Monday, 16 October 2017

If a ghost is blurry is it paranormal?

Sharp object blurry backgroundIf a ghost looks blurry is it paranormal? I should add that the witness in this hypothetical case is myopic (short-sighted) and not wearing glasses or contact lenses.  Normally, of course, everything would look blurry to such a person. However, being myopic myself, I’ve seen ghosts IN focus in such situations. Also, I’ve come across reports that other people have had the same experience.

You might think that seeing a ghost in focus, when it should be blurry, might be a sign it is paranormal. After all, it shouldn't be possible in any normal situation. However, in my case it was because the ghost was a misperception.  I’ve also seen other misperceived objects IN focus when I am not wearing my glasses. It would appear to be a feature of misperception.

So why would I misperceive things IN focus when they ought to be blurry? Misperceptions happen when we cannot see something well and our brains substitute another object into the scene we are seeing. It appears to be our brain’s best guess as to what the object really is and the substituted image comes from our own visual memory. So this would imply that my visual memories are IN focus, despite my being myopic. This makes sense as I, like many other myopic people, wear my glasses pretty much all the time. So my visual memories should be in focus. Another common source of ghost sightings are hallucinations. In near sleep experiences, for instance, visual elements from dreams are superimposed on real scenery. As far as I'm aware I dream IN focus so I'd expect ghosts to be sharp if I saw one in a near sleep experience when I was not wearing glasses.

So if I saw a blurry ghost when I was not wearing glasses, would that be an indication that it was paranormal? It would certainly imply that the ghost was a real object 'out there', as opposed to something subjective (like a misperception or hallucination). However, it might still not be a paranormal ghost. If I saw someone in historical costume, for instance, I might think it was a ghost when it was someone very real (see here for recent example).

So it seems that whether a ghost is blurry, or not, to someone with myopia while not wearing glasses, is not a reliable test to see if it is paranormal. It has made me wonder if there are any tests that WOULD reliably distinguish a paranormal from a xenonormal ghost. I haven't thought of one yet but I'll continue to think about it.

Incidentally, there is apparently technology currently being developed that could allow people with myopia to see visual displays in focus when not wearing glasses.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Small human ghost?

Orangey thingRecently I saw 'something' odd in my peripheral vision. As I turned to look straight at it I still wasn't sure what it was but it appeared to be a small human figure in a hood! It was moving a lot which is what attracted my attention. The figure appeared to be leaning over, as if examining something on the ground. However, the idea of a 'small human figure' in a hood appeared unlikely.

Luckily, I took a photo of it and here it is (right). The 'figure' is roughly in the centre of the picture with the 'hood' looking right and downwards. Close examination at the time soon revealed the object to be a tall plant, resembling a reed. It was moving in the breeze while the surrounding vegetation was not because it fully exposed to the wind and clearly had a very flexible stem.

Orangey thing darkThe 'figure' sighting was clearly a misperception. After the misperception 'broke' I did not see she figure again. When I look at the photo here I see something that resembles a figure but I do not see it as one. It is therefore not a photographic misperception (see here).

This sort if thing would not fool many people into thinking it was really a small human figure. But what if the observation had been made in low light? As an experiment I decided to simulate much lower illumination to see what it might look like. So here's the picture (right) darkened using photo editing software. Note how the 'figure' is much more prominent while the background vegetation has mostly vanished. Now imagine it moving strongly in the breeze. It could give a much stronger impression of a small human figure or possibly some kind of animal. Of course a photographic reconstruction won't be quite the same as the seeing something with the naked eye. Human vision is significantly different to what cameras record (see here for a comparison). Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that if I noted something odd in broad daylight then more people would probably see something strange at night. Maybe it would even be seen as a ghost!

Friday, 6 October 2017

Ghost with a paunch!

Car ghostI think I've seen more ghosts than anyone I know! And here's another one from just the other day. I was leaning down picking something up when I noticed someone standing nearby. Ever curious, I looked round slowly to see who it was. They were wearing dark trousers and a red top but I couldn't see any face because it was concealed by a tree branch. Then suddenly the figure was gone. So, a ghost then!

It realized quickly that it was a classic case of misperception. It was, however, by no means run of the mill. For a start, the ghostly 'figure' was actually made up of two different objects that happened to be in the same line of sight (see here for another recent example of this). Also the 'face' was not so much concealed as not there at all. I had 'seen' a human figure so I had just assumed the face must be behind the tree branch. This is an example of a partial concealment type of misperception (see triggers). Finally, the 'figure' was first viewed in peripheral vision (a typical trigger). And I was not wearing my glasses, so the whole scene appeared somewhat fuzzy even when I looked directly at it. This meant the 'figure' effect lasted a bit longer than a peripheral vision misperception normally might.

