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 (to the 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 ...

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28 Mar 2009: Deja vu or paranormal?

Have you ever experienced deja vu - that strange feeling that you've been somewhere before even though it is impossible? It is often associated with ideas of reincarnation, premonitions and telepathy. This week's New Scientist (25 Mar 2009) has an article discussing recent research into this neglected topic.

Apparently, one cause may be that you have been somewhere similar before. For instance, if you enter a room that is unlike any you've previously visited, but the furniture is arranged the same as somewhere you know, it can trigger deja vu. Your brain senses a familiarity but realises it shouldn't, hence the odd feeling.

Another possible cause is erroneous processing in the bit of the brain concerned with familiarity. Yes, there's a bit of the brain concerned with whether something is familiar or not! I wonder if this is involved in xenonormal experiences? People may think they are seeing something 'familiar'*, like a ghost or flying saucer, when it is really something they don't recognise. Interesting thought!

An interesting quote from the article: "If you take a brief glance when distracted, and look at the same scene again afterwards, it can feel like you've seen it before but much earlier." Such glances can also cause misperception. Another possible link with the xenonormal and understanding familiarity!

* Familiar from movies, books, games etc, not usually real life!

26 Mar 2009: Ghostly mists - why?

Weird mistOne of the commonest types of anomalous photo I come across are those with mist on them. It is usually the 'photographer's breath', illuminated by the camera flash on a cold night. Another possibility is cigarette smoke. Smoke can disperse enough to become invisible in low light but still show up in flash photos! There are other causes of mists in photos, such as actual mist, which can be very patchy and localised!

In the photo here (right), taken the other day, there is a curious mist visible just in front of some bushes. The reason for the mist here is squally rain! If this photo had not been examined until weeks later, that important fact might have been forgotten.

I find it interesting that so many people think mists in a photo are paranormal. There is no paranormal phenomenon that regularly appears as a mist. Ghosts, for instance, usually appear perfectly solid. The only theory I can come up with is that ghosts are sometimes shown as misty in movies!

25 Mar 2009: UFOs on the radio - follow up

Last week I mentioned 'Seeing is Believing', a drama on BBC Radio 4. Having now heard it all, I was impressed. It did not follow Hollywood into horror territory and brought up various real-life situations associated with UFOs and other anomaly reports. For instance, the sighting was never actually resolved, as is sometimes the case. That many witnesses rationalise away their sightings away over time is also common. There is often social pressure to 'forget' a sighting account.

Unfortunately, the general public is generally ill-served by dramas covering anomalous phenomena. They tend to be sensationalist and perpetuate cultural stereotypes (eg. that ghosts are 'spirits' and UFOs are alien spacecraft). The problem is that this media treatment tends to feedback into real sightings. So someone hears weird noises in their house and immediately starts researching its history, looking for tragedies! In reality. most such cases have mundane causes and the history is totally irrelevant.

24 Mar 2009: A UFO photo

Hovering UFOIf I was sent this UFO photo, I would probably be stumped by it! Luckily, I took the picture myself the other day so I know a crucial fact about it - the scale! There are no clues to how big this curious object might be in the photo as it is surrounded by plain sky.

Even if there were other objects in the photo, like clouds or buildings, it would still be difficult to judge its size. To know a flying object's size you need to know its distance. The only other way to work out its size is by knowing what the object is. So, for instance, we have a good idea of how big a helicopter is no matter what size it appears in the sky. Just like a helicopter, this object was hovering when photographed, if that helps as a clue.

Many people will no doubt recognise the object as an insect! One of its wings is underneath the insect, there are legs at the front and back and what seems to be a proboscis at the front. I can't say definitively what species it is but it is very probably a bee-fly. For anyone who didn't see it as an insect, knowing that it is about a centimetre long would help!

23 Mar 2009: Looking for secret planes among UFO reports

This week's Sunday Times carried an article claiming that UK intelligence was scouring UFO reports in the 1980s and 1990s to see if they pointed to the US developing a secret plane! So secret that they weren't even telling their allies about it! It was known at the time that stealth aircraft, that can avoid easy detection by radar, were a distinct possibility. Such aircraft would have been easy to identify from UFO reports because of their distinctive shape. The shape is dictated by physics and so was already known long before they were ever designed!

