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 and dozens of other subjects)

30 March 2010: A near sleep experience

One morning recently I was drifting between sleep and wakefulness, debating whether to get up. Suddenly I heard a loud voice shouting. It was just one word but despite its volume, or maybe because of it, I couldn't make out what it said. I was suddenly fully awake, slightly shocked. I listened for a while but heard nothing else. Further investigation revealed that it was highly unlikely the 'voice' was real. I decided it was almost certainly an example of hypnagogia - a near sleep experience.

Anyone reading the accounts here of my mini-OOBEs, near sleep experiences and misperception may begin to wonder if I am unusual in some way or even exaggerating. Though I am talking about subjective experience, I do not believe there is anything unusual going on here. I think it is just that I am primed, by my interest in the subjects, to notice these things more than others.

Indeed, my own experiences are hardly dramatic compared with those reported by other witnesses. I have never, for instance. had the fairly common experience of seeing my own body from above, though I know people who have. My misperceptions are usually only very brief and rarely dramatic compared to some of the reports of ghost sightings I've come across. I HAVE had a much more dramatic hypnagogic experience than the one above but it was many years ago when I was young. I cannot remember the details now but I was lying in bed, paralysed and yet fully aware of my surroundings. Strange impossible things happened, though I don't recall what precisely. It was certainly scary and I can sympathise with anyone who experiences something similar.

I believe many people have minor OOBEs and near sleep experiences but dismiss them as day dreaming. Similarly, we all misperceive though we rarely notice it or, if we do, dismiss it as a 'trick of the light' and forget about it. In rare circumstances, when any of these effects are dramatic, we might report it as a paranormal incident. As with many brain phenomena, there are minor and major versions but most people only recall the latter whereas I also notice the former.

26 March 2010: I see people who aren't there ...

The other day I was walking along a path when I noticed a small figure, a child I assumed, in my right peripheral vision. The figure was at the bottom of a slope on a path running parallel to the one I was traversing. I turned to look at the figure because it was unusual to see anyone on that particular path. Also, I had a strange feeling that the figure was staring at me.

I was taken aback to see that the 'child' was actually a small signpost by the side of the path! While it was about the height of a child, the post was much narrower. There was a circular sign on top of the post that presumably suggested a face to me when I first saw it, so giving the impression I was being watched.

While this could be taken as a 'run of the mill' misperception, which could easily have been reported as a ghost that 'vanished' by someone else, there are some interesting points to it. Firstly, the 'figure' was on, or adjacent to, a footpath. This suggests that my brain interpreted the poorly-seen post as a human figure because it is normal to see people on paths. If the post had been in another physical setting, my brain might have decided it was something else! Expectation plays a huge role in misperception. We see what we expect to see, even if that is sometimes wrong.

Another point concerns the sign on top of the post. It is in the position where you would expect a face on a human figure, which may have added to the perception of a child.

Finally, if I had not turned to look at the figure, I doubt I would have ever discovered what it really was. It just seemed perfectly normal at the time. It was only because I was curious to see who was on the path that I looked more closely. Had I decided I'd seen a person just seconds later and returned to look for them I would have found nothing. A search would have shown that it had not been long enough for any real person to have quit the scene, leading me to think it was a ghost! Indeed, this is a fairly commonly reported scenario for a ghost sighting, where people say 'there was nowhere for a real person to have gone in that time'. Misperception must always be the first possibility to examine in such cases.

A little later, I thought once again that I was being stared at. This time I was indoors and the face was in the window of a building opposite. I turned to see that it was, in fact, a potted plant on a windowsill, roughly shaped like, and with similar dimensions to, a human head! This raises another common thread with ghost sightings - the idea that the witness is being stared at. So often the ghost is said to be looking directly at the witness when first seen. This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that the ghost is aware of the witness! However, if it is a visual substitution, then this idea of awareness is completely illusory!

23 March 2010: On consciousness

Consciousness is seen by many as a 'hard problem' which science cannot yet explain. While neuroscientists see consciousness as purely something the brain does, others think differently. Many paranormal theories assume that consciousness is, or can be, independent of the brain, as apparently demonstrated by OOBEs and NDEs. However, the evidence that 'something' leaves the body in such circumstances now has alternative, wholly brain-based explanations (see near sleep experiences).

