ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
Privacy and cookie information ASSAP mailing list
 
 

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)

ASSAP @ 30: A series of posts summarising what we have learned through thirty years of ASSAP, whose anniversary was 10 June. See here!

29 November 2011: OBEs - astral travel or video games?

I have, in the past, had 'mini out of the body experiences (OBEs)'. These consist of me staring at a scene until suddenly I see it from a much closer viewpoint (see here). Given that I have physically not moved, and yet I can see as if from a different viewpoint than the position of my eyes, this would seem to qualify as an out of the body experience. It is not as dramatic as looking back at my own body, as some people experience, but it is still weird enough for me!

Is my experience astral travel? I don't think so, and I'll explain why. We know, from neuroscience research, that what we see in our heads is actually an edited version of what our eyes see (see misperception). We also know that when something disrupts the normal working of the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), a bit of our brains, it can cause an OBE (see here). This can happen, for instance, whenever the signals from our eyes, inner ears and sense of touch disagree.

Put these two facts together and it is possible to see our visual experience of the world as a bit like playing a video game. We are not seeing an accurate image of reality but one that has been edited to agree specifically with where our brain thinks we are in physical space. In a video game, the visible scene is built up of stored visual objects with known properties and relative positions. If you change position in a game, the scene changes according to the properties of the objects and their positions. The computer works out where the objects should be in your visual field, and how they should look, from your new viewpoint. Our brains do a similar job with our visual field. The difference is that, unlike in a game, our brain does not know all the properties of the objects in view so it may need to 'fill in' gaps sometimes when an object is not seen well. Even in normal vision, part of what we see is actually derived from visual memory when it is not seen well. It is our brain's best guess of what is really out there. It happens in peripheral vision, which is always poorly seen, all the time, though we very rarely notice the effect. But how does our brain show us a scene from a different viewpoint to where we actually are physically positioned, as in an OBE?

We know that our brains contain a 'physics module'. It is a bit like the 'physics engine' used in video games. The 'physics engine' contains the physical laws that describe how objects in a game behave, when falling for instance. The 'physics module' in our brain does the same job. Instead of being programmed by a software designer, however, it uses experience and observation to work out the basic principles governing physical objects.

For instance, the 'module' knows that a tennis ball moves in a parabola after being hit. It actually takes our brains too long to process the visual signal required to continuously monitor the position of fast-flying tennis ball. Instead, our 'physics module' automatically (and unconsciously) computes the future flight path of the ball using an initial view at the start of its flight and a knowledge of parabolas. We can then, without thinking about it, place the racket in the correct position to return the ball without even seeing it arrive. Of course, you need to practice to get this right which is why we are not all perfect tennis players! The practice updates the 'physics module' with the specific flight characteristics of tennis balls! It is one of the reasons sports players need to practice a lot.

You can gain an advantage in a ball sport by exploiting the fact that another player will automatically anticipate the flight of the ball. In football, for instance, skilled players deliberately put a spin on the ball to make it move in a way that varies from a parabola. This makes it more difficult for a goalkeeper to catch the ball because their 'physics module' is unconsciously telling them to go the wrong way.

This 'physics module' can also work also work out what we should see in a scene, depending on our position in space. When it is deceived by a problem with the TPJ, it will produce a different viewpoint in our brains. It can compute how the world looks from a view that it cannot see, just like moving position in a video game. In game software everything has a known position and appearance. However, when our brains show an alternative view point they cannot know how everything in the whole scene will look. So the brain makes a best guess, based on what it can see and what it knows about the objects in view and similar objects it has seen before. Inevitably, the more the viewpoint differs from our actual position, the more the brain is making up. But it will still look convincing because it is based on real visual memories. My own mini-OBEs were tighter views of a real scene. Even this would have involved some 'made up' bits because a closer view of anything will show more details in the objects visible, which will have been made up.

The parallels between OBEs and video games are striking. In both cases, what we see is not a literal representation of a real scene but a manipulated image. Both involve placing visual objects in a scene using the previously stored laws of physics and perspective to produce a different viewpoint. Though our brains don't work much like digital computers, the way they manipulate data to speed up processing has inevitably been paralleled by the development of video games which face the same problem. Instead of holding every detail of a scene, both divide it up into objects and their relative positions, so drastically reducing the amount of data they need to store and manipulate. And one consequence of this, for humans, is the rarely-used ability to produce our own simple video games in our heads. Only we call such experiences OBEs.

28 November 2011: A love of shiny stuff!

MagpieThe Crow that I saw carry off a shiny object onto someone's roof nearby the other day clearly had a sense of irony. It's supposed to be Magpies that do that, though I've never seen one do it. So what, you might say, how much can one casual observer's thoughts count for?

As it happens I am not a casual observer when it comes to Magpies. I've was fascinated by these particular birds even before I became a birdwatcher. Whenever I hear one, I will look for it. And if I see one, I will watch it for some time to observe it. If you ask me anytime, I can nearly always tell you how many I've seen that day. It's 10 today, so far!

I also own several books either largely or exclusively about Magpies, written by scientific authorities on the subject. They all agree that there is no evidence whatsoever that Magpies collect shiny objects. It appears to be a baseless legend or meme.

It is an interesting legend because, unlike tales of dragons for instance, there seems no reason why it should not be true. There are, after all, other bird species that DO collect shiny objects, like the Bowerbird. It is a stubbornly persistent legend, often referred to in artistic works, like Rossini's opera 'The Thieving Magpie'. The chances are that many, probably most, people think the legend is actually true.

