Tuesday, 31 December 2013

On finding a light in the sky

UFO light in the skyMany UFO reports could be fairly summarized as someone seeing a light in the sky. So when I saw just such a light recently, I took a photo of it (right). It really did look just as it does in the picture. It was late afternoon and just starting to get dark. This eerie light was NOT the moon, nor was it the sun shining through clouds.

It looked like this for about a minute. I know that because I took several photos of the object and that's how long it took before I got a shot which made it obvious what the UFO actually was. The light drifted silently and slowly across the sky during that period. Though I wasn't deliberately looking for odd things to take photos of, I'm always on the look out for them. And they can be surprisingly easy to find if you stay alert to the possibility. I'm sure that if more people looked out for such things, and watched them long enough to discover their true identity, there would be fewer reports of anomalies.

Silence is one of the factors almost always mentioned in UFO reports. Presumably that's because if an aerial object sounded like a plane or helicopter, its identity would be obvious to the observer, so they wouldn't report it. However, when ordinary aircraft are in the distance, they can be too far away for their engines to be heard. Also, many natural objects that traverse the sky make no sound when they move, like balloons, satellites or meteors, for instance. So silence, so commonly reported for UFOs, is not in any way a reliable indicator of a something extraordinary.

UFO light planeHere is a photo of the same object, taken 1 minute and 14s after the one above. It uses a lot more zoom than the first image. It is an aircraft coming in to land at a nearby airport. Because it was flying towards me, all I saw at first was one silent bright light near the horizon. It gradually got brighter as it approached and eventually I could hear the engines and see the aircraft itself.

Although I knew what the light was all the time, others not so familiar with how aircraft behave near airports might not (as I've discussed previously here). It certainly looked genuinely mysterious at the time - a bright white light silently floating through a twilight sky. Had I not known what it was, I'm sure my first thought would have been UFO!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Dust particles turning into orbs

Dust into orbsOne of the aims of my new orb video project (see last post) was to show individual dust particles actually turning into orbs. In a previous video (here) you can see floating dust being put deliberately out of focus so that it turns into orbs. In other words, the orb zone was being intentionally expanded to include the dust.

I wanted to do something more naturalistic this time, in line with xenonormal principles. The idea was to show in-focus bits of dust drifting, on air currents, into the orb zone to become orbs. This new video (here) thus shows what happens at the boundaries of the orb zone.

When the dust in the video is in focus it mostly appears as moving bright lines or streaks, rather than the dots you might expect. This is because the dust is moving relatively quickly and the dots are motion-blurred to become bright streaks. Many of these dust particles then turn into orbs as they move (and some later 'pop' - see here - as they cross another orb zone boundary).

Just before they turn into orbs, some of the dust particles turn into the more obvious dots you might expect to see. That's because most of the particles swing upwards as they approach the torch. As they do so, their motion-blur disappears because we are watching them approaching the camera. Also, this upward motion brings them into the orb zone which is why they then become orbs. If you follow individual dust particles in the slow motion sections of the video you can see this happen.

The photo (above right) is a grab from the video. You can see the dust particles as motion-blurred light streaks going towards the torch on the right. Near the torch you can see the ones that have already arrived and turned into orbs. Notice how the orbs start out white when they are small and become blue as they expand. I think the colour comes from a blue tinge in the torch light. You can see hints of blue in the torch itself in the photo here.

PS: I experienced a heavy thunder storm (with hail) the other day, in winter! Looking on the web, though rare, winter thunder storms in the UK but not that unusual.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Popping orbs!

Video orb zoneOrbs just won't go away! Most paranormal researchers now agree that there is no evidence that orbs are paranormal. But there are still people who DO think some orbs might be paranormal. So, rather than simply ignore the subject, I decided to make some videos exploring the orb zone. And I was rewarded by some surprising images, like 'popping' orbs!

Most orbs are illuminated by a flash (or another light) attached to the camera. In the setup I used (pic right), a torch illuminated the area just in front of the camera creating an orb zone where dust is out of focus and strongly illuminated. The diagram may be difficult to see on this page but there is a much bigger version here.

You can see the 'popping' orbs in the short video here. What you will see is a group of orbs floating around in front of the torch. The orbs were created using real dust, abiding by the authentic conditions demanded by the principles of xenonormal studies. Particles of dust were deliberately disturbed to get a reasonable number floating around but, apart from that, the conditions were typical of just about any building.

Circles of confusionWhat you will see is an area lit by a torch (on the right). The background is rough paper with bits of dust on it. You will notice that some of the moving orbs appear to grow larger, and in a few cases smaller, as they move about. In particular there are some examples of orbs that grow steadily larger and then vanish (especially towards the end of the orb clip), as if they are popping out of existence, like a bursting soap bubble. This phenomena would not be obvious in most orb videos because the position of the light illuminating the scene (usually on the camera) is different.

Orbs are growing larger because they are approaching the camera and so getting more and more out of focus. In the diagram (right) you can see how a tiny object (like a particle of dust) is projected by a camera lens onto a sensor. If it is in focus (particle A), it appears as a dot on the sensor. But if the dust particle gets too close to the camera to be in focus (B) the dot becomes a diffuse circle - an orb - on the sensor. And the closer the dust particle approaches, the larger the orb becomes.

However, in the setup with the torch, the orbs are reaching a point where they are no longer illuminated by the torch. As you can see in the upper diagram, there is an area just in front of the lens where the light from the torch does not reach, so no orbs show there. So when an orb 'pops' it is simply leaving the area illuminated by the torch. The orb is not really bursting, it is simply vanishing.

Monday, 16 December 2013

A different shadow ghost!

ShadowLooking out of a window at the night outside, a figure in the street caught my attention. Nothing obviously odd except that it suddenly vanished! So, a ghost then! It was only afterwards that I remembered it had been a really strange figure, unnaturally thin and small (probably what caught my eye). Not so much like a child as an ordinary adult made to look bizarrely thin by a trick in photo editing software.

The figure looked solid but dark a featureless, like a shadow. So, a shadow ghost then! It did not look as weird as it sounds because, in the poorly illuminated street, many definitely-real passing human figures also were mostly dark with few visible features. What really struck me, however, was actually seeing the figure vanishing. I have often seen misperceptions turn into the objects they really are, but seeing a figure simply vanish is new to me.

My first thought was that it was a misperception of something reflected in the window. I have had such misperceptions before, including the door ghost, which this figure superficially resembled. I tried to reproduce the effect with my hand, which had been moving when I saw the apparition. I couldn't reproduce it exactly but it was close enough to make me think I was on the right track. Certainly, given the distances and angles involved, my hand could certainly produce a similar reflection in the right position.

With the door ghost, also a reflection, the apparition appears behind me. So why didn't this one if it was, once again, my own hand? The difference is that the door ghost window is frosted. The window I was looking through this time was clear, so that reflected images sometimes appeared to be outside, in suitable (low) lighting conditions.

I am still puzzled by just how convincingly human the figure looked, albeit with decidely odd proportions. I think it was my perception system that did that. The odd shape of the figure would have come from my reflected hand. So why would it appear as a human figure? Well, there were several people walking by at the time. The ghost moved along a pavement, just where you'd expect to see a human! Expectation appears to play an important part in misperceptions. Had the 'figure' appeared somewhere else in the scene, it might have been misperceived as something else.

Another interesting point is that the figure appeared to move BEHIND a car! How is that possible? Well, the car was a bold white colour and I think this overwhelmed that part of the rather feeble dark reflection of my hand that would have appeared on the car itself. This affect certainly added to the impression that I was watching a real figure, until it vanished. No doubt my perception system ensured it all looked normal! The ability of our brains to construct reasonable looking versions of what MIGHT be present is truly astonishing!

Am I bothered that I could not reproduce the figure exactly at the time? Considering that I made a reasonable approximation of it using my hand, which I knew was moving at the time of the sighting, I'm happy that I've found the explanation. Considering all the angles, relatrive positions and distances involved, it is actually amazing that my hand could approximate the figure so well. Also, it is not generally possible to reproduce misperceptions twice in rapid succession. As I've discovered with the door ghost, you usually need to forget about the previous misperception for it to happen again in similar circumstances. Maybe I'll see this figure again once I've forgotten about it. Overall, I'm satisfied this was another case of misperception, albeit a particularly dramatic one.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

More hair raising!

