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 ...

Previous blog pages ...

29 May 2009: I saw a funny thing today!

This morning I saw a small black and white animal moving around in the distance. I wondered what it might be and continued to watch, even after it disappeared behind a fence. Persistence was rewarded when it came back into full view. It now revealed its true nature - a clear plastic bag! The white bits were caused by the sun strongly reflected by the plastic, the areas in between looking black by contrast. The movement was caused by the wind blowing the bag gently around!

Now, imagine I'd never seen the object re-emerge from behind the fence. I would still think I'd seen a small unknown black and white animal. If someone had suggested to me it was plastic bag, I would not have believed them! After all, it looked solid and black and white, not a clear thin plastic enclosure.

Now, imagine trying to convince a witness they haven't seen a ghost at all but a tree! The only real solution to such problems is to reproduce the phenomenon. This has proved a good strategy with paranormal photos, revealing the mechanism behind many such shots. It is time to be bolder with reproducing such things as ghost sightings. The important thing is to get as near to the original conditions as possible. Many researchers make a half-hearted effort, primarily to show that there isn't a mundane explanation! They often fail to duplicate the original conditions well and end up with misleading conclusions.

The next time you see a funny thing, imagine how someone else might see it!

27 May 2009: The tomato spider and photographing ghosts!

Is it just me? Sometimes when I open one of those packets containing tomatoes 'on the vine', I think I see a large spider! It always turns out to be the dried stems of the tomato plant (up to now anyway!) that, to me, strongly resemble a spider. I guess it's another type of misperception or even a simulacrum.

Following the publication of the new paranormal photos page, I was asked how I'd recognise a genuine photo of a real ghost. It's a good question, given that most of the existing photos, supposedly of ghosts, can be explained quite readily by natural causes. I think the answer is that there would need to be more evidence than just a single photo. Of course, many of the existing well-known photos have a background story with them. However, there is a potential problem with human memory (which we know is unreliable) in such cases.

I suspect it would take a deliberate attempt to capture an image of a ghost, rather than a single shot where one appears by accident (as in most of the existing famous photos). Then it would be possible to tie down the circumstances properly and maybe use multiple cameras, including video. Of course, people have been attempting to do this sort of thing on vigils for years. Sadly, the photos produced are still usually explainable by the same things as the accidental ones! The lack of any resulting unambiguous evidence might indicate that we cannot take photos of ghosts. I do hope not!

22 May 2009: Analysing paranormal photos

It is fashionable these days to analyse paranormal photos. Photo analysis and editing software is generally the tool of choice. The usual aim is to discover if a photo has been faked or not. The implication being that if it is not a fake then it must be genuinely paranormal!

I take a rather different approach to photo analysis. I am interested in seeing if a weird photo can be reproduced using only the equipment and conditions of the original exposure. The answer to that question is, yes it can, in almost every case. Reproducing a photo doesn't mean it necessarily happened that way. However, it does produce a good working theory to be going on with. In order to show that a photo was really paranormal, there would need to be some additional evidence showing that the photo was produced some other way.

I've now produced a new page outlining the results of using my method honed by examining over 1000 different photos from over 300 photographers. The main result is that the vast majority of paranormal photos are photographic artifacts ie. effects that arise purely from the process of taking a photo. These look weird because they differ from the way the human eye works, so confounding our expectations. It is the old xenonormal again - seeing something you don't recognise!

The main photographic artifacts found were: objects out of focus, long exposures, reflections, low lighting and refraction. Anyone can use a modern digital camera to get excellent results without any real knowledge of the photographic process. This may be why some of these effects are not as familiar as they might once have been when cameras were manual.

The new page links together the many photo pages on the ASSAP website. It also organises the information into a logical order. If you want to know about paranormal photos, it would be a good place to start.

New page: Paranormal photos

21 May 2009: Turning up your hearing

When people are on vigils, waiting for some ghostly activity to occur, they often hear lots of strange noises that aren't obvious at other times. What was once an average quiet room is now alive with strange sounds, little knocks, creaks, even what sounds like whispers.

It turns out that there may be a normal reason for all these weird sounds that seem so obvious on a vigil, while never heard at other times. It seems we can 'turn up' the sensitivity of our hearing! According to Dr David Baguley, an audiologist at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge (see here), we can increase our hearing sensitivity at times of stress, when we need our senses to be fully alert. He has been looking into the infamous 'hum' that some people hear incessantly in certain locations. It is caused, apparently, by having audio senses set to top sensitivity all the time. The 'hum' turns out to be normal background noises that are usually not heard because they are too faint.

It is easy to see the same mechanism taking place on vigils. It is certainly stressful waiting for a ghost to appear at any second! But those faint weird sounds often heard in such situations may be less to do with haunting phenomena and more just natural background noise amplified!

You didn't need highly sensitive hearing to be woken by the blood curdling screams heard locally last night! Objects, some not that light, are still mysteriously moving around gardens. Foxes remain prime suspects for both phenomena.

