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)

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

28 September: I can see it, why can't you?

Sometimes I just don't see it - the ghost, that is! I examine anomalous photos all the time and I always look at them carefully before reading any accompanying text. I like to see if I can see something odd for myself. While it's generally obvious - an orb, a mist, a transparent figure - sometimes I can't see anything weird at all. Then I read the text and it might then become obvious. But sometimes, just occasionally, I still can't see anything weird, even when someone has described what it is, where it is and even put a ring around it!

Ghostly maskThere are also examples of photos where I can see something, like a face, but other people cannot. Once again, I tell them exactly where it and what it looks like, to no avail. The photo here (right) is an example of one that I can see but some others can't. Have a look and see if you can see anything odd. My 'answer' is given at this link*, but see if you can work it out first.

So what's going on here? Here are a couple of ideas I've been playing with. Firstly, in nearly all the photos where someone else can see a ghost/face/whatever that I can't, the photo has a 'problem'. By that, I mean it is over- or under-exposed, out of focus, motion blurred, has very low resolution or some other obvious photographic imperfection. That means that is hard to make out what things are in the photo, even sometimes those objects which are not thought weird! My idea is that, because as an experienced photographer I understand the limitations of such a photo, I 'know' that what I'm seeing is really noise, pixelation, blur or similar. So, even though consciously I am genuinely trying to see something weird, unconsciously my brain can literally only see noise or blur.

That led into my second idea, that this is a form of misperception. Unlike an optical illusion or simulacrum, which always works, misperception varies from person to person and even from occasion to occasion (one time you might see it, another time not). And what we see when we misperceive is generally whatever we are expecting to see. So, because I expect see noise or blur, that's what I see!

So, why do the photographers themselves see something weird in such photos? It often comes down to why they noticed something odd in the photo in the first place. In many cases, it's because they were EXPECTING to see something weird, even if only unconsciously. For instance, it might be a photo of a haunted house or of a loved one who has had dramatic recent events in their life. So the viewer might be half expecting to see a ghost in a haunted house photo, for instance. Obviously, when I first look at such photos, I'm not aware of this background, which provides another reason why I might not see what they do.

We don't normally get misperception in still photos because, unlike in videos or real life, they offer an opportunity to examine an object closely and at length, two things that tend to destroy misperception. However, the people taking the photo are usually insistent (and persistent) about what they can see, which suggests that visual substitution, characteristic of misperception, may indeed be taking place. It would take some cunning experiments to tease apart what is really going on here but my current best guess is that it really is a form of misperception. I'm sure some people may think I am being 'awkward' by not seeing what they can but perception is a lot more complex than most people imagine.

*As the link explains, I don't think the particular photo shown here is misperception, strictly speaking, because there is no visual substitution.

26 September: The yellow grass mystery

CrowAround here, the cracks in our pavements have recently featured lots of yellow grass. Nearby grass verges, by contrast, look verdant after recent heavy rain. The yellow grass is solely confined to cracks in the pavement along streets. It's weird enough to make you avoid walking on them, as some people already do.

I have noticed it on many streets hereabouts. It's always the same, yellow grass in cracks in the pavement but nowhere else. Interestingly, I have also found a very small number of bits of grass in the pavement which were green. This rules out the idea that it is lack of rain that has caused the grass to fade away. So, do we have a genuine anomaly here?

In fiction, some authors like to tell stories backwards. Sometimes this happens in real life, too. In this particular case, I had already found the solution before I first came across the mystery, I just didn't realise it! The thing is, with my poor memory, it took me a little while to put the clues together. I recalled seeing a man riding what I think was a quad bike, small tractor, or something similar, a few days before I noticed the yellow grass. He was holding a spraying device and applying something to specific patches of pavement. It isn't too much of a stretch to imagine that he was applying herbicide to grass growing in cracks in the pavement.

So what if I had never seen the man on the bike/tractor/whatever/I'm no good at small personal transport vehicles? I might still have been able to deduce that it was a human caused phenomenon by its peculiar distribution. However, I had no idea that people sprayed pavements. Once again, a trivial mystery shows how, through lack of relevant information, something mundane can quite easily be misinterpreted as an anomalous phenomenon.

