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

Whenever new information becomes available on a subject ASSAP covers, it is added to the relevant pages of the website straight away. So, just because you've read a page, don't assume it will still be exactly the same when you next look. That way the ASSAP website remains an up to date research resource.

The photo (above right, pic by Val Hope) is the ASSAP blogger himself, out looking for anomalies wherever they are to be found, so that you can read about them here.

Important note: If anything in this blog does not make sense, try following the links in text! If it still doesn't make sense, that's probably my fault ...

Previous blog pages ... (including ghosts, UFOs, poltergeists, flying rods, miracles, orbs, hypnotic regression, big cats, vampires, near sleep experiences, premonitions, shadow ghosts, paranormal photos, auras, river monsters and dozens of other subjects)

30 November 2010: A face in the snow!

Face in the snow?Here in the UK, winter has come early and most places have had snow. Given a run of recent mild winters (until last year), this has come as a bit of a shock. While photographing the snow today my camera found a face! It wasn't really a face, just a patch of snow but the face recognition feature insisted it was a human face. I played the viewfinder back and forth across the area and it was consistent about where this 'face' supposedly was. The rather unexciting photo is shown right. The 'face' is supposedly just above the middle of the frame! I re-photographed the same area about an hour later, after more snow had fallen, but the camera could no longer find a face. Snow is well known to cause problems with photographs, perhaps due to its brightness and lack of detail.

It reminded me not just of the 'faces' some people see in photos of vegetation but also of 'voice activated' sound recorders being used by EVP enthusiasts. In the latter case, some people claim that if a voice activated sound recorder starts up in a silent room, there must be a voice and therefore 'real' EVP! In reality, it is more likely noise that the voice activation software has mistaken for a voice. It is surprisingly difficult to distinguish a voice from noise (see here and here).

In cameras, face detection is generally pretty good, in my experience, but clearly not infallible, as this case shows. In the same way, people are not infallible at detecting human faces either. It is not easy to define an image as definitely a face which is probably why they often get reported in paranormal photos.

Another interesting aspect of the snow is that there are lots of peripheral vision misperceptions going on. This is due to chunks of snow falling off trees and bushes, often silently. It gives a weird impression of 'something' white (against a white background) and unknown moving 'out there', which can feel spooky!

26 November 2010: EMF meters - why so popular?

I wonder how many EMF meters would be sold without ghost hunters? Quite a few less, I imagine. It is probably the first bit of kit on the shopping list of every aspiring ghost hunter, right after a good torch. Personally, I'd put a decent video camera at the top of my list - far more useful!

The traditional reasons for taking an EMF meter on a ghost vigil are either that it is a ghost detector or that it can pick up EIFs, experience inducing fields that can cause someone to hallucinate. No obvious evidence exists to support either ideas (see here for full explanation of both of these points).

Now it seems there is a new reason to use EMF meters - as a way to communicate with ghosts! Supposedly, it is possible to 'ask questions' of ghosts and get a response through a 'spike' in the EMF levels. As with ghost detection, there does not seem to be any body of compelling evidence showing that this method works.

So why use EMF meters to communicate with ghosts (allegedly) when there are plenty of existing 'traditional' methods, like ouija, seances, mediums and so on, already? There seems to be an allure to EMF meters that makes them seemingly indispensable, no matter that there is a lack of evidence that they do what their owners want them too. If conclusive evidence was somehow found that EMF meters could not be used as a communicator, would people come up with new reasons to take them on vigils? Just why ARE these meters so popular?

25 November 2010: Social networks support unlikely ideas

WoodpeckerAmong the ideas that are generally accepted among the 'ghost hunt boomer generation' is that ghosts are spirits and that EMF meters can detect ghosts. The former idea would have been considered unusual before the 'boom'. The latter idea simply does not stand up to close scrutiny! So why do they persist, in spit of a lack of obvious supporting evidence?

One clear reason is the widespread use of assumption-led methods. But such methods implicitly include a myriad more ideas and assumptions, some equally unsupported. So we must dig deeper to find why all these unlikely ideas survive and spread.

Recent research suggests that widely-held ideas and beliefs may survive and propagate through social networks, irrespective of whether they are supported by evidence or not. People who share particular beliefs naturally tend to hang around together. In the age of the internet this is easier than ever. Even people who live in the middle of nowhere, with no one nearby who shares their beliefs, can be in regular real time contact with others who sympathise. And even if only a few people around the world believe in a particular idea, they can now find and support each other. This means that weird ideas, even if very few people believe them, will continue to 'hang on' pretty much forever.

