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

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

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

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

Previous blog pages ...

29 September 2009: The power of personal experience!

The 'power of belief' is a well-known cliche. But a more common thing we come across in paranormal research is the power of personal experience. What is more, your first experience of something tends to be more profound than subsequent occasions. It can lead to life-long powerful beliefs that cannot be changed by argument or even further personal experiences. We learn through trial and error and personal experience is probably the most profound way to do it. At college or school, we may forget the lectures but often remember the demonstrations or exercises.

When a witness has their first (and perhaps only) weird experience, it can have a profound effect on them. If they are convinced they've experienced something paranormal, like seeing a ghost, they may well stick with that opinion despite any contrary evidence.

The problem with this is that we humans misperceive and have unreliable memories . Just because we experience something, it doesn't mean it actually happened in the real physical world. Part of what we experience and remember is invented in or brains! So, whenever something really weird is reported, we should always examine the possibility that it could be misperception, hallucination or altered memory.

Many witnesses will not appreciate these ideas and may think we are doubting their word. It is important to handle such situations delicately. The best way forward might be to explain similar cases where xenonormal explanations have been discovered. In many cases, however, the witness will be too profoundly affected by their experience, particularly if they had similar ones before, to appreciate this. We just have to understand that personal experience, whether it agrees with reality or not, is incredibly powerful.

25 September 2009: Why study the xenonormal?

People who are interested in ghosts and UFO are generally not that excited about the natural reasons discovered for alleged sightings of such anomalies. Though it is clearly important to study the xenonormal, so that we can quickly recognise it on investigations, surely it has no intrinsic interest, does it?

Personally, I really enjoy studying the xenonormal! This, no doubt, makes me unusual among paranormal researchers. After all the point of paranormal research is to study (and hopefully witness) the paranormal, not something that looks like it.

There are several good reasons for enjoying studying the xenonormal. For one thing, as it involves normal repeatable science, it is possible to make definite progress. By contrast, over a century of studying the paranormal hasn't got us very far. Secondly, much of the xenonormal is currently leading edge neuroscience. New discoveries relevant to paranormal reports are being made all the time (see yesterday's entry, for instance). Thirdly, because everyone wants genuine paranormal experiences, very few people are working on the xenonormal, meaning it is possible to make new discoveries, like formant noise, fairly easily. Fourthly, since most paranormal cases are found to have xenonormal causes, it means you can study the same material as any other paranormal researcher. Fifthly, why are there so many things around that resemble the paranormal - an intriguing central question in the xenonormal!

By contrast, ghost research has actually gone backwards during the time ASSAP has been around. When we started most researchers accepted that 'spirits' did not explain ghost research. Now, it's the other way round, just like in Victorian days! So it's a chance to go back a century or surf the cutting edge of science. No contest!

24 September 2009: Latent memory- scientific evidence of cryptomnesia

There was an interesting piece in last week's New Scientist (9 Sept) about how memories can be recalled unconsciously. So-called 'latent memories' are those that cannot be consciously recalled but are nevertheless in our brains. Experiments showed how people could connect two bits of information correctly through latent memories, even though they could not consciously recall any connection. It could explain how sometimes we 'just know' the answer in a quiz, despite not recalling ever having gathered the information.

Similarly, when people think they are psychic, they may have a superior ability to use latent memory. It certainly appears like information from nowhere (or maybe a 'spirit') when it happens. And those who it happens to can genuinely claim they know nothing about the subject that they are suddenly knowledgeable about. Producing information about someone or something that they don't know about (consciously) is a fair description of what psychics do!

21 September 2009: Aggregate mysteries

It's not an elegant term - 'aggregate mystery' - but it covers the ground. I mentioned it below (14 Sep) when talking about the Bermuda Triangle. It occurs to me that most things we study at ASSAP are aggregate mysteries. An aggregate mystery is one that, while having many differing (mostly) xenonormal explanations, is linked in the popular imagination by a single concept, usually a meme.

Take ghosts, for instance. Cases of ghost sightings have many differing explanations but they are all considered 'ghosts' which, to many people, are synonymous with sprits. Even taking the evidence for ghosts together, there is little support for the spirit idea. But it remains the unifying factor, making the term ghost an aggregate mystery.