I had another example of seeing the solution to a mystery before the mystery itself appeared, just the other day. I saw, in my peripheral vision, a mysterious black shape leaping over a tall fence! I turned immediately but saw nothing odd at all - just the fence. I watched for several minutes but nothing more happened. Then I recalled that, moments before, I had observed a crow standing on that very fence at the same position! Again, it's not much of a stretch for the 'black shape' to be the same crow flying off. Had I never seen the crow, I would just have put the experience down to the unreliability of peripheral vision. Or assumed it was a shadow ghost. Or Spring Heeled Jack!

I wonder how often we see the answer to a puzzle before the mystery itself appears, without realising it? It's probably fairly common given that effect usually follows cause. The problem is not paying attention while the cause to a mystery is in progress.

24 September: The world's weirdest waterfalls

WaterfallSomewhere in the world there is a waterfall where the water flows upwards instead of falling downwards. No, it's true! On very windy days, some waterfalls flow upwards. And there are other odd instances of upward flow - see here, for instance. However, these are special cases, exceptions that prove the rule that all waterfalls flow downwards under gravity.

But how do we know that there isn't one waterfall somewhere extremely remote, hardly ever visited by humans, where the water simply defies gravity and flows upwards? How can we be confident that ALL waterfalls flow downwards without examining each and every one? There are two reasons for not mounting an 'upwards waterfall' expedition. Firstly, we know of the vast majority of waterfalls in the world and they all, with special exceptions mentioned above, flow downwards. Secondly, we understand the well-established principle of how waterfalls work so we know that, even the ones no one has seen, should flow downwards.

In the same way, I don't need to examine every photo ever taken of an orb to know that they form according to the orb zone theory. As with waterfalls, there are special cases which form exceptions. For instance, some things that look like orbs are actually lens flare. There are also many known examples of orbs that appear, at first sight, to defy the orb zone theory. For instance, some orbs appear to be behind other objects in a photo. However, it turns out that all these apparent exceptions can still be explained by the theory - see here for a list, including explanations.

Indeed, one could now usefully define an orb as "a strongly illuminated, out of focus bit of dust, insect, water droplet or other small particle near a lens". Anything that looks similar, like lens flare, has a quite different cause, and so should not be considered an orb at all. In rare cases where people see a 'ball of light' with the naked eye and photograph it, that is not an orb either, and doesn't even resemble it in the resulting photo. There are still a few people who refer to 'real' orbs. Paradoxically, what they mean are orbs NOT caused by the orb zone! So really, these orbs, if they exist, would not be 'real' orbs at all but something else entirely.

There is a argument, maintained by some, that 99% of orbs are explainable but 1% are not. But, just as with waterfalls, we have a huge number of examples of orb photos and a general principle to explain them. So we can usefully assume that, in practice, 100% of orbs are explainable.

Of course, sometimes examples appear of orbs that apparently cannot be simply explained. This is how the list of exceptions arose. Careful examination of these examples has shown that they, too, obey the orb zone theory - more exceptions proving the rule! Maybe one day someone will come up with a good example that really DOES break the theory. But until then, I see no need to mount an expedition to look for the upward waterfall or the unexplainable orb!

There are those in the world of anomaly research who would disagree with such thoughts. Ours is a field generally neglected by scientific endeavour, full of mysteries and unexplained events. We deal in the oddities that don't quite fit, Fort's damned data. However, this does not that our anomalies will never fit, that they cannot one day be explained by science. I think the example of orbs shows that SOME mysteries really can be satisfactorily explained. Indeed, many paranormal researchers have accepted that orbs can be explained and simply ignore them. And the same may apply to other phenomena which, at present, appear mysterious. I think that, in many cases, it is not that these phenomena CANNOT be explained by science but rather that no one has looked at them with sufficient seriousness yet to understand them.

We should be happy when a mystery is solved! If we are not trying to solve mysteries then why study them at all?

21 September: Strange noises off

One of the commonest symptoms of a haunting is odd, unexplained noises. So when I heard a dull thumping noise recently, while in an empty, locked building, I couldn't avoid thoughts of the paranormal. I searched in every room for some possible cause of the loud noise but could find none.