Parrot in treeI was recently mentioned a hair raising incident that happened to me once, many years ago. And now, it's happened again!

OK, not quite the same. This time it was even more embarrassing. I was walking alone along a suburban street in broad daylight when I nearly jumped out of my skin. The reason was a very loud squawk from just behind me. The fact that I recognized the call didn't help. I turned round quickly and, after scanning in all directions, finally saw the culprit flying rapidly away. It was, as I already knew, a Ring-necked Parakeet.

As a birder, I should have spotted this large green bird which must have been very close to me when it squawked, in a place I'd just walked past. In my defence, I was day dreaming and not looking for birds. And these parrots have a habit of sitting silently and motionless in trees for lengthy periods, blending in with the foliage surprisingly well (see photo). I have examined trees before where I knew for a fact there was a bird present (having seen it fly in) and still not found them.

It would be easy to imagine someone not acquainted with these parrots reporting such an apparently mysterious incident as anomalous. They would have looked around in vain for the cause of this very loud unfamiliar noise. Even those people reasonably familiar with common birds in the UK might well not know about these parrots. They only occur in quite small areas within certain parts of the UK. Many anomalous reports are generated by people experiencing something perfectly natural yet unfamiliar to the witness. In other words, xenonormal.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Why did I look away from the ghostly hand?

Rock concertI glanced around and noticed a huge ghostly white glowing hand hovering above the rock concert audience. Strangely, I then looked away! Belatedly realizing I'd seen something truly weird, I quickly looked back but it had gone.

I have reported before how I once saw a ghost on stage at a rock concert. This, much more recent sighting, was in a similar situation. I was at the back of an audience in a darkened room at a concert with only the stage illuminated strongly. Unlike on the previous occasion, I had the presence of mind this time to try to analyze what I'd just seen at the time.

Firstly, looking again, I concluded that the 'hand' was almost certainly on the wall, rather than hovering over the audience. Secondly, I only saw the hand in one short glance, making it likely to be a 'glance misperception' of some kind. It may have been a deliberate lighting effect but, since it only happened once, I suspect not. That the 'hand' was white was interesting (and the same as in the incident linked above) given that most lighting at the concert was every colour except white! This suggests that it may have been a reflection of the white spotlight used to illuminate the artist on stage. Regular concert goers will be familiar with the experience of being momentarily dazzled by reflections off guitars! Maybe this was one, playing on the wall.

But why did I only glance at this extraordinary thing, whose cause was far from immediately obvious, and then look away? I've heard this sort of thing before in reports of anomalous phenomena. It can take a second or two for someone to register the fact that they've just seen something truly weird. And by then, it may well have gone, as in this case. Had the sight been alarming, rather than simply bizarre, I'm sure I would not have taken my eyes off it. So maybe that is why some witnesses continue to gaze at something weird while others don't. It may all come down to whether the object is perceived as any kind of threat.

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that we see odd things in darkened rooms filled with unusual lighting, typical of rock concerts. Most people probably dismiss anything odd they see in such situations as a deliberate lighting effect, given that they are watching a performance ('just part of the show'). If a ghost wanted to walk unnoticed through a crowd of people, a rock concert would be the perfect place to do so.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Where is that strange sound coming from?

MagpiesI heard the characteristic chattering call of a Magpie and looked up, as I do when I hear one of my favourite birds. On this occasion I could not see it. I was walking along a street lined by terraced houses, so it wasn't surprising. The bird sounded like it was on a roof on one side of the street but there was nothing there. So I looked round in all directions.

Why would I do that, you might ask? Because sounds are strongly reflected by walls and, in my experience, if you can't see the bird straight away, you are probably hearing a reflected sound. That means the bird could be in almost any direction, depending on the layout of the house walls nearby.

I walked further along the street until there was another terrace-lined street leading off to one side. Now the direction of the still-calling bird seemed to change, appearing to be coming from the side street. But a quick look showed that it wasn't there either. Finally, I looked behind me and there was the Magpie. It was on a tall tree, down an alleyway, behind the street I'd been walking along. Now that I could see it, the sound obviously came from the direction of the bird.

The difficulties of locating the origin of a sound in buildings, on ghost vigils for instance, are well known (see here). But, as this incident illustrates, there are also problems outdoors, especially in the vicinity of buildings or rock faces. . When investing anomalous phenomena outside you should consider that, just because you hear a sound from a particular direction, it doesn't necessarily mean its origin is that way. Sometimes odd noises are attributed to something invisible (and possibly paranormal) when, in reality, what you can hear is just not where you think it is.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Looking closely doesn't always help

Blobs over waterI sometimes see anomalous photos which are clearly cropped sections of a larger original. This cropping may be done to protect someone's anonymity. More often, however, the photographer has cropped the photo to show only the anomaly itself. While this might seem a good idea, at first sight, it can affect how the photo is interpreted.

Take the example here! The photo (right) shows some water with some decidedly strange looking translucent blobs apparently floating above it. One blob, on the left, is shaped like a bottle while another, bottom right, resembles a pebble in shape. The other blobs look roughly circular. It's difficult to judge the scale without knowing how high those waves are on the water. If they are big, perhaps at sea, then it is difficult to imagine what those objects might actually be!

If, on the other hand, the waves are small, maybe in a pond or lake, then the blobs might be easier to understand. They could then, for instance, be droplets of water kicked up from a splash. And that is, indeed, what they are! The uncropped version of this photo shows a duck diving, kicking up those droplets, fortuitously captured in midair just as the photo was taken. Obviously, once the full context is available, the objects are no longer mysterious at all.

While this is a trivial example, purely for illustration, I have come across many others which were not. And, in almost every case, when the whole uncropped photo was examined, a natural explanation for something that initially appeared mysterious rapidly emerged. People often crop their anomalous photos to be helpful, concentrating the eye on the central mystery. It is, perhaps, an obvious thing to do, to look most closely at the mystery object itself in order to explain it. However, it is often what is going on elsewhere in the photo that provides the vital clue to solving such photographic mysteries.

PS: Regarding the last blog entry, MA later recalled having seen the 'fox' video at Verbier online with a French commentary! This might explain where the French accent originated.  

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Voices from beyond?

Crows in treeAmong several voices heard there was one that stood out as highly unusual. It was a female voice with a French accent and it said just one word that the listener, having barely studied the language at school, did not know. Regular readers will be familiar with my acquaintance (MA) who experiences microsleep with REM. This is a rare phenomenon, usually associated with certain sleep disorders, where someone goes straight into a dream state on falling into even a brief microsleep. Naturally, this can produce some very odd experiences, especially if the witness does not realise they have gone into a microsleep, which is not that unusual. Hypnagogia is common with MWR, with apparent voices sometimes heard while on the verge of a microsleep (when still awake).

MA says the voices sound different to ordinary real ones. They lack the resonance that a normal voice might have if someone was speaking out loud in a room, for instance. They can sound like listening to someone through a telephone. As MA finds it easy to tell from real voices, usually, they do not cause the anxiety that apparently unexplained voices might otherwise. MA knows they are unreal and just tries to remember what they have to say. The French voice was highly unusual, however. MA had never heard a foreign voice before, still less a word that was not immediately understandable. So, could it be something a little different? Maybe even a deliberate message, of some sort, from somewhere?

MA looked the word up online and soon found out it was a place name, in Switzerland! The place was Verbier. Not being a skier, MA had barely heard of the place. So why, assuming these hypnagogic voices originate in the listener's own memory, would this particular place name come up? And in a French accent? Looking up Verbier on the web, suddenly the connection was made. MA remembered a recent news story from Verbier. It was quite widely seen and even featured in this blog! However, MA was not thinking about Verbier, Switzerland, French, golf, foxes or anything else related to the news story.

Oddly enough, MA reports that much of the content of hypnagogic voices actually makes even less sense than Verbier! The phrases heard sound like snatches of overheard conversations that are neither directed to the listener, or anything they were thinking about. Though these words are presumably derived from the listener's memory, the way they are selected appears near random. MA says they often appear quite dramatic in content. They might even originate from dialogue heard on TV or movies.

But why did this particular voice have a French accent? If you're expecting a solution to this mystery, I don't have one. It may be related to how words are stored in human memory. Maybe French words are connected to French pronunciation somewhere in the brain.