This legend forms an interesting parallel with many common misconceptions about the paranormal. I've started to list some of these on a new web page I started recently here. Though the misconceptions I list are mostly recent in origin there are much older ones, like the idea that ghosts are spirits. There is a little evidence that this might be true for a tiny number of cases but it is very far from compelling. And yet it is widely believed, without question, not simply by most lay people but by most ghost researchers. As a paranormal researcher, I often come across widely held beliefs that are simply not supported by compelling evidence. Perhaps, whenever confronted with something that 'everyone' believes, we should think of the Magpie!

Incidentally, the owner of the roof where the Crow left its 'shiny stuff' must be wondering how it got there. They might even consider it a paranormal apport! Some takeaway food is nowadays packed in shiny containers that would, when careflessly discarded, undoubtedly be of interest to Crows and probably Magpies too. So, ironically, it is possible that Magpies may indeed be seen flying off with shiny objects in future.

24 November 2011: Could some EVPs be caused by VLF?

Radio noiseAcronyms abound nowadays so why not in paranormal research too? Readers will be aware that EVP stands for electronic voice phenomena. These are apparent voices heard on playback from sound recording equipment having not been perceived at the time of recording. I say 'apparent' because certain ambient sounds can be heard as voices, particularly when processed (see formant noise). The sounds may not have been apparent at the time of recording simply because we tend to unconsciously filter out background noises.

As well as ambient noise, some EVPs may originate with radio transmissions. In this case the microphone circuit may act as an antenna to accidentally demodulate radio transmissions that contain real human speech. However, this is rare as modern recording equipment is usually immune to this sort of demodulation. In addition, almost all EVPs are very brief, lasting for seconds at most. If a device is demodulating radio transmissions, there is no obvious reason why it should occur only in bursts! Also, much commercial radio transmission is music which is hardly ever reported as EVP. While such demodulated radio transmissions no doubt produce some EVPs, it is likely to be a small proportion of the total.

So, finally, VLF stands for very long frequency radio waves. It is a rarely used part of the radio spectrum which does not usually carry voice transmissions. What is interesting about VLF is that it occupies the same frequency range as human speech*. Obviously, speech is a vibration of air while VLF is a vibration of electromagnetic waves. Sound recording equipment converts sound to electric waves. So if an electric circuit within a sound recorder picks up interference from VLF waves, they will be recorded as sound. Unlike conventional radio transmission, VLF would not need to be demodulated. This means that circuits within sound recorders might, depending on the design of the equipment, be more susceptible to this sort of interference compared to accidental demodulation.

The obvious objection to VLF causing EVPs is that it is not usually used for voice transmission. Indeed, VLF sounds like 'noise' (hisses, squeaks, hums, knocks, whistles and so on) to most people. However, remember that certain forms of noise can cause people to hear apparent human speech - see here for examples. It is not the source of the noise that is important so much as its frequency makeup. So, whether the sound originates from ambient noise or VLFs, it can still be interpreted as EVP in certain circumstances.

So what are the sources of VLF? Though there are natural sources, like aurora and lightning, the more prominent VLF signals are likely to come from artificial devices. These include TVs, computers (particularly the display), neon lights, compact fluorescent bulbs, anything using an electric motor, anything using switching-mode devices (like some electric chargers, transformers and power supplies in electronic devices), anything using an electronic visual display, dimmer switches, and so on.

How important is VLF as a source of EVP? It is a little researched area, so I've no idea. It is likely to be more prevalent with certain models of sound recorder, particularly those with external microphones. It may well be more prevalent than accidental demodulation. VLF is important because it can still produce sound recordings even when all ambient noises are suppressed during a recording. It is certainly an area worth researching.

*Technically the range covers ELF, SLF, ULF and VLF but we're referring to 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz here, which is mostly VLF.
PS: Trivia stat: Since we started collecting stats on this website, in May 2006, we've had 908,000 unique visitors.

23 November 2011: What ghost researchers do during the day

Orbs and flying rodsNo, it's not a joke! In fact, serious ghost researchers can, and generally do, get nearly everything they need to do done during the day. That could include interviewing witnesses, examining sites of reported incidents, recreating such incidents, background research and so on.

Since the start of the ghost hunting boom, however, there has been a big emphasis on night time vigils, usually held in the dark. But if a ghost is seen by a witness during the daytime, as many are, why do a vigil at night at all? The obvious answer is that night may be the only time when it is possible to gain control of a haunted area. You need to control an area to eliminate many possible natural causes related to human activity. But what if that 'human activity' is actually what is responsible for the reported ghost sighting?

Here's a fictional example. In a kitchen, someone consistently sees a dark figure through a window but, when they go outside, there is no one there. There are also sounds of footsteps in a walk-in cupboard, even though it is empty. A night time dark vigil, with people and video cameras stationed in the kitchen, the cupboard and outside the window, fails to find anything.

That's because the 'figure' is a reflection that only occurs when someone stands in a particular position in the kitchen, behind the witness. The figure is unrecognizable because the window is generally steamed up due to cooking. And the sound of footsteps come from someone upstairs walking on a floor that is directly over the cupboard. It would be better, if possible, to visit the kitchen while there are people present, doing what they would usually do. Failing that, a video camera monitoring the scene might help.

Many night time vigils, whether dark or with the lights on, fail to find all possible natural explanations for haunting phenomena because the conditions are different to those at the time of the reported incident. A site examination, ideally during conditions as close to the original incident as possible, is usually more informative.

And the photo? It was taken recently and shows flying rods and orbs. Both were caused by a flock of insects. It is a good time of year to get such photos, with low sun angles making backlighting easy. It's an example of the kind of useful background research that paranormal researchers can do during the day.