What neuroscientists say about consciousness is that it is the bit of the brain's function that we are directly aware of. Our brains do much that we are not aware of, like controlling muscles, holding old memories or interpreting sensory inputs. Consciousness is the bit that gives us our view of the world. It is where we actively consider matters and make decisions. The detail of enacting such a decision, like walking forward, is controlled by the unconscious part of our brains.

In this week's New Scientist (22 March), an article describes how a theory of consciousness, that has been around since 1983, is now finally receiving some crucial supporting evidence. We may, at last, be about to learn how consciousness really works! The theory states that unconscious brain functions are limited to certain small specialised areas of the brain while conscious thoughts are distributed throughout many parts of it, forming a 'global workspace'. For instance, only after information from our eyes has been processed and interpreted, in a small visual processing area of the brain, does it become distributed widely, then forming part of our image of the world, along with the inputs from other senses.

Interestingly, any conflicting information, such as from sensory inputs, is resolved by the specialist brain areas BEFORE it is fed into consciousness. As I've commented before, the brain seems to hate ambiguity and always resolves it before we are aware of it. This is what happens in misperception, for instance, where our visual system decides if a poorly-seen tree is really a tree, or a human figure, before we 'see' it. What is more, it may substitute the tree for a human figure from memory, complete with details of facial features and clothing (see visual substitution). We 'see' a person but it is really a tree and probably interpreted as a ghost.

This view of consciousness is, of course, based on the idea that it is purely a function of a living brain. Those paranormal researchers who believe consciousness is more than just a brain function, or even not one at all, must now produce compelling evidence that the 'global workspace' theory cannot explain.

17 Mar 2010: Why investigating a haunting IS NOT like detective work!

Investigating a haunting is often said to be like crime detection. You need to gather evidence and put together clues to decide what is going on. That idea is fine as far as it goes, but the parallels are really NOT that close at all or, at least, they shouldn't be. Here is why.

Firstly, when investigating a crime we definitely know it has been committed. By comparison, we do not even know if there is a haunting in progress until we've investigated it. Secondly, with a crime we know there has to be a criminal. Most hauntings do not even include sightings of a ghost so we've no idea if there is any ghost involved! Thirdly, in a detective investigation, it is usual to identify prime suspects and then try to build a case against them. However, this approach is definitely counter-productive when investigating hauntings, given that we don't know there has even been a 'crime', let alone that there is a 'criminal'. In building such a case it is possible, often unintentionally, to emphasize things that confirm it while minimising those that contradict it. Sadly, this is what happens in assumption-led paranormal investigation were evidence that supports the assumptions is sought assiduously while other stuff is ignored or not noticed. This, unfortunately, is the way some paranormal investigations are run.

While the skills of a detective may be useful in ghost research, some of their methods are not. Instead, a neutral scientific approach is best. This starts with making no assumptions beyond the fact that someone has reported something odd. It is then up to the investigator to try to explain what caused that observation. In many cases it will turn out to be misperception, a near sleep experience or coincidence. Only once those, and other xenonormal possibilities, have been ruled out can paranormal causes be considered.

While there are certain parallels between detective work and paranormal investigation, there are also important differences. Paranormal investigation should always be firmly based on scientific methods.

16 Mar 2010: A very unusual TV programme

There is a popular detective show on TV that defies the current conventions of depicting the paranormal. It is the Mentalist (which appears in the UK as well as the US). It is odd because it shows someone, attached to a group of detectives as a consultant, who appears to have psychic abilities. Nothing unusual there, you might think. However, the 'ex stage psychic' claims that everything he does comes simply from acute observation rather than psychic ability. Indeed, he frequently denies that he, or anyone else, has any psychic ability.

There was a time when many ghost or psychics stories on TV either ended up with an ambiguous ending or involved people only pretending to have paranormal abilities or experiences. Things have swung very much the other way in the media now. That is what makes the character of Patrick Jane, the mentalist of the show's title, so unusual. His 'abilities' are actually not that different to those of another fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. He, too, used acute observation and keen deductive reasoning to solve crimes.

While it is certainly possible to deliberately learn ways to appear psychic, some people may also pick them up by trial and error and so convince themselves they are psychic when they are not. It is interesting to see a TV show depicting such methods. Of course, you can argue that the Mentalist is only fiction, not a true portrayal of real life. But then so are all the shows showing mediums with real psychic ability.

