Friday, 28 December 2012

Injuries from nowhere

A few weeks ago I noticed my foot was hurting. It was intermittent and not too bad but mostly puzzling, because I couldn't remember ever injuring it. Close examination soon revealed a nasty bruise on one toe but no clue as to how it got there. I was then reminded of accounts I've read of rare cases where witnesses have received unexplained bruises, scratches and similar marks on their body during haunting cases (particularly poltergeists).

Then, a couple of days later, I was getting out of bed when I accidently kicked something I'd placed on the floor nearby. It really hurt! That's because I'd hit the exact spot where the existing bruise was. I put it down to a nasty coincidence. But when I repeated the very same accident the next day, suddenly an explanation for the bruise became painfully apparent. I had only recently taken to leaving the offending object on the floor near the bed and it is highly likely that I'd already hit it once or twice before and either hadn't noticed at the time or forgotten the incident quickly. Once the object was moved, I had no further trouble and my foot quickly recovered!

I'm not suggesting this as a likely explanation for unexplained bruising in haunting cases. However, it does show how bruises CAN appear without someone noticing! When we get a minor knock, it may hurt a lot at the time but the incident is usually quickly forgotten. Who remembers the precise time they last stubbed a toe?

If I'd discover this bruise while staying at a haunted location, it would have been tempting to think it was paranormally caused! There is a tendency to attribute everything that doesn't have an immediately obvious explanation to the haunting in such situations. But similar things happen all the time in non-haunted places and we don't make such assumptions then. Mundane explanations should always be sought first, whether in a haunted place or not!

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Telling a ghost from a real person!

ShadowMost ghost witnesses I've met sat that apparitions they've seen look like perfectly ordinary people. It is only the situation (like being locked in an empty house alone) or what the apparition does (like vanish) that give away the figure as a ghost. I had a recent experience which certainly supports this view.

I saw my 'door ghost' once again. For people who are not regular readers, briefly this is a dark figure I see some times standing behind me, reflected in frosted glass. I have discovered that the apparition (a misperception) is actually caused by my own hand, which looks like some feet standing behind me!

As usual, I saw the figure only after I'd forgotten about it. However, on this occasion it turned out that there really WAS someone standing right behind me and it was them I was seeing. But here's the interesting bit - the real person looked much the same as the dark apparition! The difference was, it didn't vanish when I moved!

I have had someone standing beyond me once before (see here). On that occasion I saw the ghost IN ADDITION to the real person. This time I saw the real person AS IF it was the ghost! I said on the last occasion that the real person looked more 'real' than the ghost. This time I had the same slightly weird feeling I get when I see the ghost on its own. It was, perhaps, a case of a person appearing less 'real' as I took them, momentarily, for a ghost!

So what am I to make of this latest bizarre observation? Well, as I mentioned, it backs the idea that ghosts and real people can appear indistinguishable. But what I found really interesting was that I thought I was seeing a ghost when it was a real person! I'm pretty sure this is because I've become used to seeing ghosts in that precise situation. I suppose some kind of expectation has been set up in the unconscious part of my brain (certainly not the conscious bit as I only ever see the ghost when I forget about it). Could this ever apply in spontaneous cases? It seems unlikely as I've never come across a case where the same witness sees a ghost so often in precisely the same location.

The 'door ghost' is proving a mine of useful information about misperception as a cause of apparitions. I'm still trying to induce it appear when I want but no luck so far.

Friday, 21 December 2012

What do these EVPs say?

There are no end of EVP recordings to be found on the web. Most include text telling you what they are supposed to say. So, there's now a new EVP gallery on our site (here) where NO interpretation is given, for now at least, although there are general comments on the recording. New samples will be added over coming months and then interpretations will finally be added. That's where YOU come in! I'd like you to email in your own interpretations of what you hear. This is explained at the top of the gallery page, with a link to the email address to send to.

I have found that the best way to do such interpretations is to listen to each sample repeatedly until something (word or otherwise) suggests itself. If you then concentrate on that interpretation when listening again, it seems to suddenly fit much better. Indeed, other possible interpretations subsequently appear incorrect. I find that listening with eyes closed seems to help as well though I've no idea why. Maybe it's just me! I've no doubt there are many other good ways of doing this. Please send your interpretations in, however you do them. Please check the page periodically as new samples will be added whenever I get them.

End of the world

I couldn't let doomsday go by without mentioning it. I made a joke about the forthcoming 'end of the world' in a shop the other day and, to my surprise, people there understood the reference. Having been around for a while, I survived numerous 'end of the world' days unscathed. Generally, these doomsday predictions are only known about by a small group of interested people. But this one, the Mayan version, seems to be very widely known indeed! I wonder why that is.

Maybe it's because, so far as I know, the Mayan's never actually said what was supposed to happen today, if anything, apart from their calendar going back to the date it was on the day they believe the world started. This appears to have allowed endless scope for interpretation by all sorts of disparate groups of people. They all seem convinced that SOMETHING big will happen today but disagree on what that might be. If it's anything like all the other predicted 'end of the world' days I've survived so far, it shouldn't hurt.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

A loud clear voice from nowhere!

Audio spectrogramIt certainly wasn't a whisper! I heard a woman's voice perfectly, loud and clear, uttering one word. I couldn't actually remember the word, perhaps because I was so shocked. That's because I was alone in a locked building! There was no radio or TV on. Being winter, all the windows were firmly shut. Quite simply, there was no obvious reason at all why any voice should be heard! I looked around immediately, trying to find a natural cause for the voice, but could find none. I didn't recognize the voice. I could not avoid the thought that this was a ghost!

It was only by accident that I discovered the source of the voice. Before hearing the ghostly voice I had just been listening to a message on an answerphone. I hadn't bothered to pick up the phone because I heard the message through the loudspeaker. It was a short message. I quickly absorbed what was said and walked away. It was a minute or two later when I heard the crystal clear ghostly voice.

When I next walked near the answerphone, I decided to replay the last message. I don't know why I did this as I was already knew what the message was. What I heard were the words I already knew. But the message continued. There were faint rustling noises and the occasional snatch of a voice. The person who'd phoned had clearly forgotten to terminate the call. It went on for a couple of minutes. Listening from the same position where I'd heard the ghostly voice I could not hear the faint rustling background noises, only a few brief snatches of a louder human voice (not the original caller).

So mystery solved but only because I happened to replay a message which I don't normally ever bother to do in such circumstances. I thought at the time I first replayed the message 'why am I doing this?'. This could be a case of the unconscious part of my brain trying to tell the conscious part something! It's similar to when you walk into a room, stop and think 'why did I come in here?'. Your unconscious knows you need to do something in that room that the conscious part of your brain has forgotten. It can feel a bit like telepathy!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

High expectations!

Shadow ghostSomeone says: "I walked through a green door into a large hallway." Straight away I have a picture in my mind of a particular green door. It is plain, bright green with a plywood exterior, not exactly substantial. The hallway, by contrast is ornate with wood panelling and a chandelier hanging from a high ceiling. The floor is stone with a black and white diamond pattern. Somewhere in the distance I can hear a song by Shakin' Stevens! Is this an example of remote viewing?

Not really. I made up the initial sentence at random just now. There's a good chance that the sentence about the green door and hallway formed a picture in your head too. It may not have been as elaborate as mine and was probably completely different. Whenever someone describes a scene we tend, quite involuntarily, to imagine a version of it. And if you get to visit the scene being described it almost always quite different.

The same thing happens when I hear reports of anomalous phenomena. Someone describes a ghost they've seen and, without the least effort, I can see it in my imagination. If someone reports a solid figure that vanishes, I imagine an apparition fading slowly away to nothingness. In reality, the witness looked away for a couple of seconds and when they turned back the figure was gone! They only ASSUMED it vanished because there was not sufficient time for anyone to have run out of sight! However, if it was a misperception then it is perfectly normal for a 'figure' to vanish when you stop looking at it briefly.

A report of 'object movement' has me visualizing something floating through the air like a scene from a horror movie. The reality is more likely to be that someone noticed an object was not in its normal place! This could be a simple case of faulty memory rather than the paranormal!

Then there are cases where I've actually seen the weird phenomena that others have described. What I visualized was something obviously paranormal. What I actually saw was more prosaic and not difficult to explain by natural causes! I can't give a specific example, unfortunately, because it might identify the site concerned!

