ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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Xenonormal - something that appears paranormal but which has natural causes

Introduction

Why do people report certain events as paranormal? Most such reports, when properly investigated, turn out to be normal phenomena. At this point in a case, many paranormal researchers tend to lose interest as they are, understandably, looking for the genuinely paranormal. The problem with this is that many of these, often rare, natural phenomena, that resemble the paranormal, are never properly researched. This means that when such events occur again, researchers may have to relearn everything that others have already found out.

Xenonormal

It would be helpful if there was a term for events that, in certain circumstances, resemble the paranormal, even though they are not. They can be called 'xenonormal'. This means 'foreign normal' ; in other words 'the unfamiliar but natural'. In many cases, witnesses to apparent paranormal events (and sometimes even the researchers!) are simply unfamiliar with a purely natural phenomenon.

The xenonormal covers not only rare, exotic phenomena but also some common ones (that were simply unfamiliar to particular witnesses). If someone hears odd noises in their house that they cannot explain, they might report it as a ghost, even though a plumber would know what is was immediately. Similarly, a witness unfamiliar with the planet Venus, might report it as a UFO, whereas an astronomer would never do so.

In witness reports of anomalous phenomena you will frequently hear phrases like 'I've never seen anything like it before' or similar. Even when witnesses don't say this, it often becomes obvious through interviewing that they were not familiar with what they saw. Such phrases are usually taken by investigators to mean that what was seen was extraordinary, possibly paranormal. Taken literally, however, they simply confirm that many witnesses see things they don't recognise, regardless of whether they are paranormal or not.

Why do people report events as paranormal?

Not much research has been done into why people report things as paranormal. The picture that emerges, from past cases, revolves around people's perception and knowledge. The likely factors are:

  • unfamiliarity with certain phenomena ('encounters with the unfamiliar')
  • cultural background
  • over-concentration on detail
  • lack of background information
  • misperception
  • coincidence

Looking in detail at these factors:

Encounters with the unfamiliar

Most of us are surrounded by an increasingly complex environment. We only pay attention to things that are vital to our lives and often know little about how things work, including nature. How many people can actually explain how a DVD recorder works, for instance, or what the electronics in a car do precisely? At the same time, our increasingly office and home-bound lives take us further and further from experiencing natural phenomena. People living in cities can barely see the night sky and so can be forgiven for knowing little about it. As we become ever busier, we notice less and less of what is going on in our environment.

For example, you may have a concealed fox sleeping through the day in your garden and never even be aware of it. If it starts making a blood-curdling noise at night or moving small portable items around in your garden, you might reasonably think there was something paranormal going on.

Many of us tend to notice things only when the unexpected happens. Facing the unexpected, or unfamiliar, can make us anxious. In this situation most people will seek help. Some people, depending on how they perceive the event, may call in paranormal researchers.

In addition, some people may be in an unusual mental state (such as anxiety) when faced with the unfamiliar. This may affect their perception, making them less reliable recorders than usual of what they experience. For instance, after moving into a new house, there are lots of unfamiliar things to get used to. This 'learning curve' can increase stress levels making people more likely to misinterpret things around them.

When familiar things do the unexpected

The 'unfamiliar' in the xenonormal is not simply lack of experience of an object, animal or situation. It can also come from over-familiarity. Such over-familiarity leads to definite expectations - we expect things to behave in a certain way. So when familiar things do something unexpected it can lead to a xenonormal experience.

Here is an example. You notice someone, perhaps in your peripheral vision, walking along a familiar street. Suddenly they have vanished! Was it a ghost? In fact, the person slipped into a narrow alley but, because you were not watching them closely, you missed it. Your expectation, that they would continue to walk along the road, was not met, leaving you with a strange feeling that something paranormal has happened.

Expectation is, thus, an important factor in xenonormal experiences. If something happens that was not expected, we can get a feeling that something weird, possibly paranormal, has occurred.

Cultural background

As explained elsewhere, we all 'know' (or think we do) what a ghost is and what it is supposed to do. For someone brought up with ghost stories (which is just about everybody), even if they take no interest in the paranormal, it is therefore not so surprising that they might call in a paranormal researcher when they hear odd noises in their house. Similarly, if they see something they don't recognise in the sky, they will often think first of alien spacecraft. The media is so full of images of flying saucers and aliens that it is easy to see why an unfamiliar object in the sky gets interpreted in that way. In the past, something unfamiliar in the sky might have been seen as a flying fairy or a dragon when these were prominent aspects of the culture.