It is easy to see how the apparently random chatter of voices could be interpreted by some listeners with MWR as messages from spirits, if they were not aware of their hypnagogic origins. With no obvious connection to what the listener is thinking about, or can even consciously recall, they might appear to originate from somewhere outside that person's head, maybe with a spirit. The fact that the voices sound different to 'normal' might even add to the impression of a communication from somewhere else. It would not be a surprise if someone with MWR might think they are psychic or even a medium.

PS: Why the same photo as last time? It's still bugging me ...

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Route to a coincidence

Crows in treeRecently I had a memory going round me head that, for some reason, just wouldn't go away. It concerned a place, far away, that I'd visited precisely once, many years ago. It was an obscure place, little known outside birding circles. I hadn't thought about it for maybe a decade or more and yet, suddenly, I couldn't get its uncommon name out of my head.

So, when I subsequently noticed a tiny advertisement in the street, something caught my eye instantly. The advert was for a taxi firm. The name of the company was the same as the place I'd been thinking about continuously, for no apparent reason, for the previous 24 hours! Could this be a synchronicity - a meaningful coincidence? Was fate trying to tell me something? Was it a message that I must go back?

Then I noticed something odd. The name on the advert was, in fact, NOT quite the same as the one I'd been thinking about all day. There was one letter different. Even so, it was remarkably similar and still an astonishing coincidence, given that both names are uncommon. I had probably misread it precisely because it was so similar to the name I'd been thinking about.

But then I realised something else. I'd actually seen that exact same advert before! It's design and position suddenly appeared oddly familiar. My meaningful coincidence was unravelling fast. It was now obvious that the chain of events went more like this. When I had seen the advert for the first time I'd clearly paid little attention to it and forget I'd ever seen it. However, the uncommon name had triggered a memory in my brain that then appeared 'unaccountably'. The only real coincidence was that the name of a taxi firm was one letter different to an obscure place I'd once visited. Which doesn't appear that meaningful.

From this incident you can see how apparently meaningful coincidences can sometimes be generated by purest accident. The crucial point in the events outlined above was that I forgot I'd seen the advert the first time. It is easy to think of similar sequences of events where someone forgets what prompted them to think of a particular idea. And if they don't remember that triggering event, any subsequent apparently meaningful coincidence will continue to appear significant. Even if, in reality, it isn't!

When analyzing reports of synchronicities it is vital to get a full sequential account of every relevant event. If there is an obvious point where a forgotten connection might easily account for the synchronicity, it is an idea well worth exploring. Note, also, that memories can be triggered by something that merely resembles the original thought. There doesn't have to be an exact match.

And the photo? Every time I look at it I have a nagging feeling it reminds me of something I've seen before. But what?

Monday, 25 November 2013

Seeing through blurry ghosts

Blurry orange shapeIf you saw this anomalous photo (right) would you have any idea what it was? I know what it really is so it seems obvious to me but I doubt that applies to many others. Amazingly, I have seen anomalous photos just as blurry as this. As I've commented in the past, most anomalous photos are pictures with 'something wrong with them' - at least from the point of view of a serious photographer.

I was on the point of deleting this obvious 'mistake' (caused by a focus problem) when it occurred to me that it might usefully illustrate the sort of anomalous photos I see all the time. What puzzles me is this. Why do people bother to examine photos like this one, which shows no sharp detail whatsoever? Even if there WAS a real ghostly face in this photo, it would be so horribly blurred that it would almost certainly not be recognisable as a face at all since everything in the photo is completely out of focus.

Modern cameras are so automated that they can take a reasonable photo in almost every situation. But sometimes they do make mistakes, like this shot. Perhaps, as a result of being used to routinely reasonable photos, people (other than serious photographers) don't realise that some parts (or even the whole) of some shots are photographic artefacts, rather than representing anything real that was actually physically present. In the photo above, the objects shown were obviously not blurry at all to the naked eye.

Not so blurryIf there is another photo of the same scene (taken at the same time ideally) this can hugely helpful in working out what such a 'problem' photo might really show. So here (right) is another photo of the same scene, taken just after the one above. Regular readers will be unsurprised to find that it shows a bird - a Chaffinch. Now the bird, the leaves, tree branches and so on are obvious. But note how the background is still out of focus so we still don't know what those bits are. But at least we can now make some reasonable guesses based on what we CAN see. The background probably contains more leaves, branches, a patch of sky (the blue bit) etc.

So, if we saw a 'face' in that blurred bit it would be difficult to say whether it was real or not. It could just be a result of the blur, making one object blend into another to give a result resembling a face. Even if there was a real face there, it would be difficult to say for sure and certainly impossible to say whether it was a ghost or maybe a real ordinary person. The fact that almost every anomalous photo I've ever examined has had a 'fault' (from the point of view of a serious photographer) tends to support the idea that most are photographic artefacts.

PS: I've just noticed, looking at the original blurry photo, it looks like a monkey face, looking right, with white shiny eyes. Or is that just me?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Followed by an invisible ghost

Red leafSeveral times recently I've heard someone following me along the same completely deserted street. On each occasion I turned around and could see no one there. It sounded like the same person each time as they walked with a peculiar shuffling noise. An invisible ghost dragging its feet, then? Well, no. On the last occasion I finally saw the real cause of the noise. Which is good because being followed by someone invisible is unnerving!

Meanwhile the door ghost (door what?) still puts in regular appearances, though it is yet to make any noise. I tried a couple of new 'tests' recently. Firstly, once I'd seen the ghost, I moved the hand (the one producing the apparition) very slowly. As I suspected, the ghost did not vanish as it would if I moved the hand quickly. The partial figure only vanished once the hand had moved a significant distance from where I normally see the apparition. I think it had, by then, moved to a position where a human figure no longer made any visual sense to my brain. So, it seems that misperception can survive movement of the object being misperceived, provided it happens slowly enough and doesn't go too far.

The second thing I tried was looking away, then looking back immediately. Also as I expected, this completely destroyed the misperception. It is a bit like closing your eyes to check if you are hallucinating. I suspect it happens because our brains can only be fooled once in such situations, something I'd already noted.

And the mysterious shuffling sound following me (if you haven't already guessed)? It was a slight breeze blowing fallen autumn leaves around on the path. I was surprised how much the leaves sounded like a human or animal shuffling about. It probably wouldn't have worked if the wind was stronger than just a slight breeze. If it had happened at night it would have been doubly unsettling as it would be difficult to see what was really going on.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Blurry ghosts

MovementAnyone who looks at a lot anomalous photos is eventually likely to come across the results of 'night portrait' or 'night mode' mode. Digital cameras usually have several automatic exposure modes for particular types of scene, like portraits, action, sport, snow scenes and so on. Each mode makes particular exposure settings appropriate to the scene being photographed. These settings usually override any that the photographer makes.

Some 'night' scene modes, particularly 'night portrait', combine flash with a long exposure. You can see the result here (right). The photo shows a lit torch lying on a copy of ASSAP's Seriously Strange magazine. This picture was photographed in near total darkness.

The flash has illuminated the scene, giving it a generally sharp overall appearance. That's because a flash only lasts a very short time, typically a few thousandths of a second. So, in low light, it's like taking an exposure of a few thousandths of a second. However, there is an obvious blurred area in this photo. This was the bit of the scene also illuminated by the blue torch on the right of the frame. It looks blurred because the camera moved during the longish period after the flash fired but before the shutter finally closed (some 2 seconds in this case). The rest of the photo remains unblurred because there was nothing illuminating it after the flash finished. This combination of a blurry area against an otherwise sharp background in a flash photo is a good indicator that night mode was used (which can be checked in the EXIF data, if available).

No movementThe second photo (right) shows the same scene but without the motion blur. This is the sort of photo you'd get with a flash when selecting another exposure mode.

Looking back at the blurred photo, note how the whole area illuminated by the torch got blurred. In particular, see how the words 'Bigfoot in Indiana' are blurred while 'also inside' are not! The first set of words was illuminated by the torch while second was not.

What makes these 'night scene' mode photos often get reported as anomalous is that they appear sharp overall. That makes the isolated blurry areas look like a paranormal effect. Also, the light source producing the effect may not always be obvious, as it is here. It could out of shot, illuminating something within the frame.

As well as blur, these type of photo also frequently feature light trails. These are not so often reported as paranormal but still appear inexplicable to many people.