Another obvious example is UFOs. UFO reports have umpteen different explanations but they are united by the popular idea that they represent alien space craft. Of course, it might be that one or two UFOs really ARE alien space craft, though there is no obvious evidence of that yet. Most are undoubtedly more mundane objects.

The problem with aggregate mysteries is that people see them through the lens of their central popular image. Mention UFO to most people and they start thinking of a flying saucer, probably from a movie. This is fine for members of the public but paranormal researchers need to take a more informed view. Every case should be handled as if it were a new mystery to be solved. Someone sees lights in the sky, the question is what caused them, not were aliens involved? This may seem obvious but surprisingly few investigators take this neutral attitude. If we could find some easy way of 'de-aggregating' (I'm so sorry about this 'word') these mysteries, it would be a simple but highly effective step forward.

18 September 2009: Tufted Puffin

On Wednesday (16 Sep), a Tufted Puffin was seen and photographed on the river Swale, near Faversham. Sadly, it soon disappeared and was last seen heading upstream towards London. It may have been seen the previous day off Herne Bay in the Thames Estuary. The bird resembles the more familiar (in the UK) Atlantic Puffin but has distinctive colourful tufts on the back of its head.

So what's all the excitement about? Well, it's normal range is the north Pacific (though it has been recorded in Maine and even in Sweden in 1994). So this bird is in completely the wrong hemisphere and could hardly be further from its normal range if it tried. What is more, as a seabird it does not usually cross land. This means it probably followed a sea route to the UK. It may have taken the routes along the northern coasts of Canada or Siberia, both of which are increasingly ice free in summer as the world warms up.

Some people may say, this is not possible - it is a mistaken identification. However, the photos are clear enough and the species highly distinctive. What is more, it is not the first time that a bird from the north Pacific has ended up in the UK. Way back in 1990, I saw (along with hundreds of birdwatchers) an Ancient Murrelet on Lundy in the Bristol Channel. That is another auk, like the puffin, which hung around the island for three summers.

Unlike many of the animals that cryptozoologists seek (legendary or just incredibly rare), birds are of course much more mobile. Nevertheless, many bird species are rarely seen outside their normal range. It still comes as a shock when a bird turns up so far away from home. It is a reminder that nature never stops being amazing!

17 September 2009: Reconstructing crime scenes

ReflectionTake a look at this photo (right). Do you notice anything odd about this landscape? Not the brooding sky or the horizontal wires but that odd orange hemisphere around the middle of the shot. There is a linear continuation downwards to the bottom of the frame. It's clearly not an orb, nor is it lens flare.

In fact, it is reflection. The photo was taken out of the window of a moving train (the overhead wires were a clue). The orange shapes are reflections of illuminated objects inside the carriage. I believe the hemisphere shape is a seat headrest and the linear bit, the rest of the seat below it. Once you know that, it becomes fairly obvious.

This would have been a difficult photo to interpret had the photographer forgotten where they took it, which does happen! If they insisted there was no glass, which also does happen, it would have remained a mystery. Apart from the transparent orange blobs, the photo looks unremarkable with no hint that it is taken through glass. Interpreting a photo without any knowledge of how it was taken is a bit like analysing a crime scene. You need to put together the clues and have the odd inspiration!

There is a strange mix of emotions when a mystery like this is solved. There is satisfaction for the photo analyst but often disappointment for the photographer who thought they had a photo of a ghost, not a train seat!

15 September 2009: Tiredness!

Up late recently, I was forcibly reminded how tiring it is to be up at night. I've worked night shifts in the past and know how bad they can get. Even people who work night shifts all the time struggle to get used to it. Staying up for a single night is far worse. And yet that is what many people do when they go on a ghost vigil.

We do vigils at night mainly because that is the only time to get a building empty. It is not because ghosts appear only at night, whatever Hollywood script writers might think. Ghosts appear at any time of day but night is usually the only convenient time for a vigil.

Of course, with the help of coffee and the anticipation of seeing something amazing, many people are perfectly alert during vigils. But, as the hours go by and nothing happens, most people inevitably tire. It is a factor that should be considered when looking at vigil reports. People are likely to become less alert, maybe even doze off, if the lights are low (or off!) and misperceive more. Surprisingly, it hardly ever seems to be mentioned in vigil reports. It should be!