I paused to think about witness accounts about accounts of hauntings that I'd heard. Among reported noises there are footsteps, knocks, snatches of music, whispering and the sound of furniture being moved. What I had heard sounded more like furniture being thrown around! I expected to enter a room and find some large bit of furniture overturned! Instead, nothing out of place!

A little later, having forgotten about the odd noise, I happened to open a small cupboard and found the source of the noise! Some small plastic items, that I had stacked soon before the noise, had fallen down onto a wooden box. The latter had resonated and amplified the sound of the impact, making it sound like heavy objects falling. Had I not discovered this, I might still be thinking in terms of hauntings!

Once again, a trivial incident contains several interesting points of detail for those trying to explain haunting phenomena. Firstly, if a unstable pile is going to fall over it is most likely to do so soon after it is first stacked. So, in cases where falling objects are reported, it would be useful to know when they were last stacked, in relation to the time of their reported fall. And just because an item is securely stacked when you examine it, it doesn't mean it was always has been!

Secondly, in the incident reported here, some relatively light objects sounded much heavier and larger because of the hollow wooden box they fell onto. So, I was looking for something big when it was really something small that fell. It is important to examine what the fallen item fell onto when considering if it made an 'unnatural' noise!

Thirdly, the fallen items in this incident were found shortly after the noise. If they had not been discovered for a longer period, the two things might not have been so readily connected as cause and effect. Indeed, they might even have been reported as two separate incidents - an inexplicable noise and some 'moved' objects!

The next time you solve a seemingly trivial non-paranormal incident of this type, it would be worth asking yourself this - if you'd seen only the report of the incident, maybe days or weeks later, would you have solved the mystery so readily? That's one of the great difficulties in investigating paranormal incidents. As investigators, we have only an eye witness account, quite possibly inaccurate, and the scene of the incident, quite possibly changed, to go on. Reconstructing what really happened can be a lot more difficult that it might at first appear!

19 September: Brushes with ghosts!

Panda brush setIt's rare that I can illustrate a misperception that I've noticed but here's one. I glanced down at a box, in passing, and saw it quite clearly read what you see here (right). It was entirely unambiguous, I could make out every letter quite clearly. It didn't strike me as odd. I simply thought that 'Panda' must be the make or model of the brush set. Nevertheless, something in the back of my mind made me look again.

Paint brush setAnd this is what I saw (right) on the second occasion, just seconds after the first look. As you can see it is quite different! Some people might say that it makes more sense than the first version but my original sighting did not 'feel' odd at the time, for reasons I've explained! Incidentally, the pictures here are NOT photos of the box itself but my reconstruction of what I actually saw!

I have tried looking at the same box several times since and, on every occasion, it comes up as the second version, which I'm sure is correct. This particular misperception was so vivid that I actually read the word panda without a second thought because it was as plain as the top picture. The word 'panda' was in the same font, and just as sharp and clear, as the rest of the text.

What struck me as interesting about this incident was that one entire word from a text was substituted with a quite different one. We know that, in misperception, an object in the field of view is substituted with one from visual memory. This particular example gives clues about exactly how this happens. It is clearly incredibly unlikely that I would have the word 'panda' in my visual memory, far less in the same font as on a box I just happen to see! I have, in the past, wondered if the objects drawn from visual memory are generalized 'archetypes' rather than particular examples. So if I misperceive a table it is a stylized version (a flat top supported by legs), rather than a particular example that I once saw. This fits with misperceptions I've had - I never recognise the objects (usually human figures) as any particular example from memory. The 'panda' incident also supports this idea. My brain could clearly not read the word 'paint' in the brief glimpse it was afforded, so it it made a best guess - 'panda'. It is a word with the same number of letters, three in common, two in the same position, so it's not a bad guess visually. The fact that 'panda' appeared so clearly, in the same font, must be be due to visual restrictions placed on the misperception by the physical size and shape of the real original word!

I wondered if there was any significance to my brain choosing the word panda. I wasn't thinking about pandas at the time though, of course, psychological suggestion is often subliminal. However, I think the visual similarity between the written words, rather than their meaning, was more likely to be why panda was chosen.