The Mentalist is the exception that proves the rule. In just about every other show on this subject, the paranormal is shown as real. Media depictions of the paranormal feed into the content of real anomalous reports and public attitudes, which explains the current widespread belief in the paranormal. It all serves to make the job of those of us interested in what really causes paranormal reports just a bit more challenging when faced with assumptions all around.

15 Mar 2010: Prolonged misperception is possible

All my recent misperception experiences have been brief, measured in seconds. Though many reported paranormal experiences are similarly brief, some are much longer. Could misperception explain any of those too?

The reason why most misperception experiences are brief is because when the witness looks more closely at the misperceived object, the illusion is broken. However, that is not always possible. It might not be possible to approach a distant object. It might not be possible to cast more light on a dimly-seen object. It might not be possible to see again something that passed by quickly.

Another thought on this matter struck me recently. I often see paranormal photos which allegedly show mysterious figures or faces. Generally, I can't see these figures or faces, even though others can easily. One possible interpretation of this phenomenon is that others are misperceiving while I see merely what is there, being used to taking and analysing photos. If that is true, it means some people can continue to misperceive even when they are free to examine an object closely and for a prolonged period.

While all humans have an in-built tendency to see faces and figures in random patterns, some clearly do it more readily than others. It is likely that such people will also misperceive more readily and for longer. In turn, this may mean that they report more paranormal experiences than most people. It looks like a promising area for research.

12 Mar 2010: Noticing stories

Here’s a memory test for you to try. Below are two lists of 10 words each. Read the words in the first list once, turn away from the screen and write down as many as you can remember. Then check and see how many you got right, out of 10. Next, repeat the procedure for the second list and finally compare scores with the first. Here are the lists:

  • (1) Path, road, house, tree, bush, car, bus, corner, people, fence
  • (2) Séance, ghost, haunting, nun, marry, investigator, vanish, night, lover, monk

How did you do? I'm guessing that, like me, you did better on the second list. It is not just because the words are associated with a subject we find interesting. It is also because they form a 'story', like a folkloric motif. They are apparently about a haunting, supposedly involving the ghosts of a nun or a monk and their forbidden love affair that no doubt led to tragedy. It is a fairly common motif associated with traditional hauntings.

When people want to remember a list of items, the easiest way to do so is to create a story involving the objects. It’s to do with the way our brains store memories, by linking them with related items. It is therefore easier to remember linked items, such as a story for instance, than items with no obvious connection.

This may be one of the reasons why we notice misperceptions. We misperceive all the time but hardly ever notice it. One reason why we DO notice misperceptions occasionally might be when they form 'continuity errors in reality' (see here). While this might explain why we notice misperceptions and see them as paranormal, it does not answer the question of why they usually take traditional forms like ghosts, or more recently UFOs? This could be because such motifs are more memorable so they are the first things that come to mind when we see something that apparently makes no sense.

So we see a poorly-seen tree as a human figure and, because we are not expecting someone in that place, our brains turn them into ghosts or aliens. Our brains pick on these motifs because they are easily memorable. They are certainly more memorable than some random weirdness. This factor of being memorable might also explain why they are more psychologically appealing.

11 Mar 2010: Belief - a gateway to a haunted location?

Misperceived treeYesterday (see below) I speculated that personal belief may lower the threshold for noticing misperception, which in turn is interpreted as paranormal. A similar effect can occur to locations, specifically those regarded as haunted. In the photo, right, you see a tree that was misperceived as a ghost (see here). Someone reporting this tree as a ghost may lead to the area gaining a reputation as being haunted.

It has been noted that, following an initial report of an apparently ghostly experience at a particular location, the number of subsequent paranormal reports (of differing types) at the same location usually rises rapidly. It is not just the original witness but others who start to experience things. Interestingly, some people who live at a haunted location may never experience anything paranormal while others present are getting weird stuff regularly.

This appears to be a special case of belief lowering the threshold for noticing misperception discussed yesterday. Once people other than the original witness know that a location is haunted, their thresholds for noticing misperception is also lowered. It is belief that a specific location is haunted, rather than belief in ghosts in general, that is making the difference. The fact that some people present do NOT start experiencing odd stuff probably means that their personal beliefs (or disbeliefs!) in ghosts outweigh the group perception that a location is haunted.