Take the idea that orbs are paranormal, for instance. Most paranormal investigators no longer support this once popular idea. Nevertheless, there are a few investigators who do still believe it and they can easily contact one another to exchange ideas and support each other. The idea is unlikely ever to go away completely, no matter how many times every possible sort of orb is reproduced normally.

People who are NOT paranormal investigators are more likely to think orbs are paranormal. They may find an orb on a photo they've taken and wonder if it might be paranormal. Or they they may know someone who 'knows' orbs are paranormal. Or they may find a reference on the web to the idea that orbs are paranormal. And so a new 'believer' is ready to join the social network that supports the idea that orbs are paranormal.

Is there any way to counter the continuation of such unsupported ideas? The only obvious thing to do is to put detailed technical information and evidence into the public domain and hope that those who are interested will find it. But this will only ever reach a small proportion of people.

You might ask, why bother to counter these ideas, does it really matter what a small group of people believe? It matters because it wastes time, particularly when new people arrive to become investigators and need to be told 'don't bother with orbs'! It also matters because the truth matters! And if I didn't think the truth mattered, I wouldn't investigate the paranormal at all.

PS: I saw a Magpie today (pic below, 19 Nov) behave just like a Great Spotted Woodpecker (pic above) ! It was attached firmly to a large tree trunk using its long tail to steady itself, just like a woodpecker. It was probing the bark for food, like a woodpecker. Seen from a distance I'd have said it was woodpecker (the female GSW is basically black and white like a Magpie)! We see new and unexpected things every day and they can always trip us up and maybe cause an unlikely or maybe paranormal report.

23 November 2010: Assumptions work anywhere!

There is an experiment I've always wanted to do but I'm told I can't because it is unethical! I want to send a group of ghost hunters, who use assumption-led methods, to a building which has no history of haunting whatever. I would tell them that it WAS haunted and see what emerged! I can pretty much guarantee they would get some sort of positive results. That's because assumption-led methods can produce 'positive' results anywhere.

People have always held seances, with and without mediums, in non-haunted locations with much the same results as in haunted places. They have also got similar results doing EVP recordings anywhere. EMF meters can record unusual variations anywhere and sitting around in the dark always encourages misperception. So I'm confident that the team would find 'something' to indicate the place was haunted.

I even suspect that this experiment has, quite accidentally, happened already. Some of the places regularly investigated by ghost hunters have little, if any, evidence to show they are haunted beyond a reputation and a spooky look! This doesn't stop such places 'producing the goods' for those who go there.

Serious ghost investigation is about explaining prior witness reports. While witness testimony is known to be unreliable (see here), if there are several independent reports of the same thing happening at a single location, it shows there is SOMETHING there to investigate, whether paranormal or not. When such a place is identified, investigators examine it minutely to look for possible natural explanations for the reported phenomena. Frequently, these yield just such explanations.

Using assumption-led methods, by contrast, tells us nothing scientifically useful. You could do the same thing anywhere and it would probably produce much the same thing. Despite this, these methods remain incredibly popular among the 'ghost hunting boomers'. Even if I was allowed to do my experiment, and it produced the 'positive' results I expect, I doubt it would make any difference. I would be told that the un-haunted location really WAS haunted after all, it was just that no one had noticed before!

22 November 2010: Auras are real!

It has long been suspected that people who see auras (colours surrounding objects unseen by most people) may have a form of synaesthesia. This is a condition where a sensory input is processed by an unusual neural pathway, so numbers or letters may produce particular colours, for instance. In this week's New Scientist, there is an article describing research into a synaesthete who sees emotions as colours surrounding a person. This is precisely what psychics who see auras report. While synaesthesia has been strongly suspected to explain auras for a long time, this is the first time that a specific variety has been studied that corresponds exactly with the experience of psychics.