Over-concentration on detail

Many paranormal reports are generated by people reading too much into the available data. For instance, people sometimes see 'faces' or 'figures' in photos when they are, in fact, just random background detail. Often, a picture of the same scene taken with a higher resolution, or from a different angle, will dispel the illusion (like the famous 'face' on Mars). Similarly, demonstration EVP clips containing apparent voices are often short, omitting any surrounding context that might throw light on their origin. In both cases, there is an over-concentration on small details at the expense of the total data available which may give a better picture of what was going on.

Grass behind stoneBy looking too closely at data, people may reach, or go beyond, the limit of the resolution of the data. At the limit of resolution, data becomes uncertain. For instance, take the two photos here. The one on the left shows the edge of a stone plinth with grass behind. The edge of the stone is reasonably clear and obvious, as you would expect. The picture on the right is a magnified version of a portion of the same photo. You can see the the individual pixels in the digital photo. Note how the boundary between the stone and the grass is much less certain at this resolution. The details are no longer reliable at this scale, which is beyond the resolution of the photo. Any unusual 'shapes' at this resolution are entirely spurious. For a better example, see here.

Another aspect of concentrating too much on detail is the over-processing of data. Software designed to enhance images or sounds actually alters it. Sometimes data is 'enhanced' so much that is completely distorted. The result is no longer an accurate record of an event but artificial patterns invented by software.

Seeing too much significance in coincidence is also over-concentration on detail. Some people will see it as significant that an orb appears over a particular grave stone in a photo, for instance. However, the orb is still caused by dust or insects. The fact that the orb appears over a grave stone is just coincidence. It is common for non-statisticians to overestimate the odds against such a coincidence.

In all cases, the data are insufficient (or too altered) to support any conclusion about whether the paranormal was involved. Such cases might be termed 'ambiguous sensory stimuli' because there is not sufficient data to differentiate between different sources (see Postscript 3).

Lack of background information

No event happens in isolation - there is always a background to it, though sometimes we don't notice it. This background includes such basic things as the time, place, weather, people present, whether a door was locked or a window open, etc. It also includes what other things that were happening at the time. When witnesses report paranormal phenomena, they often don't notice these background details because they are nowhere near as interesting. Such details could, however, be vital to understanding the apparently paranormal event.

For instance, someone may report hearing a strange ghostly noise while failing to notice that it only happens when the wind blows in a particular direction. Or maybe they fail to notice that 'ghostly whispering' is only ever heard when a particular water tap is turned on. Such clues could easily provide natural explanations for apparently mysterious phenomena. In this case, relevant data are there but they are being ignored, perhaps because they are not seen as relevant to a paranormal explanation. Witnesses may sometime assume that something is paranormal (because of cultural priming) and then only notice details that appear to support that view.

Recordings, photos and instrumental data are often minutely dissected for possible paranormal content. However, if the circumstances of such recordings are not logged in sufficient detail then possible natural explanations cannot be eliminated. For instance, if someone produces an apparent EVP on a recording on a vigil, but it is not possible to demonstrate that no one present was talking at the time, then as evidence for the paranormal it is useless. It does not matter what sophisticated software analysis might be performed later on the data. Using software to show that the voice was 'not natural', for instance, might simply mean that it was a normal voice altered by the acoustics of the room or other noises (more background information).

Misperception

Many reports of the paranormal are put down to misperception. This is, however, probably not as common as many people think. Misperception is when the human brain is fooled by an optical, auditory or some other illusion. People literally 'see' or 'hear' something, quite plainly, when it is, in fact, something else. They have a real experience, just not the one they think they're having! It is involuntary and uncontrollable, unlike an encounter with the unfamiliar. Misperception includes hallucinations, however caused, as they too are completely real to the percipient. Misperceptions, however, always involve a sensory stimulus while 'ordinary' hallucinations require none.