People sometimes see apparent faces, figures or other unexpected objects in such blurry photos. Because these objects are blurry, and often transparent, it adds to the impression that there is something paranormal or ghostly going on. For these reasons, it would be best to avoid night mode on paranormal investigations!

Unfortunately, there is not usually a non-blurry version of the photo available to compare with the 'anomalous' version. If there was, like the pair above, it would be easy to see just what the real objects in the photo really are.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Photo of an invisible creature

Invisible creatureSo here it is, a photo (right) of an invisible unknown animal. Don't look too hard, I did say it was invisible! Now suppose someone saw a strange creature, that they couldn't identify, swimming in a lake, just like this one. And suppose they took its photo and this picture (right) was all they got. The very fact that the creature was not on the photo might be seen, by some, as evidence for its anomalous nature.

Of course, there are other interpretations of such an experience. The obvious one is a hallucination. There is also the possibility that the creature had simply moved out of shot before the photo was taken. You may notice a shiny wake going across the photo, suggesting just that! There is also the possibility that the whole circumstances of taking this photo had been misremembered by the witness.

So what's my point? It is simply this - a photo is seldom, if ever, definitive evidence of anything anomalous on its own. I often see reportedly anomalous photos showing scenes that do not appear strange in any way. The only oddity is that the witness insists that some obvious, solid, real-looking object clearly visible in the photo was not actually there at the time of exposure. Most frequently it is a human figure or animal. Or, more rarely, as in this case, that a very obvious object WAS visible at the time of the exposure, even though it is not in the photo. So, the only evidence that there is anything odd going on at all is the witness testimony. Maybe the witness DID see something anomalous. Maybe they didn't. But the photo, on its own, cannot help resolve that question.

In such situations all you can do is look into the case in the same way that you would with a non-photographic incident. You'd need to interview witnesses, visit the site and so on. The photo may contain some clues to what might be going on (like the wake in this photo) but it cannot tell you anything definitive.

Witnesses usually want a definite 'answer' as to whether a strange photo shows something anomalous or not. If it contains an obvious photographic anomaly then this is usually possible. But in some cases, like the one outlined here, only a fuller investigation will help. There is a general popular belief that cameras 'don't lie' which tends to support the idea that all you need is a good photo to resolve an anomalous case. Unfortunately, that is almost never true.

Monday, 11 November 2013

What if there was a second photo?

Distant UFOWith very few exceptions, I don't manipulate photos on this website. And in those few cases where I do alter a photo, it usually obvious and only done for illustration purposes. So, I was a bit disappointed to have to change the UFO photo (right) that I took recently. For those who are interested, I have made it lighter, more contrasty and softened it. It was all in the cause of making it look more mysterious. The result is a dark, circular UFO against a cloudy sky.

In my defence, most photos I see of anomalous phenomena tend to suffer from one or more photographic 'faults' (I put that in quotes because some peopole deliberately use these 'faults' for effect). They may, for instance, be out of focus, motion blurred, over- or under-exposed, noisy or of very low resolution or highly compressed. And in many cases it is that very 'fault' that is responsible for the apparent anomaly in the photo (producing a photographic artefact). So, in this case, I had to deliberately 'apply' some 'faults', simulating over-exposure and focussing problems. If I hadn't, it might have been too obvious what the UFO really is.

Note how the background of clouds give no real clue to the size of this object. We know it is in front of the clouds but without knowing how high they are, that doesn't help much. The best clue is the overall shape of the object. It is basically circular but there is a slight extension downwards, reminiscent of a balloon. Which is, of course, what it is.

UFOHere is a photo of the same object, unedited zoomed in, taken just 8 seconds later. Now the shape is more obvious and so, too, the string attached. It is now clearly a toy balloon, probably just a few tens of centimeters across. It was the string, still just about visible even in the original distant shot, that forced me into manipulating the image. Indeed, you might still be able to make it out now, depending on your display unit.

So what is the point of this exercise? Well, whenever I see an anomalous photo which suffers from a photographic 'fault', I always wonder what might have been recorded if only the photo had been well exposed. That, in essence, is what analyzing such photos is all about. Anyway, this pair of photos shows what it might look like in just such a case.

There is also another important point. When we think about photo manipulation with respect to anomalies we tend to think in terms of objects being deliberately added. However, simply playing with things, like contrast, can enhance or diminish details that can alter our entire perception of what is in a photo. And such manipulation is harder to detect than simply adding in objects.

Friday, 8 November 2013

When flying objects become unidentified

UFO aircraftOccasionally I have seen a remarkable object crawling across the night sky. It consists of a bright white light, usually silent. The photo (right) is a typical example (zoomed in). It is, of course, an aircraft but, in certain circumstances, it could easily be interpreted as a UFO.

In areas near major airports, planes are often 'stacked' while awaiting a landing slot. They move relatively slowly and close to the ground compared to ordinary flight, making them much more obvious to people on the ground than usual. At night you can see one bright light and, if the aircraft is close, two coloured lights on either side. The three lights generally make the sight obviously an aircraft though some UFOs have been described as having multiple lights.

So why would anyone report an aircraft as a UFO? Firstly, when seen at night with lights on, aircraft will look less familiar to many people. Sound normally gives away a flying object as an aircraft. However, when they are distant, or in certain wind conditions, aircraft may appear silent. It is interesting to note that a great many UFOs are described as silent. Indeed, it is tempting to see this as an unofficial popular 'test' that witnesses apply to consider whether an unrecognized object might be a UFO. Interestingly, there are also times when the aircraft do make a noise but there is something louder near the witness which drowns this out. Surprisingly, witnesses may not readily recall this when questioned after the event.

While aircraft in a stack are a familiar sight to anyone living near a major airport, they may not be to visitors to the area. And these stacks can be a fair distance from the airport (see here, for instance, for the stacking patterns for London's Heathrow airport). So witnesses may not readily associate lights in the sky with an airport that could be many kilometres away.

I have come across many UFO reports that sounded just like aircraft in the circumstances I've described here. I've also seen many photos of 'white light' UFOs that could easily have been caused in this way. In many such photographic cases the UFO was not noticed at the time of exposure. Again, something not noticed at the time appears to be seen as an unofficial popular 'test' of something anomalous by many people. Mundane flying objects can easily become UFOs, given the right circumstances and witness.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Fox ghost!

Night foxCan prolonged staring at something in low light trigger misperception? This was what I speculated yesterday when looking at the 'psychomanteum effect'. This raises two obvious questions - is there any evidence that this actually happens away from a psychomanteum and how would it even work?

Oddly enough, I do have some experiences which might be explained in the way suggested. I am interested in natural history and am always on the lookout for animals in the wild. One thing I do regularly is watch for foxes after dark. As any field naturalist will tell you, one of the best ways to spot animals is to look for movement in an otherwise still scene. It can be difficult to spot a static animal as they often blend in with their surroundings. But as soon as they move, they become easier to spot. So, to look for foxes I carefully watch a poorly illuminated area where I've seen them before, waiting for any movement that might indicate their presence. And the technique works well!

But I've noticed something odd while watching these static night scenes. I frequently see apparent slight movements, but when I focus on the moving 'object', it turns out there is nothing there! These 'objects' appear out of nowhere and disappear once I pay them close attention. A ghost fox, perhaps? Well, in fact, it looks just like a classic case of misperception! I had previously dismissed these occurrences as simple 'low light misperception' but now I see there is actually something different going on.

Typically, misperception occurs when you first look at an object, whether it is a familiar or unfamiliar one. As you pay closer attention to it, the misperception dissolves. The 'ghostly figure' becomes the poorly-seen tree stump it really is. In the 'fox' example the misperception occurs in a scene that has already been seen properly and all objects correctly identified visually. So why do these misperceptions occur after the scene has been stared at for a while?

I think that if you stare at a static scene for long enough, your perception system may reevaluate what it seeing and try new visual substitutions for things previously identified. But why? Well here's a thought. In everyday life we almost never stare at unchanging scenes. There is almost always change in our visual fields, even if it is just us adjusting our viewpoint of a static scene. If our perception system is adapted to this constant change, which seems highly likely, it may be continually 'guessing' at what it is seeing, even when there is no actual visual change occurring. And when the viewing conditions are poor, this may lead to 'new' guesses from time to time.