In another article in the same issue, culture is discussed. Once thought to be an exclusively human trait, it now seems that many animals have a culture too. Culture, in this context, can be loosely defined as socially transmitted behaviour and beliefs (as opposed to inherited behaviour). One interesting feature of culture, typical of humans, is 'over-imitation'. This is where someone imitates all the behaviour of someone else to achieve a desired result, even when some steps are completely unnecessary. This tendency to take beliefs or behaviour on as a package, rather than breaking it down into useful and redundant bits, may explain such widespread beliefs as ghosts being spirits. It is not necessary to invoke spirits to explain the reported facts about ghost sightings. However, people have a tendency to automatically associate ghosts with spirits because that is the culturally received wisdom.

It is always interesting to ask people to say why they think ghosts are spirits. They almost never produce any evidence to back up the idea and any they do produce is usually irrelevant (like EVP). There remains no compelling evidence that ghosts are spirits and yet it remains easily the most popular idea about what they are. Culture is the only obvious reason why this curious belief persists.

18 November 2010: Evidence for precognition?

There is much excitement in the world of parapsychology at the moment about a scientific paper by Daryl Bem, and accepted for publication, that supports the existence of precognition. The research takes various well-known psychological experiments and reverses the order of events. So in a 'normal' experiment, for instance, someone is subliminally shown a word before seeing an image. Their reaction to the image is usually affected by the particular word they previously saw subliminally. However, in Bem's version the subliminal word appears AFTER the image but still, in some cases, appears to affect their reaction! See here for more details.

Unsurprisingly, the paper has stirred up a lot of controversy. One early attempt to replicate the experiment has already produced negative results. Others have questioned the statistical analysis used, claiming that if a Bayesian method is used the research results would little or no effect overall.

Clearly this is an important bit of research. Like all scientific research, it now needs to be extensively replicated. If it is successfully replicated we may soon be looking at compelling evidence for precognition! The implications of that would be truly amazing.

16 November 2010: Table tilting nostalgia

I came across this video recently. There is a longer version here. I had no idea, until now, that this video was available on the web. I first saw it in Ken Batcheldor's house near Exeter, in the room where it was filmed! As far as I can remember, I saw the actual tables involved, too. I visited Ken with a team called the Physical Mediumship Research Group that I was a member of then. This was all a long time ago, shortly after the events shown in the video happened.

Ken told us that his group had achieved total levitation of the (smaller) table, in the dark, but never caught it on the infra-red video. This was curious because he was able to switch the video camera on during a session, without anyone else even knowing!

I was doing my own table turning experiments around the same time with another group. We had table movement and curious scratching noises but no levitation, despite the absence of any camera! As Ken says on the video, most or even all of the movement on the video may have come from unconscious muscular action. This could not achieve full levitation with everyone's hands on top of the table, of course. It is, however, difficult to confirm complete levitation in the dark without photographic evidence. You can only feel your own section of the table and cannot be sure that all other bits are up at the same time. Table tilting is a frustrating activity. For notes on how to do it, should you be tempted (and do get in touch if get anywhere with it!), see here.

15 November 2010: What you see depends on who you are!

KingfisherThere is an article in this week's New Scientist saying that the results of well-known psychology experiments can depend on the culture the participant comes from. This even applies to some optical illusions, which used to be thought to indicators of universal underlying mechanisms of perception, common to all humans. It now seems that even the most fundamental mechanisms of perception depend on your culture and life experience! People from diverse cultures, or even having dissimilar backgrounds, may literally be seeing the world differently.

This might explain something that has always puzzled me. I am often shown photos of trees, bushes, clouds or other inanimate objects which supposedly contain a 'face' or 'human figure'. In almost every case, I can't see the face/figure. I just see grass, the sea, the sky or whatever the photo is actually of. I now wonder if this is because I have a radically different life history from those who see such faces or figures readily. In particular, I have been doing photography for many years and am used to studying photos in detail. So I tend to see what I KNOW the photo is of, whether it is clouds, clods of earth or whatever. In the pic, above right, there is a Kingfisher but can you also see a face? I can't!

In addition, I have a real problem getting my head around the idea of faces cropping up in chance configurations of bits of scenery. I 'get' the concept of ghosts and have seen several. But I cannot understand why bits of a bush should come together to produce a face. And maybe that's why I can't see them. My background, and possibly even my beliefs, affect how my brain interprets what I see at a fundamental level. It's not that see 'faces' but then deny it for some weird reason, I literally don't see the faces in the first place. Having said that, I have no problem believing that other people really see these faces/figures. And now I think I know how it works.