Many ufologists have long suspected that some UFO reports are generated by secret aircraft undergoing development. One supposed such aircraft, nicknamed Aurora, was thought to have been sighted several times in the 1990s though not recently.

19 Mar 2009: Defying the laws of physics

EurofighterObjects often said to 'defy the laws of physics' include UFOs and objects seen 'flying' through the air during poltergeist cases. The first point to be made is that, in reality, these objects do not usually even appear to defy said laws. For instance, it is perfectly possible for an object flying through the air to make a sudden change of direction - birds and insects often do it though few people, other than naturalists, ever notice. Some military aircraft, like the Eurofighter (right) can change direction quickly, using 'relaxed stability' design.

Of course, the objects that people are talking about in anomalous cases are not usually birds, though often the observer has no idea what they actually are, far less what they might be capable of. So, if someone sees an object apparently hang in the air and then drop, or move through the air and change direction suddenly, it is easy to see why they are shocked. However, instead of defying the laws of physics what is really happening is that the objects are contradicting the in-built 'model' we all have in our heads that describe how dropped or thrown objects should fly.

It takes around 1/10s for light to be processed by our brains and turned into a visual perception. As such a delay could have serious consequences for our survival, our brains compensate by showing us a 'projection' of what things should look like one tenth of a second ahead (yes what you are seeing right now isn't real)! So a fast approaching tennis ball is shown were it ought to be now, given its previous movement, rather than where our delayed visual perception actually shows it to be (otherwise we could never react quickly enough to hit it). This 'projected perception' effect is probably responsible for most optical illusions and for 'glance' type misperceptions.

In poltergeist cases, objects are usually only noticed once they are in the air, hardly ever taking off. So our brains may need to correct the apparent trajectory of an object in mid- flight, making it appear to change direction suddenly. This is particularly likely when we are not expecting to see anything suddenly flying about! Similarly, an object falling directly downwards may appear to hang in the air for a fraction of a second while our brains work out what is happening and start to correctly project its path.

With UFOs, since the observer doesn't know what they are looking at, their brain 'model' for how the object 'should' fly may be the wrong one, causing it to apparently defy the laws of physics. Some UFOs are undoubtedly military aircraft, possibly even secret prototypes. Or even birds!

17 Mar 2009: UFOs on the radio

BBC Radio 4 currently has a drama series about someone seeing a UFO (' Seeing is Believing' - all this week). It is interesting because, so far at least, it is not following the usual Hollywood horror plot. In the first episode the witness sees something hovering over a car park. His friend asks some very sensible questions about normal things that it might be. However the UFO stubbornly defies obvious xenonormal causes. It seems the script writer has done their research using real UFO cases, rather than the concocted stuff we are used to at the multiplexes. It will be interesting to see how the story develops.

16 Mar 2009: Does a lot of consistent stories equal the truth?

Paranormal researchers sometimes say that there are so many ghost stories that, even if most are mistakes or untruths, there are still enough left to say that ghosts definitely exist. Of course, it depends how you define ghosts. No one would seriously argue against the fact that people have ghostly experiences.

But what about the argument that the sheer volume of reports means that something must be there? Here's another way of looking at. Supposing a credible person deliberately started an untrue rumour on the internet. In no time the rumour, and variations of it, would be accepted around the world as truth! So would all these similar reports make the rumour true? Obviously not! What the stories would demonstrate is that there was probably a common source of the rumour.

So the fact that there are many ghost stories does not make ghosts real. What it definitely demonstrates is that the IDEA of a ghost (a meme) is real and probably has a common source, at least within a particular culture. It certainly makes ghost experiences worth investigating but it does not justify starting with any particular assumptions as to what will be found.