So what was I really looking at? The picture (right) is an extremely rough representation of what I saw. While it shows the relative positions of the objects involved correctly, the actual shapes are only approximate. The 'dark trousers' turned out to a black wheelie bin! Above that, the 'red top' was the front bonnet of a car behind the bin. There was a tree (the green object in the picture) just above the car and down the left side of the bin. A branch covered what would have been the upper torso and head, had it been a real human figure.

It is another example of how a partial view of an object can actually make a more powerful nociperception than a complete view. Had the tree not been there, I would not have seen a figure at all because there was nothing to represent a torso or head. But it made a convincing ghost with a paunch for a few seconds at least. And, yes, the figure was in focus (see here for background to this observation).

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

What I couldn't say about ghosts!

Floor planI was chatting with a new acquaintance recently, swapping brief biographical details, as you do. When asked about my interests it was with some embarrassment that I failed to mention my ruling passion - ghost research! How could I miss out this most vital interest?

Well, as I considered my answer I saw how the conversation might go. I knew that to the general public, the image of 'ghost research' is largely informed by the TV ghost hunting shows. I knew that it would take a long time to explain how different my ghost research is to what goes on in the TV programmes.

I expect I'll have to explain it one day so I thought I'd try it out here to see if it makes sense. The easiest way to look at how I got to where I am is to see where I came from. I started with an interest in ghosts informed largely by fiction and 'what everyone knows'. For instance, 'everyone knows' that ghosts are spirits, right?

So, when I started in real ghost research I was surprised by what I found. It wasn't a bit like the movies! For instance, ghosts were not instantly recognizable by being transparent or glowing. Instead they looked indistinguishable from normal people until they did something weird, like vanishing. And far from engaging with witnesses, they seemed unaware of their existence! None of this suggested sentient spirits to me.

And then there were hauntings, that 'everyone knows' are the activities of ghosts. But I have never come across any sightings of a ghost actually DOING any of the stuff they were supposedly doing, like moving stuff around. And what about haunting hot spots? These are quite specific small areas within a haunted location where the same phenomena are recorded again and again. So, in the diagram, an apparition might be seen repeatedly in room A, the sound of footsteps may be regularly heard in hall B while faint music is sometimes heard at C in the corner of the largest room. Again, none of this suggests the activity of a sentient spirit. It sounds more like a recording but that is a whole different discussion though ( see here for much more on this).

So after all this I decided to go back to basics. Instead of assuming anything about the nature of ghosts, I now examine the experience of witnessing them. This means looking at the witnesses themselves, the place where the experiences take place and what external event (if any) may be causing them. It turns out that there is no single cause of ghost sightings but many. And, to the witness, all the causes bring about an identical ghost experience. It is obvious that hallucinations (a key cause) can produce ghosts, even ones that might appear to interact with the witness. But misperceptions are every bit as lifelike. That's because what the witness sees comes from their own visual memory! Witnesses don't see a tree that vaguely resembles a human figure, they see a real solid person! And then there are coincidences, another important and often neglected cause of ghost sightings. An example would be someone seeing a figure in historic costume walking along a street apparently not interacting with anyone. It might be a very real human being who just happens to be going to a fancy dress party! As regular readers will be aware, my informal research has shown that these causes explain far more cases than you might, at first, expect.

As you can see, it is rather too long and complicated for a casual chat with a new acquaintance. On the whole I'd say I was right to skip it. Maybe next time ...

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Seeing ghosts to order?

Misperception in treeI felt annoyed! I looked out of a window and saw that someone had dropped a plastic box in the street. But as I looked a little harder the plastic box vanished before my eyes. There are, of course, ghosts of humans and animals but ghostly objects are much rarer. But they do occur occasionally. However, this clear plastic box looked like the sort of thing some food, like salads, comes in from a supermarket. It looked like litter rather than any ghostly manifestation.

It was, of course, a misperception, the same phenomenon responsible for many sightings of ghostly human figures. What makes this sighting interesting was that I was able to make it reappear easily. Normally a misperception 'breaks', so you see what's really there, and the misperception never reappears. But this one did. Through slowly changing my angle of view I could sometimes see the 'plastic box' and sometimes not. It was completely predictable and controllable.

It turns out that the 'plastic box' was made from a particular accidental visual alignment of three things. The top of the 'box' was formed by a drain cover in the pavement. The body of the 'box' was formed by the reflection of a white curtain fold in the window I was looking through. Finally, the base of the 'box' was formed by a patch of lichen on the pavement. If I moved just slightly, so that the three things no longer exactly aligned, the 'box' vanished instantly. But, unusually, it returned if I moved back. The box didn't reappear instantly, it came back after a few seconds of looking.