But can't the perception system simply remember what is there, as nothing has actually changed? Well, as I speculated recently (here), it may be that our perception system does not remember its previous mistakes. Maybe the 'psychomanteum effect' shows how this works in more detail. If you stare continuously at an unchanging scene, you are only paying attention to any one object in it at any one time. The rest of the scene is maintained by memory. But maybe, after a few minutes, that memory 'expires' (like short term memory) and the whole scene is re-evaluated, with some inevitable mistakes in poor viewing conditions. More clues, perhaps, to how misperception works and how some reports of anomalous phenomena are generated. I also wonder if looking for wildlife is why I am more sensitive to noticing misperceptions than most people.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Ghosts and mirrors

Water distortedIn this week's edition of New Scientist (I don't seem to have written that phrase here for a while) there is an article of psychomanteums, though it does not mention that name. Essentially, a psychomanteum consists of someone gazing at their own reflection in a mirror in low light conditions for a prolonged period. After a while some people may see apparent changes in their reflections.

I first tried this exercise many years ago. I had read that you could see yourself as an old person! At the time, I did indeed see what appeared to be a wrinkled version of my face. Having been told what to expect, no doubt suggestion played a part in what I actually saw. Some people believe that this technique can allow you to see spirits.

One thing that struck me in the New Scientist article was this description of one current theory about how the effect works: "As the brain struggles to make sense of what it is seeing, it might pull scraps from our memory to make up for our poor perception ..." This sounds like the way misperception works! As regular readers will be aware, I notice misperception a lot these days, while most people hardly ever seem to. So, I thought I might be a good subject for a some low light mirror gazing.

When I tried recently, it wasn't long before I did indeed see apparent changes in my reflected face. I tried two forms of illumination. In the first, my face was mostly illuminated from one side by an artificial light. In the second view, my face was mostly illuminated with natural daylight but from the other side. In both cases, I saw pretty much the same thing. Areas of my face would disappear and then reappear, despite no changes in the illumination. My lips would seem to be moving, even though physically they were not. And certain facial features, like my eyebrows, would seem to change shape as if to exaggerate features hardly noticeable normally. It was like looking at a caricature.

If the psychomanteum does work by misperception, or a related effect, it could provide a useful experimental tool for looking into how some ghosts are seen. Needless to say, I'm already thinking of trying some more experiments! The psychomanteum appears, if discussion of it on the web is any guide, to be a hot topic in parapsychology at present. So it seems that researchers are approaching this fascinating effect from both the parapsychological and psychological viewpoint. I wonder if they will come to a similar conclusion?

Friday, 1 November 2013

Hair raising bush disturbance

Night foxI've bemoaned before the lack of 'Hollywood moments' in real life paranormal research. Where are the vaporous talking apparitions you can discuss metaphysics with, for instance? But I have experienced one or two moments that certainly had horror movie shock value.

There was, for instance, one dark evening when I was walking along a deserted alleyway. As I am very familiar with location in daylight, I didn't feel any anxiety in traversing it at night. But there was a loud sound of movement in the bushes just ahead of me that evening that literally made my hair stand on end. I walked towards the bush. It continued to move noisily without any obvious cause. Then the disturbance moved to another nearby bush. Baffled, I stood still, determined to find out what the cause was, whether paranormal or not. Then a dark shape broke cover and ran straight at me, giving me another Hollywood moment!

Readers will no doubt be unsurprised, given the photo, that what I saw was a fox running close past me at speed. It seemed that I had inadvertently come between the animal and its only means of escape from the bushes, so it had to run past me get away. There will be occasions, of course, where the witness to such an incident will not recognise, or even see, the animal responsible for a strange disturbance in vegetation.

I took the night photo here (above) recently. The fox was sitting right out in the open next to a street. There were people passing nearby but none appeared to acknowledge its presence and I doubt they noticed it. Had it been daylight the animal would have been obvious but in street light only, it was able to sit, apparently unconcerned, close to passing late night pedestrians.

The thing to remember about wild animals is that, even though you may not notice them, they will certainly notice you. The fox in the photo would have run away instantly if any passing pedestrian had shown any interest in it. I know because I've done just that. I'm sure some reports of ghostly activity, or other anomalous phenomena, can be traced to unnoticed wildlife activity.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Fairy or ghost?

Yellow ghostGhost or fairy, I can't decide (pic right)? While it resembles a mist, something which often gets reported as a ghost (see below), it is small, yellow and shiny. So why not a fairy, this time?

I'd love to report that it is a photo of a ghost or fairy, but alas I can't. It is, in reality, a falling leaf. And it was a lot more difficult to photograph deliberately than you might imagine. I had to take dozens of shots to get just this one with an actual falling leaf in it. And that was in a place where brisk gusts of wind were regularly detaching leaves right in front of me. The blurriness is caused by the motion of the leaf, rather than any lack of focus. I'm not sure what is causing the shininess. However, since this wasn't evident in the leaf at the time, I guess it must be a photographic artefact associated with the motion blur. It looks like a future subject for research.

I have examined several photos, reported as anomalous, that looked like this. My first thought would be, on seeing such a photo, that there is something close to the lens and out of focus. Which would be wrong, this time. The only clue to its correct cause is the trees in the background and the date - autumn! This shows why it is so important to try experiments like these (xenonormal studies). How else could we even guess that a 'glowing yellow fairy' in a photo was actually a falling leaf without a known example to compare it with?

PS: If you happen to be going to horror-themed fancy dress party, try turning up in your everyday clothes. If asked, say you're a ghost! Happy Samhain!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Mist ghost photo

White ghostIt's that time of year again. The time when I use the low sun angle to try to reproduce some of the fascinating anomalous photos I examine. There is an example here (right) showing a strange thick white mist in front of some bushes. I've seen many anomalous photos like this, particularly in recent years. In most cases, the photographer wonders if the white object might be a ghost. Most such photos are taken with a flash, often at night. However, with a low sun angle it is quite easy to produce such pictures in daylight without a flash, as this one was.

I've discussed 'mist ghosts' before (here). Most cases of 'mist ghosts' are photographic with nothing unusual actually seen by the photographer at the time of exposure. The 'mist ghost' generally turns out to be the photographer's own breath captured by flash on a cold night. But there are other causes. As these cases appear to be getting much commoner, I thought it might be time to explore a few other possibilities. I'm moderately pleased with this effort! It certainly looks misty - almost cloudy, in fact.

White ghostThe important point to note is that the 'mist' is actually heavily out of focus. That is what gives the object its misty quality. OK, here's the same scene (right) with the focus shifted to the 'mist ghost' and the bushes now out of focus. The 'ghost' is actually the top of a reed. Its light colour is good for producing a misty look. A much wider range of objects can look white in flash photos when they are close to the camera, even when they are a quite different colour, because they are heavily overexposed.

People taking such photos will often say that they did not see anything near the camera when they took the photo. I see no reason to doubt this but it doesn't mean that such an object wasn't there. It's easy to miss such objects near to the camera when looking at a scene in a viewfinder in low light. You can even miss things such objects in good light because they are heavily out of focus. And what is seen in a viewfinder is rarely exactly what you get in the final photo.

PS: Someone had to remind me today that it is Samhain in a couple of days!! Not being a great party-goer I'd completely forgotten.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Counting humps

HumpsIt was only afterwards that I realized what I'd done. I was using my account of an incident from my distant past to support my view of a current news item. Then I was asked a question I hadn't anticipated. If I answered 'yes' then my account would still support my view. If I answered 'no', it wouldn't. It all depended on some details of my account which I could not readily recall. I searched my memory for the answer. I answered 'yes' but I had a nagging thought that I couldn't really be sure. And I could hardly go back all those years to check!

I have a feeling that next time I recall that particular memory, it will have changed a little as a result of this conversation. Every time we recall something, there is possibility that the memory of it will be modified. It is a bit like 'Chinese whispers' but involving only one person. Essentially, it is a process of confabulation. When we are asked questions about things which we cannot really remember, rather than say 'I don't know', we have a tendency, quite unconsciously, to 'fill in' our memories with details that were not previously present (see here for an ASSAP study). Worse, the 'new' memories are not usually simply random but often tend to support any belief we might have formed concerning the memory involved.

