs so much more common with digital than film cameras? How do I know where my arm is in the dark?

When you are in the pitch black, as I was in the seance described above, there is always a danger that things are not as they seem. Sight is our keenest and most informative sense which tends to override the others. When we are deprived of it, we are much more vulnerable to misperception! Like the first night at a hotel on holiday when, after too many Sangrias, you need to visit the bathroom in the night. You soon realise that the only reason you don't bump into the furniture in the dark at home is that you have memorised where everything is! Without the help of sight, you are not sure which way you are facing, where exactly your limbs are or even where sounds are coming from. To locate sounds, we need to know which way our heads are pointing!

And yet these are the conditions chosen by people who vigil in the dark! They are also the conditions of many seances, like the one I took part in. The interaction of sight and touch, which we rely on to know where are bodies are, is demonstrated graphically in the 'rubber hand illusion'. While I was impressed by my 'hand in the dark' experience at the time, I now appreciate that I could not be sure where the medium really was and nor could I know that I had swiped behind the hand successfully.

Paranormal researchers routinely underestimate the dangers of misperception. Stumbling around in the dark with sight, our most important sense compromised, is no way to conduct serious paranormal research!

14 Mar 2008: Common misperceptions

Shadow ghostWhat happens when you see something unfamiliar or that you can't see well enough to decide what it is? Regular readers of this column will no doubt term these two kinds of sighting, xenonormal and ambiguous stimuli. Either way, they cause a sensory conflict in your brain that must be resolved before the image reaches the 'picture in your head' that is consciousness.

Rather than show you its indecision, recent scientific research suggests that your brain will show you what it thinks you are seeing. Amazingly, this isn't always what your eyes are recording. Sometimes your brain 'edits in' something similar from your visual long term memory! It's a bit like the way likely words are 'pasted in' when you listen to speech in a noisy environment but miss fragments. Yes, your brain actually makes its best guess and inserts what it thinks you are seeing, even if it is an image from something similar that you once saw! And remember this is before you become conscious of the image so it will feel real to you and will be remembered as such!

Welcome to the wonderful world of misperceptions! If you can't quite make out what something really is, you may still 'see' something reasonably clearly, just not necessarily what is actually out there. Of course, it has to be the same general shape, colour and brightness but extra 'details' may be seen that your eyes cannot possibly really see.

Such misperceptions can explain how a shadow can turn into a ghost sometimes or Venus into an alien space craft. But what if I've never seen a ghost before, I hear you ask? Even if you haven't, I bet you've 'seen' one on TV, at the movies or even in a video game.

Look at the photo above. You will see a shadow on the stairs. Though it has the colour and lack of features of a shadow, its shape is reminiscent of a human figure. This produces a conflict in the sensory input to your brain - is it a shadow or a figure? If it's a figure, how can it be such an odd colour? The solution is obvious - it's a ghost! In a real life situation, rather than a photo you can examine critically at leisure, such a shadow may well appear as a ghost. And all that is decided before your brain passes the image on to the 'picture in your head' by which time a few 'details' may have been edited in to add authenticity. Perhaps you'll remember seeing 'clothes' or even a 'face'! Or maybe it's just a hat stand?

Further reading (new page): Misperceptions

12 Mar 2008: Seeing a ghost!

'Umm, I think there's a ghost behind you!'
'What, where, you're kidding! Where is it? Please tell me I beg you!'
'Calm down, it's just over there!'
'Where? I can't see anything! Is it still there?'
'Yes, it's still there! I'm pointing right at it! It's not moving at all. How can you not see it?'
'This is ridiculous! I'm in the room with a real ghost and I can't see it! OK, is it to the left or the right of the hat stand with the long coat on it?'

Silence.

OK, that hasn't happened to me exactly but I've had several similar experiences. They have taught me a valuable lesson - never to get jealous of other people's sightings. Whenever I read an account of amazing goings-on at someone else's vigil I now ask myself one important question: what would I have seen if I'd been there? A hat stand or a ghost?

This morning I had a gorgeous daydream while emptying my junk email folder. I thought I glimpsed an email from somebody saying how much they enjoyed my blog! I think spam filter writers find it hard to imagine anyone would ever get a complimentary unsolicited email that wasn't trying to sell something! Anyway, if you sent me such an email, thanks but I'm afraid it got junked by mistake. In reality, I expect it was just an evil new form of junk mail aimed specifically at bloggers. Or it could have been a hat stand.

11 March 2008: New ASSAP mailing list

ASSAPToday sees the launch of the new ASSAP mailing list. Anyone joining the email list will automatically receive emails from time to time about ASSAP events, news and website updates. It will not replace this blog (!), nor does it confer the advantages of ASSAP membership (such as free publications, entrance to training and other events, use of equipment, etc). However, it will let people who are interested in ASSAP and its work know what we are doing.

The email list is open to anyone (you don't have to be a member). All you have to do is click here (or the link on the home page) and send the email. If you want the 'full package' (ie. ASSAP membership) go here.

This blog will be updated more frequently than email are sent out. Also, though there may be some overlap in material, the blog will contain lots of stuff that will never appear in the mailing (or anywhere else on the website). So, the best advice is, even if you subscribe to the email list, check this blog regularly as well.