There are many occasions when you do not see things well. For instance, in low light, at distance or when objects are only glanced briefly or seen in the 'corner of our eye'. In any such case, your brain may 'substitute' objects from its memory to replace those it can't see properly! You can literally see something that isn't really there! When the object you are seeing is unfamiliar to you, this effect is more likely.

Certainly, where misperception is present it can be very powerful because it is a real experience, to the witness, and will be remembered as such. It is likely, however, that encounters with the unfamiliar are a more common cause of paranormal reports. It is difficult to see how misperception would explain why people report Venus as a UFO, plumbing noises as a 'spirit' or a wisp of fog on a road as a ghost. These stimuli only vaguely resemble their paranormal interpretations. They are ambiguous visual stimuli. There is a much fuller account of misperceptions here.

Coincidence

Many reports of paranormal phenomena, when investigated, are found to involve many unlikely factors coming together - a big coincidence, in fact! This is not so surprising when you consider that coincidences and xenonormal reports share two very important factors, namely: (a) they are rare and (b) they are 'one time' events (ie. generally one person experiences something weird, once, in one location). For much more on how xenonormal reports are coincidences, see here.

Why does the xenonormal exist?

Paranormal researchers come across vastly more xenonormal phenomena than paranormal ones. This raises the question - why should there just happen to be so many phenomena around that resemble the paranormal?

The answer is, of course, obvious. People have misinterpreted unfamiliar phenomena since pre-history. When our ancestors had, say, a sleep paralysis experience and saw a figure disappear before their eyes, they would naturally have thought they had seen a 'spirit'. They would have known nothing about modern science and interpreted their vision literally, using their contemporary world view. The worldwide tradition of ghosts would naturally have arisen from such early experiences and then been perpetuated through ghost stories.

This tradition has now turned full circle. Though we now have the science to understand unusual experiences, the ghostly tradition now affects the way modern people interpret encounters with the unfamiliar. When witnesses see things unfamiliar to them they are primed to interpret them in paranormal ways.

This argument does not rule out the existence of real ghosts, of course. It does, however, explain why we have to eliminate so many imitators!

Research has shown that our instinctive decision-making is poor, when faced with unfamiliar situations. So, if we see a tree in such poor light that it is not immediately recognisable, we might instinctively decide it is a ghost. We might not think of it as a 'decision' but at some point during a sighting, we unconsciously 'decide' that we are watching something paranormal. This poor decision-making may explain how the xenonormal arises.

Sensitisation

When something strange is experienced in a building, the wetness may come to believe the place is haunted. They may then start to notice other unusual incidents at the same location and interpret them as part of the haunting. Such incidents may either not have been noticed at all before or, if they were, interpreted as normal phenomena. In this way, people may become 'sensitised' to interpreting things they don't recognise as paranormal, even though they may be xenonormal. Indeed, all the incidents, including the initial one, may be xenonormal.

Similarly, someone may experience something strange and then notice odd things happening in various places that they had not previously noticed. Again, all these incidents, including the first, may be xenonormal. However, the person may come to believe they are psychic (see Am I psychic). Psychological suggestion, or belief, brought on by such striking initial experiences can bias the interpretation of unrecognised phenomena towards the paranormal.

Why is the Xenonormal important?

It is clear that any paranormal researcher must have a good knowledge of the xenonormal, otherwise they will waste a lot of time chasing the normal. It is, therefore, important that we study the xenonormal as a separate subject within paranormal research. We need to know how orbs are produced, for instance, so that we can explain them in every possible situation when they are found. We need to understand how apparent voices can appear on sound recordings from natural causes to eliminate them from EVP studies. Although the xenonormal may not seem as exciting as the paranormal, it is vital that it is studied and understood by researchers. Otherwise paranormal research will spend another century getting not very far.

It has been assumed by some paranormal researchers that apparently anomalous incidents are best explained by psi - extra-sensory phenomena and psychokinesis. However, laboratory experiments to look for psi have, despite decades of effort and millions of trials, only produced evidence for a tiny psi effect (which some people argue may not even exist - see here). It seems highly unlikely that this tiny effect could possibly be responsible for the dramatic and apparently unambiguous reports, like ghost sightings, that prompted psi lab research. It is much more likely that most apparently paranormal reports are, in fact, xenonormal.