Over the years I've been consistently disappointed by accounts that apparently promised obvious paranormal effects but delivered only the xenonormal. Maybe my imagination is too vivid, so it's my own fault! But I get the distinct feeling, when talking to witnesses, that they are a lot more impressed by what appear to me to be prosaic phenomena than I am.

Suppose I am watching a light phenomenon with another person in a haunted building. They see it as paranormal while its prosaic cause is obvious to me. This is no thought experiment, by the way, it has happened! My question is this - do they see exactly what I do or something different? They might be misperceiving and so it will definitely look different, making their interpretation understandable. But what if they are seeing precisely what I do? Do they see it as paranormal because that is how they involuntarily visualized 'the paranormal' would look? Or maybe they didn't know what to expect and saw it as paranormal because (a) they didn't recognise the effect and (b) it was in a haunted location? I don't know the answers to these questions but I'd like to!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Unidentified does not mean anomalous

Mystery photoI sometimes receive anomalous photos, like the one here (right), where it is possible to identify how it was caused but not what it shows! I happen to know what's in this photo because I took it! But if someone had sent it to me, I'd be at a loss!

Here's the problem - some people take an inability to definitively identify such a blurred object as meaning the photo is unexplained or even anomalous. The orange object here is blurred because it is out of focus. It can't be identified from the photo, even after enhancement. But that does not mean the object is paranormal!

You can see the orange object is out of focus, rather than motion-blurred, because there are green bars behind which are also out of focus, though less so. The background is in focus and everything in front is too close to be in focus. The closer to the camera, the more blurred objects are, showing it is a focus issue.

If only the object could be identified, the photographer may quickly realise that it was entirely likely that just such an object could have strayed into the frame unnoticed at the time of exposure. However, while the object remains unidentified the photographer may continue to consider the possibility that they photographed something anomalous when all they did was take an out of focus photo of something mundane! Of course, it is remotely possible that the photo really DOES show something anomalous but, being heavily blurred, we have no evidence to support that conclusion.

In my experience, when there is any 'mystery' left in a photo after it has been analyzed, some people will continue to equate that to the paranormal. Quite simply, 'unidentified' does not mean anomalous in the same way that 'unexplained' doesn't either.

PS: It's Erithacus rubecula!

Monday, 17 December 2012

Jarring ghostly noises!

Great spotted woodpeckerIt was someone else who discovered it but I was just as puzzled as they were. There was a noticeable buzzing noise coming from a dressing table! It sounded like the sort of the sort of buzzing you hear from so many electronic devices these days. Except there were no electronics nearby. Nor was there anything else present that could obviously be responsible for a buzzing. And yet, it was definitely coming from the table because moving around you could hear the sound get louder and fainter over a short distance. Maybe the dressing table was haunted!

It reminded me of an embarrassing incident when I once called out the electricity company to examine a loud buzzing coming from a fuse box. It turned out not to be the fuse box at all but my coat, hanging nearby! There was a pager (remember them!) in a pocket. The buzzing indicated that its battery was running down. Luckily the man from the electric company recognized the sound. Then there was the time when ... but that's another story, as that frustrating cliche goes.

Anyway, investigation of the dressing table finally revealed the noise was coming from a, presumably haunted, plastic jar containing a cream. On opening the jar, whose lid felt slightly loose, the noise stopped immediately. The noise appears to have been made by air escaping through a tiny gap in the not quite tightly sealed jar. The room had recently been warmed up rapidly, which probably started the buzzing as the air inside the jar expanded.

I've no doubt that such trivial mysteries happen to everyone from time to time. Some are, no doubt, solved by those present. Others will simply be ignored. A few may be reported as haunting phenomena - I can think of one actual case straight away. If such an incident is reported as a case it might be very difficult for an investigator to resolve. Take this incident above as an example. If the owner of the jar subsequently secured it tightly, the buzzing would probably never recur. And even if the buzzing DID recur, would an investigator happen to be present when heat caused the noise?

If a reported haunting consists of just one recurring weird phenomenon, there has to be a high probability it has mundane causes, like the jar. If there are several different phenomena reported, it is important to establish if it all started with just one weird thing. That's because there's a possibility that one odd phenomenon, like the 'haunted jar', might make witnesses believe they are in a haunted location when they are not. They may then start to notice lots of mundane background noises that they had ignored before through habituation. It is like starting a New House Effect at a location where someone has already lived for some time!

There is a tendency to think of the cluster of phenomena that typically make up a haunting as having a single cause - a ghost! But it is easy to make a case for one single unexplained phenomenon triggering over-sensitivity to other perfectly normal stuff. It may well be possible to show that all the phenomena in a haunting actually have quite separate mundane causes. It may be a case of seeing the trees for the wood (hence the illustration).

Friday, 14 December 2012

It's a ghost - in theory!

There are many theories floating around concerning how ghosts 'work' and what they really are. I've produced a few myself, none of which I'm proud of! None of these theories ever seem to 'stick', though, and become widely accepted. That's because they have trouble producing testable predictions. Maybe that's because the evidence on which they are based isn't that reliable. For instance, if the sources are newspaper cuttings, books on well-known hauntings or just anecdotes on the web or from friends, you've simply no idea how well the case was investigated, if at all.

Basing a theory on a collection of uninvestigated cases (even if they only make up a minority of the whole sample of accounts) is likely to be a waste of time! What do I mean by an 'investigated' case? It is one where the original witnesses have been carefully interviewed, not too long after the events. It is one where the site of the incident was closely examined by competent investigators. It is one where many different possible natural causes were examined and, if practical, tested. It is one where several different people have contributed their expert knowledge in deciding the most likely cause of the events described. I could go on but I expect you get the idea. A ghost vigil might have taken place but it is rarely illuminating in understanding a case compared to the procedures just mentioned.

By contrast, an uninvestigated case is basically just a nice story. It may well be accurate, as far as it goes, but that may not be anywhere near far enough! Consider the following real-life example: "I could hear someone coming up behind me quickly. As it was daylight and a public space, I wasn't particularly alarmed. But what happened next was definitely unsettling! The person, instead of passing me, vanished into a bush! The young man carried on walking quickly into what I then realised was a large hole in the bush that I'd never noticed before, despite walking past that spot most days! It was clear, from the lack of the sound of breaking twigs, that the hole continued as a sizeable tunnel through the thick, tall undergrowth for some distance. It was clearly a well worn but almost completely concealed path that I'd never noticed before. It is, I think, a shortcut, that avoids a lengthy walk along several streets. It is probably used by several enterprising locals." (from blog here).

Now suppose I'd just happened to turn my head briefly at the moment when the man vanished into the undergrowth. Suddenly, the account could be distinctly ghostly! I would describe being aware of the man and then suddenly he had vanished into thin air. I might have gone to examine the point where he disappeared and discovered the hole in the bush but, in most cases, other witnesses do nothing of the sort. If someone investigated the case they might well discover the hidden path and come up with a probable (and in this case correct) explanation. But left uninvestigated it would remain a mysterious ghostly disappearance. If considered as part of the source material for a ghost theory, it would be seriously misleading.

So anyone devising theories about ghosts really needs to know their sources of evidence well. They should rely on investigated cases from reliable sources. Anything less is likely to produce a mass of conflicting 'evidence' of dubious value leading to some unrealistic theories.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Eliminating natural explanations - or not

It sounded like someone dropped some clothes. The problem was, I knew for certain that there were no such items there! I searched the area where the sound appeared to come from and, at first, found nothing out of the ordinary. Then I opened a cupboard. There was a large heavy plastic bag in a place where it would never normally be. It had clearly fallen from an adjacent pile. Tests, dropping the bag deliberately onto that specific spot, confirmed that it sounded uncannily like clothing tumbling to the floor.

This happened in a place I know well. Now suppose it happened somewhere I'd never visited before. How would I know the bag was out of place? And suppose the place was reputedly haunted. It would be easy to imagine the 'clothes' sound as a ghost passing by unseen.

I read lots of accounts of ghost vigils where it is stated that the people involved tried everything they could think of to reproduce a reported weird effect without success. But experiences like mine, with the plastic bag, make me wonder how likely this process is to be exhaustive. So many vigils take place in locations where few, if any, of the participants are thoroughly familiar with what can be expected as 'normal' there (the new house effect). And what about the normal but highly unusual stuff? I'd never come across the 'plastic bag as clothing' sound before and was able to work it out only by an intimate knowledge of the building.

