Monday, 22 December 2014

White floating thing

MoonI stood by a busy road staring into a dark field at night. At first I could see nothing but then, there it was - a white shape floating over the field. I was about to write 'silently' but with lots of traffic just behind me, the scene was anything but quiet. There was, however, no obvious noise coming from the floating white shape that flitted over the field. A spooky white shape floating over a field just has to be  a ghost, surely?

A floating white shape is certainly one popular image of a ghost. However, most reports of ghosts involve perfectly normal, solid-looking human figures firmly attached to the ground. So while my floating white shape might have looked like a typical ghost from a movie, it wasn't like the ones reported by most witnesses.

The white shape certainly wasn't mist, which has often been reported as a cause of ghost reports. The shape, which changed often, was moving around far too quickly for that. It was, in fact, a Barn Owl. In daylight it's unlikely anyone would see a Barn Owl in flight as anything other than a bird. But at night, illuminated only by street lights or the moon, it can appear ethereal and eerie.

I'm not sure where the idea of ghosts as white floating things, often transparent, comes from. It is, however,interesting that the idea persists in popular culture, despite the evidence from real ghost reports.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Strange flashing light

Pepper's ghost reflectionThere was no sound just a strange flashing in my peripheral vision. I looked down to where the light was coming from but could see no obvious cause. Then I noticed a clear plastic bag on the floor that had not been there before. Experiments showed that, as it fell, it reflected light from a nearby bulb as a series of flashes. Is there no end to weird stuff caused by normal stuff?

Clear plastic bags are particularly good at producing strange effects. They blend in well with their background and so are often not noticed. But they can reflect strongly from a light source when at the correct angle. So, a clear plastic bag on the floor of a dimly lit room might be invisible until an observer moves. Then it might reflect a light source strongly, but briefly, while the witness is moving. The result is an unexplained light or flash. Even if the scene is examined closely at the time, the plastic bag may not seem to be an obvious source of an unexplained light.

When clear plastic bags are new they have very flat surfaces. But they soon acquire wrinkles after use. These wrinkles can produce multiple highlights which might together form a shape, maybe even suggesting a glowing face. Coloured plastic bags aren't so prone to producing odd light effects. They tend to be less shiny and don't blend in to their background like the clear ones.

The photo shows a printed plastic slide in front of tiles. It is strongly reflecting a nearby light source. See here for more on reflections.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Record everything!

 Crows in a treeIt is a flashbulb memory of mine. I am walking along a back street, coming home from an ASSAP meeting. I particularly remember the buildings nearby, though I'm not sure how accurately. It was in the early days of ASSAP and I'd just heard details of a couple of on-going cases. Although there was still much work to be done on them, both sounded, at first sight, to be unassailably paranormal. It felt as though we were on the verge of a breakthrough - definitive evidence of the paranormal!

I expect other paranormal researchers have had similar moments. As you will no doubt have guessed, things did not pan out quite as I expected. There is a big problem with relying on case evidence to demonstrate the paranormal and it is this. Over time, once the case is finished, people will look at the case report and ask questions about it. There are two main types of questions that cause problems. Firstly, there are questions about natural explanations that the original investigators could have checked for but never considered at the time. Secondly, there are new possible natural explanations that the original investigators would not even have known to check for. An example of the second type is misperception. Until recently, misperception would only have been considered a realistic likely natural cause for particular cases, like a shop dummy or washing on a line being mistaken for a human figure. Now we know that misperception can occur with poorly-seen trees, which can appear to some people like human figures, complete with clothes, hair and particular facial expressions! So the range of objects to be considered for misperception has expanded hugely. It's unlikely anyone would have considered a tree as the likely cause of someone seeing a ghost in the early days of ASSAP.

Once a case has been investigated, it can be difficult, or impossible, to go back and check for natural causes that weren't considered, or even known about, at the time of the original report. The witnesses may no longer be around, or if they are, their memory may have changed over time. The scene of the original incidents may have been altered. Entire buildings may not even be there any more. All of this means that unanswerable questions concerning a case gradually accumulate over time, until it can no longer be considered a plausible demonstration of the paranormal. I've learned that is not a good idea to expect cases, however strong they may appear at first sight, to support the existence of the paranormal.