Xenonormal studies

This is the study of natural causes for apparently paranormal reports. In particular, the aim is to obtain the most comprehensive, testable (and, ideally, easily demonstrable) explanations for phenomena which resemble the paranormal. This can provide an important diagnostic toolkit for paranormal researchers when they try to eliminate natural causes. See here for more details.

Postscript: How might the xenonormal work?

Why should people see something they've never experienced before as paranormal? Why don't we just see always things the way they are? Of course, for most people, on most occasions, that is exactly what happens. The xenonormal is a rare experience.

The most obvious cause of most xenonormal experiences is misperception. Misperception is where you mistake a sensory stimulus for something else. It happens when your brain experiences a conflict between sensory inputs. To resolve the conflict your brain looks into its long term memory to try to recognise the object causing the conflict. If it can't find a memory from a real experience, it might sometimes use something from a cultural memory (such as a ghost or alien spacecraft). With something unfamiliar, the chances of this process happening are far higher because there is no real experience to draw on. For a full account see misperceptions.

Strange experiences may also be subject to confabulation. That's when something isn't remembered clearly and our brains 'fill in' details that never actually happened. These can sometimes have a paranormal slant, again for cultural reasons.

Interestingly, when people experience uncertainty or the unfamiliar, they often secrete a stress hormone called cortisol. This hormone affects their memory of the event, sometimes making it vivid ('flash-bulb memory'), though not necessarily accurate, and biasing it towards negative feelings. Certainly, many people find encounters with the xenonormal disturbing and do not want to repeat the experience. This is typical of the effect of cortisol.

Postscript 2: The brain's need for a logical explanation

Another interesting point to note is that human brains have a strong in-built urge for 'logical' explanations. This occurs at the unconscious level so that a logical (though not necessarily rational) image or memory is presented to our conscious minds. In misperception, a badly seen object that is not recognised may be substituted with another from memory to make it 'logical'. In confabulation, our memory of a poorly recalled incident may be 'padded out' with events that never happened to make it 'logical'. In both cases, our brains present the images or memories as 'fact' so that we recall them as having definitely happened ('I know what I saw'). Also, in both cases, the elements 'added' from memory may have come from fictional sources of paranormal activity. This quirk of the way our brains work may explain the existence of the xenonormal.

Postscript 3: Ambiguous stimuli

Regular readers of parapsychological literature may have come across 'ambiguous (sensory) stimuli' as an explanation for some ghost sightings. An 'ambiguous sensory stimulus' is one where there is insufficient data available to decide which of several possible sources may have produced it. So a vague scratching sound, for instance, could be a mouse, furniture under stress or a finger scratching wood or something else.

We have not used this term here because it only forms a small subset of the wider xenonormal. As noted in Postscript 2 above, there is a specific brain mechanism that logically unites all the xenonormal as an explanation for most paranormal reports. This makes it more logical to consider the xenonormal as a whole, rather than divide it into subsets. Further, it is not the 'sensory stimulus' that is important (ambiguous or otherwise) but how it is perceived.

In practice, most paranormal cases involve sensory stimuli that are not at all ambiguous, simply unrecognised by their witness. For instance, many people in the UK are familiar with the 'too-wit-too-woo' call of the Tawny Owl. But how many are familiar with its other calls or the eerie hissing and screech of the Barn Owl? The call of a nearby Barn Owl would be completely unambiguous, to a birdwatcher, but utterly unfamiliar, and chilling, to most UK residents. And consider orbs. To a serious photographer orbs are easily recognised as circles of confusion. However, orbs are continually reported to ASSAP, and other paranormal research organisations, by people who are puzzled by them and consider them paranormal. They are not ambiguous, just unrecognised by non-specialists. The same is true of vigils. Most xenonormal sights and sounds encountered on vigils are not ambiguous but easily recognisable to some people (eg. the sound of water in plumbing faintly resembling whispering) but many don't recognise them and interpret them as paranormal, given the context.

So, while ambiguous stimuli are certainly a cause of paranormal reports, they are a minor subset of the more general xenonormal.

Postscript 4: The normal!

Some paranormal sightings don't appear weird at all at the time. They are only deemed paranormal in retrospect. Strictly speaking, these cannot be called xenonormal. However, they often share many of the same characteristics and probably many of the same causes.

© Maurice Townsend 2009