Eliminating natural explanations is at the core of paranormal investigation. However, it depends on investigators actually considering ALL the likely natural causes for any particular effect, often within a tight time constraint. This is not likely to be successful on a ghost vigil since the people involved are highly unlikely to be intimately aware of every weird effect that might occur naturally there. Not to mention the rare ones!

Is there a solution to this problem? One possibility might be including a regular inhabitant of the building on the ghost vigil. Even then, that person would have to be familiar with all the things that might be misinterpreted as paranormal. While some people regularly pay attention to their surroundings, many don't! The same group doing multiple vigils to the same location would also help, as knowledge of the natural explanations would build up over time. I've seen examples of this and it works! It is telling how, when a location is visited multiple times by the same people, the first vigil always appears to be much more dramatic than subsequent ones. Most of the initial 'activity' ends up explained on subsequent, much quieter, vigils. Bringing in different people with a range of expertise in detecting natural explanations can help too.

I think that, currently, people accept the label 'unexplained' far too easily when it is often more a case of under-explained! I think the results of any one-off ghost vigil at a particular location should be treated with utmost caution.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The rise of the photo-only UFOs

UFOI only saw this UFO when I looked at the photo. It was not obvious at the time of exposure. This is a common introduction to a ghost photo but it is now not unusual with UFO photos. My initial reaction to any photo where the photographer didn't see something weird at the time is that (a) either they simply didn't notice it at the time or (b) it's a photographic artefact. The idea that the object, whether interpreted as ghost or extra-terrestrial spacecraft, was invisible to the naked eye but comes out on a photo, comes way down the list of possibilities I'd consider. But that is just what many people appear to assume.

Let's look at the 'photo-only UFO' here (right). At first sight it has the iconic saucer shape. However, it is not symmetrical, which is a clue to its identity. Also it is obviously blurred, something particularly noticeable around the edges. This means it is either very close and out of focus (it can't be too far and out of focus because the clouds behind are sharp) or motion-blurred. This is where context is vital. In the picture below, we see a larger crop of the same photo.

UFO and gullNow we can see a gull in the same portion of the sky and of similar size. A scan of the whole photo, which is a lot larger, reveals around two dozen gulls in the same view, at various distances from the camera. Almost all the gulls are flying towards or away from the camera, like the one in this second photo. This raises the obvious possibility that the UFO is actually a gull flying at right angles to the camera. In that orientation it will appear (a) to move much faster, probably getting motion-blurred and (b) look a quite different shape with the wings not nearly so obvious. While we cannot say for certain that the UFO is a sideways view of a gull, it certainly becomes the theory to beat! It also fits well with the photographer not having noticed it at the time. With two dozen gulls in view, would the photographer have noticed that one was pointing sideways? And that it was moving quickly enough to become blurred?

As well as birds, I've come across falling leaves and even insects appearing as apparent UFOs. When they appear against the sky it can be impossible to judge their distance or size. And in all the cases I've seen they were motion-blurred, so making their identification less straightforward. Usually it was colour (eg. same as leaves on adjacent tree!) that gave them away though it was of no help in the case above!

There appears to be a general belief around that if something 'only shows up on as photo', it must be anomalous in some way. In reality, the most common cause of this effect is photographic artefacts, like lens flare. And this applies as much to objects photographed in the sky as anywhere else.

Monday, 10 December 2012

More experiments with the ghost

NO green flash!Once again I forgot about the 'door ghost' and, needless to say, saw it again (see here if you've no idea what this is about). I remembered my idea about doing more experiments with the ghost. The problem is, if I plan experiments the memory of them stops me seeing the ghost! So I end up having to make up new experiments at the time of the sighting! What a way to do research!

Anyway, I noticed, perhaps for the first time (who knows), that the ghost appears when I have its reflection in peripheral vision. This, no doubt, assists in the misperception! Having unavoidably 'broken' the misperception by altering my gaze, I tried to reproduce it. I looked at EXACTLY the same angle where I'd seen the 'figure' behind me just seconds before. I placed my hand in the 'right' position. But the hand looked at its real distance rather than much further back. I tried for several minutes, no doubt looking a bit of an idiot to any passers-by, but nothing happened. The hand stubbornly refused to become the feet of a ghostly shadow figure!

So my efforts to 'restart' the misperception are still not working. I CAN keep the misperception going after first seeing it, provided I don't alter my position or gaze. This is despite the fact that I KNOW by then it is my own hand. So it can't be just about knowing what I'm really seeing. The rule appears to be, once the effect is broken you can't fix it! However, I'm stubborn. I'm determined to reproduce the effect to order. I have a theory about how to do it but that will have to wait until next time. If I can remember it!

The photo? I got bored with the shadow pic I've been using to illustrate this topic. Instead, it's my recent attempt to capture a green flash (see here). Conditions appeared perfect until some horizon-hugging clouds appeared to spoil things!

Friday, 7 December 2012

Believe first!

Audio spectrogramPlease listen to this sound link. To me, this is a voice saying a quite distinct word. What do you think? I'll return to it later.

Passing a puddle recently, I noticed its surface rippled. Assuming that I was responsible, I tried deliberately crashing around but it remained stubbornly still. Then I realised what had actually caused the ripple. It was not vibration but a droplet of water from an overhanging rain-soaked object above. Another much more likely cause I didn't even consider at the time was the wind!

But why had I even considered that vibration was responsible, when other possibilities were so much more likely? Then the famous scene from the movie Jurassic Park came to mind! A puddle ripples in the film to indicate the approach of a huge unseen dinosaur. It appeared to me that this movie may have put the idea of ground vibration producing ripples into my mind. After the experience, I deliberately watched puddles at roadsides as heavy traffic passed. Nothing! No ripples. Of course, tyres and vehicle suspension reduce vibration from traffic but even so, it turns out to be quite hard to reproduce the Jurassic Park puddle effect.

This brought me back to a recurring puzzle - why did I start to notice misperception only once I had found out how it worked. It was as if my conscious mind 'allowed' the unconscious part of my brain to show me misperceptions once I realised they were 'normal'. And maybe if I'd never seen Jurassic Park, I wouldn't have even considered one of the least likely causes of puddle ripple first. Of course, vibration can, and does, cause ripples in puddles sometimes but it takes a pretty big thump on the ground to do it.

My understanding of how misperception works could be viewed as a belief. Though it is based on scientific research, it's a belief all the same. But what if I believed, despite the lack of compelling evidence, that there were alien spacecraft visiting Earth regularly? I might well misperceive all sorts of unrecognized objects in the sky as alien craft. I think belief may open a sort of 'gate' in perception. It doesn't affect the things we see well. But those things that are misperceived, through being poorly seen, may be transformed into what we believe we will see, like alien craft.

Back to the EVP clip above. I think it sounds like a breathy voice saying 'tapped' or something similar. You might hear a different word, or just noise. If you hear paper being rustled, good for you, because that is exactly what it is! So, how come I still hear it as a voice, even though I KNOW it is paper? I think it is because I understand that certain sounds, when they contain simultaneous frequency peaks in simple harmonic ratios, are heard as speech no matter what their source (formant noise). So I have no trouble hearing voices where there are none because I know it's just the way the brain works. Someone not convinced by this argument may just hear rustling paper! And someone who didn't know it was paper might think it was a real voice. We perceive according to what we believe!

You can see a spectrogram of the sound in the diagram. You can see prominent simultaneous frequency peaks even in this small picture (the lines of peaks heading like ridges towards the bottom left). Some non-speech sources of sounds produce frequency peaks in simple harmonic ratios naturally. Such sounds can be heard as voices, in certain circumstances. Some EVP recordings are probably caused by this phenomenon.

When you come across a witness who is absolutely convinced that they saw an alien space craft, it is perfectly possible that they did! One possibility is that such a craft was actually physically present. But another one is that they had a belief that might see one and misperceived a more mundane aerial object. It think that belief, whether well-founded or otherwise, can literally affect how (and what) we perceive.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A ghostly footstep too far

Ghostly soundsAlone in a locked building, I recently heard what sounded like a footstep. And it certainly wasn't mine! Was it a ghost? Regular readers will no doubt be expecting me to explain how I found a simple natural explanation for it. However, just for a change, I didn't, despite looking! However, that does not mean I concluded that it probably WAS a ghost, as some people might have.

Had this incident been part of an on-going series of inexplicable noises, particularly footsteps, I might have been tempted to think it was a haunting phenomenon. Even then, I would have wanted to do an exhaustive search for possible natural explanations first. On this occasion there was no time to do that.