12 Mar 2009: A 'natural' flying rod photo!

Natural flying rodAs I've asked here before, how can you tell you are looking at an anomaly researcher's photo album? It's full of all the photos that everyone else would throw away! In my case, this photo, taken the other day, would certainly have been binned had it not been for one thing. It is not sharp, there is no detail in the highlights and it is overexposed.

The 'one thing' is the flying rod, just to the left of the Blue Tit. It is not a great flying rod photo but it is notable because, for once, I wasn't deliberately trying for it. You could call it a 'natural' flying rod photo!

Exposure time was 1/50s, which is typical for flying rods. It is a distant telephoto shot and I wasn't even aware of the insect that caused the rod at the time, though perhaps the bird was, given its strange leaning stance.

Photos of flying rods remain rare compared to orbs. That's because the circumstances that cause them are much less common than those for orbs. So I was quite pleased to get a 'natural' rod for once.

11 Mar 2009: Holistic thinking and ghosts

Are you predominately a 'holistic' or an 'analytical' thinker? Out of these three things; cow, chicken and grass, which two do you think relate most closely? If it is cow and chicken (both animals), you are probably an analytical thinker. If you connect cow and grass (cows eat grass), you are probably more of a holistic thinker.

In this weeks New Scientist (7 Mar 2009), an article describes how these two alternate modes of thinking appear to be culturally based. Thus, Western cultures tend to be analytical while Eastern ones are more holistic. This is a big generalisation, of course, and it can vary sharply from community to community and even between individuals within them. Holistic thinking is characterised by grouping things together and making connections between them. Analytical thinking is more about classifying things and seeing them as individual units.

It occurred to me that it is likely that when someone experiences something odd in their house and thinks it is a ghost, that may be an example of holistic thinking. An analytical thinker may try to investigate the specific cause of the experience without assuming it is necessarily paranormal. To go from a 'strange noise' straight to a 'ghost' requires many connections of thought that might not be obvious to some people.

This sort of holistic/analytical dichotomy might even define the believer/skeptic divide that is so harmful to paranormal research. I think the analytical way of thinking is more useful if you are investigating the paranormal. Holistic thinking is likely to lead to assumption-led research which tends to only confirm its own assumptions. If you naturally tend towards holistic thinking, that doesn't mean you cannot be a good paranormal researcher. It just means that it might be helpful to drop any assumptions or beliefs about the paranormal for the duration of the investigation.

6 Mar 2009: Dropping assumptions

I recently mentioned the BBC's TV programme Being Human. It featured a vampire, a ghost and a werewolf sharing a house and attempting to live like ordinary humans. Needless to say, their task was difficult.

It put me in mind of how paranormal researchers struggle to resist making assumptions when investigating. If someone says they've got a ghost in their house and that they've delved into the history and found their home was built on a former graveyard, how do you react? The house owner has clearly made several mental leaps, from strange noises to ghosts to spirits to a former graveyard! That is a lot of assumptions and such thinking can be infectious.

I find the best way to sort out this sort of case (or any) is to split it into individual unexplained incidents. Your job, as a ghost researcher, is not to show that somewhere is haunted or not. Instead, it is to investigate individual incidents and see if they are (a) xenonormal and (b) related. The second point is particularly interesting. Once somewhere is labeled 'haunted', it is tempting to think that every unusual incident is related. But we all encounter strange incidents in life from time to time without thinking they share a common cause.

I won't pretend that dropping assumptions is easy - it really isn't! Even recognising assumptions is difficult, particularly when they are our own. We all have our beliefs and theories about paranormal phenomena. But if we are to make sense of the paranormal, it is an important skill to work free of assumptions. Here are just a few assumptions you might want to start by dropping before going on your next case! There are many more.

5 Mar 2009: When two senses are better than one

CrowToday I was tying my bootlaces when a shadow flickered silently past in front of me. I didn't look up to see what it was. I then heard a crow calling nearby. I straight away decided the shadow had been the crow flying by. On mature reflection I realised this was just an assumption on my part.

Neither the shadow, nor the bird call, were particularly mysterious nor were they misperceptions. The bird call was unambiguous but the shadow could have been caused by any number of mundane objects passing by. Since I didn't bother to look up, I'll never know. Maybe it was a ghost!