With so much to do during the day, what do serious ghost researchers do at night? Mostly sleep ...

22 November 2011: Isn't that whatshisname, the famous actor?

I noticed the man while sitting on a train. I recognised him at once, even though I didn't know him. He was a famous actor I'd seen many times on TV. Unfortunately, I didn't know his name then and still don't today! The lack of a name has ruined an otherwise perfectly good anecdote. 'I saw whatshisname the other day' just won't cut it!

But how did I KNOW he was a famous actor? He had no entourage with him. But we've all seen photos in the newspapers of actors out shopping on their own, so we know these things happen. No one else on the train seemed to acknowledge his presence. Maybe they did not recognise him. Or maybe they DID but were respecting his privacy. Or maybe they just didn't want to look an idiot by saying hello, just in case it wasn't really him at all. But me, I was totally convinced.

I've seen a few famous people down the years, as have most of us, I guess. In every case, I was unshakeably certain of who it was and told my friends so. But could I have been wrong in any of these cases? The process usually goes like this: I see someone famous and try to get a good long look, without appearing to stare. It helps if other people are reacting too but mostly I rely on my own powers of recognition. I would never go up and talk to the famous person, to confirm, that would be rude!

Then I have to decide whether to tell other people I've seen a famous person. I will only do this if I'm 100% convinced. I don't want to be told that, actually, that actor was filming on the other side of the world at the time!

There is a point at which I turn my 'it probably was him' into 'it definitely was him'. From that point onwards I remain totally convinced for all time that I'm right. Any possible slight doubt I may have had at first is crushed out of existence. And, finally, here is where it becomes relevant to paranormal reports.

I have noticed how some witnesses to apparently paranormal events are '110% convinced' that what they experienced was paranormal. Their over-confidence in their ability as witnesses is not supported by research into the subject. They remind me of myself, when I've seen someone famous. There is no kudos in seeing someone who simply resembles a famous person. And, to some witnesses, perhaps, the idea of seeing something xenonormal, however rare and amazing it is, simply doesn't compare with the real paranormal!

As a result, I find over-confidence in witnesses a slightly worrying sign. I wonder if, like me with famous people, they've removed all original evidence of another possible explanation from their minds, albeit unconsciously. Have any details that 'don't quite fit' been forgotten? Over-confidence in a paranormal witness does not necessarily mean that what they are saying is inaccurate. But it does mean that, in such cases, some details from the witness report may possibly be lost. Thankfully, there are other ways to gather evidence about a reported incident beyond interviewing.

21 November 2011: Comparing magnetometers and EMF meters

Washing machineDuring the MADS project, and subsequently, I realised that working out the sources of magnetic field isn't easy. Even with an expensive fluxgate magnetometer it can be difficult. With one, you get a flat frequency response, so it is possible to plot magnetic field by frequency against time. Obviously, anything with a prominent 50 Hz peak (60 Hz in the US) is going to be a mains powered device. But what about other frequencies? What could they be?

It became obvious that I'd have to investigate the sort of typical 'magnetic frequency signatures' of other common domestic devices. One way to get non-50 Hz frequency is from anything containing a motor, like a pump, washing machine and so on. These devices produce magnetic fields varying at the speed at which the motor rotates which would typically be at frequencies well below those of mains fields. For instance, a washing machine doing a spin cycle at 1000 / min will produce 16.7 Hz fields (in the EIF range).

Although frequency data was vital in distinguishing sources of magnetitic fields, they still needed to be interpreted. And the best way of doing that was seeing what 'frequency signatures' appliances, and other sources of magnetic fields, actually produced. Without this information, going to an unknown location where there could be mains wiring behind walls and under floorboards, electrical equipment in adjacent rooms (to which you have no access), unseen air conditioning fans, and so on, it would be difficult to decide what is what.

Now compare this with the problem faced by someone with only an EMF meter trying to identify sources of electromagnetic fields. They have no frequency data, meaning no magnetic signatures to compare with. They have varying frequency response meaning a reading could be 10 units at 50 Hz or 20 units at 100 Hz but still show the same reading! And the frequency response may go right up into the radio spectrum, allowing for interference from all sorts of microwave and radio devices. And some EMF meters are only single axis, meaning just moving them, even a little, produces a spurious change in the reading. I'm just glad I don't have to try to deduce natural sources of magnetic fields, far less apparently paranormal ones, with only an EMF meter!

17 November 2011: Reading in the dark

It's a rare ghost vigil that doesn't involve the use of instruments these days. The biggest problem with their use is deciding what readings are actually caused by natural phenomena. When an unusual reading comes up it is, therefore, vital to check the nearby area to see if anything natural might have caused it. The more people looking the better, as an intermittent effect might be obvious for long. Ideally, there will someone expert in the physical quantity, like magnetic fields, present who can easily spot possible natural causes.

But there's another problem. A lot of ghost vigils are held in the dark these days. So how can people search for possible natural sources of unusual readings? Some may have night vision equipment but this hardly compares with daylight human vision. Even if there are video cameras monitoring the area concerned, whatever is causing the unusual reading might be out of shot.

If an instrument is being hand-held, which is never a good idea, there will be further problems. The big issue with not fixing instruments in a single position is that you cannot compare readings over time. That's because a change in reading may be due to shifting position rather than anything changing in the environment (something particularly obvious with single axis EMF meters). In the dark, this problem is compounded because users cannot see their own hands which may, as a consequence, move more than they would in the light.