14 September 2009: Bermuda Triangle

No one has emailed me to say they can't find the animals in the photo from 11 Sept so I assume everyone found them! Meanwhile, the BBC is doing a series about the Bermuda Triangle and claims to have solved two of the mysterious disappearances.

Many years ago, ASSAP commissioned a set of books called the 'Evidence For' series. One was called the Evidence for the Bermuda Triangle by David Group. In his final assessment, David concluded that the vast majority of the cases where inconclusive, either due top lack of evidence or insufficient investigation. Some of the cases were definitely explained and just a handful remained genuine mysteries.

The BBC's investigation apparently moved two of the hitherto unexplained cases into the explained category. No doubt with some effort, more cases could be explained, though many are very old now. Overall, the picture remains that the triangle is not really that mysterious at all. The Bermuda Triangle is an example of where several mysteries, all perhaps explainable (with effort) in themselves, are aggregated together to form a bigger mystery. It is similar, in that respect, to ghost photographs.

Almost all apparent ghost photographs have different xenonormal explanations, like long exposure, lens flare, mists and so on. However, when considered together they appear to form a mystery in themselves. As a result, people speculate that cameras can record ghosts that witnesses cannot see with the naked eye. This is seen as a sign of the paranormal. In fact, it is a symptom of photographic artifacts.

By splitting such 'aggregate mysteries' into their component parts, they often prove susceptible to conventional investigation. Another aggregate mystery is UFOs. Individual sightings have many different explanations. And yet, they are commonly taken together as evidence of visits by alien spacecraft. The Bermuda Triangle, seen as a single mystery, is supposedly caused by things like technology left over from Atlantis, extra-terrestrials or unexplained forces.

11 September 2009: A real animal this time

Water creatureIf you're still not seeing the 'snake' in yesterday's photo, try this one (right) instead. I can guarantee that there are TWO real animals in this photo, because they were seen at the time of exposure. You might see them straight away or you may take a while but they are definitely there! I see them straight off because I know where to look but maybe you won't.

So, today, instead of 'seeing' a snake in the pattern of twigs and leaves, here the problem is spotting a real animal against similar coloured background. Many animals are camouflaged in this way, making them tricky to spot.

Given that people regularly spot things that aren't really there in photos, like faces in random patterns, I wonder how often they miss real, interesting weird stuff because it blends into the background. Most ghosts, for instance, are reported to look like perfectly normal people. There might be ghosts on photos that aren't spotted because they don't look weird! Those transparent 'ghost' photos you often see are mostly caused by long exposures.

10 September 2009: Not a snake!

LogIf you look at the photo, right, you might see the head of a snake. To find it, look along the top of the hollowed-out log. About half way across, drop your gaze to the area where you can see grass and leaves behind the hollow log, just below the wood of the trunk. You may see the head of a snake, facing left, its eye staring back at you! Or maybe not!

Well, that's certainly what I saw, almost instantly, when I first looked at the photo! I almost always fail to see human faces that people point out in paranormal photos, but I could see this snake's head easily. Don't worry if you can't see it, it's probably just me.

Zooming in on the 'snake's head' (or is it a lizard?) it becomes obvious that it is, in fact, a collection of twigs and yellowing fallen leaves. Even though I know that, I can still the 'head'!

I think it is the 'eye' , actually a shadow cast by a twig, which probably makes it work for me. All that most of us need to see a 'face' in a random pattern is one or two shapes to form 'eyes', and either the outline of a 'head' (as in this case) or a 'mouth', to get the illusion of a face. Think of how faces are drawn in simple cartoons. We humans have an in-built tendency to see faces because it is important that we recognise the presence of people and judge their mood. Sometimes it works overtime, as here, and we see faces where there are none.

We get a lot of paranormal photos with 'faces' on them sent to ASSAP. Not many are snakes, though!

9 September 2009: Changing words and polt activity - just another day

FoxI was expecting a letter from the Prudential insurance company recently and thought it had arrived the other morning. The company is often called the Pru in the UK and that is what I saw in large, bold letters on an envelope lying on the doormat. Except that it actually said PURE!

It took a couple of seconds for the word to revert to its real version. But when I saw the word Pru it had the same letters, same size, same font, same spacing, just in a different order and without the final E. It was a dramatic demonstration of misperception.