Unfortunately, this can happen when witnesses to paranormal incidents are interviewed. When asked 'what colour was the coat' the witness may name a colour rather than admit they cannot recall. And once they have done this, the coat will always be that colour in their memory. As the process is unconscious, it rarely feels like anything is wrong and the 'new' memory subsequently appears real and true.

I think we are in greatest danger of confabulating when asked for details that we 'ought' to know but don't. So, if I see a coat being worn by a ghostly figure on a well-lit street, it is reasonable to expect that I would recall its colour. But if I don't, I may well confabulate to 'fill in' that detail (because 'I must have seen the colour'!).

The problem is that, unless we make a conscious effort to memorize a scene at the time we view it, we will probably only remember one or two things that catch our attention at the time. If I saw the scene shown in the photo (above right), for instance, I would probably remember that there were unusual humps in the ground. But could I say how many there were, how tall they were, whether they were all the same size and colour, whether they were spaced at regular intervals and so on? I doubt it very much but I might 'fill in' some of these details, when questioned, if I'd formed my own theory about the cause of the humps.

This is something that people conducting interviews of paranormal witnesses should be aware of. Sometimes, whether a case has obvious xenonormal or paranormal causes may depend on quite trivial details that the witness did not actually notice. If you want an accurate answer to your questions about such a detail, including the possibility of 'I don't recall', you'll need to be careful how you proceed. This is particularly important if the witness themselves is aware that such details are of huge importance in determining whether the incident might have been paranormal or not.

I have noticed how often witnesses will recall 'new' vital details that support a paranormal interpretation of their case, despite having been closely questioned on the subject in detail before. Following my own experience above, I can see exactly why that might happen. There is a strong unconscious bias towards 'filling in' extra details that support your own interpretation of an incident even if, in reality, you can't really recall them.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

UFO against a cloudy sky

UFO with cloudOne of the questions I constantly puzzle over is, why does the xenonormal exist? Or to put it another way, why do people consistently report natural phenomena, with which they are unfamiliar, as anomalous or paranormal? To some people the answer may appear obvious but not to me. My best guess, so far, is that it comes from unconscious assumptions we all make about how the world works, based on our life experience.

Consider, for instance, that you walked into a room and found a small cardboard box hovering stationary in the exact middle of it. You would, no doubt, be surprised and might go through a few theories in your head to account for this bizarre occurrence. One obvious idea would be that the box is suspended by a fine thread that you cannot see. If you pass your hand all round the object and hit no thread, things would begin to look a bit more mysterious. Assuming you were sure you weren't hallucinating, you might well consider the possibility of the event being paranormal.

So why might you consider the event paranormal? Well, you don't need a degree in physics to know that such things should not normally happen. You know simply through your own life experience. And I think the idea that the paranormal might be involved in any witnessed incident generally arises when something apparently defies all that particular witness's life experience of similar events. But there's a problem here. Just because something is outside your life experience, it doesn't necessarily make it anomalous or paranormal.

Consider photography, for instance. Casual photographers expect their pictures to be reasonably accurate representations of what they saw when they took their photo, because that's their experience. Serious photographers soon realise, however, that 'reasonably accurate' is more like 'not even close' when photos are examined in detail. A photographer may see a scene they want to capture, take its photo and then compare the two, now easily possible using the screen on the back of their camera. They soon notice significant differences between the photo and the scene itself. The photo may be darker, lighter, more or less colourful, than the original scene. Even more serious, some objects might be out of focus or show motion blur. Some particularly bright or dark areas of the photo might show no detail whatsoever, unlike in the original scene. All of this arises because the camera does not work like human vision.

Most of the time, the differences between the photo and real life are too small for the casual photographer to notice. But not always. And it is when these difference are noticed that the photo may be reported as possibly anomalous. A popularly reported difference is the presence of object in the photo that the photographer cannot recall being there at the time of exposure. It could be a photographic artefact, like lens flare or an orb. But sometimes there really WAS an object present that the photographer either didn't notice at the time or didn't recognise in the subsequent photo. Here's an example.

The photo, above right, shows an apparent saucer-type UFO (top left) against a cloudy sky. Its presence could easily have been overlooked at the time of exposure, though in this case it wasn't. That's how I know it is a distant gull. We are used to seeing gulls as bright white birds but against a bright sky they often look dark. And their shape and characteristic gliding flight gives them a 'saucer' shape when viewed from the side.

How do I know this? From my own extensive experience of photographing birds. What might be a flying saucer type UFO to a casual photographer is a silhouetted gull to me. And I think this is how such things come to be reported as anomalous. And it is the whole point of xenonormal studies.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Is the yeti a type of polar bear?

CorvidsGreat news! No, don't stop reading, I'm not trying to sell you anything. I saw, last night, a TV programme here in the UK on Channel 4 called the Bigfoot Files. So what was so good about it? Well, for a start it used scientists using scientific methods, unlike most programmes about anomalous phenomena. Secondly, it came up with a remarkable conclusion, which many of you will already be aware of (see here if not). It shows what can be achieved when mainstream scientists get involved in anomaly research, something sadly incredibly rare. It also shows that riveting TV can be produced on serious science, even when it is concerned with anomalous phenomena. I'm hoping that it will start two important new trends - more involvement in anomaly research by mainstream science and coverage of the same in the media.

The big result of the investigation is that two samples of unknown animals found at opposite ends of the Himalayas, thought to be yeti, turned out not only to be identical but were DNA matched to an ancient polar bear (I couldn't help but be reminded on the TV series Lost). Of course, this is just the start of the scientific process of resolving what the yeti really is so it would be premature to say for sure that a yeti is a type of polar bear or a hybrid with brown bear. However, whatever the origin of the hair samples used for the DNA match, the fact remains that a species not previously recorded in the Himalayas, whether it is the yeti or not, has been found. The witness reports of yeti certainly tend to support the idea that it is some kind of bear but not one of species previously known to live in the Himalayas.

It is possible that, in a few years, following further research, we may come to conclude that the yeti is indeed a species of polar bear. One of the most enduring mysteries of crypotozoology would be solved once and for all. I can't help thinking, however, that even then there will be some people unwilling to accept such a conclusion. There are, after all, still people who think that orbs are paranormal, despite all the evidence to the contrary. But anyway, it's still great news!

And the photo? Well I didn't have a yeti picture but the programme featured some excellent Himalayan corvids.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

What makes a vulpine premonition?

FoxThere is a high wall in our neighborhood which sometimes has foxes walking along its top. So, ever interested in nature, I never miss a chance to glance in its direction when I'm passing. Not only have I seen the animals walking along the wall in broad daylight but even at night. This is possible, even though there are no street lights nearby, because there are houses behind and the foxes can be clearly seen silhouetted against lit windows.

Recently, I was watching the wall at twilight. The windows in the houses behind were already lit and I saw something silhouetted in front of one. But I couldn't make out anything on the wall, even though it appeared still light enough to have done so. Then, seconds later, a fox appeared further along the wall. It was clearly visible in the diminishing light without the need to be silhouetted. It walked along the wall, in front of the very window where I'd seen 'something' just before! It was a premonition! That was the thought that instantly went through my head.

Well, it was easily explained. The 'something' seen in front of the lit window was only seen silhouetted, not on either side of the window. It was, therefore, most likely someone (and not 'snowmen', as the spell checker wanted!) actually IN the room behind the window! So probably not a premonition, just a coincidence.

It did raise an interesting point, however. Many 'premonitions' are only shared with someone else AFTER their apparent fulfilment. To use the current example. If I'd told someone, 'I've just had a premonition that a fox will walk along that wall' and then it did, that's fine. But to only mention AFTER the event 'I think I saw that fox just before in a premonition' isn't anything like as exciting from a scientific point of view. A premonition is a prediction, after all. Mentioning it after the event is more like reinterpreting the past in a new way than doing anything paranormal. But what if the remembered premonition was exact in every detail? The problem there is, how do you know that you are recalling your premonition correctly? You may be 'projecting' what actually happened onto your supposed premonition which, in reality, was not so accurate at all.

Many premonitions are visual in nature. In a lot of cases it's something seen in a dream. This current incident is unusual in that I was not asleep and the first sighting of a silhouette actually occurred, which would make it much more unusual premonition. But the question remains, how do we KNOW something is a premonition? If we see something similar to an incident in a pervious dream, it's easy to say after the event that it was a premonition. However, there are severe problems with this interpretation, as mentioned above. Occasionally people 'feel' that an event, like a dream or thought, is a premonition at the time. In many cases what is predicted does not happen, so it was therefore not as premonition after all. Or was it?