Is there anything that can be done about this problem? Obviously, we can use xenonormal studies to greatly improve knowledge of possible natural causes and ways to test for them. This diminishes the problem but it does not entirely eliminate it.

One possible solution is to adopt a 'record everything' approach to investigations, to try and capture every detail, whether apparently relevant or not. In other words, we would record more information than just the obvious minimum that might appear necessary to eliminate natural causes. Then this information could be stored digitally and reanalyzed later as questions about the case arose. I can think of some classic cases that I'd love to reanalyze if only such additional information was available. I'm sure some of my questions about these cases could be answered easily if only this information was available.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Lumpy horizon

Sea UFOI love examining strange photos! I like taking strange photos even more. However, I never thought the photo (right) odd in any way when I took it. This photo (right), like the one in 8 Dec post, is also from the seaside.

Perhaps surprisingly, the picture shows the horizon, with a calm sea below and yellow sky above. So what are those odd-looking 'lumps' on the horizon? Some appear to be floating above the sea with a visible gap beneath. This picture is tightly cropped, from a much larger photo, to show the oddities on the horizon. These ragged lumps continue right across the horizon in the original photo, and occur in other shots taken at the same time. I've compared the horizon with other photos taken around the same location on other occasions. In those other photos the horizon looks flat, just as you might expect.

So what are these odd lumps? One possibility is large waves. However, they don't look like waves and the sea was calm. So what about clouds? There ARE some clouds in this, and other, photos taken at the same time. They are all yellow or white, no dark ones at all. Indeed, the yellow above the horizon in this photo IS cloud. All the lumps occur are ONLY on the horizon, unlike other clouds present. What about boats? The gaps under some of the lumps would appear to rule boats out.

Sea horizonI think the big clue is that the lumps are the same colour as the sea below. In other words, the ARE the sea! I think the lumps are a mirage of the sea itself. The second photo is of exactly the same place (you might be able to make out a distant gull, top right, in both images). The second photo (right) was taken just 0.15s after the first. The lumps have altered noticeably in that short period. This rapid variability, on its own, effectively rules out boats, clouds and waves. But it does fit with mirages which can change rapidly due to turbulence in the air.

Such horizon mirages can sometimes produce spectacular images of objects beyond the horizon, like boats or islands, that appear to float entirely in the air. They can give rise to reports of UFOs or ghost ships. For more mirages, see here.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Strange light

Ball of lightI love examining strange photos! I like taking strange photos even more. However, I never thought the photo (right) odd in any way when I took it. So, I was a bit surprised when, viewing it later, I found a mysterious ball of light in it.

It isn't an orb, being too bright and its edges not well-defined. Nor does it appear to be lens flare, because there was no bright light source just outside the frame. Nor does it look like typical lens flare. So, is it really a floating ball of light? Here are the clues to what is going on.

It would help, of course, to know what the photo is actually of. It is an eroded bed of chalk on a beach. There are several flat, white areas on the knobbly surface. These are pools of water, left by by the retreating tide. The shadows on the knobbly bits of chalk are all facing the camera. That means the sun was directly ahead.

Now it becomes obvious that the 'ball of light' is actually a reflection of the sun in a small pool of water. It is over-exposed, which is why there is no detail in the 'ball of light'. The photo was actually deliberately overexposed (by 2 stops) for effect but I never realised there was a reflection of the sun in shot. It was unintentional and ruined the intended effect. It will make do as an illustration of what a mysterious floating ball of light might look like, however.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Explaining orbs

Diamond-shaped orbsMany paranormal researchers now accept that orbs are not paranormal. But this doesn't stop orbs being reported by members of the public all the time. To them, orbs are new and mysterious. Though we have a lot about orbs on this website, I felt there was a need for a new page that provided an introduction to the subject. It is aimed at people who have just seen their first orb and are curious about what's going on. In the past, when asked about orbs I've had to give links to several different pages, none of which is aimed at total beginners. Now, I can use just one link - here.