I thought I'd mention this incident just to show that there ARE sometimes weird things that happen in my life that I can't explain. If I was even tempted to jump to the conclusion that it was a ghostly step, another recent incident would have dissuaded me. I was in a shop when I heard the loud sound of a child screaming nearby. I looked around but saw nothing. Then I realised the sound was caused by me! It was the sole of my shoe rubbing on the wooden floor giving a dramatically convincing impression of a child's scream.

We misperceive sound much more readily than things we see. That's no doubt because when you see an object, you get so much more sensory information about it, compared to hearing its sound. You can see its shape, colour, transparency, reflectiveness and so on. If you hear an object, all you get is a varying wavelengths of sound and not much else. There are far more different things that sound identical compared to those that look the same! In addition, to see an object we usually need to have it in line of sight and so get light straight from it. By contrast, sounds frequently arrive from objects round corners, by diffraction and reflection. These processes can distort the sound making it less recognisable (see diagram).

Sound is the commonest reported haunting phenomenon. Perhaps this isn't surprising given how easy it is to misinterpret. I suppose it also depends on the context and expectation. If you hear a footstep when you know you're alone, you might think 'ghost'. If you hear an object falling, in the same situation, you might think you didn't stack some books well! My ghostly footstep could have had any one of a number of mundane causes. Now had I seen a human figure walking past me, I might have been more easily persuaded it was a ghost!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Hidden in plain sight - the meaning of meaninglessness

Hidden in plain sight - the meaning of meaninglessness

One of the big differences between fictional anomalous experiences and real life ones is that the latter seem overwhelmingly meaningless compared to the former. A real life UFO experience is generally just an unidentified light in the sky. A real life haunting may simply consist of a few unexplained sounds and a feeling of an unseen presence. Neither would make much of a movie plot!

It is one of those odd facts, hidden in plain sight, that most paranormal researchers implicitly know without ever discussing (like haunting hot spots). Look at a typical haunting case and you will usually see a collection of events which appear to have no obvious 'purpose' or point. Usually certain events (maybe a noise with no obvious cause) are repeatedly reported from particular locations (those haunting hot spots) at unpredictable intervals. Taken together, the events comprising any particular haunting usually lack any obvious focus or meaning. Unlike the events portrayed in fictional representations of hauntings which are usually highly meaningful and often relevant to the plot.

So, what does the general 'meaningless' of events reported in anomaly cases tell us, if anything? Well, it doesn't fit at all well with the commonly-held idea that ghosts are spirits and that they carry out hauntings (neither of which is supported by compelling evidence). It fits much better with the idea that most haunting phenomena have natural causes. If there is a weird noise with purely natural causes within a building then, clearly, it has no 'meaning' and so is likely to appear random and meaningless. This fits with the fact that many haunting phenomena in cases prove, on careful investigation, to have natural causes.

So, maybe the apparent meaninglessness of the events in many ghost (and other anomaly) cases is trying to tell us something! It points in the same direction as haunting hot spots - towards the idea that most such cases have a variety of different natural causes. There may well be truly paranormal cases out there but the high level of 'meaninglessness' would tend to point to them being rare! Of course, it could be that real paranormal cases appear meaningless, too! Even if that is the case, it still doesn't support the idea of ghosts being spirits with purpose and motivation. However, it does not rule out such possibilities as 'recording ghosts' or similar ideas.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Experimenting with a ghost!

ShadowThere are very few ghost cases where there are prolonged sightings of an apparition. And I can think of no cases where the appearance of an apparition is predictable. So, any case combining those elements would be priceless, allowing serious investigation of exactly how ghosts work!

I haven't found a case like that, sadly, but I do have something similarly useful in my 'door ghost' or 'doppelganger' (see here). Briefly, I occasionally clearly see the reflection (in frosted glass) of a shadowy figure standing behind me. On turning round, there is no one there! I think that qualifies it as a ghost!

Investigation has led me to the conclusion that the 'figure', or at least its 'feet', are my own hand (!) reflected in the glass against a fairly featureless background. It is a misperception, apparently caused by mistaking the size and distance (as well as identity) of my hand (see here). The ghost always appears in the same position, meaning it is repeatable. And it can appear for prolonged periods, as long as I don't 'break' the misperception by moving. So it is a ghost that can be experimented on!

I did my first experiment recently. I noticed the ghost in its usual position. As ever, I had forgotten about it before it appeared! There are certain limited circumstances where a useless memory can be useful and this is one of them. Someone else would no doubt be prepared for the ghost every time they were at the door, so preventing its appearance! Only being able to see the ghost once I've forgotten its existence is a bit like being caught up in the plot of a weird movie! Cue cliche about life being stranger ...

So for my first experiment, I deliberately 'broke' the misperception by changing position and the ghost duly vanished. Then I resumed the exact position where the ghost usually appeared and looked at the reflection in the correct way. Nothing! No ghost! I already knew that once a misperception is broken it ill not reappear. However, that was based on experience. In this case, I demonstrated the point experimentally.

The fact that that an investigator suspects that a misperception is responsible for a particular ghost report can make it difficult to reproduce! As the investigator is aware of the effect, they are unlikely to see it, even if they are in exactly the right position in the correct lighting conditions. What is needed is an assistant who is NOT aware of the supposed misperception and so will not be expecting it. I am not sure (a) how practical this is or (b) of the ethics involved! Perhaps there could be a willing assistant involved who is deliberately, with their full knowledge, kept in the dark about where anything has be seen. Then they could examine several nominated sites within a building, only one of which has produced any sightings, to see if they witness anything. I'm not sure what we'd make of them seeing an apparition at one of the control sites. But it would be worth some experimentation I think.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

How far away is a reflected ghost?

ShadowA quick update on the 'door ghost' or 'doppelganger' story (catch up here). I saw the ghostly figure, reflected in frosted glass, once more. It definitely appeared to be standing BEHIND me in the reflection. However, I realised that I could see my hand, responsible for the misperception, in the same view in my peripheral vision! And it looked a lot closer, just as you would expect! And even though I could see both the 'original' and the 'reflection' in the same view, it still looked like there was someone standing behind me until I shifted position.

If you look at yourself in a mirror it is as if you see yourself through a window at the same distance on the other side. This has the effect of making your image in the mirror half your actual size, though, crucially, it doesn't appear that way. Any movement you make will appear half the amount you actually moved. So although you know you are, say, 1m from the mirror, your image shows you as apparently 2m away and half the size. There's an excellent discussion of this (with further explanatory links) here. Though an image looks twice as far away as it is, we also ' know' that it isn't really, introducing a contradiction which can produce strange perception effects. Research has shown (see previous link) that people generally misjudge the size and distance of objects in reflections. I believe that is a key point in understanding how the remarkably persistent 'door ghost' misperception works. Even seeing where my hand really is does not break the strong impression that is actually the feet of a person, or ghost, standing, rather menacingly, directly behind me!

I mentioned a few days ago that I thought that feeling mentally 'detached' may contribute to the effect. I still believe this is true but I think the basic mechanism is likely to be a fundamental misjudgment of size and distance. With a bland background offering no visual cues to size, my brain cannot correct its erroneous perception of my hand. It is only by shifting my hand, or my whole position, that additional visual information arrives that corrects the misperception. Is the mystery of the doppelganger finally solved? Maybe but it is certainly useful to have a reproducible misperception to observe regularly! And it looks as if there is another type of situation that can lead to misperceptions - reflections of objects against featureless backgrounds!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Are public expectations of ghosts changing?

The BBC are currently showing a ghost story on TV, The Secret of Crickley Hall. It feels like a big television event because, to me, it seems there are far fewer ghost stories on TV compared to when I was a kid. I wonder if it might be the effect of the reality ghost hunting shows. Perhaps traditional ghost stories feel a bit old fashioned compared to EMF meters and EVP!

I've always enjoyed ghost stories. As a kid, I assumed that they were just like the real thing. So it came as a shock to find out that they were not. Despite that, I continued to enjoy a good fictional ghost story. I suppose my enjoyment has changed over time. Once I looked for a dramatic plot with lots of scary bits. Now I like to see just how far the plot differs from real life hauntings. The answer is, usually, a lot!

I do wonder if the reality ghost hunting shows will, over time, change forever the public's idea of what a haunting is like. ASSAP receives lots of photos of orbs, mists and light trails. It seems that people readily associate such photographic artefacts with ghosts and hauntings nowadays when once they might have expected nothing less than than the walking, talking ghosts of the movies. Maybe the ghost stories of the future will have ghost hunters as their heroes and be centred around vigils where definitive evidence never quite arrives. If so, then I definitely prefer the traditional version.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Detached ghost!