Of course, all of this affects how people misperceive objects as paranormal phenomena, such as ghosts. Not only are some people more likely to notice misperception but what they see may be directly affected by their background. If they have always accepted ghosts as a normal part of everyday life, they may experience visual substitution involving apparent human figures frequently. If they associate ghosts with the the past, the 'figures' they see may typically be in historical costume. If someone strongly accepts the idea that we are being visited by aliens, they may see various natural objects in the sky, that they don't recognise, as UFOs.

It is clear that investigators need to probe witnesses's backgrounds a little more than at present. Whether someone believes in the paranormal or not (a common question now) may be less important than if they love films about ghosts or alien invasion! If witnesses come from a cultural background where ghosts are considered unremarkable, this could clearly affect what they see.

We certainly believe what we see. We may also see what we believe!

PS: A bit late for most people but there is a presentation in London on ghosts tomorrow night. Of particular interest is that there is an account of a vigil organised by Blue Firth, David Luke and Mark Pilkington to 'ASSAP guidelines! See here.

11 November 2010: What unites anomalous phenomena?

When ASSAP first started, few people were interested in multiple 'weird' subjects, like ghosts, UFO, cryptozoology etc. Nowadays it is much more common, though most people still specialise. Ghost researchers will look at UFO reports and vice versa, even if they don't actively investigate them. There were hint, even back then in the 1980s, of connections between the various different subjects. For instance, some UFO witnesses developed apparent psychic abilities.

Nowadays, the connection between various major anomalous phenomena is blindingly obvious - witness reports! The study of almost all anomalous phenomena is based on a bedrock of witness reports, whether of ghosts, UFOs, aliens, bigfoot or whatever. We now know that witness reports are not particularly reliable and should be treated with caution.

The witnesses to various anomalous phenomena often share important characteristics. For instance, a significant proportion are 'repeaters'. While many people may see just one ghost or UFO in their whole lifetime, others have repeated experiences. While this might seem reasonable in the case of ghosts, if you live in a haunted house for instance, why are there UFO repeater witnesses? If UFOs really are alien spacecraft, they can surely turn up anywhere, anytime in the whole world. Why should they repeatedly appear to a particular witness? The odds against it seem huge!

The answer, for some, is that such people are of particular interest to aliens who seek them out. However, there is another possibility that links them with ghost witnesses and others. Repeat witnesses of any strange phenomenon may be particularly prone to noticing misperception.

Like many other ghost researchers, I spent decades investigating hauntings without ever seen one apparition. But then, since I found out how misperception worked, I've seen several (some reported here). In every case, I investigated my ghost sighting at the time and determined that each was, indeed, a misperception. But other witnesses, sensitised to notice misperceptions (see 8 Nov entry below) but not aware of their implications, simply 'see' lots of ghosts, UFOs, alien animals etc. What such witnesses think they see may rely on their prior knowledge and the locations they visit. If someone is aware that they are in 'bigfoot country', any unrecognised animal in the distance is likely to be seen as bigfoot. Similarly, someone visiting a house they know to be haunted is likely to report an apparent human figure as a ghost. And someone steeped in ufology, but without much knowledge of the sort of things likely to be seen in the sky, may well report some unrecognised aerial phenomenon as a UFO.

Many ufologists never see a UFO, despite decades of investigating them and going on many sky watches. They probably put it down to the sheer unlikelihood of being in the right place at the right time. But it could actually be because they recognise everything they see in the sky, as a result of their extensive investigation of other people's sightings. They may, in fact, see exactly what other people would report as UFOs without ever realising it.

So what unites various anomalous phenomena is that many cases may have the same causes, irrespective of what is reported. Most such cases may be caused by misperception, near sleep experiences or coincidence. What is actually reported may simply be down to the location and witness involved. The difference between a bigfoot sighting and a ghost report may be simply down to where it was seen, despite the phenomena being apparently completely different!

10 November 2010: Silent UFO videoed

A silent UFO was recently videoed as a tiny light moving across the sky before vanishing. Well it may have been silent. There was so much noise coming from a nearby road that it was difficult to say. The area where the light was seen was videoed for a few minutes but only the first section had anything on it of interest.

What was remarkable about this incident was that the light was seen well for a few seconds but then it vanished, never to re-appear (to the naked eye at least). However, the video camera, which was able to zoom in on the scene, revealed the truth behind the UFO! Had there only been the eye witness reports it would remain an unexplained UFO, just like so many others.