It is easy to think of a scenario where an EMF meter gives a sudden 'spike' but no one notices, in the darkness and excitement, that it was caused by someone moving past with a ferrous metal object. At least in the light such a coincidence, the person walking by and the EMF spike, should be obvious. On a dark vigil, it can be difficult, even with night vision equipment, to be certain of where everyone and everything is at any given moment. This makes detecting possible natural causes of unusual instrumental readings really difficult!

Yet another good reason NOT to hold ghost vigils in the dark!

16 November 2011: Hidden in plain sight

Jay in grass'It's just there, right in front of the bush!' I look but don't see it, in spite of my binoculars! This is the sort of frustrating experience that can be yours when you go on a 'twitch'. A twitch is when birders gather to look at a bird rarely seen in a particular locality. The bird may only have been recorded a few times in the UK, so it is an understatement to say you don't want to miss it! But birds don't tend to just sit out in the open for admiring birders. They are usually more interested in shelter and food and might just see a flock of birders as a threat! So these rare birds can be hard to see.

Even so, they do sometimes sit out in plain sight and yet still elude some of us (and not just me)! When everyone else can see the bird but you can't, it's a deeply annoying experience. But the fact is, sometimes we just don't see what is in plain sight. It is not a failure of our eyes but of our brains. They are failing to distinguish the object we want to see from its background. It's the flip side of misperception and often happens in the same kind of poor viewing conditions. With misperception you see what isn't really there, while 'imperception' means you don't see what actually IS. At least on a twitch you KNOW the bird is there, because everyone else can see it. In other situations you might not even know there is something of interest visible that you are missing.

The relevance of this is that we all tend to think that we notice everything that is going on around us all the time. This is a dangerous illusion! In reality, we miss most of what is going on around us, concentrating only on what is relevant to us. And sometimes even if we KNOW there something we want to see and look directly at it, we might still not see it!

The illusion that we are perfect witnesses can have a damaging effect on paranormal research. It may prompt witnesses to confabulate details of a ghost sighting that they never really saw. It can lead to people saying things like 'I would have noticed that.' We have to accept that sometimes we see things that aren't really there and often miss things that actually are. I come across unreasonable over-confidence in witnesses a lot. The more certain they are about what they've seen, the more I treat their testimony with caution! I just remember the birds I've missed in plain sight and shudder.

15 November 2011: Are orbs really dust?

One of the symptoms of a 'boom' is the spread of beliefs which have little evidential support but nevertheless become widely believed. So, it may be a symptom of the current ghost hunting boom that many misconceptions have arisen about the paranormal that now have widespread currency. Some may predate the boom and others may have come about anyway but it is tempting to see the boom as mainly responsible.

I come across the same misconceptions all the time and spend a lot of time answering questions about them. So, I thought I'd save myself time, as well as providing a generally accessible information resource, by putting them together on one page. There are plenty more than appear on the page right now and I will add others in due course. But here are a few to start with: do EMF meters detect EIFs, do ghosts haunt, are most paranormal photos fakes, are orbs caused by moisture and many more! Go here for the new page!

14 November 2011: I wouldn't start from there!

What IS a ghost? To compilers of dictionaries, plus many people in the ghost hunting boom, it is a spirit. To scientific researchers the definition is some variation on: "a ghost (or apparition) is a human (sometimes animal) figure, witnessed by someone, which cannot be physically present". So why the big difference? This is something I often debate with people so I thought I'd write it up here for everyone's benefit.

Firstly, many words have common definitions, the ones found in dictionaries, as well as scientific ones. The latter are much more precise so that all scientists understand what exactly is being discussed. For instance, someone may say "it was chaos at work today". In reality, it probably means that things were a bit hectic in the office. A scientist, however, has a specific definition of chaos concerned with predicting the future state of a system. You won't necessarily find such scientific definitions of words in dictionaries because they are rarely used outside the scientific community.

Scientific terms, as well as being more precise, are usually based on evidence as well as the characteristics that uniquely identify what is being described. Those characteristics must usually be measurable. So a scientist talking about a 'thingywidget' in New York will readily understand how another 'thingywidget' in London was identified and measured without needing to be told.

The popular definition of a ghost as a spirit has none of these characteristics. Firstly, you cannot measure a spirit. Secondly, you cannot uniquely identify a spirit because its definition varies between different cultures. Thirdly, there isn't any compelling evidence that ghosts are spirits from reliably investigated cases. So we clearly need a better working definition so that all investigators know what we are talking about.

Looking at the reports of ghosts investigated down the years, they all have a few things in common. They almost all consist of a sighting of a human figure (or more rarely an animal) that is not physically present. If the creature was known to be physically present, no one would report it as a ghost! There are various ways in which the 'physical presence' of a figure may be determined. If it vanishes, for instance, it obviously cannot be a normal human being. If it is in a locked room where it is known that no one is present, that could indicate a ghost too. If the figure is someone known to the witness, who knows they are actually somewhere else, that would count as well. Of course, it might turn out that the figure really IS physically present (someone could be hiding in a locked room, for instance) but, if the witness does not know that and cannot verify it, they may still report it as a ghost. It is up to ghost investigators to determine what really happened, if at all possible.

This scientific definition of a ghost is actually helpful to research. For a start, it allows for the possibility that a ghost may be something other than a spirit which is, after all, only an assumption. Investigators can then look into other possibilities to explain a particular ghost sighting, like misperception, near sleep experience and so on. It also does not exclude the possibility that some ghosts are, indeed, paranormal. It just means that all possibilities are examined rather than just one.