All of this supports the idea that visual substitutions are (a) archetypes rather than specific visual examples from memory and (b) restricted by the visual shape, size, colour and other characteristics of the real object they are replacing. That the misperception rarely works twice is why people who see visual substitutions as ghosts think that they have vanished, tending to reinforce their apparently paranormal credentials! The reason why I have gone into this trivial incident in such detail is that it is a remarkably unambiguous example of something which is usually difficult to pin down and illustrate. If anyone reading this has an example of a 'word substitution' misperception they've experienced, I'd be interested to hear about it.

18 September: Do coping strategies look psychic?

Being a super-recognizer could appear like a psychic ability. A super-recognizer (SR) is someone with an exceptional ability to recognize individual human faces. Around 2% of the population have this ability. A SR can remember someone they may have only met once many years before. They may also remember things about that person. This ability to know things about people they cannot normally recall might make SRs appear psychic.

In this week's New Scientist a few more bits of information about this little studied ability were described. For instance, SRs don't seem to be able to visually distinguish objects, other than faces, any better than most people. Also, it appeares that SRs process faces as a whole, rather than concentrating on parts, when recognizing them.

But perhaps even more interesting is that there are also around 2% of the population who are prosopagnosics - they cannot recognise faces at all! And the weird thing is, some people with this condition are not even aware of it. That's because they have unconsciously developed mental coping strategies which mean it hardly affects them. So, they may remember individuals by things other than their face, like their gait.

This is interesting because it means that people with prosopagnosia may have unknowingly developed an enhanced ability to notice things about people that most of us simply miss. This, again, can potentially appear like a psychic ability. Such people may notice a lot about a person they've only just met and be able to deduce much more about them than other people. It's a bit like the way Sherlock Holmes could deduce facts about someone he'd only just met simply be noticing small things in their appearance.

I think many people who believe themselves to be psychic may actually have 'unconscious insight'. That is, they have an enhanced ability to notice things about a person or place that most of us miss. And these abilities may come either from an exceptionally developed ability (like being a SR) or having to cope with a lack of such an ability (like prosopagnosia).

I have personal experience of mental coping strategies. I have a terrible memory which means I have always had problems with exams. There was one occasion where I HAD to pass an exam and discovered, to my horror, I could not answer any of the questions. Once panic had subsided, I looked at one question in detaill and realized I could derive the answer by extrapolating from one of the few principles I could remember concerning this subject. Amazingly, I passed! I guess they gave bonus points for starting from first principles! Since then, I've found that extrapolating from a few known facts is actually quite useful in paranormal research, where definite knowledge in thin on the ground. I'm sure many people use mental coping strategies all the time without even realizing that they are.

One plausible definition of a psychic might be "someone who supplies information, on a particular subject, that they were not previously consciously aware they had". If you accept that as a starting point, it soon becomes obvious that anything that enhances someone's ability to notice and remember things could easily appear as a psychic ability. We all know much more than we can consciously recall at will and, in certain circumstances, this information can reappear unexpectedly, usually in response to some mental trigger. It would be worth studying psychics to test for unusual, but non-paranormal, mental abilities and coping mechanisms. Did I mention I have a bad memory?

14 September: Vanishing buzzard - UFO or ghost?

BuzzardOne second it was there, the next, blue sky! How does a buzzard (the one in the photo, right, to be precise) vanish in flight against a cloudless sky? And if it is an anomaly, does it count as a ghost or a UFO?

I was taking photos of the buzzard, despite the fact that it was really too high to get a detailed picture. As I looked through the camera viewfinder, the bird suddenly vanished! Weirder, it then reappeared seconds later, as if nothing had happened! I soon realized what was going on. The autofocus was locking onto the bird and then, because it was a small object in a lot of sky, losing it. The bird flipped out of focus so quickly that, instead of going blurred, it simply vanished. Usually, when you are focussing on an object, you can see when the autofocus is operating because the background becomes more or less blurry. However, because it was a plain blue sky, there was no obvious change. It produced the illusion of the bird simply vanishing in a clear blue sky. No doubt someone has a video showing something similar already. Or if not, one will be produced some day and we'll know the cause.