ShadowOne of the advantages of seeing the same weird phenomenon regularly is that, each time more information can be gleaned about the elusive experience. Most people see something weird maybe a handful of times in their life. In such circumstances, it can be difficult for them to remember much about the experience beyond the basic details. But my 'door ghost' or 'doppelganger' is proving more obliging, turning up pretty much whenever I've forgotten to expect it. I won't explain it again, for fear of boring regular readers. For a catch up, go here.

Anyway, the latest experience caught me by surprise, as usual. I became aware of 'someone' standing behind me where I expected no one. Quickly remembering the cause of this misperception I was careful not to 'disturb' the phenomenon so that I could observe the experience. What struck me this time was that I felt a little 'odd' until the misperception was 'broken'. It was the same 'detached' feeling I get during OBE-type experiences. I think I was in that state because I was on 'autopilot'. That's my name for the mental state you go into when you are doing something you've done hundreds of times before. Your body 'knows' exactlly what to do without you really concentrating so that your mind can drift onto something else entirely. I suppose it's a sort of altered state of consciousness, albeit not a very profound one.

Thinking back, I realised that most, if not all, my weird experiences have happened while doing some familiar routine activity, like walking around my locality.

So, I wondered if such a 'detached' mind state may allow someone to notice themselves misperceiving. Though we misperceive all the time, we rarely notice it. Indeed, some people don't seem to notice it ever! But perhaps when the conscious part of our brain becomes free enough, in its temporary 'detached' state, it can 'observe' what the unconscious is doing, including its mistakes!

It would be interesting to know what witnesses were doing just prior to experiencing something weird. I'm willing to bet it was something mundane and routine in many cases.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Isolated EVPs mystery

Shaken sound spectrumPlease play this audio clip: sound1. You should set your audio software to repeat, or continuous play, to try to catch the words, if any. If you have any problems playing the sound, see 'Advice about playing the clips' below.

Then try playing this audio clip: sound2.

Something that has puzzled me for some time is why the most convincing EVP recordings all seem to be single words or short phrases with little or no accompanying noise. In such examples words appear suddenly, from a silent (or low noise) background, just like normal human speech. In my experiments to reproduce EVP using formant noise (as featured in the EVP gallery) it wasn't like that. On my original recordings there were several minutes of noise produced by whatever natural sound source I was using. I would then go through the recordings and pick the bits that appeared to sound like voices. Once isolated, these cropped samples sounded quite voice-like with words discernible by many people. But it wasn't the same as those dramatic recordings where words just comes out of silence and then vanish, like normal human speech. Though my method demonstrated that ambient noises could produce voice-like sounds from which words could be heard, it was not a convincing reproduction of the best 'isolated' EVPs. If someone heard longer versions of my recordings, they might well have recognized the source of the noise and not noticed any 'words' at all!

So, on to the sound samples. If you haven't played them already this will come as a spoiler! I'll tell you what I hear in sound1. Against a somewhat noisy background, I hear a voice suddenly appear and distinctly say 'shaken, something I need frequently'. You may hear different words or maybe none at all. Anyway, to me it sounds just like some of those more convincing examples of EVP where a voice appears from silence, says some words and stops again, just like a normal human voice.

In sound2, I hear a rustling noise. It has the same rhythm as sound1 and appears to be a different version of the same clip. However, there is no obvious voice this time. However, to me at least, there is still a hint of the same words but they are difficult to hear against the rustling noise. If I hadn't heard sound1 first, I might easily not have picked up the idea of a voice in this sample at all!

So, what's going on? Sound2 is the original recording. It is of a piece of paper being rustled in someone's hand not far from the recorder. It is not that obvious what it is but you might guess from the sound alone. Sound1 was produced by filtering out all the frequencies above 2300 Hz. It then acts like formant noise, producing 'words' by combining the simultaneous frequency peaks around 150 Hz and in the 1500 to 2300 Hz range (see sound spectrum graph above). If you remove the higher frequency peaks, above 1500 Hz, the voice vanishes altogether because the formant noise effect no longer works. Here is a final sample sound3 where just those frequencies have been filtered out. You shouldn't hear any words now!

So what did I conclude from this experiment? Firstly, the more impressive short isolated EVPs can, indeed, be produced by bursts of suitable ambient noise (rustling paper in this case). Secondly, the very fact that the noise is short may make it unrecognizable and more likely to be heard as a voice rather than what it really is. Not all such short bursts of noise will sound voice-like. I had to reject quite a few to get this one. The ones that don't sound voice-like may be dismissed as noise by people reviewing the recording!

Incidentally, it is not at all unusual for people to filter out certain frequencies in EVP recordings in order to 'remove noise'. In reality, such filtering can enhance the formant noise effect, making it more likely to be heard as words. Of course, you may not have heard any words at all in any of these recordings. All I can say to that is that I heard some and they sounded just like recordings I've heard of isolated EVPs elsewhere, so I've reproduced the effect to my own satisfaction. Other people will have to do their own experiments!

Advice about playing the clips: The files are in WAV format. You may need to associate WAV files with a default sound application on your computer for the links to work. You shouldn't need to use headphones to listen to these clips (indeed it may be inadvisable as some are loud!). Ordinary computer loudspeakers should work fine though you may need to have the volume set high for some of the clips.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Moving shadow ghost vanishes!

Shadow ghostLooking out of a window at a wet urban night scene recently, I saw two small 'shadow objects' on a road surface. They moved for a while and then vanished. The whole sighting lasted for just a second or two! I continued to look for a while but they did not reappear, nor was there any obvious clue as to what they were! Unlike most shadow ghosts, these were not in peripheral vision and the lighting, provided by street lights, was good! I've never seen this variety of shadow ghost before and was intrigued!

When nothing else happened, I looked in another direction. On returning my gaze to the place where I saw the shadows, they were back! Again, they moved a little and then vanished. Some experimentation revealed some interesting properties of these shadow objects. Firstly, they moved as my gaze moved! Secondly, they appeared reliably AFTER I stared at another scene for a while and then back. That's when I realised they were a type of afterimage.

Most people are familiar with afterimages. These happen when you gaze for a while at a bright object, then look away and see an impression of it (often in a different colour) superimposed on whatever you're now looking at. In this case, I think a bright streetlight was reflecting a puddle and, when I looked away, it became a 'shadow object' in another scene. You can often tell for sure that you are looking at an afterimage because it usually is still visible even when you close your eyes. Also, it moves according to wherever you happen to be looking, unlike a real object in the scene.

In most situations afterimages are obvious. If you stare at a brightly lit pattern and then seen the same pattern superimposed on the next thing you look at (often in a different colour), it's not going to make you think it is paranormal! But in the particular situation here, an essentially black and white scene with some areas well lit by street lights, an afterimage may not be so obvious. I believe I was seeing the dark afterimage of a bright puddle reflecting a street light. This appeared as an amorphous black shape when seen on a modestly-lit bit of road surface. They moved because my gaze moved and they vanished as the effect wore off.

When it is not obvious what is causing an unusual effect, like these 'shadow objects', some people might consider them paranormal. Though most shadow ghosts are reported in peripheral vision, some are seen in central vision. I wonder how many may be caused by afterimages like this? It is certainly something to consider when shadow ghosts are reported in mostly black and white scenes.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Ghosts talking to each other

White noise"Sitting, reading, quiet, alone, indoors. Suddenly, an odd feeling, like falling, everything goes grey and there are voices talking to each other. The people speaking seem unaware of me. And then they are gone and I am back reading. It is like listening to a snatch of an unknown radio play. Except there is no radio, TV or any other electronic device on at the time. The voices of ghosts, perhaps? A few minutes later I have the same experience except that it is a completely different 'scene' this time, with different voices talking about something completely different. Seconds later it is gone, once again. I can usually remember what is said. It is like a fragment of a story where I don't know the beginning or the end."

This kind of weird experience might be taken for an encounter with ghosts. Or maybe aliens. Possibly even a time slip. It is, in fact, the most detailed description I have yet from an acquaintance of mine who has microsleep with REM (MWR) episodes. Many people have short periods when they fall asleep for a few seconds without even noticing - a microsleep. However, only a tiny number (usually those with certain kind of sleep disorder) go straight into a dream state, which is where the 'voices' come from.