As it happens, the assumption that ghosts are spirits is not supported by the available evidence from ghost cases. Without the straitjacket of the popular definition restricting how evidence is viewed, it soon becomes obvious that ghosts are actually a complex phenomenon. Different sightings clearly have different causes, even though they are all seen as ghosts by their witnesses. Most cases are readily explained by misperception or near sleep experiences. Once you have recognised that fact, you can remove those xenonormal cases from any review of the evidence, in order to see if there are signs of paranormal ghosts.

You could argue that we should only consider those cases that clearly don't have xenonormal causes as 'real' ghosts. But there is still no compelling evidence that even this tiny remainder of unexplained cases are caused by spirits. Also, there is no easy way to readily distinguish which cases have xenonormal causes from those which do not. They share many common features. Plus, the witness clearly understands what they have seen to be a ghost, whatever its cause. So, if everyone is already calling this phenomenon, whatever its cause, ghosts, it would only confuse matters further for researchers to do differently. We just need to adjust to the idea that ghosts are a 'multiple cause phenomenon', like UFOs.

The real confusion occurs with those who continue to regard all ghosts as spirits. This leads to the adoption of such things as assumption-led investigation methods which are not helpful. Such methods regularly fail to identify those cases with xenonormal causes.

So, as you can see, definitions are important. Not only do they allow us to compare apples with apples, instead of pears, they also remove unwarranted assumptions that may hold back research. If you start with an assumption for which there is no compelling evidence, you are already half way down the wrong road.

11 November 2011: 11/11/11

SunsetSo today is 11/11/11, a palindromic date. It is the sort of day when you imagine something significant might happen. It probably won't! We've recently had 10/10/10, 9/9/9 and so on and I can't remember anything exciting happening on those days. But certain numbers do have an importance to some people. Some are considered lucky, unlucky or even predictive of future events.

Numerology is one of those subjects which seems to divide people sharply. Some accept its validity without question while many others dismiss it out of hand. What very few people do is attempt any objective research into the subject, to find out if it actually works. Indeed, if you search the web for 'numerology research' you are likely to find ASSAP's own experiment into the subject but precious little else along those lines. There is plenty of stuff out there about how to use numerology, some articles critical of it, but almost nothing featuring tests to decide whether it actually works.

I do find this attitude towards such paranormal subjects bizarre. The same kind of divided opinions afflict ghost research. Many people dismiss ghost reports out of hand, even though they have been consistently made by countless reliable witnesses for centuries. Other people accept ghost reports without question, without even examining them carefully, and then set up vigils using techniques based around assumptions like the idea idea that ghosts are spirits, even though there is little evidence to support it.

What is needed is more careful scientific research, without preconception or prior assumptions. Such research has already revealed many interesting things about ghost reports which shows that witnesses are definitely having perfectly real experiences. They are not imagining what they see, nor making it up (usually). But neither is there much evidence that what they are experiencing is caused by spirits.

You may see beauty, or even meaning, in a sunset but science can tell you what it really is and how it works. What we need in paranormal research is more actual research and fewer assumptions.

9 November 2011: Never confuse evidence with interpretation!

Laser flowerOK, you're not going to believe this! I've heard that phrase many times but never thought I'd be using it myself. Anyway, look at the photo, right. When I first saw the picture, it looked to me as though someone was aiming a laser pointer towards the camera, from in front of a tree, and this photo was the result. Before you laugh, it looked more convincing on the tiny screen on which I first viewed it!

My initial mistake in viewing this photo neatly encapsulates a central problem with current paranormal research - confusing evidence with interpretation. Someone sees a human figure that subsequently vanishes and assumes they've just seen a spirit. In reality, it is much more likely they've had a misperception. Someone else sees a pulsating orange light in the night sky and assumes they've seen an alien spacecraft. It is more likely to be a sky lantern! I looked at this photo and 'saw' a laser pointer. For a second or two, anyway!

What many people, even some paranormal researchers, do is to treat interpretation in the same way as evidence. Consider the following. If you look at a table it is perfectly reasonable to say 'that's a table'. However, what you are actually seeing is an object with four legs supporting a flat surface. That is the evidence and it can be reasonably interpreted as a table. This is fine for everyday common objects but definitely not for rare and unusual things. In such cases it is safer to describe what you actually see, rather than what you assume it is. Many people would agree that the person above who saw a human figure which vanished probably saw a ghost. But there was nothing in that observation that ruled out all interpretations other than spirit. It is just one possible interpretation of the evidence - there are many others.

Why does this matter? It matters because if you assume you've seen a spirit or alien spacecraft, it could affect the evidence you give when interviewed. Witnesses have seen 'port holes' on UFOs which later turned out to be Venus. At best it is misperception, at worst confabulation. Either way, it is not helpful.

Laser flower in focusA good example of how interpretation can affect evidence is paranormal photos. Almost all apparently paranormal photos have something 'wrong' with them, when compared to what a serious photographer would consider a 'good' shot. They may be over or under-exposed, blurred by camera shake, out of focus (like the photo above), contain a great deal of electronic noise, and so on. Such faults often lead to photographic artefacts, like orbs, which may be interpreted, mistakenly, for something paranormal. Sometimes people see 'faces' or 'figures' in photos which cannot be real because they are beyond the resolution of the photo. The 'face' is made up of random electronic noise - see here for an example. The 'evidence' is a lot of electronic noise. The 'interpretation' is a human face. People 'see' a face when, the actual evidence does not support that interpretation. It is this confusing of interpretation and evidence which leads to assumption-led investigation techniques which are the bane of modern ghost research.