UFOs are sometimes reported to just vanish. Interestingly, there are several reasons why a non-weird object in the sky might apparently vanish. One obvious reason is that it goes behind a cloud! Another one is that a distant plane might be catching the sun and so shining brightly. If it then turns, so that not so much reflective surface is pointing towards the witness, it might appear to simply vanish. At night, satellites are often reported as UFOs. They appear like slowly moving stars which often vanish in an instant, nowhere near the horizon or a cloud. They disappear because they move into the Earth's shadow.

And back with birds, which are sometimes reported as UFOs, they can also vanish on occasion, without the aid of a camera. Take that buzzard, for instance. It was circling on a thermal and, as they tend to do, it rose higher and higher until it could no longer be seen. If you look away, just for a a second, when a buzzard is very high, you may not be able to see it again as it rises ever higher. It gives the impression of having simply vanished. If, as I mentioned the other day, we could only train witnesses, this is the sort of stuff they should know!

If I saw a buzzard on the ground vanish in front of my eyes, I'd be tempted to call it a ghost. But as soon as it is flying it could still be a ghost. But might it be a UFO instead?

12 September: If only we could train witnesses!

GeeseI looked up as I heard the familiar sound of geese calling. Seconds later a skein of geese passed low over the urban street, still calling loudly. I visit that particular street a lot and so know that the sight of geese is rare there indeed! After they had flown by, my gaze fell back to street level. There were several people passing by, a couple of whom were looking at me! I was taken aback. Apparently the sight of some bloke staring at the sky was more interesting than what he was actually looking at. No one else noticed either me or geese!

Now, suppose one of those passers-by were to approach me next week with an account of how they'd just seen a UFO. I might have difficulties when they, almost inevitably, got to the list of things it 'definitely wasn't', particularly if that included geese.

I freely admit, I don't like the 'definitely wasn't' lists that some witnesses insist on adding to their accounts of seeing weird stuff. For a UFO, it might be something like 'it definitely wasn't a plane or a bird or a balloon.' The problem is that most people are simply not in possession of sufficient relevant expertise to make such statements with confidence. If the witness said their hobbies were bird watching, plane spotting and ballooning, I'd say the list was fair comment. But in most cases, witnesses have no obviously relevant expertise.

I like to think that, after many years of intensive bird watching, I could definitely always spot a bird but there have been cases when I've been fooled. It is not unknown for highly experienced birders to, very occasionally, mistake inanimate objects for birds and vice versa! If even these experts can sometimes be fooled, what hope is there for people who don't even look up to see a lot of noisy geese passing low overhead?

What we really need is a training programme for anomaly witnesses. They could be shown all sorts of things they might possibly see, familiar and unfamiliar, from many different angles, in different lighting conditions and in unusual settings. Of course, this would all be pointless since we've no idea who might witness what in the future. Which is a pity!

If this sounds as though I am advocating only accepting the testimony of witnesses with relevant expertise, that is most definitely NOT the case. Obviously, you'd like a naturalist to be the one who finds an alien animal but that almost never happens! So, instead, we need simple accurate testimony from whoever was actually there. However, it would be useful if we, as investigators, can get witnesses to concentrate on remembering as much as they can of what they actually experienced, rather than what they thought it was or wasn't. The trouble with 'definitely wasn't' lists is that they can bias memory, and even perception, causing vital clues, which may contradict the witness's interpretation of what they saw, to be inadvertently lost.

I suppose if the witness wasn't sure it 'definitely wasn't a goose' then they might have not put in a report in the first place. So there is some point to 'definitely wasn't' lists. However, when investigating such cases you should not allow such lists to persuade you not to pursue the possibility that it actually WAS a goose.

10 September: Ghost vigils: what next?

Can ghost vigils provide useful information about the nature of ghosts and hauntings? As I outlined recently, early vigils told us useful stuff about hauntings, like the new house effect. However, the currently popular 'ghost hunting boom' vigils consist largely of assumption-led methods. The problem with such techniques is that they cannot question their own assumptions so they don't tend to lead to new knowledge. Worse, such techniques can produce 'positive' results anywhere, whether haunted or not.