There are cases of places where there was little, if any, evidence that they were haunted until someone held a speculative vigil there. Since assumption-led methods, used frequently on many vigils, are likely to lead to some sort of positive result almost anywhere, whether it is haunted or not, the outcome is rarely in doubt. Some places now have a reputation of being haunted based almost solely on such a history! Effectively, it is belief that a place is haunted that produces many of the 'phenomena' reported in such locations.

Assumption-led investigation methods are themselves based on belief. It is no surprise, then, that their use increases belief among people, whether present at the vigil or not, and reduces the threshold for noticing misperception. It is difficult to disentangle belief from paranormal research but, if when possible, it is highly worthwhile.

10 Mar 2010: Belief - the gateway to xenonormal experience?

I have mentioned before how our brains dislike ambiguity in perception. Rather than show us a fuzzy tree in poor light, they might convert it to a shadowy human figure, taken from visual memory, complete with detail like clothing (see misperception). Other brain functions also dislike ambiguity, to the point of making us feel anxious.

Think about the last time you made an important decision. Until you decided you probably felt anxious, listless and even downright miserable. Once the decision was made you probably felt a weight lifted from your shoulders. Then there are beliefs. We all have core beliefs which change very little for years or even over a lifetime. Even when faced with evidence contrary to a belief we may still not change our minds on such beliefs. We may even feel hurt, as though we had been personally insulted, when somebody challenges those beliefs.

When I started to realise the power of misperception, I started to see ghosts - or at least human figures that turned out, on closer inspection, to be poorly-seen trees or clothes (see 3 Mar below). I had never before seen any ghost, even these misperceived versions. It was as though believing in misperception had lowered a threshold for me to have these xenonormal experiences. I must have seen trees in bad light many times before but only now did I see them as ghosts! Belief had acted as a gateway to experience.

You could argue that, if I only saw these ghosts as a result of a belief in misperception, how did I know they weren't paranormal ghosts that I'd simply never noticed before? The answer is that I investigated each sighting at the time and was able to demonstrate, to my own satisfaction, that they were definitely misperceptions. Virtually no other ghost witness ever investigates their sighting at the time of the incident, which is understandable but unfortunate.

So do people misperceive objects as ghosts because they believe in ghosts? In my experience, most people become firm believers in ghosts once they see one. But having seen one, they may well go on to see more. The first experience may lower the threshold for seeing ghosts through belief. If that first experience is a misperception, they may become more sensitive to these 'continuity errors in reality' afterwards. Before they see their first ghost, witnesses may disbelieve or believe in ghosts or have no opinion either way. Afterwards they are generally firm believers. Something similar may happen with psychics who generally have a dramatic experience that first convinces them they are sensitive.

In the field of paranormal research we come across a lot of strong beliefs and disbeliefs. Not many paranormal researchers truly have no opinion either way. That is a pity because, if belief lowers the threshold for experiencing the xenonormal as paranormal, it means there are probably a lot of people in our field who are not seeing what they think they are.

9 Mar 2009: The best thing a paranormal investigator can experience!

What is the best experience a paranormal investigator can have? Most, if not all, people would reply 'have a paranormal experience'. I would have agreed for most of my many years studying this subject. That was, until I had an even more illuminating experience.

Vigils, particularly when organised around assumption-led methods, can easily be dismissed as of little value scientifically. However, that is not true. On such vigils I have observed other people having experiences that they later reported as paranormal. I saw what they saw and knew the explanation was definitely xenonormal. I have also witnessed things that I could not explain immediately, on such vigils, which were later explained naturally by other groups positioned nearby.

This made me realise that human perception is highly variable, both from person to person and time to time. It also made me realise that many witnesses, particularly lone one, are not aware of the context surrounding their apparently paranormal experience. If they were, they might realise the true explanation for what they saw. While vigils are a highly artificial setting, they are not so different to someone experiencing something weird spontaneously. In both cases it is almost impossible to predict what will happen, or when, making observations liable to things like misperception.

If it was possible to watch someone experiencing a spontaneous anomalous event, there is a high chance that it would be possible to see that there was a xenonormal explanation in most cases. I have had spontaneous weird experiences myself and always investigate them at the time. Without fail they have had a xenonormal explanation. Unfortunately, we cannot expect casual witnesses to investigate what they see at the time, which is when you are most likely to find the true cause.

So, the best experience a paranormal investigator can have is to observe someone else witnessing a weird event. It is a profoundly eye-opening experience!