So the moral is, always carry a camera because you may just solve a mystery with it (not that I always do, I have to confess)! I've also discovered that if you put up a video on the web with the word UFO in the title, you'll soon get a lot of hits! I hope those viewers weren't disappointed.

8 November 2010: Sensitisation in hauntings

Last year I wrote about the 'paranormal escalator'. This is the way a xenonormal incident can be turned, by the involvement of other people, particularly the media and 'ghost hunters', into a fully fledged haunting! But even if no one else gets involved in the case, it can still escalate due to sensitisation.

One of the curious facts about many haunting cases is that only SOME of the people (sometimes only one) living in a supposedly haunted building ever witness anything apparently paranormal. Though certain members of a family, for instance, may be convinced that they are sharing their house with a ghost, others may never witness anything odd at all.

So, a family moving house may notice odd noises in a new dwelling. This new house effect has natural causes but may, nevertheless, cause some members of the family to believe they are witnessing a haunting. Effectively, the new house effect sensitises some people to noticing things like misperception. Little incidents, like misplacing something and then finding it again, that they would previously have dismissed as just part of everyday life, suddenly take on a more ominous guise. They are seen as evidence of the presence of a ghost!

Thus, though the new house effect on its own is unlikely to produce more than a few weird noises, it can lead to witnesses misinterpreting all sorts of everyday occurrences, as well as becoming sensitive to misperception. The fact that only a proportion of the people living in a dwelling may witness anything weird tends to support this idea of psychological sensitisation. If there truly was a 'entity' causing a haunting at a particular location, it is unlikely that only certain people living there would notice it.

You might argue that only certain people are sensitive to paranormal effects. However, the effects described in such cases, like hearing footsteps, whispering, object movement and so on, should be obvious to any observer present, if real. The chances are that all those present DO perceive these things as they happen but only some people (those already sensitised by previous experiences) notice them and interpret them as paranormal. What may be background noise to one person is 'a presence' talking to another (like EVP). An object found in an unusual place is a lapse of memory to some but evidence of ghostly activity to others.

I became sensitised to noticing misperception by reading about how it worked. It is possible that others become sensitised by interpreting things like the new house effect as a sign of a haunting. Either way, once sensitised, the 'evidence' in favour of a haunting is likely to escalate afterwards. Not because there really IS a haunting but because a witness is sensitised to misperceptions that could be interpreted as ghostly phenomena.

This could explain why haunting cases can start off with minor incidents and gradually become more and more dramatic. It also explains why many haunting phenomena are only witnessed by some people and not others.

5 November 2010: No ghost day?

Here in the UK it is Guy Fawkes Night tonight (also known as bonfire night). It is odd that we commemorate a failed plot when there are so many more significant events in British history whose anniversaries go by completely unnoticed by the general public. The day is marked with fireworks and bonfires, so it seems unlikely that many people will spot many ghosts tonight with so much noise and light around. On the other hand, with many people out of doors at an unfamiliar time of day in very low light, who knows what they might misperceive! Anyone reporting a UFO, however, is likely to be in for a hard time!

A few years back I visited Lewes, in East Sussex, on Guy Fawkes night. They have torch light processions in the streets there and flaming tar barrels! It is a dramatic experience way beyond a mere firework display. Though such festivals only go back a few centuries, it is possible they may have their ultimate origins in bonfire nights, said to be a Gaelic tradition marking Samhain.

Though there is little doubt that Guy Fawkes was arrested on 5 November, the date was conveniently close to Samhain, nowadays modern Halloween. So, it is possible that the otherwise curious festival of Guy Fawkes night may actually have its roots in the much older Samhain bonfire festival. That makes more sense to me. If Fawkes had been arrested in June, I suspect the plot may not now be remembered so widely today but we would still find an excuse for bonfires around Halloween.

4 November 2010: The road to misperception

Rose coloured StarlingThe BBC recently aired a TV programme about twitchers. These are bird watchers (who prefer the term 'birders') whose main aim in life is to extend a list of the number of species they've seen in a particular area (such as the UK) or over a period of time (usually a day or a year). Much of it looked very familiar to me as I have twitched in the past. I can remember the ecstatic highs of seeing a bird for the first time in the UK or even for the first time in my life (a 'lifer'). I can also remember the crushing pain of missing a rare bird that was 'just here a minute ago'! I still occasionally go to see the odd rare bird, if it's not too far away, but will no longer go the other end of the country as I once did! Nor do I care too much how long my 'list' is these days. It is, nevertheless, a fascinating obsession and it is interesting to watch those still caught up in it.