So is it worth bothering with ghost vigils anymore? Yes, for one good reason - you get exclusive access to a haunted location for an entire night! It's a perfect opportunity to do some serious research into what hauntings are really about. The big question is - what makes a haunted location different to any other? On the face of it you might think you need to compare a haunted house with another non-haunted one. Luckily that isn't necessary, because of the phenomenon of haunting hot spots.

Haunting floor planBriefly, while buildings are said to be haunted, apparent paranormal activity is usually restricted to just a few small areas, typically individual rooms (or parts of large rooms). Even stranger, the 'activity' reported for such individual hot spots is typically always the same. In the (theoretical) example shown in the floor plan (right) here, for instance, in room A an apparition has been seen occasionally while in the hall, B, the sound of footsteps is regularly heard and faint music is sometimes heard at position C, in the corner of the largest room. These are haunting hot spots.

So to find out what makes a particular building haunted, you need to first ask, what makes a hot spot 'hot', compared to similar places nearby where nothing is reported? Such comparison techniques were used in the MADS project which looked for EIFs (experience inducing fields) at Muncaster Castle (for EIFs see here, for an account of the project see here). Two identical magnetometers produced readings simultaneously (at rates of several hundred times per second), one in the 'hot spot' (the bed in the Tapestry Room) and the other nearby. It emerged that EIFs could indeed be responsible for the sounds of a child crying, heard by several independent witnesses on different occasions.

I have examined a number of haunting hot spots and it is often possible to see how misperception may be responsible for paranormal reports. It is important to examine as many different witness reports of the hot spot as possible to look for their similarities, differences and, in particular, the conditions of the experiences. For instance, strange 'light phenomena' are often only seen in low light conditions, where observers lose the ability to see detail. Some aural phenomena may depend on something specific happening, like plumbing being used or automatic machinery switching on, so you may need to wait around a bit!

While you should try to reproduce the conditions of the original reports as much as possible, also bear in mind that something else may have been happening that the witness did not notice. Some doors, for instance, can open 'by themselves' due to drafts (see here). You could try to stimulate a draft deliberately by opening other doors nearby. The only rule for such experiments is that you must do nothing that couldn't happen anyway (see xenonormal studies).

With cases of apparent object movement, setting up several video camera to view the same hot spot from several different angles can be very useful. If the hot spot is in a bedroom, with all the paranormal phenomena being reported by people in bed, you should consider the possibility of near sleep experiences.

You can also examine if hot spots are affected by the 'spookiness factors'. Studies have shown that places with higher 'spookiness factors' produce more reports of ghostly phenomena. The spookiness factors include high humidity, low temperature and low lighting. It would be worth measuring these factors and comparing them to non-hot spots nearby. Though it is unlikely that spookiness factors produce weird experiences in themselves, they may bias people towards misperceiving.

Of course, it is always possible that you might find something about a hot spot that implies it may have genuinely paranormal properties. However, you should bear in mind that the causes of reports from most hot spots are more prosaic. It is worth examining as many xenonormal explanations as possible.

So I think there IS a useful purpose for ghost vigils, though not using the current assumption-led methods. A carefully designed study of hot spots would be just one useful way to pass away the wee hours in a haunted house.

PS: Here at the ASSAP website, we get lots of emails offering us street lighting equipment! I wonder why ...

7 September: Ghost vigils: What we learned from them

VigilMost of what we know about ghosts and hauntings comes from witness testimony. But while witness testimony is useful, you can also learn a lot by having, or trying to have, the ghostly experience yourself. For a start, you are prepared for the event, hopefully with recording equipment ready, unlike people who have spontaneous experiences. Also, it removes the 'filter' of a witness's interpretation of their experience, which inevitably affects their testimony. Vigils also allow for controlled conditions where we know exactly where everyone is and, to some extent, what they're doing, allowing certain natural causes to be readily eliminated. Thus, the idea of a ghost vigil, as a way of learning more about ghosts and hauntings, makes a lot of sense on paper.