Going back to the photo here (which would make an excellent 'paranormal photo' by the way), the most important bit of evidence is that it is out of focus. This makes any interpretations difficult and even unwise. Quite simply, we cannot see what the real objects in the photo are so interpreting them is merely guesswork. Luckily, we have a focused version too (above) where it becomes obvious what the 'laser' is (as if you didn't already guess!). The lesson? Never assume - look at the evidence and, only if it is good enough, interpret from there.

PS: There is an interview with me (!) in the Morton Report. It is about the smartphone ghost question.

8 November 2011: When there's no way back

I knew I'd gone too far but there was no way back! I'd told the anecdote many times before but, on this occasion, I'd added extra details that I was not sure were accurate. The problem was, it wasn't even MY anecdote and I really can't recall if I ever knew those 'additional details', though I profoundly doubt it. I had caught myself out, adding 'detail' just to emphasise the point of the anecdote.

It was a weird sensation! The words came out of my mouth, as if someone else was saying them, before I was even consciously aware of what I was about to say. I guess, because of the unconscious element, I can plead confabulation. Whatever the cause, once the 'details' were out there, in the world, in front of witnesses, I could not withdraw them. Well, obviously I COULD, but not without looking a complete idiot. Confabulation or not, the incident shares key features with that phenomenon.

Confabulation is unconsciously recalling false memories. But these memories are not random. When people confabulate they tend to 'fill in' missing detail that never happened (or were not really remembered) to explain things. If telling an anecdote, people may add embellishments that make more sense of what happened, making it more like a fictional story. In most cases, confabulation appears to be the brain's way of making sense of the world by adding in false memories to fill obvious gaps in real memories. Once created, confabulated memories usually get treated as real by their owner.

Another key aspect of confabulation is that, once something has been said, it becomes difficult to withdraw. Either the person confabulating is aware that what they are saying is not accurate but they don't want to appear foolish by admitting it. Or, they may simply convince themselves that the new version really IS true! Either way, confabulated 'memories' are rarely withdrawn, unless someone is confronted with irrefutable evidence that they must be wrong.

One other interesting point about confabulation is that it tends to be most prevalent where fewest real facts are available about some event in the past. When someone has a detailed memory of an event, their story rarely varies much over time. But if there are lots of 'holes' in the original account, there is a tendency to fill them by confabulating.

All of this reminds of the many cases I've come across of witnesses who suddenly 'remember' previously unmentioned key facts about paranormal cases weeks, months or even years after the event, despite being interviewed extensively before. This would be a cause for celebration were it not for the fact that this almost always happens only when someone suggests a natural cause (one not previously suggested) for the paranormal event and the 'new memories' always serve to disprove that theory! I strongly suspect these incidents, which happen too frequently to be coincidence, are almost certainly confabulation. They are motivated, probably entirely unconsciously, by a desire to 'make sense' of the weird experience by someone who has, by then, long accepted a paranormal interpretation.

If a witness does suddenly 'remember' key new facts like this, there generally is not much the investigator can do. Unless they can find evidence that shows that the 'new facts' cannot be true, it is highly unlikely the witness will change their new account of events (even if, privately, they have their own doubts). All of this is very frustrating for an investigator but sometimes you just have to accept that there is nothing to be done about it.

7 November 2011: What does an invisible ghost look like?

A long time ago I used to write 'IMPLICIT INTEGER (A-Z)' a lot. Software writers may recognise this as is a bit of FORTRAN, a programming language from way back. The line means that all variables should be treated as integer, unless otherwise defined. Yes, it's pretty boring stuff but it tells anyone reading the programme what assumptions you are using. If only ghost researchers would do the same.

The problem I have is there are many assumptions used in modern ghost research, only some of which are well-known or even easily stated. An obvious one is the idea that ghosts are spirits, despite the lack of any compelling evidence supporting this idea. You will find a lot more here. It must be difficult for someone going on their first ghost vigil to pick up the assumptions being used, beyond the simple obvious ones, as many appear to be implicit within the ghost research community. They are rarely, if ever, actually mentioned and you can't go and look them up anywhere. Here's an example - the invisible ghost. Most ghost researchers assume they exist but the concept is hardly ever mentioned, far less discussed.

So what does an invisible ghost actually look like? The flippant, if pedantic, answer is no one knows, because they are invisible. But people certainly look for invisible ghosts. They do so by carefully examining photos in the hope they may appear there, despite being invisible to witnesses at the time. Or they use infra-red photography, or thermal imaging equipment, to see if the ghost appears at different wavelengths to visible light. And what do they expect to see? I would be amazed if wasn't something like a human figure.

So, why a human figure? Probably because that is what ordinary visible ghosts are reported by witnesses to look like. So is there any evidence that such ghosts also exist in an invisible state? The only witness evidence I can think of that might support the idea is that visible ghosts are sometimes observed to vanish. One interpretation of this would be that they are going into an invisible state. However, most ghost sightings are caused by misperception or near sleep experiences. In both of these cases, the vanishing act marks the end of a subjective experience with no external paranormal agency involved. Maybe there are a few cases of genuinely paranormal ghosts going invisible but it is a pretty tenuous piece of evidence on which to base a widespread assumption. There is, of course, a further implicit assumption here - namely that if a ghost becomes invisible, it retains the same shape.