10 March 2008: Storms and ghosts

Gull over stormy seaAs storms batter the UK, they remind me of those old black and white horror films. The ghost (or vampire or monster) only appeared during thunder storms, illuminated shockingly by the brilliant lightning. In reality, most storms, like those today, don't involve thunder and lightning, and ghosts are no more common during them than at any other time. Indeed, during a noisy thunder storm it is unlikely the subtle knocks and scratching sounds associated with hauntings would even be heard.

So we dismiss films of ghosts as just fiction. Except that we don't! Though real life ghost cases are different to the movies, the influence of the media is strong. When someone sees a shadow fall across a dark corridor, their mind may interpret it is a ghostly figure, automatically and without their conscious knowledge. The idea that the 'figure' is a ghost, rather than some shadow from a mundane cause, is already there in the witness's mind. That idea was planted by seeing a movie, reading a book, even playing a video game about ghosts. The apparition that started out as 'just fiction' suddenly becomes perfectly real and will always be remembered that way.

When we see, or hear, something that we don't recognise, our minds will try to fit it to the nearest similar object in our memories. The problem is, our memories are filled with both fact and fiction and the 'nearest thing' might be something we once saw in a spooky black and white film.

6 Mar 2008: Haunting hot spots

Haunted building floor planCan a cold spot ever be a hot spot? Yes it can, in the wonderful world of hauntings! A hot spot is a place where repeated paranormal activity has been reported in a building. Activity is not usually evenly spread throughout a haunted building. Instead it is generally confined to particular rooms or even parts of rooms. What is more, the activity reported at such hot spots is often broadly similar, or even identical, on each occasion.

Hot spots produce two obvious questions: why do they exist at all and why are they discussed so little in the paranormal literature? The first question is obviously difficult to answer without more evidence than we currently have. The answer to the second may be 'popular culture', as featured in yesterday's post.

The idea of hot spots does not sit easily with the idea of a sentient ghost actively haunting a building. Why should it confine its activities to certain places and how does it get from one to the other without affecting the intervening areas? For those not confined by popular culture, however, it is not so much of a problem. Read the new article for all the info on hot spots.

Further reading (new page): Haunting hot spots

5 Mar 2008: Are we bullied by popular culture?

Haunting nightIt is popularly supposed that ghosts are spirits and that their activities cause hauntings. That the media and general public should adopt this view is unsurprising. How many of them have ever seriously investigated a haunting?

However, as sometimes happens, the popular image of ghosts and hauntings varies significantly from real life cases. Take these points, for instance:

  • only a minority of hauntings involve sightings of apparitions
  • apparitions are never seen moving objects or actively producing any other 'haunt' phenomena
  • apparitions do not communicate, or even notice, witnesses
  • hauntings generally appear purposeless
  • haunting activity generally takes place in specific small areas of a building rather than all over it

None of this supports the idea of a sentient ghost actively haunting a property. The few cases that DO tend to support such an idea are all rather old, suggesting they may have been subject to exaggeration over time.

There has been little progress in ghost research in over a century, perhaps because many investigators have tended to think along popular lines. Certainly the use of assumption-led methods supports this idea. If we continue to follow the popular stereotype of hauntings, rather than using the actual evidence on the ground, this impasse is likely to continue. It is time to rebel against popular culture and re-examine ghosts afresh. Here are some questions to get us started:

  • are ghosts really a symptom of hauntings, rather than their cause?
  • why are haunt phenomena restricted to small areas of buildings?
  • if ghosts don't cause hauntings, what does?

It can be difficult to rebel when all your friends, not to mention the people on TV programmes, all think that ghosts cause hauntings. But as paranormal researchers we've been in touch with the real evidence and know it's not as straightforward as many assume. So why not join the rebellion? Re-examine all the evidence you have collected and assess it without any assumptions. Then decide for yourself!

3 Mar 2008: Formant noise and EVP

Formant noiseHave you ever heard of formant noise? If not, I can't blame you! The formant noise theory is featured towards the end of a very long web page about analysing EVP, the electronic voice phenomenon. Now there is a shorter, more accessible summary dedicated to the theory.

Formant noise, briefly, is random noise containing combinations of harmonic sound frequencies typical of human speech. It also varies in amplitude at intervals suggesting spoken words. Its significance to EVP is that it can easily be mistaken for spoken messages even though it is just noise. Anyone researching EVP needs to consider the possibility of formant noise during recording, editing and interpreting their recordings.

Formant noise can be produced by common sounds produced by objects in a domestic setting (see EVP gallery). Some common sound editing practices used in EVP research, like restricting the frequency range and noise reduction, can actually make formant noise sound more like a voice. White noise from radios can produce formant noise. Curiously, white noise doesn't seem to be as popular with EVP researchers since the Hollywood films that popularised the technique! Most people record EVP on vigils these days, where there is plenty of scope for noises to be missed at the time of recording, especially if they don't sound like voices.

The theory of formant noise is based on scientific research into how we understand speech. While our ears only hear the frequency and amplitude of sounds, it is our brains that decide if it speech, music or just noise. This is done unconsciously mostly through experience and expectation. Once the brain is switched into 'speech mode' (eg. by suggestion) it can easily misinterpret formant noise as voices.

Further reading (new page): Formant noise

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© Maurice Townsend 2008