I've added a brand new photo illustrating the orb zone using screws (!). I've thought about producing such a photo for a long time but, as with so many things in life, never quite got round to it until it became urgent. The photo shows how orbs vary in brightness and size according to their position within the zone.

The photo (above right) shows some diamond-shaped orbs. Such non-circular orbs are one of the important indicators that orbs are a phenomenon caused by the camera itself rather than the object being photographed, such as a dust particle. That's because all orbs photographed by a particular camera are always the same shape. If orbs were a phenomenon external to the camera, this should not happen.

Monday, 1 December 2014

No UFO but green blob instead

Green lens flareI took the photo because it looked like a UFO. There was a bright light apparently floating low in the twilight sky. The photo (right) turned out to be a disappointment as far as UFOs were concerned. My supposed UFO is the small bright light on the left. In the photo you can clearly see it is a mounted artificial light on a post. The whole scene looked much darker to the naked eye and the post was invisible. The brighter light to the right is also mounted on a post, even though it isn't obvious from the photo.

When I examined the photo itself I noticed something I hadn't seen at the time - a bright green glowing blob in the bottom left. It's clearly an anomaly but what is it? The vital clue is the presence of the two bright light sources in the frame. The blob is lens flare. I don't know of any bright green glowing ghosts, outside fiction, but if they exist they might look like this. If anyone knows of any reports of green glowing ghosts I'd be very interested to hear from them.

Interestingly, the lens flare would definitely have been visible in the camera viewfinder when I took the shot but I don't recall seeing it at the time. I guess I was concentrating hard on the UFO. People often report seeing objects in photos that were not noticed at the time of exposure. I think this demonstrates that when you're concentrating on your subject, you can even miss bright green glowing blobs!

PS: In November we recorded 557228 hits on the website, making it one of only 4 months ever with over half a million. In fact, it was the second highest ever total, only exceeded by the previous month.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Doors that open by themselves

WindowDoors that close (or open) by themselves are a feature of some haunting cases. So when, recently, I found a door closed that I knew I'd left open, it felt like something strange was going on. Particularly as there was no one there but me. And when I pushed at the door my efforts were resisted, which was also very weird.

Once I'd forced the door open wide enough, I could see there was a box behind. Experiments soon revealed how the door had closed. I had previously put a heavy object on a shelf. The shelf bent slightly under the weight, enough to tip the box onto the floor, but only after I'd left the room. In falling, the box pushed the adjacent open door closed.

I tried repeating the experiment with a tennis ball but it didn't work. I think the ball lacked the weight and size to push the door open (I was an enthusiastic, but inept, tennis player when I was young). If I'd had a football, I think it would have succeeded in opening the door (I was an unenthusiastic, and equally inept, football player when young).

The point of trying a ball is this - it might roll away after closing the door. So, if a football had opened the door, while I was not around, I might not have so easily discovered what had happened. The football could have ended up on the opposite side of the room, apparently unconnected with the incident. It would not be too difficult to attribute such a seemingly inexplicable event to a ghost.

Whenever I read about an anomalous incident, like a door being closed mysteriously, I wish I'd been there at the time of the incident to investigate it. I'm sure many such incidents have natural causes that are, perfectly understandably, missed by the original witness. And even subsequent visits by investigators might fail to find the true cause. In the theoretical 'football case' I've described above, it would be difficult to know whether the ball had been on the shelf to start with. And it might well have been removed from the scene entirely by the time of the investigator's visit! For more on door opening by themselves, see here.

PS: The picture? It's a window (not a door) but which way is it facing?

Monday, 24 November 2014

Sound may be key to some anomalous experiences

Nothing spectrogramIn this week's New Scientist there is an account of some research where sound has been used to give participants an illusion that their arms were longer than really were! This, and other, experiments show that sound can affect the mental image we have of our own bodies, in terms of size, weight and shape.

Previous experiments, aimed at altering a person's perception of their extent and position in space, have involved vision and touch. They have led to people experiencing OBEs! Participants were given conflicting sensory information that led to them feeling that there body was a different size, or even in a different position in space, compared to reality. See here for a discussion on how the temporoparietal junction, in the brain, determines our sense of our shape and position in space, and how it can be fooled.