It was not imagination. If it had been, why would it have been in precisely the same lettering as the real word? Nor was it a misreading. I actually saw the word PRU - three characters, not four, and in that order. I doubt if the misperception would have worked if the word had been radically different. When the word reverted to reality, it changed instantly. The letters didn't re-arrange themselves, I just suddenly saw the word as it really was. Most people would have dismissed the experience as imagination but it is at the heart of many apparently paranormal experiences.

I didn't see a fuzzy word and misread it, I saw the actual word I was expecting, perfectly clearly. I saw that word because I was expecting it. So it is with ghosts. We see the ghostly figure perfectly plainly, well enough to describe its clothes, hair and facial expression - even though it is really a tree seen poorly at dusk! We see it as a ghost because we are feeling anxious in a spooky setting and, albeit unconsciously, half expecting to see a ghost.

The local 'garden poltergeist', or foxes as we now know them, continues to move stuff around. There are more foxes around at this time of year as the adults have now been joined in night patrolling by this year's young ones. So keep a look out in your garden for any odd activity overnight, especially if you leave shoes out there!

8 September 2009: Expert witnesses

Witnesses to apparent paranormal phenomena have changed over the years that I've had dealings with them. Once they tended to be anxious for anonymity, keen not to appear 'mad', knew little about the subject and were often distressed by their experience. Nowadays, many are happy to be interviewed on TV and are frequently knowledgeable about the paranormal.

I welcome the fact that hardly anyone regards witnessing the paranormal as any sign of 'mental disturbance'. In my experience, anyone can have such experiences and it nothing to do with mental state. I also welcome witness's assertiveness and confidence. Whether a TV 'reality' show is the best way to tell the world about your experience is more debatable.

Once upon a time, a witness not knowing much about the paranormal was seen as a 'good thing'. It was argued that if a witness did not know how real ghosts behaved, their testimony was more valuable. In reality, this was never a sustainable argument. Everyone is exposed to fictional representations of the paranormal even if they have no active interest in the subject.

I suspect much of the new-found expertise of witnesses comes from the TV ghost hunting shows. This is affecting witness testimony. As I've mentioned before, many witnesses will remember 'new' details of their experiences if a natural explanation is suggested. This suggests confabulation prompted by a desire not to 'let go' of their extraordinary experiences. The TV ghost hunting shows have created an environment where even suggesting xenonormal theories for experiences appears like nit-picking. It can make relationships with witnesses a little rocky at times but, as always, the truth is more important in the end.

7 September 2009: Spooky Belladonna

Atropa belladonna Certain sights rip me straight out of our modern world into one not seen for many centuries. Not visiting a stately home, as you might think, interesting as that is. No, it is the natural world that does it for me.

One such is the sight of Atropa belladonna, or deadly nightshade (pic right). This unremarkable looking plant can easily cause hallucinations or death - it is one of the most poisonous plants in the Western hemisphere. Between 10 to 20 of those black berries, or just one leaf, is enough to end an adult. Luckily, to me at least, they look menacing enough for me not to be tempted.

There is something weird about standing next to a small plant that can do such harm. I feel in touch with a time when there were no supermarkets and eating the wrong berry could be instantly fatal. It was a time when no one would be surprised to see a ghost walking abroad. It is from such times that many of the current widespread beliefs about the paranormal no doubt came. Such things would then have been just normal, not paranormal. To feel in touch with such a time is an odd feeling indeed. It makes you understand how people believe what they do, transmitted through tradition and culture, despite what modern evidence shows.

4 September 2009: Your 'nearly paranormal' stories required!

Lake monster?Stories like the 'woman in red' experience described yesterday (see below) lack the 'I still can't explain it' punch line. That is why they are quickly forgotten, unlike a ghost experience which might last a life time. But they can throw an important light on just what part coincidence plays in our lives. Coincidence lies at the heart of all xenonormal reports, so it is important we understand it.

So, next time you have an experience that appears paranormal at first but, maybe after a brief investigation at the time, turns out to be only 'nearly paranormal', please email it here before you forget it! It will be enormously useful with research. All reports will be treated in confidence.