Unfortunately, the history of vigils shows that things are, as is always the case in paranormal research, never that simple! We can usefully differentiate here between the 'classic' vigil, common before the ghost hunting boom, and the 'boom' model, more familiar today. In classic vigils, common in ASSAP's early days, the basic idea was to sit around waiting for something to happen at a haunted location. Equipment consisted of notebooks, cameras, tape recorders and not much else. It did, however, serve the purpose of, more or less, reproducing the condition in which the original (spontaneous) witnesses experienced things. The methods of 'boom' vigils are much more proactive with a wide range of equipment used not simply to record what's going on but to actively detect, or even promote, paranormal activity. Whether it is even possible to detect such activity remains highly controversial (see here for instance).

So what did classic ghost vigils tell us? Firstly, there was the 'new house' effect. If you put a bunch of people in a building that they've never visited before overnight, they will notice all its natural sounds. These natural building sounds are caused by such things as thermal expansion and contraction of the building fabric over the day as well as plumbing, automatic machinery and so on. People who use such buildings all the time know these sounds and mentally block them out. Such people are usually the original witnesses of any haunting activity and know it is quite different to natural building sounds. So, while the original witnesses experience one set of strange phenomena, what gets reported on classic vigils is often a whole different set of oddities, mostly derived from natural causes. So, instead of seeing the same thing as the original witnesses, vigil attendees tend to report completely different stuff!

The second point concerns the question of why people on vigils rarely experience the phenomena reported by the original witnesses. There is one obvious reason for this. If a ghost is seen in a building on average once a year, what are the chances that it will be seen on the one night you hold a ghost vigil? Another reason is that people sitting around waiting for something to happen is not strictly reproducing how most spontaneous experiences occur. For instance, some reported ghostly footsteps may actually be caused by a combination of odd acoustics in one room and someone walking along an adjacent corridor. Without that 'someone', you could wait forever for the ghostly footsteps!

The third point is that many 'phenomena' on vigils are actually reported during rest periods, when attendees are not actively waiting for something to happen. In other words, weird stuff is more common when people are behaving normally! This makes sense because the original witnesses were not hanging around waiting for ghosts to appear either!

The fourth point is that haunted buildings do not have strange phenomena reported uniformly across them. Instead there are haunting hot spots where particular phenomena are repeatedly reported (see here for a discussion of this). Though this information was already there in the witness testimony, it becomes starkly obvious when you plan a vigil!

So what we learned from classic vigils is that it is very difficult to see what witnesses have seen before but very easy to generate lots of spurious reports of 'phenomena', which have natural causes, through unfamiliarity with a particular building. It is possible to reduce these problems by repeatedly holding vigils in the same location. This allows you to get used to the natural noises, and other peculiar characteristics of a building, while increasing the odds that you might just happen to be around when something the original witness reported happens. So, one-off vigils in an unfamiliar building are not usually helpful. And simply waiting around for something to happen may be counter productive. Unfortunately, behaving naturally reduces the possibility of achieving controlled conditions.

And what can we learn from 'boom' vigils? Unfortunately, these are based on assumption-led methods, meaning they can tell us little of value about the nature of hauntings or ghosts. And, given the limitations of classic vigils outlined above, it is unlikely that they have much more to tell us either. So, what next?

5 September: Can you slow down time?

Is it possible to slow down time? Apparently some sportsmen and women can. When about to initiate a physical action, like hitting a tennis ball, they perceive things to go slower than usual, so giving them longer to choose the right shot. Dr Nobuhiro Hagura of UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience has done some initial research (see here) into this apparent ability and has confirmed that it exists. Some people really can make time appear to go more slowly.

It is thought that the phenomenon may be due to the brain processing visual information more quickly. Some neuroscientists believe that there are internal 'clocks' within our brains, like the clock speed of a computer, which determine how fast we process information. In certain individuals, like sports people who train by doing the same thing repetitively, their brains may change (through neuroplasticity) to 'speed up' in certain situations.

For 'ordinary people' time can appear to run slowly too, sometimes, such as in highly stressful situations, though it may be a different mechanism from the sport effect. Some reported paranormal experiences appear to be stressful, according to the witnesses. It is possible that, as a result, they may report the event as lasting longer than it really did. With 'quick glance' misperception, for instance, the whole thing may be over in seconds. But it might be reported as lasting longer than that, causing the investigator to mistakenly discount such a 'glance' misperception as a likely cause. It is worth looking for any apparent time discrepencies in incidents that the witness reported to be stressful.