As a final experiment I revisited the scene at a different time of day. I could no longer see the 'box' no matter where I stood. I could still see the drain cover, lichen and reflected curtain fold, but the box would not appear. Clearly lighting was also a crucial factor. Specifically, I think the drain cover only worked as a box top when it was strongly illuminated from above by the sun, looking almost white as a result.

Years ago I had initially assumed that once our brains see a misperceived object for what it really is, the misperception does not reappear. I have, however, come across a few examples of particularly 'strong' misperceptions, like the door ghost, that defy that principle. It is possible that I've had it wrong all along. Maybe misperceptions CAN be sometimes, or even always, seen again if the conditions are just right. As this example shows, there needed to be an exact alignment of three things plus correct lighting for the misperception to appear. In most cases where misperceptions appear, the witness will move around at the time of the sighting. The misperception may rely on the witness being in just the right place, down to a matter of a few centimetres, as in this case. It is hardly surprising, then, that misperceptions usually disappear seemingly forever. But a second witness might see the same misperception if they stand in just the right place in the right lighting

This raises the interesting possibility that it might be possible to measure misperception. By that I mean one could measure the size of an area where a misperception could be seen. The lighting could also be measured to see within what parameters a misperception appears. In this way it might be possible to get misperceptions at a particular location, and hence ghosts, to appear more or less to order. Not everyone will see the misperceptions but those that do will see them consistently.

The photo? See here.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Paper defies gravity, again!

Paper on edgeWhen truly strange things happen twice you begin to wonder! I saw something odd lying beneath a letter box recently. It resembled a dark toothbrush. I did not have my glasses on so it was heavily out of focus which is probably why I thought of a toothbrush. I could not think of any good reason why a toothbrush would be in such a place. Closer inspection revealed something much stranger. It was a piece of A5 paper standing on its edge! It was like the photo (right)* but mostly black, shiny and with printing on it.

The paper had clearly come through the letter box. I was alone in the building and the paper had not been there the last time I looked. It was a commercial flyer. It was entirely unremarkable apart from the fact that it was standing, improbably, on its edge. The letter box was about 1m above the floor and the paper maybe 20cm horizontally away from it. I was able to topple the paper by blowing gently from a distance of over a metre away. So it was clearly very finely balanced.

It have tried to persuade bits of paper to stand on their edge like this but without success so far. I have discovered it is not that unusual for the paper to land on its side. However, momentum from the fall usually then causes it to fall flat. To stay upright on its edge the paper needs to land in such a way that there are no horizontal forces. The chances of this happening by chance are probably hugely against but it happened.

I had a similar incident to this some years ago (see here). In that case a dropped piece of paper stood on its edge for a whole second. In this latest incident the paper remained upright indefinitely, until I blew it. How is that possible? One thing I noted about this latest bit of paper is that it was slightly wrinkled, rather than completely flat. I think these slight wobbles in the edge of the paper were acting as additional points of support. Even so, I tried to do this experimentally and was not able to produce just the right pattern of wrinkles to keep a bit of paper upright indefinitely. I think heavy paper will work better and it would be easier to do with card. The actual paper involved was heavier and stiffer than typical photocopy paper but not by much.

So this paper standing on its edge required both a particular way of landing, to avoid tipping over, and just the right pattern of wrinkles to remain upright. My previous experience showed me that this kind of thing can happen by coincidence even though I have not, so far, been able to reproduce it. The point is that extraordinary things sometimes happen simply by chance, with no need to consider the paranormal. I can see how some people might think it a paranormal event if they witnessed it.

*The photo is merely an illustration. It was digitally manipulated to remove the support used!

Monday, 18 September 2017

Seeing a 'strange bird'

JayAs a birder I'm occasionally asked by people to identify a 'strange bird' they've seen. They've never seen anything like it before and wonder if it might be rare. And here's the odd thing; it is almost always a Jay. Why?

The thing about Jays is that they are big, colourful, loud and hard to miss. Well they're hard to miss if you see one but they are also very secretive and rarely come out into the open. So when a non-birder sees one they think it must be rare because how else can they explain never have seen such an unmissable bird before. In fact, Jays are relatively common in Britain.

Seeing an animal you've never noticed before could, of course, lead to its being reported as a cryptid. While that's unlikely to happen for Jays, there are rarer animals in the UK that could be misreported as something truly strange.

The broader point here is that none of us are experts in everything we might happen to see when going about our everyday lives. While the vast majority of stuff we see will be familiar there will always be a few things that are not. And these few things that can give rise to xenonormal reports. The xenonormal is something which is unfamiliar (to the observer), but normal, that is taken to be anomalous or paranormal.

I mention all this because I happened to see a Jay yesterday, the first in a while, and it reminded me that this is the time of year when you are most likely to see one. They are easier to see in the autumn because they are busy finding acorns, hazelnuts and other food to bury for winter provisions.