The photo shows a 'nearly monster'! If the observer had arrived at just this moment, they might have wondered what weird cryptid had caused this bizarre disturbance on the water surface. In fact, it was a Little Grebe, a small water bird! In order to get under water, being naturally buoyant, it has to dive and push its way to the bottom, hence the splash and wave. The result is a surprisingly large disturbance for such a small bird.

3 September 2009: I see a ghost in red!

Walking along a street today, I noticed a woman in a red coat ahead of me on the pavement. A few moments later, I noticed she'd vanished. I was surprised because there aren't many places to hide in that street! I looked along various side streets but there was no sign of her. Had I really seen a ghost?

Then I noticed a similar woman walking away along one of the side streets. But she wasn't wearing a red coat. That's because she was carrying it! It was clearly the same woman who had, while I wasn't watching, taken her coat off. So, no ghost after all!

If I made the suggestion to a witness that the 'ghost' they'd reported was actually someone who 'disappeared' from view simply by taking off their coat, I would be ridiculed. How likely is it that someone should just happen to take off their coat in the exact few seconds when they were temporarily out of sight of the witness? And yet it happened to me!

On ASSAP vigils it has been noted that the most exciting stuff generally happens in between formal observing sessions. That's when we are relaxing, not paying too much attention. It's in just such circumstances that coincidences and misperception can catch us out! I wasn't paying much attention to the woman in red and she nearly became a ghost!

This incident could have ended up as a ghost report or, as happened, a 'nearly paranormal' story. Unfortunately, most 'nearly paranormal' stories are soon forgotten. This is a tragedy because such accounts illustrate how coincidences and misperceptions can easily become paranormal reports. We need to collect 'nearly paranormal' stories urgently.

2 September 2009: Triangular UFO photographed!

Triangular UFOMore and more UFOs are turning up on photos, having not been seen at the time of exposure! This is an odd trend as most UFOs are still seen by witnesses but not photographed. It begs the question, how can you not notice a UFO when you're taking a photo?

The answer is that the UFO is not the subject of the photo. It may appear in the background, often small and distant. If it does not get any closer or bigger after the photo is taken then it may not be noticed until the picture is examined later.

The triangular UFO pictured here (right) was actually seen and identified at the time of exposure but, nevertheless, looks mysterious here. Even a birdwatcher might be surprised to learn that it is actually a kestrel!

When we take a photo, we freeze a particular moment in time. If you take a sequence of photos of a bird flying, there will be one or two which will just happen, because of the angles involved, to look very odd indeed. This is just such a moment! Anyone who took this photo without noticing the kestrel might well decide it is something very strange indeed.

1 September 2009: Everyone has seen a ghost!

'Garden poltergeist' - a red foxAt the weekend I was out and about and noticed a plaque on a wall, like the ones that tell you where someone famous once lived. I was surprised to see that the plaque told how the building nearby was mentioned in a famous novel!

What struck me as odd is that the events in the novel never happened but someone still thought it worth mentioning on a plaque for any passer-by to read. To me, this showed the blurring that goes on all the time between fact and fiction. Almost everyone would have known that the book mentioned was a novel but the story is still very famous and the characters known to many people around the world.

Most people will claim, if asked, that they've never seen a ghost. But who hasn't seen one in a film or on TV or a video game? So when someone reports seeing a ghost they will almost inevitably have some idea of what they are supposed to do and where they hang out. It is highly likely that such fictional representations of ghosts inform misperceptions.

I watched a detective programme on TV the other day. I had seen it before but not for years. If you'd asked me at the start 'who did it', I couldn't have said. However, as soon as I saw a few minutes of the programme, the plot came back to me almost in its entirety, including the identity of the villain. I had the memory of that TV programme in my head, it just wasn't easily accessible. But as soon as I saw some pictures to remind it, it came back easily.

Similarly if you visited somewhere that reminded you of a spooky place you'd seen in a ghost movie, you might unconsciously associate it with the paranormal. If you then misperceived a tree as a human figure, would it be such a surprise if you decided it was a ghost? Everyone has seen a ghost, if only in movies. Fiction can have a surprisingly direct affect on our lives.

For more info on the photo above, see August's blog.

This month's (August) website figures are an average of 9675 hits* per day - significantly up on last month's 8948. *This month's figure is approximate due to a software blip!

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© Maurice Townsend 2009