It appears to me that what makes a coincidence into a premonition is what people think about it. I can say that my fox incident was a premonition but you can disagree. As it happens, I don't think it was a premonition. I was actually able to observe both the 'premonition' and its fulfillment within seconds of each other and, though similar, they did not look quite the same. I looked carefully because the idea of a premonition occurred to me WHILE the fox was still walking along the wall towards the lit window! In most cases, the time difference between the premonition and its apparent fulfillment will be much longer, allowing inaccuracies in recall to creep in.

If I feel I have a premonition, I will write it down in as much detail as possible and get it recorded somehow with a date. I might send a copy as an email to someone, for instance. Then, if it is fulfilled, I can accurately compare the two and see if it really merits the title of premonition.

Monday, 14 October 2013

A ghost car?

Tree branchesIt was wet. Very. Walking along a street I was determined to avoid getting splashed by passing cars. There was one particular puddle that was so big that when cars went through it they created another one, almost as big, on the pavement. So as I approached the puddle, from the other side of the road, I took careful note of an approaching white car. After crossing the road I stopped short of the huge puddle and waited. And waited. The white car never arrived! Fed up of waiting, I walked quickly past the puddle to get a better view of the road ahead. There was no white car, or any other for that matter, in view. Had I seen a ghost car?

I should explain that from the side of the road with the puddle you can't see far along the road because it bends and is obscured by trees. From the other side, however, you can see much further along the road. So, when I crossed the road I lost sight of the white car, as I expected to. What I did not expect was for it not to arrive a few seconds later. Where had it gone?

There IS a turn off that the car could have used after I saw it and before arriving at the puddle. Except that, I was SURE at the time that the car was beyond the turn off and reversing from that position would have been a risky and bizarre thing to do. I've certainly never seen anyone do that manoeuvre there, nor would I ever expect them to. So what actually happened?

Well, obviously it could have been a ghost car that simply vanished! There is another rather more likely possibility - when I saw the car it WASN'T beyond the turn off at all. How could I have made such a fundamental mistake? I was, as I've said, rather anxious not to get heavily splashed. I've noted in the past that when I've misperceived stuff it has often been things I either wanted to happen or didn't want to happen. For instance, I've seen large house plants in nearby windows as people, giving me the distinctly uncomfortable feeling of being watched.

I've little doubt that the white car was real and not a misperception. So maybe it was the turn off that I was misperceiving! Visually, it is not particularly obvious from the place where I saw the car though I knew it is there because I'm extremely familiar with the road. But maybe, on this occasion, I misperceived it to be somewhere slightly different from where it actually was. Indeed, it seems likely that the car itself was obstructing my view of the real turning.

So, instead of a ghost car, this may be a case of misperceiving a geographical feature. There seems no reason why this should not happen. After all, I once managed to climb entirely the wrong mountain (see here)! Though misperceptions are generally of people or animals, in my experience, I've also often seen one type of inanimate object as quite another. So why not misperceive a distant geographical feature? Indeed, it's possible that such misperceptions may be quite common. However, they are unlikely to be noticed much, compared to the presence of an unknown animal or person. So, next time you see a tree, among many other trees, maybe it isn't there at all. Maybe it's just bits of other trees nearby overlapping to give the impression of a tree. But who would really care enough to find out?

Friday, 11 October 2013

Recognizing ghosts

Shadow ghostI mentioned the other day my idea that sounds resembling those caused by people, where none are present, might lead to reports of ghosts. Now, new research on facial recognition lends support to that idea.

I have mentioned before that people with face blindness (prosopagnosia), who cannot recognise people's faces, still manage to recognise acquaintances somehow. They do this, unconsciously, by learning to recognise people through things other than their faces, like body, clothing, voice, hair, behaviour, context (where and when seen, for instance) and so on. The new research shows that the rest of the population has this ability too. We can all, it seems, recognise people we know even when we can't see their faces, through other cues, like those mentioned above. And the strangest thing is that when people have done this they think they used the face to recognise others, even when they demonstrably haven't.

So, it seems, we all learn to recognise people by a whole variety of clues other than faces, and aren't even aware we're doing it. While the research was concerned with visual cues, it is entirely plausible that aural ones may be used too. And if this skill can be used to recognise specific individuals, it may also be used to infer the presence of unknown people in general, perhaps from clues like characteristic sounds. Someone might, from hearing suitably suggestive noises, think they are not alone in an empty house. And they might therefore decide that they are in the presence of a ghost. And, crucially, they will not realise HOW they KNOW there is someone, or a ghost, present. Indeed, this might even explain the 'sense of presence' that some people feel in haunted, and other, locations.

This all ties in with previous experiences I have had myself of apparently 'sensing' ghostly presences (see here for instance). I tied them in to mysterious sounds at the time and now I think I can see how I may have turned those unexplained sounds into a feeling that someone invisible (or a ghost) was present. Odd sounds are the most commonly reported phenomena in hauntings. They are often the key component of the new house effect. Now, it seems, there may be a specific brain mechanism, either innate or a learned skill, responsible for this effect.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

No, orbs really are NOT dust!

Truncated orbsI'm surprised to still be writing about orbs so far into this decade. Orbs are the subject that, against all the odds, just refuses to go away and I've got a theory about why that is. It's because the popular idea that they are paranormal has been largely replaced, at least among paranormal researchers, by another one - namely that they are dust. This is despite the lack of any even mildly supportive evidence in either case. My theory is that if we could get rid of the 'dusts are orbs' myth, we might see orbs finally dumped once and for all into the dustbin of history.

The idea that orbs are NOT dust will, no doubt, come as news to a few paranormal researchers, though not, I think, to regular visitors to the ASSAP website. So how do we know orbs are not dust? Well the most obvious evidence is that airborne domestic dust consists largely of fibres, few of which, if any, are circular (or, indeed, hexagonal or diamond-shaped), unlike orbs. In addition, some orbs are 'truncated' towards the edges of frames of photos (see photo, right). There is no way of explaining this effect in terms of orbs as dust. There are many other aspects of orbs that cannot possibly be explained by the idea that they are dust (see here for some examples).

Orbs are, of course, out of focus highlights reflected from any number of different objects. This does include dust particles but also insects, water droplets, airborne seeds and even objects which are not floating at all (things dangled just in front of the camera, for instance). Indeed, dust is a much less common cause of orbs these days than it used to be. For a demonstration about how this works, see this video or read this article. Any explanation that doesn't mention that orbs are highlights and/or out of focus is completely missing the point.

There are any number of other myths still doing the rounds concerning orbs. There's the idea, for instance, that cameras with large numbers of megapixels don't get orbs, for instance. See here for the answer to that one. Then there's the idea that orbs captured with film cameras are 'different', maybe even paranormal. In fact, you can get orbs with film cameras, they are just rarer due to the (generally) physically larger frame size (see here). Then there's the old infrared myth. And the list goes on and on.

The wider point here is the vital importance of explaining any xenonormal phenomenon scientifically. Using non-explanations like 'orbs are dust' is worse than useless. Because these 'explanations' don't actually explain anything, they allow myths to persist and multiply. In fact, the orb zone theory has so far explained every aspect of orbs yet thrown at it (see here). By contrast, the 'orbs are dust' idea has yet to explain anything.

This may sound like I'm saying that only scientists should be doing paranormal research. Far from it! What I AM saying is that science is the best tool with which to do paranormal research. Some people say that the paranormal cannot be researched with science. I don't happen to agree with that but it is at least an arguable case. What is unarguable is that the xenonormal can be studied with science. And, since the vast majority of reported paranormal cases that have been carefully investigated had xenonormal explanations, it is obvious that science is a crucial tool for investigators. It would, therefore, be highly useful for investigation teams to include at least some people with scientific training or, if not, to consult with such people outside the group as required.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The past comes to haunt

ClockI looked into the brightly lit window and saw a bar. It gave me an odd feeling. I looked at the exact position where, some years ago, my desk had sat in the office where I once worked. Since then the office has been turned into a bar. I suppose the feeling was cognitive dissonance. I stood there, on the exact bit of pavement where I'd been many times before, staring through the window of a building I knew so well. Except everything was different! It just felt wrong.