Even worse, there does not appear to be much evidence that invisible ghosts, whether they look like human figures or not, even exist. It is often assumed (!) that all cases of haunting are caused by ghosts, whether visible or not. This is despite the fact that ghosts are rarely seen in haunting cases, and when they are, they never do any of the things attributed to them, like moving objects or knocking on furniture or walls. The existence of hot spots in haunting cases (well-known but, curiously, rarely discussed) also calls into question the idea that ghosts are responsible. An alternative reading of the evidence would be that ghosts are, in reality, a rare symptom of hauntings rather than their cause.

When ghost researchers walk into a haunted building, many assume implicitly that there is at least one invisible ghost present, responsible for the reported weird phenomena. This is despite the fact that many of these phenomena will turn out, after careful investigation, to have mundane explanations. If a ghost vigil takes place (which is almost always these days), many of the techniques used are implicitly based around the idea of detecting an invisible ghost doing something. This is the most obvious point of using trigger objects, for instance.

Some people clearly think that ghosts may become visible from time to time in forms other than human figures. This is why some people get excited when they take photos of mist, shadows or even orbs. There are, of course, mundane alternative explanations for all these kind of photos. However, the reason people still look for these photographic artefacts is largely down to implicit assumptions.

If all this seems incredibly complicated, don't blame me - I didn't invent these implicit assumptions, nor do I share them. I like to start with a blank slate. If somebody reports something odd going on in their house, I will go and look into possible causes without preconceptions. I won't automatically assume there is an invisible ghost causing it all. To me, such assumptions add an unnecessary layer of complexity to an already tricky investigation. It is a worthwhile exercise for all ghost researchers to question if they have any implicit assumptions of their own and, if so, which, if any, are justified by the evidence from case reports.

4 November 2011: A ghost story

02.33, a haunted castle somewhere in England, room A. Ghost investigator 'X' asks the room in general 'is there anyone there?'. He swivels round in his chair just in time to note that his EMF meter, sitting on an adjacent table, 'spikes', apparently in answer. 'Can you confirm your presence?' he asks, turning once again. The meter spikes!

02.33, a haunted castle somewhere in England, room B. Ghost investigator 'Y' hears a noise and switches on his torch to point towards it. Seeing nothing and hearing the noise again, 'Y' switches on the room light. There is no more noise and no obvious visible source for one. The investigator switches off the light again.

I should say straight away that this scenario is fictitious. The point of it is to illustrate how assumptions are nowadays being layered one on another in ghost research. Let's have a look at some of them.

The first assumption is that ghosts can hear sound (and also that they understand speech and can respond to it). The second assumption is that ghosts can affect EMF meters. More specifically, it is assumed that either (a) ghosts produce EM fields or (b) they disturb existing ones (like the ubiquitous geomagnetic field). But there is a third assumption here as well, that ghosts can manipulate magnetic fields in such a way as to carry on a conversation. You might think this not unreasonable, given the previous assumptions. However, consider this. We humans exhale more carbon dioxide than we inhale, which might be a way to to detect our presence from a modest distance. However, a human being would find it difficult to manipulate amounts of carbon dioxide in such a way as to conduct an intelligible conversation! So, even if ghosts could disturb magnetic fields, it does not automatically follow that they have sufficient control over this process to use it to converse. It's just another assumption!

You may well be thinking now that I am getting into a lot of detail about something that is merely theoretical. And I would agree! And that is really the point. Ghost investigators themselves are making just such complex layered assumptions without even realising it. Investigator 'X' is not using just one set of assumptions (such as 'ghosts disturb magnetic fields') but is adding further layers on top of that! For the communication, that he thinks is going on, to be real requires all sorts of things to be true, none of which is supported by any compelling evidence.

Unfortunately, that is what happens when you use assumption-led methods. You can add any number of layers of assumptions that you like. After all, it makes little difference if none of the assumptions is supported by compelling evidence anyway.

It really is time that we started to dismantle all these assumption-led techniques once and for all. There is nothing wrong with using an EMF meter, provided you are fully familiar with all the possible natural causes of 'spikes' and other readings. And there are a lot of them. And a study showing a correspondence between otherwise inexplicable EMF meter 'spikes' and the appearance of ghosts would be nice too!

Some people will argue that, provided the EMF meter spikes form an intelligible communication method, it shows that the assumptions must be right after all, without the need to investigate them individually. But even if you do get such 'communication' to work reliably, it does not follow that these particular assumptions are also true. All you KNOW for sure is that an EMF meter spikes roughly in response to your questions, not how that happens. And there could be other reasons for it.

In our fictitious example, the EMF meter 'spikes' might have been caused by 'Y' switching on and off the light in room B, were it not for the fact that 'Y' was in a completely different castle, half way across the country, at the time. The EMF meter was actually reacting to the movement of steel in the swivel chair that 'X' was sitting in. As the chair swivelled, it disturbed the geomagnetic field, causing a 'spike' to show on the meter. So 'X' was actually talking to his own chair!

3 November 2011: I would have noticed!

It's the worst job in ghost research! The ghost vigil is over but someone has to go through all those sound and video recordings to see if anything was missed on the night. It is not only the mind-numbing tedium of watching images that hardly ever change, but also the tiny chance that you might actually see something of interest. In some ways it would be better if nothing was ever found. It would show that everything possibly paranormal was caught on the night. The problem is this - if something weird shows up on a video image, for instance, that was not noticed at the time, it would not have been investigated at the time. And it is always much more difficult to investigate things after the event.