Anyone not aware of MWR might think they are having a brief encounter with ghosts or aliens. Curiously, my acquaintance only has this particular format of MWR when reading at home. MWR episodes in other settings play out differently (sometimes with hypnagogic hallucinations). The fact that it always happens at home might lead someone else with the same experiences to think they were living in a haunted house!

The clues for paranormal investigators to look for here are (a) what the witness was doing when the incident happened and (b) the odd feeling (in this case like falling) at the start of the episode. For (a) we're looking for a situation that might encourage sleep. For instance sitting for a prolonged period, reading, watching TV, riding in a car (or other form of transport), lying down etc. It is possible that a witness may have a sleep disorder without even being aware of it.

What I find particularly interesting here is that the 'witness' above was listening to other people apparently talking to each other. That the voices play out a 'scene' recalls the popular idea that hauntings are produced by a particular (possibly tragic) event in the history of a location. So, anyone hearing such a ghostly 'scene' might easily be convinced that there is a haunting. However, while sounds are the most frequently reported aspects of hauntings, it is unusual to for a witness to hear clear voices saying recognizable words, perhaps reflecting the rarity of MWR. And even with the MWR episodes described here, which have definite natural causes, the same 'scene' is not repeated again and again. Once again we see the wide gulf between the popular idea of ghosts, as protrayed in fiction, and reali life cases.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Reflections on ghosts on a mountain!

ShadowI had my 'doppelganger' or 'door ghost' experience again recently but with a weird new twist - an OBE! Briefly, I frequently see a shadowy figure standing behind me, reflected in the frosted glass of an outside door (start here if you've not heard about this). It seems that every time I forget about the ghost, it reappears, typical of misperception. I have discovered, over time, that the ghostly figure is actually me, or at least my arm and hand!

On this latest occasion I had a distinct, and odd, feeling that the 'ghost' was quite separate from me. Even though I KNEW, while I was watching it, that it was my own hand! The 'ghost' seemed to be further away than my hand should be. It was where it might be if it was indeed another person. Or a shadow ghost! It felt like an out of the body experience, as if I was seeing myself (or a bit of me) from afar. I have had OBE-like experiences before, so I guess it's not totally surprising. It might explain why this bizarre misperception is so remarkably persistent, despite the fact that I know what is causing it!

I now do wonder if certain misperception experiences may involve scale or distance illusions like this one. My own mini-OBEs have occurred when looking at regularly patterned backgrounds where depth perception is minimal. In the case of the 'doppelganger', I think the fact that the image is a fuzzy reflection (caused by frosted glass) against a limited view of a fairly uniform background behind, may compromise distance perception.

So, there may be another important aspect to misperception that I had not previously considered - compromised distance (and hence scale) perception! It could certainly be an important factor at night or in fog when many visual cues to distance may be missing.

Many years ago I used to go winter mountaineering where I was, on several occasions, caught in a white-out. This is where a white overcast sky blends in with a completely snow-covered ground so that the horizon disappears. It is very disorientating! A rock pointing out of the snow might be a pebble. Or a boulder! Sometimes ALL you can see is white. And being on a mountain, you wonder whether your next step forward will be on solid snow. Or ice. Or the unseen edge of a precipice. Distance (and size) is almost impossible to judge in such circumstances and I can well imagine there will be many misperceptions in such circumstances. I seem to recall it made me feel weird and not just because of possible dangers. I don't recall an OBE, or any ghosts, but it was a long time ago!

While a white-out is an extreme example, there will be other circumstances, like my door ghost, where a sort of OBE may occur, leading to misperception. Paranormal investigators should always visit the scene of a reported incident. In some cases, the reported events will appear to conflict with the geography of the location. One reason might be some sort of distance misperception. It will be crucial to establish the lighting, and any other circumstances that may have compromised distance perception, during the original incident.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Seriously dramatic ghosts!

Sky lanternThere is still time to get a ticket for the Seriously Unidentified UFO conference in Worcester on Saturday at a discounted rate online. If you turn up on the day without a ticket, you'll have to pay full price.

The theme of the Seriously Unidentified conference is that ufology is no longer moving forward as a subject. All the 'classic' cases, like Rendlesham and Roswell, are in the past. Now the majority of reports of UFOs appear to be of sky lanterns and mylar balloons! Interest in ufology has declined as a result.

By contrast, interest in ghosts has soared in recent years. But it isn't on the back of recent dramatic cases. We have had no new extraordinary ghost cases recently to match the Cheltenham Ghost, to name but one. Before I became an active ghost researcher I read many books about hauntings avidly. The cases described were dramatic and appeared clearly paranormal. I couldn't wait to start investigating for myself. When I did, what I actually found was the equivalent of 'sky lanterns and mylar balloons'! The cases appeared relatively undramatic and most were explainable by natural causes. Talking to other investigators, it became clear that my experience was far from unusual. Where had all the really dramatic cases of yesteryear gone?

All of this makes the huge rise in the popularity of ghost research appear odd, at first sight. However, the 'ghost hunting boom' has very little to do with ghost cases, dramatic or otherwise. Instead, it revolves around holding ghost vigils, a relatively unimportant optional add-on in traditional case work. And the assumption-led methods used would produce 'positive' results anywhere, whether haunted or not. So the dearth of dramatic ghost cases is of little consequence to this 'boom'.

Why aren't there any dramatic ghost cases anymore? Has something changed in the world of ghosts themselves? Or is there something different in the way we investigate? Perhaps we should have a conference to discuss these matters too!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Like a scene from a ghost movie

Autumn leavesTurning round gingerly, I fully expected to see someone shuffling along slowly behind me, watching me, in the alley. Instead, I saw no one (and no animal)! BUT I could still hear the sound of someone moving! It was like a scene from a ghost movie!

This happened recently, when I was walking along the same alley where I had felt a strong sense of presence before, specifically someone walking behind me (see here for the full story). Once again I was looking for autumn cobwebs, an action that could have appeared 'odd' to a passer-by, so I did not turn round until I left the alley. Once again I had the strong sense of a 'presence' behind me. I had forgotten about my previous 'presence' experience there but soon remembered! I tried to work out WHY exactly I felt there was someone behind me and quickly realised it was a sound. It was an odd, faint, unfamiliar sound, as if someone was shuffling along.

I soon discovered the real source of the strange sound. There were large fallen leaves all over the pavement blowing around. They made a curious knocking sound, suggestive of someone walking along. There was also a 'swishing' element to the noise, which produced the 'shuffling' component.

As I had previously suspected, it was an unexplained sound that produced the feeling of a presence. I think unexplained sounds may be a common cause of a sense of a presence. If you hear something that sounds like someone moving about, but there's no one visible, it seems likely to trigger a feeling of an invisible presence. It was interesting that I only experienced this latest 'presence' after I'd forgotten about the previous incident, which is typical of misperception. I wonder if this happens where people live in haunted houses and have regular weird experiences. Are such experiences more common at times when the witnesses are not specifically expecting them?

Investigators who get cases of people feeling a presence outside in autumn and early winter should check for fallen leaves! Also, in haunting cases, it would be worth asking witnesses if they were expecting something to happen when they had each individual odd experience.

Ironic postscript: When I was followed by a REAL person in the alley, I didn't hear them! People have such quiet footwear these days, especially trainers!

Monday, 12 November 2012

Flying shadow ghost

CrowI had that odd feeling that something was wrong but did not know what it was. It is a bit like the feeling you get when you go into a room and can't remember why. I found myself staring at a perfectly ordinary car bonnet for no reason I could fathom. Then I worked out what was wrong. I had looked at the same scene just a few seconds before and there was an obvious moving reflection in the bonnet but nothing nearby to have caused it. Looking at the bonnet, I worked out hat the only way there could have been such a moving reflection in the bonnet was if it was caused by something from above - a flying shadow ghost, maybe.

Then I looked down and noticed, not far from the car, a crow on the ground. It had certainly not been there when I saw the reflection in the car bonnet. Now it became obvious what had happened. I had seen the reflection of the crow as it descended to the ground without noticing the bird itself. This was perfectly feasible given the angles and sizes of the objects involved.

This is certainly the kind of scenario that can lead to a report of an anomaly. Someone glances at a scene, then looks away. A thought crosses their mind - they've seen something odd - but what? They look back and all is normal. Then they remember the oddity. Unlike in my case, they can see no obvious normal explanation for it! Witnesses often report that while they are viewing an anomaly, they cannot see anything wrong. It is only afterwards that they realise there was 'something wrong'!