The feeling I had was similar to one I often get when I see a ghost, a sort of detached feeling ('zoned out' one might say). If I'd seen a ghost appear or disappear in front of me at that moment, I would not have been surprised at all.

I've similar experiences when revisiting old haunts before. In such situations, a familiar object might trigger a fond memory while another jars because a favourite building has disappeared.

It made me wonder about that feeling of 'detachment' that often accompanies a misperception. It is possible that the 'detached' feeling is a sign of the brain being preoccupied, perhaps making it more prone to misperceive. If I could reproduce that state, maybe it might make misperception more likely. I suspect that mixture of familiar and unfamiliar puts an 'unusually heavy load' on my perception and memory, in particular. These are, of course, precisely the brain functions where misperceptions originate.

I will try out the idea by deliberately visiting some other old haunts, in future, to see if I get that odd detached feeling again and, maybe even get a really good misperception. I think I know just where to go.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Paranormal or coincidence?

ASSAP bloggerI have mentioned before that I see famous people fairly frequently and my theory which may explain it (here). Indeed, I saw a well known actor just a few weeks ago, and a couple of them not long before that. But then, the other day, I saw yet another. However, this time I excelled myself. I had seen this actor in normal everyday life (as opposed to visiting a play, for instance) before!

This is the first time I've seen the same famous person twice. The first sighting was on a train (fitting my theory!). On this occasion, however, it was in a restaurant, though not one often frequented by celebrities. So, it was a completely different context where I could hardly have predicted I would see him again. I started to wonder what are the odds against this happening by chance.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the odds of this combined coincidence are 1 in a million. Does it mean I should rush out a buy a lottery ticket? Does it mean that I was 'meant' to see this person because of some psychic connection? I should add, regarding the last point, that he is one of my favourite actors with an extensive CV in theatre, TV, films and radio. In other words, should I read any meaning into this coincidence?

The short answer is, probably not. The thing about unlikely coincidences is that there is no rule that says they CAN'T happen by pure chance, only that they are rare. However, if you live long enough your chances of witnessing a truly unusual coincidence improve. A 1 in a million chance is always a 1 in a million chance at any given instant in time. However, among a million people it is pretty much inevitable. And, for any individual, the longer they wait, the better their chances of witnessing such a coincidence.

The point of all this is that most people, if they live for a reasonable time, are likely to witness the odd 1 in a million* coincidence. So, when something extraordinary happens it is tempting to think that only the paranormal can be responsible. Suppose, for instance, you go to a psychic who tells you you will soon meet someone who has some important information for you. Then you go on holiday, only to find that someone you haven't heard from in 30 years is staying in the same hotel. They tell you what happened to some mutual acquaintances that you have often wondered about. It can't just be a coincidence, surely? But, in reality, that is exactly what it most likely is. The psychic's prediction was vague enough to refer to any number of possible future events. And, while the odds against bumping into someone you once knew long ago are long, it could happen purely by random chance. And it is probably happening to someone, somewhere pretty much all the time. And, on this occasion, it just happened to be you.

So, we should all look forward to one or two truly unlikely coincidences during the course of our lives. They only become significant if they keep on happening. So, I'm not expecting to meet that famous actor yet again!

And the photo? Me, not finding famous people, of course.

*I've said '1 in a million' purely as a nice round number for illustration purposes. I'm sure someone statistically minded could come with an accurate estimate of the odds of a 'once in a lifetime' coincidence that most people will have.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

How hauntings start?

Shadow ghostI heard the alarm go off and, instinctively, looked up. I was at the checkout of a supermarket. The beeping sound was coming from a security pillar placed near the door of the shop. I expected to see someone walking out, or maybe coming in (!), but there was no one there. Indeed, there was no one even near the pillar, nor any nearby machinery that might conceivably set it off.

I was on the point of joking to the assistant serving me at the checkout that it must be a ghost, when I thought better of it. Such 'jokes' have a habit of ending up as 'ghost reports'. It could produce a jokey story in the local paper, vigils by local ghost hunting groups and employees unwilling to work the night shift! And all because of a false alarm and my 'harmless joke'. I shuddered at the idea of being responsible for all that!

The security pillar 'went off' again several times before I left the shop. On all but one occasion, there was no one near it. Even though I knew it was almost certainly just a system malfunction, I couldn't suppress a distinct feeling, every time I looked up, that 'something unseen' was triggering it. I knew it was highly unlikely to be a ghost because there isn't, contrary to popular opinion, any compelling evidence for existence of invisible ghosts. But still the feeling came, seemingly irresistible.

So why, in a well-lit, well populated shop was I even considering the possibility of ghost involvement, albeit involuntarily? I think this may be a core component of why people report buildings to be haunted. If they experience unexplained events, like odds sounds for instance, that might make them think there is an unknown person present, when there is not, it can lead a strong feeling of a ghostly presence. And it is easy to see how additional spookiness factors, like low lighting and low temperature, may tend to unconsciously bias their thoughts in that direction.

So, it is likely then that only SOME types of unexplained sounds will trigger an initial report of a haunting. A creaking stair of floorboard, which might normally be caused by someone walking on them, is a classic example. Only once the idea that there might be a ghost present has taken hold will other, more ambiguous, sounds tend to also be reported as signs of a haunting. It is often these more ambiguous sounds that are reported on ghost vigils. And yet, in non-haunted buildings the same sounds would probably be dismissed as 'nothing of interest ' or even not noticed at all.

I've discussed this idea that hauntings start with a specific trigger event, and can maintained by less dramatic stuff, before (here). I am now convinced that such trigger events will usually consist of some sensory experience that give a strong impression of a person being present who isn't actually there. This can be anything from an apparition to apparent walking sounds. And, in a lot of cases, the initial event may not even be repeated! Once a place has a reputation for being haunted it can be maintained by more ambiguous incidents.

PS: Those of you who remember the 'garden poltergeist' won't find anything too surprising in this video.

PPS: I noticed a misperception recently, seeing a photo one way when it was actually something quite different on second glance. But here's the interesting bit. When I looked for the second time, I'm sure I saw the objects rearrange themselves (from my initial misperception to their true forms) as I started to see ithe photo correctly! I don't recall seeing that happen before. Usually the second view is different from the initial one straight away. I'll keep a look out to see if it happens again. It could be key to how some people apparently see 'impossible' things in poltergeist cases, for instance.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Did that stick just move?

Bird in the bushBriefly standing motionless, I happened to look down at the ground and noticed something odd. A small stick moved! Had there been even a breath of wind, I'd have found it unsurprising. But, given that sticks don't usually move by themselves, I was intrigued by this strange event!

I soon realised what it was. The 'stick' was actually a grasshopper. It was brown and, though not too difficult to spot in green grass, was well camouflaged among early autumn leaf litter. Grasshoppers don't only get around by jumping, as you may suppose, but also walk (or at least clamber) on the ground. Indeed, grasshoppers can also fly, something also not generally realised. This particular grasshopper, however, was just walking and giving a passable impression of a small moving stick.

It is yet another example of how many apparently weird or paranormal experiences are caused by perfectly normal things that the witness just does not happen to know about - the xenonormal, in other words. To someone who did know that grasshoppers could walk, and did not realise that some species are a very similar colour to twigs, it could easily look as though a stick had moved by itself, possibly paranormally.

So why don't more people report mysterious moving sticks? Well, I only noticed this particular incident because, in common with other birders, I have developed an unusually acute ability to notice slight movements in a scene. A great way to spot birds, when they are not immediately obvious, is to look for slight movements as they flit through vegetation or take short flights. After a while, you start to notice slight movements in any given scene, even when you don't want to. Most people, by contrast, tend to notice little about the scenery they move through, particularly when in a familiar area. And because most people are not paying much attention to their surroundings, when they DO notice something odd, they more likely to be unaware of its natural cause. This is exactly the kind of situation that can lead to a paranormal report.

This does pose a problem for paranormal researchers. It means we all have to be experts in a wide range of subjects, ranging from natural history and meteorology to physics and geology! This is clearly unrealistic. Instead we should make a 'best guess' at a likely cause and then consult a relevant expert. What may appear bizarrely unusual to the average member of the public (or even a paranormal researcher) may be simply explainable by an appropriate expert.

And the photo? There's a bird in there somewhere. Look for movement ...