Unfortunately, unless the 'something weird' is an obvious photographic artefact or something else easily recognizable, it may be impossible to ever positively identify it. Even worse, it may lead to the 'I would have noticed' moment that we all know and dread! It goes like this: you see a video showing something moving in the background of a vigil scene. No one in the shot is looking in that direction and it was not noted at the time. Could it be a bit of paper being blown around in a draught? It's a perfectly reasonable theory, given that people on vigils often leave bits of paper around and old buildings are frequently draughty. But then someone who was there will say 'I would have noticed a draught' or maybe 'I would have noticed a bit of paper just there' or other similar statements. These valiant attempts to eliminate natural explanations are doomed and should be discouraged! We know from research into inattentional blindness and change blindness that, in reality, witnesses tend to miss much of what goes on around them, even when it is in plain sight. So statements starting 'I would have noticed ...' really have little or no credibility. And yet, they are still regularly made on such occasions.

Does this mean we should ignore odd things seen on vigil recordings? Certainly not! In many cases it will be possible to identify 'weird somethings' without great difficulty. The very fact that they were not noticed at the time suggests that most were probably something completely normal, which is they escaped attention then. Of the remaining 'weird somethings', it may be possible to reproduce the effect (see xenonormal studies) which could be of benefit to future research. A return trip to the venue could help with this.

But what of the stubborn residue, those 'weird somethings' that remain unexplained? It would not be safe to declare them likely paranormal without other evidence. However, by keeping these incidents on record and fully documented, you could wait and see if anything similar recurs. On such a subsequent occasion you might get lucky and collect more information about the event, allowing a better analysis.

All of this does back up my idea that, when it comes to vigils, the more video cameras around the better. If you have two video cameras in a room, showing different viewpoints, it can be much easier to identify 'weird somethings' because you have two recordings of the incident to examine. And views from different angles may reveal additional clues. The cause of many 'paranormal photos' could be easily resolved if only the photographer had taken a second shot of the same scene, at the same time from, a different angle. Multiple video cameras in a single vigil location can also help identify the source and nature of any weird sounds recorded.

So, if you are given the task of reviewing video recordings from a vigil, insist on multiple cameras at every location being monitored. And if anyone says to you 'I would have noticed...', stop them right there!

PS: Just a reminder that the professional body consultation is coming to an end soon. Go here for more information, including a timetable.

1 November 2011: Is the ghost hunting boom finally ending?

Kestrel in churchyardThere are signs that ghost hunting boom may be drawing to an end. Firstly, several reality ghost hunting shows have ended over the last couple of years. Secondly, trends in web searches for terms like 'ghost' and 'hauntings' are declining. It is interesting to note how such web search trends are heavily affected by media coverage, which links in with the first point. Media coverage may have kick-started the ghost hunting boom and its increasing neglect of the subject may have the opposite effect. Looking at 'soft' data, there do not seem to be so many new ghost groups springing up on the web as there were even a year ago and activity on their forums and websites is declining noticeably.

None of this means that there is not still a high level of interest in ghost hunting at the moment. Stories about ghosts still sell newspapers and probably always will. But, though our own well-supported Seriously Strange conference in September demonstrated an on-going high level of interest in anomalous phenomena in general, maybe people are getting just a bit fed up of ghost hunting in particular. It is not that surprising. Ghost hunting can be a bit monotonous and seldom, if ever, produces compelling evidence. And when you've seen it a dozen times on TV, it does get a bit repetitive. Other TV shows start to look a better bet to while away your evening.

So, if this really IS the start of the end of the ghost hunting boom, what might we have to look forward to? Surprisingly, the future could be rather brighter than it is now. Though, the number of people doing ghost research will probably fall drastically, those remaining may well be producing more scientifically interesting evidence. We may finally see an end to the widespread use of assumption-led methods which have, unsurprisingly, produced nothing of scientific interest so far. And maybe we will see research focussing once again on witnesses who have actually seen ghosts (rather than ghost hunters who haven't) and places being investigated for which there is actually good evidence of a haunting (while leaving graveyards to wildlife). And maybe we can do more xenonormal studies to find out what causes most reported paranormal experiences. Overall, I can't say the idea that the ghost boom might be ending fills me with any foreboding!

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

Last month's (October) website figures are an average of 9305 hits per day. This is down on the previous month's 10434 daily average.

ASSAP

Previous blog pages ...

  • Oct 2011 (including smartphone ghosts, similacrum, smell of ghosts, morphing UFOs, slowing time)
  • Sep 2011 (including tidy ghost, MADS, transparent ghost, big announcement, ghost fox, not alone)
  • Aug 2011 (including cold spots, spectral hound, triangular UFO, ghost photos, rushing air and being dragged)
  • July 2011 (including Hilary Evans, Harry Potter, witness investment, bias in paranormal research, TV detectives)
  • June 2011 (including ASSAP @ 30, detecting lies, hyper-vigilence, strange thunder)
  • May 2011 (including ASSAP @ 30, lone shoes, flying rods, bias, early memories, strange floating object)
  • Apr 2011 (including royal wedding, mirror touch synaesthesia, sleep disorders, new ghost sighting)
  • Mar 2011 (including roof heron, Atlantis, first time witnesses, comparing film to digital paranormal photos)
  • Feb 2011 (including predicting the future, ghost bird, time slip, weird floor, what do we really know about paranormal)
  • Jan 2011 (including the ghost hunting boom, orange UFO, EVP experiment, extreme normality)
  • Dec 2010 (including microsleeps and road ghosts, shadow ghost in snow, lack of ghosts in photos, anthropomorphism)
  • Nov 2010 (including EMF meters, auras, evidence for precognition, sensitisation, the ghost hunting boom)
  • Oct 2010 (including black orbs, UnConvention, mirror visions, levitation, flying rods and orbs)
  • 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 2011