ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
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Expecting the unexplained

It used to be thought that the brain built a internal 'model' of reality using the senses. Thus, your brain would, at any one time, have a complete picture (including sound, smell and touch) of everything around you. However, such things as 'change blindness' show this cannot be true (otherwise we'd notice differences between our internal model and the real world). Instead, it is thought that we notice maybe 5 or 6 things in our environment, according to what is most important. You might argue that the world appears much more detailed than just 5 or 6 things, so how can this be true? The detail we see is not stored in our brains, it is continuously updated by actually experiencing the world.

What does all this have to do with the paranormal? Well, it means that our picture of 'reality' is probably a lot less detailed than we think. And when it comes to vivid memories, detail is probably 'added' after the event by our imaginations!

If something 'unexplained' happens in the real world, we are likely to devote all our attention to it. However, this means we may miss the crucial surrounding context. That context may include evidence that shows that it is actually quite easy to explain. Once the incident enters our memory, it could be further embellished depending on how we've interpreted what we've seen. As an example, think of those hilarious insurer's accident reports we've all seen about moving trees and swerving roads. Unexpected events don't make us good witnesses.


The void

Despite over a century of serious research, the subject of the paranormal can still boast few solid facts. There are many good reasons for this. The elusiveness of paranormal phenomena is certainly a major factor. The very small number of professional scientists doing research into the subject is another.

As a consequence of the lack of an extensive scientific literature, a void has opened up in the understanding of the subject. Just as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, so an absence of facts seems to attract stories (for which read wild speculation) to fill the void.

When serious researchers investigate ghosts, for instance, they generally find little evidence pointing to 'spirits' of any sort being involved. On the other hand, they also usually find no compelling evidence that spirits are NOT involved. Similarly, they generally fail to prove that dinosaurs are not involved. The reason why some ghost hunters look for spirits, rather than dinosaurs, is down to popular culture. There is hardly any more hard evidence on the ground in favour of spirits being involved in hauntings than there is for dinosaurs being responsible.

Despite the lack of evidence, the idea of ghosts as spirits is astonishingly resilient. There have been many cases when the evidence amounted to little more than a few unexplained disturbances (sounds, object movements) at someone's house. And yet, the 'ghost' (who never even put in an appearance) was 'identified' as a former occupant of the building. How such identifications are done is rarely explained but it must be hard, given the almost total lack of evidence.

This is a perfect example of how speculation will fill an information void. Some of that speculation ends up in newspaper articles and books. It then gets recited as fact by readers.

Unlike many fields of study, paranormal research is full of stories that, when you examine them closely, simply fall apart. It can be very frustrating. The best advice is to always do your own research!



People like stories! It is undeniable. They read fiction, watch films and follow TV dramas avidly. Even fact is sometimes wrapped up in a story format through in TV documentaries and in the popular press. For some reason, people find stories, with their definite structure, more appealing than the apparently random, pointless events of real life. A natural disaster somehow makes more sense when it is seen through the eyes of fictional character as part of a plot.

Urban legends, which often overlap with reports of the paranormal, have a defined plot, called a motif. In one variation of the phantom hitchhiker legend, someone picks up a hiker on a lonely road at night. They complain of being cold and are leant a scarf by the kind motorist. The hiker then vanishes from inside the moving car. The shaken motorist later discovers the hiker is dead and visits their grave to find the scarf hanging on the headstone.

Such urban legends have a definite structure, starting with a mystery that is gradually resolved with proof of the paranormal provided at the end.

Stories like this are usually told about a 'friend of a friend'. It is usually impossible to find original witnesses. There are, of course, road ghosts like the one at Blue Bell Hill. However, the facts are usually messy, meaningless and have no obvious point or resolution.

Until science can provide satisfactory answers to the problem of paranormal phenomena, the subject will be awash with speculation and unsubstantiated claims filling the void.
© Maurice Townsend 2006