18 May 2009: Anomaly research in 2109

"In 2109, an anomaly researcher searches back through the records of twenty-first century UFO sightings. He smiles to himself as he reads of how many people thought they were alien spacecraft. He knew what those ignorant folks from history didn't - that those mysterious lights in the sky are actually loop holes from another dimension."

Just a whimsical thought prompted by the way that people currently looking back for old UFO reports (pre-1947) tend to be amused at how unknown ariel objects were once interpreted - as angels, fairies, demons or more recently airships. We look back at historical records of mysterious phenomena and evaluate them using current interpretations often to show they are not just a modern myth. So someone in the future may look at our current sightings and re-interpret them again, dismissing our theories as ill-informed.

The point is that when someone sees something they don't recognise, for whatever reason, they will often misperceive it according to the current cultural interpretation. A light in the sky resembled an angel centuries ago. The same light seen today would look like an alien spacecraft. Culture has effectively become a communal extension to our individual brains. Though our brains are physically separate, we absorb ideas from the media and from friends that affect how our misperceptions turn out. Because one group of people believe UFOs are alien craft, a completely separate person will literally see lights in the sky as just that. They don't even have to believe in the alien theory themselves. It is enough that they are familiar with it.

So, if the prevailing view, whether based on solid evidence or not, is that UFOs are 'loop holes from another dimension' in 2109, that's what people will see when they misperceive. If you see culture as an extension of our communal experience and imaginings it is easy to see why the content of anomalous phenomena are so heavily influenced by it.

14 May 2009: The ideas that won't go away!

The extent of anomaly research keeps on growing! Some subjects may fall out of favour (as ufology seems to be doing at the moment) but they will probably come back (as EVP has in recent years). But every anomalous subject continues to have a hard core of devotees who never give up on it. Some ideas just never go away! While some remain mysteries, others really are pretty much 'solved' and should be let go.

Take orbs, for instance. All the research indicates that orbs are out of focus bits of dust, insects, water drops etc. Most, if not all, serious paranormal researchers pay orbs no attention any more. However, there are still groups of people who continue to think orbs are paranormal. The internet makes it easy for such people to stay in touch. Keeping in contact with people who share your beliefs is probably the best way to sustain them.

Then there is a steady stream of people who 'discover' orbs for the first time. They may get them in a photo and wonder what on earth they are. They won't know that almost every possible question about orbs has already been answered and they are not obviously paranormal, whatever they may say on the telly. Some ideas, despite all the evidence against them, just refuse to go away.

ASSAP is, of course, scientific so if someone comes up with some NEW evidence, to show orbs are paranormal perhaps, we must examine it. I am always on the look for such new information on orbs but little ever emerges. The long term believers in 'paranormal orbs' always rejected the evidence against their ideas so they see no reason to find novel objections to a natural explanation. And those new to the subject of orbs are unlikely to report anything novel. So we are stuck with an idea that won't go away and no new evidence to support it. This is the way of life in paranormal research.

12 May 2009: The triumph of the BIG idea

The evidence that ghosts are spirits is scant, and yet, somehow it is the all pervasive theory in our field of paranormal research. Why should that be? It can't simply be because of media influence, surely. Reading a forum thread today I realised there was another obvious explanation I had somehow missed. It is that the whole spirit thing is quite simply, a BIG idea! By comparison, the concept that many ghost sightings are caused by misperception, though supported by careful investigation, is a modest idea.

That spirits might walk abroad is a huge idea! It challenges all existing scientific thought and much philosophy too. If proved, it would challenge many people's world view profoundly. I'm sure many would lose interest in paranormal research in an instant if they thought there were no spirits involved.

I think that if you compare a big idea, poorly supported by evidence, with a more modest idea, amply supported, the former will always be far more appealing to most people. The very 'bigness' of the idea somehow outweighs the fact that there is little evidence in its favour. However, as paranormal researchers, it is our duty to be objective. We must look at the evidence AS IT IS and not cherry pick those bits that support any prior assumptions while ignoring stuff that contradicts them. Sadly, I fear that few are doing this at present.

11 May 2009: Creativity and ghosts

Small objects continue to move about by night in gardens but there have been no further sightings of the suspect. In this week's New Scientist (9 May) there is an article on ways to stimulate creativity. One of main ideas is to let your mind wander. This is also a mind state likely to be conducive for misperceiving. It could mean that creative people, like artists, are more prone to misperceive than the rest of us.

The field of ghost research could do with some creative thinking right now. It is firmly stuck in the doldrums, going nowhere. There is plenty going on, it's just not leading anywhere. The all-pervasive assumption that ghosts are spirits, despite the evidence to the contrary, is stifling any kind of progress. In science, you start with the evidence and try to explain it. In many ghost theories, you start with an assumption (that they are spirits) and try to make the evidence fit. It is little wonder that we are no nearer testable theories and reproducible experiments.