It occurred to me that twitching may be where I first started to notice misperceptions. Very often when you turn up at a twitch you will see a number of birders, armed with telescopes and pagers, chatting. If they are all looking in the same direction, you know the bird is in view. If they look slightly anxious and are wandering around with binoculars, you know it is not. In the latter case, I usually join in to help re-find the bird which has probably only recently gone missing.

It is in looking for the missing bird that you realise just how many things, like bits of vegetation, rocks, clods of mud and so on, can resemble a bird! If the object remains stubbornly immobile as you cautiously approach, it isn't the bird. If it flies off, you've probably found it but also lost it again!

It taught me that when you want to see something enough, it is easy to misperceive similar-looking objects. Sometimes you really 'see' the bird, even though in reality it's just a pebble, just like you can 'see' a human figure when its really a tree! It would be interesting to see if twitchers are particularly prone to noticing misperception. I suspect they might be.

PS: The bird pictured (above right) is a Rose-coloured Starling - a rarity in the UK and likely to prompt a twitch.

3 November 2010: The ghost hunting boom - more downsides but hopeful signs of a change!

Although yesterday I pointed out the positive sides of the ghost hunting boom, I wouldn't want to leave the impression that it is a good thing, overall, for serious paranormal research. On the negative side, we have probably lost a lot of original witness accounts that might otherwise have been studied in a neutral, scientific way. And we now have people 'investigating' allegedly haunted sites based merely on legends and rumours rather than solid, recent witness reports. Given the assumption-led methods many people use, it's highly unlikely they'd notice the difference between a haunted and non-haunted location anyway! And do we really need any more memoirs of ghost hunters?

More seriously, paranormal research now has a serious public image problem. Mention paranormal research to most people and they imagine someone with ouija board in one hand an EMF meter in the other! To some people this just makes us look ridiculous while others won't understand if you turn up to investigate their haunting without a medium and a TV crew! It all makes getting the message across about serious scientific paranormal research very difficult!

But, as I mentioned yesterday, it is not all gloomy. There are signs that an increasing minority among the 'boomers' want more than the froth and buzz of assumption-led methods. ASSAP receives increasing numbers of emails and forum posts supporting our unflinching scientific approach to the paranormal. And even the ghost hunting TV shows are getting increasing criticism on web forums. Maybe they are finally on the way out!

In addition, the 'battle of the orbs' has been fought and won. The Orb Zone Theory, with its formal in-depth explanation for the phenomenon, has helped to finish off the the increasingly threadbare idea of paranormal orbs. Many ghost hunting groups now dismiss orbs as not paranormal! Next up, we have already started the 'battle of the EMF meters', in which more and more people are conceding that there is no evidence that they can act as ghost detectors nor detect EIFs. If we can remove these staples from the 'ghost hunting kit', we will be well on our way to bringing science back to the fore in paranormal investigation.

So, while there is certainly a mountain to climb (to mix metaphors), there are definite signs of progress being made. As the fad of ghost hunting TV shows starts to fade, we hope that at least a few disillusioned 'boomers' will want to try scientific methods instead.

PS: The Paranormal Olympics ANSWERS, as well as the results which were already published, are now available here.

2 November 2010: Could the ghost hunting boom have a useful side effect?

The long running show Most Haunted has now finally finished, at least for now. Some UK ghost hunters may mourn its passing but there are still plenty of US-based ghost hunting TV shows to watch. So it seems unlikely that the current boom in interest in ghost hunting will subside soon.

There seems little doubt that the TV ghost hunting shows have fuelled intense interest in our subject. However, many people have reservations about the media portrayal of investigations (see here for instance). But though some ghost hunting groups and individuals criticise the TV shows, many still use similar assumption-led methods in their own investigations. For better or worse, the boom has changed our subject out of all recognition in the past decade.

If the media suddenly lost interest in ghost hunting, there is little doubt that general interest would fall as well. Without a high profile media presence, the subject would no doubt be reclaimed by those of us with a long term serious interest. But it would still have been changed forever!