It occurred to me that our senses can sometimes combine to produce a misperception. Indeed, it might be a stronger effect than a single sense misperception as the multiple sources tend to reinforce each other.

Even if two senses show objects normally, combined they may still lead to misperception. So, if you see a shadow and hear the wind, producing as groaning noise in a tree, the two combined might produce an impression of a person moaning. Our brains always try to make sense of what they sense, before presenting it to our conscious mind, so multiple sensory inputs could easily be fooled.

Of course, most of the time, multiple senses tend to confirm the correct identification of an object. But if there is any apparent contradiction between the sensory inputs, or if one or both is misperceiving, a particularly strong misperception could occur. This could give rise to the impression of a ghost talking, in the example given above. This is crucial because it might explain some sightings of apparently 'interactive' ghosts. The vast majority of good ghost sightings don't show any apparent interaction with witnesses.

3 Mar 2009: Another weird photo

Snake?I don't know if you will see this, maybe it's just me! I noticed this photo recently and I was taken aback. It showed a snake rearing up from behind a rock! You can see the red of the open mouth.

The thing is, I took this photo and there is no way I would ever get this close to a snake that looked as aggressive as this. Plus, I don't recall even taking a photo of a snake! I've seen them in the wild but never had the presence of mind to take a photo. In my experience, you generally need to make a special effort to see a snake.

If you don't see this photo as a snake at all then you are quite correct. If you still want to 'see' it, try stepping back from the computer screen and you might but I can't guarantee it.

The photo is actually of a bird (a Black Redstart) seen from the behind. If you follow this link, you can see a bigger version of the 'snake' which should make it more obviously a bird! I suppose if I'd seen a 'snake' at the time it would have been an example of misperception. In a photo it is more of a simulacrum.

2 Mar 2009: Weird photo!

Strange photoHow can you tell you are looking at an anomaly researcher's photo album? It's full of all the photos that everyone else would throw away!

I am a little different to most anomaly researchers in that I don't take weird photos by accident. I deliberately seek out situations that I think will produce strange photos. That's so that when someone shows me one that is similar, I will have a good idea how it came about.

The photo, right, is one I took today. It shows a holly bush. There is a hint of fogging towards the bottom of the shot, caused by lens flare. However, the interesting bit is the strange orange, rectangular object in the centre. It has a dark line down its centre. If someone took this shot, it would be easy to see how they might think it was anomalous. I have several variations of the same shot. Some have more vertical lines and some are different colours, mostly yellow or green.

Strange photo webSo what caused it? The next photo, right, shows you. In this one, the object causing the strange rectangle is in focus. The background, as a result is out of focus and all the highlights have become orbs! The object is a strand of a spider's web!

You can see colours in the 'in focus' strand of web. These colours arise from diffraction or interference (see here for a discussion of this subject). The rectangular shape, in the original photo, is caused by the fact that the strand is out of focus and so blurred to become apparently much larger.

To produce this sort of photo you need the sun behind the web and a dark background is essential. The photo was taken with a telephoto lens which makes it more obvious than in 'everyday' photos. It is likely to be a very rare effect in photos as it needs several factors to come together. No one has sent me such a photo yet but, when they do, I can tell them what it is.

PS: The latest ASSAP website stats stand at an average of 8511 hits per day (not including crawlers and bots!) for February. Yes, that's around a quarter of million per month!

Not a snakePPS: This photo? It's a bird called a Black Redstart, seen from behind. In the article on 3 March a smaller version is shown, that resembles (to me, anyway) a rearing snake. Don't worry if you can't see any snake - it's probably just me!

The 'inner mouth' of the 'snake', is the bird's tail. The rest of the 'snake's head' is the main body of the bird itself. The 'eyes' are formed by the wing feathers of the bird. The 'body' of the 'snake' is moss. The stone is just a stone!

You shouldn't see the 'snake' in this cropped version of the photo but you might just see it in the small version above (3 Mar).

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© Maurice Townsend 2009