8 May 2009: Making ghosts

The 'garden poltergeist' is still at work, moving stuff around at night. No sign of the prime suspect (see below) today but them he (or is it a she?) is nocturnal!

I've had several misperception experiences recently, including one created by the way several objects happened to line up from a specific angle. They gave the strong impression of someone's head from behind, with a blue 'collar' and black hair. The illusion was sustained for a while until I changed my angle of observation. Later in the day, with more sunlight, the misperception disappeared even at the correct angle. Misperception depends on many factors coming together which is why it is so difficult to reproduce.

An object can be misperceived as anything of similar dimensions, shape and colour. This generally puts a limit on what the misperception can be (a small rectangular box is never likely to be seen as a human figure but a tall bush might). The worse the viewing conditions, however, the looser such restrictions on size and colour and so on. There could be multiple objects involved as well. They may line up, from a particular angle, to give the impression of a completely different object.

Something that is misperceived doesn't even have to be a physical object. Anything that can create patterns of light will do, such as shadows or highly illuminated surfaces. A pattern of shadows on a wall could resemble a human figure, depending on its shape and size. You could even misperceive a shape caused by a gap between other objects (a hole, in effect)!

Updated page: Misperception

7 May 2009: A garden poltergeist!

FoxI have been privy to some odd goings-on in gardens in my area recently. Various small objects have appeared or disappeared in the middle of the night in people's gardens. They are too heavy to be shifted by the wind. Yet, they have gone over fences from one garden to another! It is all very perplexing!

Then, a few days ago, the prime suspect was seen in one of the gardens. It is not a poltergeist but, as you will already have worked out from the photo (which isn't the actual individual though there is said to be a strong resemblance), a fox!

No one has actually seen the fox moving objects around in the dead of night but it is known that the animal has recently decided to take up residence! Foxes can be present in a garden without anyone realising if there is enough thick cover and low disturbance. They appear to be much more common in urban gardens, nowadays, than in the countryside!

As well as moving stuff around, foxes sometimes make a blood curdling cry in the middle of the night. Anyone who has been awaken by it will no doubt recall an involuntary sense of terror! There can be little doubt that foxes contribute significantly to reports of various paranormal and anomalous phenomena in the UK.

5 May 2009: Ghost lore

Many people, even serious ghost researchers, include some elements of 'ghost lore' in their ideas about ghosts. This is unfortunate because it complicates the task of from coming up with credible theories to explain ghosts.

Ghost lore is all that stuff 'everyone knows' about ghosts, that appears in ghost stories and horror movies. It is, however, quite different to real ghost cases. So, in ghost lore we have things like headless horseman, ghostly coaches, well-known historical figures as ghosts, clanking chains, talking ghosts and the idea that graveyards are usually haunted. You will have great difficulty finding any credible evidence to support these notions, however popular they may be. Instead, such ghost lore is derived from FOAFs (friend of a friend stories), uninvestigated (and poorly investigated) cases, legends, folklore, tourist brochure stories, speculation and fiction.

Many of these ghost lore reports may well have originated with real ghost sightings that have subsequently been attached to pre-existing legends or simply exaggerated over time. Others may represent legends and ghost stories that typically accumulate around spooky-looking old buildings, even in the absence of any credible reports of sightings.

When you get rid of all this dubious 'evidence' and stick to what people have actually found in credibly investigated cases, the picture that emerges of ghosts and hauntings is quite different. Until the ghost research community, as a whole, realises this it will be impossible to make any serious progress in this fascinating field.

Updated article: What do we really know about ghosts?

1 May 2009: Happy Beltane!

Double exposureHappy Beltane, the Celtic start of summer! Once celebrated with Beltane fires, the festival has been largely forgotten now. Beltane is still celebrated by Neopagans and Wiccans while Morris sides often mark the day.

Beltane is one of those seasonal festivals that once had huge significance when we lived in a largely pastoral society. Now, with most people living in cities, the seasons have a less obvious affect on our lives.

Meanwhile, back in the everyday, I was searching for an unwashed tea cup the other day and thought I saw it in one of its frequent haunts. However, as I approached it, I realised that the 'cup' was really a small cardboard box of a similar size and colour but a different shape. And yet I 'saw' the cup clearly. My mind had simply swapped the box for the cup I was expecting to see!

This added another example to add to my growing list of misperceptions. This one is heavily influenced by expectation. We sometimes see things we expect to see, perhaps because they are usually present, even when they are absent. This is probably quite a common experience. I suppose, if you believed strongly enough in ghosts, you might even see one simply because you were expecting it.

This month's (April) website figures are an average of 9456 hits per day - marginally down on last month's 9902. After several months of impressive upward mobility, this slight relapse is mainly due to Easter. It seems that people don't browse the web so much over holidays. I guess they've got better things to do.

The photo is described in last month's blog!

ASSAP

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© Maurice Townsend 2009