Though many serious paranormal researchers gaze on in dismay at the methods used by the newcomers, they cannot claim innocence. Most, if not all of us, have been on 'dark vigils' in the distant past, however useless we may regard them as today. And ASSAP itself promoted the use of instruments on vigils many years ago. The idea then was to see if there was anything different about haunted locations compared to non-haunted locations and to see if any environmental variables changed when something paranormal was reported. It turned out to be a naive approach that has now translated into 'ghost detectors' and methods for 'contacting spirits'.

What the ghost hunting boom has done to our subject is perform a massive unplanned experiment in how to do ghost research. The lack of any compelling results from all that effort using assumption-led methods has demonstrated in a convincing way that such techniques are unhelpful. Indeed, it is becoming a persuasive argument AGAINST the very idea of ghosts as spirits in its own right.

The boom has also provided much more material from witnesses, allowing some meaningful comparison and analysis. For instance, people send in anomalous photos all the time nowadays, whereas before you might get only a handful in a year. From this it has been possible to produce a general picture of the types of paranormal photo and their explanation (see here). Instead of looking at each photo from scratch, we can now compare it to known photographic artifacts.

The boom has also provided breathing space for long term researchers to think about the subject seriously. If we are really to solve the mystery of ghosts, we must first separate out all the xenonormal stuff. In order to do that, we need to really understand what causes people to experience ghosts. Fortuitously, over the same period as the ghost hunting boom there has also been another one in neuroscience. We now can see that many ghost reports come simply from the normal way in which human perception works. People who witness ghosts are not weird or different, they just notice things that others don't. By developing new investigative methods to detect such things, we may be able to move a lot of currently unexplained sightings into the 'explained' category.

The ghost hunting boom has, then, not been the complete disaster for serious ghost research that some might think. There are a small number of people working quietly, out of the limelight, to move the subject forward. Perhaps, when the current boom is over, their efforts will bear fruit with a big step forward in the subject. And the current media-inspired boom may have been the catalyst for this change. If it had not happened, it may have taken much longer for us to realise what works and what does not in ghost research.

1 November 2010: When vague superficial explanations are not enough!

SquirrelSo Halloween is over. No more gently mocking media coverage of our subject for a while. No more being asked what I do on Halloween (not much usually). No more pretending to be out. Things can only get better from now on.

As I stepped over broken eggs on the pavement today (is throwing eggs just an English Halloween 'tradition'?) I noticed something weird! There was 'something' on the very top of the roof of a two-storey terrace house. I could not stop to examine it carefully but it was clear that the 'something' was a squirrel! How it got right up there I'm not sure, though I've seen squirrels climb rough vertical walls before now. It may have got up using a tree instead but I'll never know now. Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera with me. However, the creature was sitting in a very similar pose to the one in the photo, right. Seen in a low light, this roof ranging squirrel may have been taken for some sort of 'alien animal' or even just a small alien! I don't remember ever seeing a squirrel on a house roof before but I now know that it happens, and so do you!

There is a school of thought out there that any 'natural' explanation, however vague and superficial, is somehow preferable to a paranormal one, for an anomalous report. This sort of approach can yield some very strange claims. For instance, I've read 'explanations' for paranormal photographs that actually defy the laws of physics! Given that the 'aim' is to provide a 'natural explanation', I'm sure the irony of this is entirely lost on those putting forward such ideas.

Then there are apparently reasonable natural explanations which, quite simply, lack any substance when you actually examine them at all closely. Coming into this category are ghost or UFO sightings described as a 'trick of the light', for instance. It sounds reasonable until you try to imagine exactly just what this 'trick' might be. It is so vague an expression as to cover everything and nothing. It gives us no inkling into how such a 'trick' might be reproduced or how it would actually work in terms of optics or perception.

Gull UFOIn reality, most paranormal reports are the result of misperception. This is not a 'trick' at all but the normal functioning of human visual perception. If you see a tree as a human figure, your visual memory inserts the image of an actual person in your visual field, often with details like clothes, a particular face etc. You do not see a tree at all but an apparently real person (or ghost)! It is a visual substitution.

It is important to understand this distinction because the idea of a 'trick of the light' implies malobservation or imagination, neither of which is the case. The witness literally sees a human figure, exactly as they might see anything else in their visual field!

