ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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Why do some people seem to experience dramatic paranormal events while others never get anything, despite attending the same investigations?

"I sat in a darkened room waiting, with others for some sign of a ghost. On the wall, a small white light appeared and it slowly traced a path across the wall before vanishing. I noted that its motion matched the sound of a car outside. Looking at the curtains opposite the wall where the light appeared, it became obvious that the light was from car headlights. As was our rule then, no one said anything about what they experienced but instead recorded it for later analysis. In the debriefing afterwards, several people mentioned a ghostly light, some even thought they saw a ghostly figure! I was the only one who linked it with the car outside!"

In this example, taken from a ghost vigil, different witnesses interpret the same event in several ways. One sees a mundane explanation, another a paranormal one. So which is right? Both are, because they had different experiences caused by the same thing. It illustrates one of the major problems of paranormal research - we all experience things differently!

One witness connected the sound of the car with the light while the others did not. Once the various witnesses 'decided', albeit unconsciously, what they object was, they had significantly different experiences. The one who saw the 'ghostly figure' may have been so excited at seeing something weird that they didn't hear the car or simply thought it irrelevant.

Dramatic reports of the paranormal

It can be like that in paranormal research. You can go on a vigil and witness nothing special and yet be told, months later, that extraordinary events were witnessed! You wonder if you were actually at the same vigil! It is not simply a question of events being exaggerated over time by altering memory or Chinese Whispers. People's experience of the same event can differ radically at the time!

Years ago we may have simply seen this as a difference in interpretation but now it seems to be a difference in what was actually experienced. Someone can literally see a ghost where someone else, looking at the same object, sees a tree. Consider some of the factors involved:

  • our brains naturally see patterns in everything we perceive
  • we are find mysteries attractive over the mundane
  • we learn about the world through stories as well as direct experience
  • we misperceive objects we cannot see well or don't recognise
  • psychological suggestion directly affects our experiences

All these factors vary between different people and in different situations.

Through misperception, different people can literally experience unusual events things differently, according to what is in their memory. That 'memory' is not limited to personal experience and can include information from books, films, stories etc. If someone strongly believes in ghosts, they may misperceive a poorly-seen tree or bush as a ghostly figure. Someone who doesn't believe may see something quite different, though still not the reality - a tree or bush.

It is entirely possible for one person to have a dramatic paranormal experience while a witness to the same event sees nothing special! Indeed, this is what happens with different paranormal researchers on vigils. Some see ghosts almost everywhere while others never see one for their entire lives, even when they go to the same events.

Different people, different experiences

It would be fascinating to see what exactly people are actually experiencing (and with advances in technology this might be possible soon) and how it varies from person to person. We can already see major differences when we interview witnesses to an incident. The fact that some people never experience dramatic paranormal events does not mean that others are fantasising. They simply differ in their subjective experiences, whatever their source.

When you are sitting in vigil after vigil, surrounded by equipment, with nothing happening at all, it can be hard to believe what other people have reported in similar (or even the same) circumstances. But when you realise that human experience of unusual events is strongly biased by memory and belief, it starts to make some sort of sense. It can reinforce personal belief or skepticism without touching on the reality, or otherwise, of the paranormal.

An example

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

Imagine if the witness had not seen the bag emerge from behind the fence. They had 'experienced' seeing a small unknown black and white animal that someone else, looking from a different angle, would see as a plastic bag! Both experiences would be equally 'real' but only one would correspond with the real world.

The devil may vanish in the detail

Many dramatic experiences are told and retold as anecdotes. The problem here is that details get lost, or even altered, with retelling and fading memories. The dramatic bits remain exciting, as they are the core of the story, but the detail is quickly forgotten. But the detail can make major differences to the dramatic events themselves.

For instance, the level of lighting can strongly affect whether misperception is involved. If a scene is remembered as being 'well lit', suggesting no ambiguity, when in fact it occurred in candle light, the explanation for the events may be right there. Similarly, dramatic events can seem to last a long time when, in fact, they may take only seconds. Short period experiences are another potent source of misperception.

Details matter when it comes to all paranormal reports. Unfortunately, the drama of the event may mean details are not noticed or they may be confabulated later to 'support' the paranormal interpretation of the experience (do people really remember exactly which lights were on and which doors ajar when they saw a ghost a decade before?). At least if such things happen on a vigil that is being videoed, it should be possible to discover many of these vital details after the event.

Dramatic conclusions

People often say, if they've experienced something dramatic, that it could only have been paranormal or pure imagination! We now know that this is not true. Indeed, some less dramatic events may be far better evidence for the paranormal. The 'dramatic' nature of an apparently paranormal incident is neither here nor there when it comes to its value as evidence.

© Maurice Townsend 2009