8 Mar 2010: That doppelganger feeling

Doppelganger's are very rare indeed. They usually involve someone seeing the apparition of a living person who is nearby. There are few, if any, reliable reports of this phenomenon, however. There is another, equally rare but less well-known, kind of doppelganger phenomenon where someone feels there is someone near to them (a 'presence'), imitating everything they do. Many people would assume these two phenomena are one and the same but there is no compelling evidence that this is the case.

It would be great to examine, in detail, a contemporary reliable report of the 'apparition' type doppelganger, should one turn up. In the meantime, there may be an explanation for the feeling some people get of a presence or figure, often invisible, that is imitating their own actions. Regular readers may already have guessed that this phenomenon may be related to the way OOBEs are created.

It seems that the 'presence' doppelganger may be caused by unusual activity in the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), the same part of the brain most likely responsible for OOBEs. Given that the TPJ gives us our sense of position in space, it is not surprising that it can be responsible for a feeling of a separate nearby presence. An article in Cosmos magazine describes research on this subject. They refer to a 'shadow person'. This should not to be confused with 'shadow ghosts' which occur in peripheral vision and are not usually very close to the observer, whom they do not mimic. These 'ghosts' are most likely caused by the sensitivity of peripheral vision to movement and misperception.

Everyone's brain is different, partly due to genetics and partly due to how it is used. It is inevitable that some individuals will be more prone to things like OOBEs, doppelganger presence, misperception and so on. For this reason, when anyone witnesses something extraordinary, we must examine the person, and their previous perceptual experiences, every bit as much as the scene of their reported incident.

5 Mar 2010: CCTV ghost

ASSAP's Heritage Officer, Ian Topham, spotted this article about a CCTV ghost video in a local newspaper website (actual video), the News and Star. The 'ghost', seen in a video at a Carlisle off-licence, consists of overlapping orbs, suggesting an object with multiple highlights very close to the lens. The jerky motion appears to be due to the camera using a time lapse method rather than continuous recording (note the cars that appear and disappear in the top left of the frame).

This is very reminiscent of previous security camera ghosts (see here) that appear to be caused by insects walking across the protective glass screen in front of the camera lens. If an insect was actually ON the lens itself it would either not show up at all or, if it was fairly big, it would appear as a black shape.

When CCTV cameras started to become common, paranormal investigators thought they might prove a treasure trove of ghost images. While there have certainly been many CCTV ghost videos, the vast majority have explanations such as insects or faint images from old recordings when video tapes are reused. Doubtless there are also many strange images that are not even noticed because no one looks at the recording unless they are seeking something in particular. So, overall, CCTVs have not brought the rush of ghost images we anticipated. Even when weird images ARE found, they have to be analysed cautiously, in a similar way to still paranormal photos.

The same coat draped over a chair has made me misperceive a person yet again (see 3 Mar)! It really does seem to be a powerful visual stimulus for misperceptions. It also fits with the idea that we notice misperceptions only when they represent something 'wrong' with a scene (a visual continuity error). In this case, I noticed the 'figure' only because I knew there could not be one there. If the building had been full of real people, I might well not have noticed the coat, unconsciously dismissing it as just someone sitting down.

3 Mar 2010: The ghost in the chair!

Misperceived ghostThe other day I noticed a human figure sitting on a chair! It made me jump, almost literally, out of my skin. That was because I knew for a fact that I was completely alone in a locked building! I had caught sight of the figure first in my peripheral vision. It was only when I looked steadily and directly at the 'figure' for a couple of seconds that I realised what it was - a coat draped on the seat in much the way that a person might sit there.

The misperception was so convincing that it caught me out again later, after I'd forgotten about the original incident. It reminded me of previous incidents where clothes, when hung or draped in a way suggesting a human posture, have given a powerful impression of a figure when seen in peripheral vision. Indeed, they may form the most easily reproducible examples of misperception around. More powerful than trees, bushes and so forth (example in photo - see here for account of the sighting).

Reproducing misperception is notoriously difficult, as I have outlined here before. But maybe here is a chance to do some reliable experiments. What percentage of people would see a coat draped on a chair as a figure in their peripheral vision? How many would fall for the same trick a little later? How much would you need to change the position of the chair or coat for it to trigger a misperception again in the same individual who had become used to itt?

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

Last month's (February) website figures are an average of 9637 hits per day. Though down on the previous month's 11465, it is still up (by 12%) on the same month in the previous year!


Previous blog pages ...

  • 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