Meanwhile, in such cases, the investigator is left in the position of a TV detective turning up at a crime scene who says 'so what have we got here then?'. They have to piece together what has happened with only the witness's account to go on. And that account might not even be accurate! When someone has a nagging feeling that they've seen 'something wrong' it could well lead to confabulation! Our brains appear to have a need to make sense of what they perceive and remember. Even if that means changing things a bit to 'fit' better!

Here in the UK we've recently been had Guy Fawkes Night, an event that seems to stretch over about a fortnight these days. If there are fireworks being let off nearby but you cannot see them, it can give rise to odd sounds that appear to have no obvious explanation. I've heard just such weird noises recently that made no sense until I realised there were fireworks being let off! Ghost investigators should beware of 'noisy ghost' reports around his time of year!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

How can you not see a parrot?

ParrotThe squawk was very loud! From experience, I knew the parrot must be within a few metres of me but looking round through 360 degrees, a dizzying number of times, I saw nothing! Though I've been familiar with parrots from various locations for years, they have recently moved in locally. They turned up in numbers a few months ago and now regularly fly around in flocks, squawking. Even the locals, who invariably fail to notice the local fauna, have talked about them. Almost crow-sized, bright green and with a habit of flying around in noisy flocks, the Rose-ringed Parakeet is indeed difficult to miss!

Despite that, they can sometimes be difficult to spot, as my experience showed. I've recently noticed that they will sometimes cling on to vertical brickwork on the side of houses! Few bird species do that, especially the large ones! I recently saw two parrots, attached to a wall, near someone's window, calling loudly!

If this had been an anomalous phenomenon case, the witness might have reported that they'd heard a bird squawking loudly at their window but could see nothing on trees or houses nearby. Their conclusion? A ghost bird! Without the crucial information that parakeets sometimes cling to vertical walls, it would be difficult to work out the true explanation!

This is, of course, the eternal problem with investigating reports of paranormal phenomena. We only know what the witness experienced, plus anything we can deduce by examining the site. That's why we need to be in possession of relevant specialist information to solve such mysteries.

Investigators cannot be experts in every possible cause of weird experiences. But they should understand the limits of their own knowledge. Too often, investigators declare something 'unexplainable' when what they really mean is 'unexplainable by them'! There is no shame is asking for other people's help or doing background research. In this case, for instance, it would be worth talking to someone with expertise in birds before declaring the case inexplicable! It is also worth doing as I do and looking out for weird, but normal, experiences in every day life and imagining how they would look to someone who had only witnessed the puzzling part of the action. This DOES work - I've explained otherwise bizarre reports in this way! Having said that, I never DID find the parrot mentioned at the start of this post. Maybe it was hanging from a wall just round a corner!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Shadow ghost at window!

Shadow ghostI opened the curtain but there was no one there! I had just seen the shadow of a someone walking past a window. I was surprised because it looked as though the person casting the shadow was just outside the window, which is very unusual! So when I saw no one just outside, or anywhere near, I was puzzled! Then I realized the shadow must have been cast by someone walking along the street, rather further away. So why, I wondered, had I never noticed this disconcerting illusion before, given my long familiarity with the window concerned?

Then I realised there was something else which was rather unusual - low angle sunshine pointing directly at the window. The sun takes a slightly different course across the sky every day, depending on the time of year. To be shining directly at the window at a low enough angle to project shadows of passers-by on the street, it has to be near the horizon. It also needs to be shining through a narrow gap in nearby buildings. This can only happen for a few minutes (I timed it) of a few days every year!

This is an example of how a rare coincidence can produce an apparent paranormal phenomenon. Not only can this 'shadow ghost' phenomenon only happen for a few specific minutes per year, it needs someone to be walking past at the right time outside and someone to be watching the closed curtain inside simultaneously! What are the odds?

If an investigator came along to find out what was going on, it's probably not the first explanation they'd look for! And if an investigator DID suggest a rare coincidence as an explanation, many people would dismiss the idea as too far fetched! And yet, these things happen!

So, when should you consider a rare coincidence as a possible explanation for a paranormal report? Only after more obvious possibilities have been thoroughly exhausted and there are usually plenty of those. Coincidences can be hard to investigate as, unless you see the event unfold for yourself, they can be difficult to imagine! The best thing to do is to look out for unlikely coincidences in your own life to work out how you might have detected them after the event.

PS: Media coverage of the forthcoming ASSAP Seriously Unidentified conference here. To find out more and book your place, go here.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Sensing an invisible presence

CobwebI have, on occasion, been alone in a locked building when I've heard an unexpected sound from another room. I usually reason that it is just a normal building sound (see here for a discussion on unexplained sounds in buildings). But before such thoughts kick in there is, just for a split second, a more immediate emotional reaction. What if I am not alone in the building at all?

This made me think about my recent 'sensing an invisible presence' experience (described here). I was walking along an alleyway, alone, when I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling that I was being closely followed by someone. On looking round, this turned out not to be the case. My feeling was that the experience may have been initiated by something I heard that suggested someone walking. But, if so, why didn't the feeling vanish quickly, as it had when I was in a locked building alone?

The key difference between the two situations is, of course, that in the alleyway there easily COULD have been someone behind me. And if I'd turned round straight away I could instantly have satisfied myself that there was no one there, but I didn't. And the reason I didn't was that I was walking along very slowly, staring towards the ground looking for cobwebs (as you do when, like me, you are interested in natural history)! I was aware that this behaviour might be regarded as 'odd' to a passer-by and I didn't want to catch their eye!

Many people, including me, tend to exaggerate social embarrassment. Think of the fuss some people make about wearing just the 'right' clothes for a particular social situation, to avoid a faux pas! Had there actually been someone following me in the alley they would probably simply have walked round me and forgotten the incident instantly! As I've often mentioned in this blog, people out walking tend to notice very little about what's going on around them. Even if they HAD noticed me, it's unlikely they would have cared what I was doing. Perhaps if I'd been wearing a clown's outfit they might have noticed but otherwise, I doubt it.

So the sense of presence that I felt was probably the result of an aural misperception. The obvious objection is that I cannot remember actually hearing anyone. While this does not rule out that I heard such sounds and then forgot them, it is hardly evidence that I did! However, I know that unexplained sounds I've heard while alone in a locked building have made me think there might be someone else present. It therefore seems, on balance, the most likely explanation to me. It is, incidentally, quite normal for people who misperceive to forget or not notice the actual real sound or object that they misperceived. There is also a direct parallel here with the idea of embarrassment promoting misperception, discussed here.

I think a 'sense of presence' may well be produced by aural misperception in many such cases. But there are other causes too. It has been suggested that EIFs produce such a sense of presence, for instance. This is, I think, one of those phenomena (like apparitions or UFOs) that can have different causes in different cases but all leading to the same experience. And once someone is convinced there is a 'presence' around, the feeling may linger for some while. In my case it ended when I was sure there was no one there. But if the witness believes it is an invisible ghost causing the feeling, it may go on for an extended period.

Consider, once again, the idea of being alone in a locked building. If you heard not just one odd sound but several consecutively from another room, it would become difficult to shake off the idea that there was someone else present. And only discovering a natural explanation for those noises or searching the building from top to bottom could definitively dispel the notion. And what if you were in a haunted building? You might then, having exhausting possible natural explanations, think there was an invisible ghostly presence. And what about weird noises in a building you are not used to? This could clearly be a case of the new house effect which might lead to a feeling of a presence being around. It is clearly a subject ripe for research! Next time I feel a sense of presence I will try really hard to remember what caused it. And I'm betting it will be sound!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

What flipping adverts tell us about ghosts!

It's a bit like having an extra sense! Since I've started noticing misperception, I am getting an insight into how my brain is handling sensory input. For instance, today I noticed a billboard with an advert on it. At first it contained an unlikely, slightly grotesque image before quickly flipping to a more prosaic scene. Adverts are a common source of this misperception 'flipping', where I see one image and then it flips to another, in an instant. There is no fade to grey or shapes rearranging themselves. One second it is one picture, the next a quite different one, like those optical illusions that constantly flip between different versions (such as the Necker Cube). With misperceptions, unlike optical illusions, the picture never flips back.

This raises the question - why are advertising billboards a common source of misperception? I think it's because, you never know what's going to be in a new advert. By contrast most things you see in everyday life are familiar; houses, cars, roads, trees, people, grass, clouds, etc. With familiar objects our brains can easily produce a suitable visual substitution from memory. Would you really notice if one leaf on a tree was exactly as seen by your eyes while another one, less well seen, was a memory substitute? But when faced with a novel image, the brain has a trickier job and sometimes gets caught out changing images.