Just as our brains offer us only the edited highlights of reality through our senses, it seems they also tell us how fast time is moving! It is important to take such effects into account when we consider witness reports of the paranormal.

PS: There is now a meta-analysis of attempts to replicate Daryl Bem's precognition experiments - see here.

3 September: I know what I saw!

Black rabbitCan you see the black rabbit in this photo (right)? It's partially hidden in the undergrowth, facing away from the camera. I certainly saw it at the time the photo was taken. If you can't see it, don't worry, there isn't one. But I was there and I know what I saw!

I've had many conversations with paranormal witnesses where I've been on the receiving end of the 'I was there and you weren't' and 'I know what I saw' arguments. They usually happen if a witness asks for your opinion on what they may have seen and you reply that you think is probably misperception, or some other xenonormal explanation. In many cases the witness has already decided that what they saw was paranormal, hence responses like those above.

Having been a witness to many strange things, I sympathise with these sort of arguments. As a witness you tend to quickly decide, unconsciously, what you've seen and, from then on, stick to that interpretation. If someone questions your interpretation of your memory, you may start to remember 'new' details that all back up your own version. While it's possible that you are really remembering new details, the fact that these 'new details' always seem to back up your prior interpretation suggests that confabulation is involved much of the time.

In the current case, I only saw the 'rabbit' at first glance. Closer examination soon revealed it to be an area of shadow with some vegetation (see zoomed photo, below right). But in many cases, witnesses do not get a chance for any 'closer examination'. As in all misperception, I didn't simply see a vague rabbit shape, I saw an actual rabbit, albeit one retrieved unconsciously into my perception from my own visual memory. Had I never got a better view I would remember the rabbit quite distinctly, not simply a vaguely rabbit-shaped shadow. I might even be able to remember 'new' details about the animal, if questioned closely.

TBlack rabbit zoomedhe argument that 'you weren't there so you can't know' is also understandable. A misperception often relies on a specific set of circumstances, particularly with regard to lighting. So it is entirely possible that investigators coming to the site later (and even the original witness) won't see the misperception again. But this doesn't stop us trying to understand the incident, often better than the original witness.

It s possible to assess the likelihood of a misperception by examining the site carefully. In science, we do not always have to able to reproduce a natural effect to infer what is likely to have happened during a particular event. It is impossible to visit the centre of the Sun but we can still infer what is going on there from particles that arrive on Earth.

While witness evidence is important in reconstructing a reported event, it is rarely the most reliable source of information available. There are occasions when I have watched witnesses misperceiving. I could see what they could see but I realized they had misperceived it as something else.

While, as investigators, we should always sympathise with witnesses who may well not understand just how realistic misperception and hallucinations can be, that should never stop us from making an honest assessment of what we think their experience truly represented.

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

Last month's (August) website figures are an average of 10081 hits per day. This is noticeably up on the previous month's 9355 daily average.


Previous blog pages ...

  • Aug 2012 (including seeing unknown animals, glowing lampposts, EMF meters as an accident of history)
  • July 2012 (including turning rods into orbs, psychic insight, making insects spell, glowing eyes, haunting hot spots)
  • June 2012 (including doppelganger mystery, not expecting ghosts, anecdotal evidence, credible witnesses)
  • May 2012 (including lenticular cloud, ghost encounter, ghost train, weird stuff in a tree, van Gogh, resolution)
  • Apr 2012 (including naturalists and ghosts, odd feelings during OBE, wrong kind of sound, voice from nowhere)
  • Mar 2012 (including jogging and ghosts, misty ghosts, image noise, full spectrum photography, EVP of machines)
  • Feb 2012 (including ghost car, analyzing anomalous photos, ghost at rock concert, OBEs and motion sickness)
  • Jan 2012 (including stopping flying rods, photographing fairies, time warp, a ghost tie, ghostly fingers, New Year UFOs)
  • Dec 2011 (including missing time, improving ghost vigils, anomalous photos, ghostly faces, seeing fiction)
  • Nov 2011 (including OBE video games, EVP and VLF, whatshisname, paranormal misconceptions, invisible ghosts)
  • 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 2012