Another example of a vague, superficial explanation is 'seeing patterns in random noise' that is regularly put forward as an explanation for EVP recordings. Firstly, the sound in EVPs is often not random at all. It may be a coincidental coming together of one or more background sounds at once that has a similar duration to a spoken word or phrase. Even then it may not necessarily be interpreted as human speech. However, if the noise happens to combine two frequency peaks in a harmonic ratio ('formant noise'), it can switch the human brain into 'speech mode' where sounds are interpreted as words. You can hear examples of this here. It is, in effect, another form of misperception where the brain substitutes the real sound with words. Once again, the witness actually hears the words - it is not malobservation or imagination, as 'seeing patterns in random data' implies. It is the normal way human listening works!

It is not just certain 'natural' explanations that follow this pattern. Take the idea that ghosts are spirits. It sounds reasonable enough until you realise that the evidence from ghost research simply does not support the idea. It is yet another example of a VSE! I'm not keen on acronyms but it is easier than saying 'vague, superficial explanation' all the time. Notice I say 'explanation' rather than 'theory'. A theory is a scientific concept which involves giving a specific detailed description of how something works, that is testable (like the orb zone theory)! Thus, it has little in common with a VSE!

Serious paranormal research is about explaining how and why someone has an apparently paranormal experience and its causes. Whether it is really an alien on the roof or just a misperceived squirrel, the explanation must be detailed, specific and based on reliable evidence and science.

The lowest photo on this page shows a UFO photographed recently in Paris. The full story is here.

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

Last month's (October) website figures are an average of 11499 hits per day. This is up significantly on the previous month's 9254 daily average.


Previous blog pages ...

  • Oct 2010 (including black orbs, UnConvention, mirror visions, levitation)
  • Sep 2010 (including a ring tone from the roof, shadow ghost video, time slip explanation, daylight orb video)
  • Aug 2010 (including Parisian UFO, sense of presence, SLI, consulting experts, misperception)
  • Jul 2010 (including Sherlock Holmes as a paranormal investigator, haunting sounds, what ARE hallucinations)
  • Jun 2010 (including the Loch Ness Monster, gorilla video, getting ghost stories the wrong way round)
  • May 2010 (including ball lightning, Wem ghost photo, waking up twice, eyewitnesses, Robin Hood)
  • Apr 2010 (including causes of road ghosts, new orb evidence, bird UFOs, UFO photo, not quite seeing is believing)
  • Mar 2010 (including experiencing hypnagogia, consciousness, belief, prolonged misperception, doppelganger)
  • Feb 2010 (including visual continuity errors - AKA ghosts, near sleep experiences on trains, spontaneous OOBEs)
  • Jan 2010 (including intelligent oil, SLI, inducing OOBEs, orange UFOs, the bleak midwinter)
  • Dec 2009 (including review of research in the noughties, pretty orbs, imperceptions, river monster)
  • Nov 2009 (including EVP without a recorder, demons and entities, why only some people see ghosts)
  • Oct 2009 (including grey ghost, near sleep experiences, a triangular UFO and seeing David Beckham)
  • Sep 2009 (including latent memory, Tufted Puffin, Bermuda Triangle and garden poltergeist)
  • Aug 2009 (including official UFO files, partial ghosts, flying rods and miracles)
  • Jul 2009 (including garden poltergeist, big cat video, orbs and hypnotic regression)
  • Jun 2009 (including thoughts from nowhere, shadow ghosts, premonitions and metallic UFO)
  • May 2009 (including analysing paranormal photos, making ghosts and ghost lore)
  • Apr 2009 (including phantom bird, choice blindness and grass that gets up and walks away)
  • Mar 2009 (including deja vu, ghostly mists, weird UFO photo, white ghosts and naked eye orbs)
  • Feb 2009 (including hidden memories, coincidences, auras and window UFOs)
  • Jan 2009 (including animals sensing ghosts, vampires, flying rod season and a haunted path)
  • Dec 2008
  • Nov 2008
  • Oct 2008
  • Sep 2008
  • Aug 2008
  • July 2008
  • June 2008
  • May 2008
  • April 2008
  • March 2008
  • February 2008
  • January 2008
  • December 2007
  • November 2007
  • October 2007
  • Even older

© Maurice Townsend 2010