Here's another question - why didn't I see adverts 'flip' before I discovered misperception? I'm sure my brain still got it wrong, occasionally, for a second or two, so why didn't I notice it? The key word is 'notice' here. We walk down streets every day noticing very little of what is actually going on all around us. Unless, like me, you become interested in natural history, you probably won't notice the street pigeons or foxes. So I never noticed flipping misperceptions until recently because I wasn't interested in the subject. We lavish most of our limited attention on what really interests us.

Next question - why do people who see misperception ghosts notice them? Perhaps it is triggered by a belief in ghosts. Or maybe they noticed a misperception so bizarre they couldn't ignore it. Or perhaps it is simply genetic variability! People who notice such misperceptions may well consider themselves psychic. However it happens, I think some ghost witnesses may see the 'substitute' image for much longer than people like me. What evidence do I have for that? Two words - ghost photographs!

I see many anomalous photos that the photographer says contains a face, figure or other object that I cannot, despite extensive examination, see! As I've speculated before, I think this is a form of permanent misperception. One viewer always sees a ghostly figure while another never does. A crucial point about a photo is that it never changes over time. If one person saw a tree stump as a ghost and someone standing next to them couldn't see it, you could put it down to a different viewing angle. If the second person moved to the same spot as the original witness and could still see no figure, you might put it down to changes in lighting over time. But with a photo, these factors don't apply. Everyone sees exactly the same photo but different people see different things in it. I suspect that someone who sees a ghostly figure in a photo may also see one with their naked eye that is really a tree stump. And for an extended period of time!

It is fascinating to see how human perception actually works. We have an illusion that normal sensory perception is a faithful representation of the physical world around us. Instead, it is more like watching an edited movie where we what we see can depend on what we know.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A ghostly presence, at last!

CobwebTo some people, I suppose it's an appropriate time of year for a novel ghostly experience. For me, I'm interested in anything weird any time.

The other day I was walking along an alleyway, in daylight. I was walking slowly, staring at the ground looking for cobwebs, which can look spectacular in autumn. Regular readers will be aware of my interest in wildlife, which means I'm often looking around while walking, hoping to catch a glimpse of a bird, insect or unusual plant. Anyway, I suddenly had a strong feeling that there was someone behind me. I felt distinctly uncomfortable as the person was making no attempt to pass me, even though there was enough room. I carried on until the end of the alleyway and then looked back. There was no one there! What is more, I felt the 'presence' right up until I turned round, so no one could have run away in time for me not to see them.

Thinking back, I realised I never actually saw or heard anything! I just 'felt' that there was 'someone' walking right behind me. Though it was quiet, I would not necessarily have heard anyone behind me as some people walk almost silently. Had another person had my experience they may well have concluded that they had just been followed by an invisible ghost!

So why did I think there was someone there? I believe there were various contributing factors. Firstly, it was an alleyway which can make pedestrians feel uncomfortable with its lack of 'escape routes' (in case of problems) and restricted visibility in most directions. Secondly, I was walking slowly, which may have caused someone behind to become impatient. Thirdly, I was staring at the ground, which some people might regard as 'odd' behaviour. These last two factors could have caused me to feel embarrassment. Put those factors together and they could have made me feel distinctly uncomfortable, though I don't remember feeling like that consciously.

While these factors may contribute to being uncomfortable with the POSSIBILITY of there being someone behind me, they don't mean that I will necessarily SENSE someone there when they aren't. It's possible that I heard some slight noise, subliminally, that started off the idea that I was being followed down the alley. Once the idea got into my consciousness, it may have been sustained by the various 'uncomfortable' factors mentioned before. This may be how some paranormal witnesses get a sense of ghostly presence - a combination of 'uncomfortable' factors and an unexplained sound or other sensory stimulus.

I have now experienced several of the major natural causes of many paranormal reports. I often notice misperception, for instance. I have also had hypnagogic experiences and visual spatial distortions typical of OBEs. All of these experiences have been highly illuminating in understanding how many weird experiences can have xenonormal causes. One common paranormal experience that has eluded me until now is sensing an invisible presence. Perhaps, now I've had one, I'll get them regularly! Why is that not a comforting thought? Happy Samhain!

Monday, 29 October 2012

First eliminate the normal!

If you are investigating a haunting (or some other anomalous case) and you're looking for possible natural explanations for what has been reported, you may be wasting your time! You might look for a few obvious possibilities but what about all the other not so obvious ones? For any given reported anomaly there may be many different possible natural explanations. Unless you check them all out, you can never eliminate them. It doesn't matter how weird the phenomenon, if there are untested natural explanations possible, the best you can ever say is that it might be paranormal. Or not!

I often read reports of people on ghost vigils looking into strange incidents that happened on the night. While the things they test are OK as far as they go, I can usually think of several possibilities that either didn't occur to them or they didn't bother to check. I suspect, in most cases, the former is true. It is a shame because it is much easier to check possible explanations just after an incident, a luxury we don't usually have with witness reports received for investigation. I have often explained my own weird observations by checking them out at the time. Even waiting a few minutes can make it impossible to check certain aspects!

So how can we be fully prepared for every possible natural explanation when something weird happens? My solution is to look for weird events in everyday life. Regular readers will be aware that I am always on the look out for mysterious stuff to explain in my day to day life. It is an extremely useful way to discover possible natural explanations that would never otherwise have occurred to me. I would suggest that all anomaly investigators should follow this example and keep a look out for situations in everyday life which could be interpreted as paranormal. And most importantly, having found a natural explanation, you should look for clues or symptoms that point to that cause. You can also pursue xenonormal studies, when not actively investigating.

If you go on active investigation without being armed with lots of possible explanations for anything weird that you might encounter, then you may simply be wasting your time. Any results you present will always be open to challenge by others who can think of alternative causes. Of course, the are always some obscure natural explanations that even a well-prepared investigator will not think of. But at the moment, even quite obvious things are being overlooked making conclusions like 'unexplained', 'inexplicable' or even 'paranormal' look distinctly unsupportable.

Friday, 26 October 2012

How do you identify a ghost?

Ghost treeSo, you've seen a ghost! It looked like a human figure. But who is it? Though many people spend a lot of time doing research to find out who a ghost is, there is another strong possibility - it isn't anyone at all! But how can that be?

Consider the photo, right (original story of sighting here). It may not look much like a person, or even a ghost, but it did when originally seen. It appeared to be "an elderly person with frizzy grey hair" for a few seconds before reverting to its actual physical form, the one you see here - a tree! It was an example of misperception. Though this was only a brief sighting, misperceptions can sometimes last for a long time and be seen as a human figure throughout. But here's the point - there clearly was no 'elderly person', ghost or otherwise, present. So it isn't anyone and cannot ever be identified.

In cases of misperception, the features of the figure are largely determined by the object being misperceived and the lighting. In the example here, the bit at the top of the tree where a branch has been removed looks lighter and produces a 'face' when misperceived. Any 'details', like mouth, eyes and so on come from the viewer's visual memory. From examining many examples of misperception, it appears that our memory produces archetypal figures in such cases, rather than a recognizable person that we remember. So even the misperception is not an actual person.

While misperception is responsible for many ghost sightings, another common source of apparitions is near-sleep experiences, like hypnagogia. In such experiences, elements from dreams are mixed with real sensory input. So someone might be lying in bed and they see a figure standing nearby. The figure comes from a dream state while the real background is what they are actually seeing. In ordinary dreams there are often other people present, some real ones that we know, and sometimes others that we don't. It appears to be the same with hypnagogic states where sometimes figures are recognizable but many are not. So most of this category of ghost would also have no identity.

None of the above deters people from trying hard to identify ghosts. Indeed, they may try to identify figures that are little more than shadows or even just vague shapes! So how is it done? The key is the location where the ghost was seen. The 'identifier' will do some historical research to work out 'likely possibilities'. These may include people involved in tragedies (either at the location or elsewhere), famous people (!), people emotionally attached to the location and so on. All of these connections rely on the idea that ghosts are spirits, even though though there is no compelling evidence to suggest that is actually the case.

Finally, there is almost never a good enough description available from the witness to definitively identify a ghost with a particular person! So, all in all, I would say that you're probably better off NOT trying to identify a ghost in the first place.