So, the question now arises, can someone be made to have an OBE, purely with appropriate sounds? I don't know but it might well be possible. Other recently reported experiments have demonstrated how conflicting sensory information can lead to a sense of presence, where someone thinks there is an invisible person nearby. These experiments (see here) also primarily involved the sense of touch. But, as I pointed out at the time, my own 'sense of presence' experiences appeared to strongly implicate conflicting sound and vision as an important factor.

All of this tends to suggest that research using sound may be a way forward in producing anomalous experiences. It is certainly beginning to look as though conflicting sensory information may be an important source of apparent paranormal experiences. And while laboratory experiments have tended to concentrate on touch, it may be far more likely that sound is the key to spontaneous experiences outside the lab.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Is the nighttime best for ghosts?

Parrot low lightIt's the unmistakable squawk of the Parakeet roosting flight that first alerts me to the oncoming twilight. With night arriving so early at this time of year I'm spending more time than usual wandering around in twilight and the dark. Given that low lighting is an important trigger of misperception, I'm seeing lots more ghosts right now. Except I'm not! If anything, I'd say I see more during daylight that at night or dusk. Why would that be?

We all misperceive, all the time. However, most people never notice it, unless it is deliberately brought to their attention. I have, for several years now, spontaneously noticed some of my own misperceptions, seeing various ghostly figures in the process (see the door ghost, for instance). So what's going on?

I think it's reasonable to assume that in low light conditions there is a lot of misperception going on. There are certainly plenty of shadows being cast that could easily be interpreted as shadow ghosts or even human figures. I think that, at night and in other poor viewing conditions (like fog), the unconscious threshold for noticing misperception is raised. If this threshold was not raised, we would all see so many weird things in the dark we might be too scared to go out after nightfall. I think the threshold is set individually by experience.

Of course, people DO see some ghosts at night, even me. But I think an object probably needs to look a lot more like a human figure at night, compared to daylight, for it to be misperceived as a ghost. Interestingly, this might imply that ghosts are more likely to be seen in daylight than at night.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Haunting flashes

HighlightsLooking out of a window one night recently, I was puzzled by some mysterious small circular flashing lights in a bush in the street. There were three or four of them and I could see no obvious explanation. At first, anyway. As I watched, fascinated, it became apparent that the effect was a reflection, by wet leaves, of the light from a street lamp opposite. The lights were flashing on and off because the wind was blowing the leaves around so that they only reflected in my direction part of the time. Had it not been wet, windy and dark, the effect would not have occurred.

It reminded me that I've heard of flashes reported many times in dark ghost vigils. Oddly, though, flashes do not feature anything like as frequently in original witness reports of hauntings. I think there's a good reason for the difference. I suspect people who actually live in haunted houses don't sit around in the dark waiting for strange things to happen, unlike in many ghost vigils.

So are the flashes reported in ghost vigils really part of the haunting phenomenon? It's difficult to say without doing some kind of formal study. The flashes reported in vigils that I've be on appeared to have xenonormal explanations. Mostly they came from outside the building being investigated. They were caused by things like passing car headlights or even fireworks. The flashes were seen inside the building because curtains were not completely drawn. Flashes were also generated inside the building by various bits of electrical equipment, including stuff owned by investigators.

As the lights in the bush show, mysterious flashes can be caused by quite unusual coincidences. I'm not convinced, from the evidence that I've seen so far, that flashes should be necessarily be regarded as a feature of haunting activity. But if there is evidence out there that shows otherwise, let's hope it emerges.

Friday, 14 November 2014

New ghost, familiar location

TreeIt was an extremely familiar location. I was looking for wildlife, as I often do. To someone not familiar with such a pastime, it might have appeared as if I was behaving oddly. So I was wary of being seen by passers-by. Luckily there was no one, it being a quiet time of day and not a busy road. But then a dark figure appeared in my peripheral vision. I tried to look 'normal', which turns out to be surprisingly difficult. I slowly turned round, as though I'd always intended to do so at that precise second. There was no one there!

I quickly realised that the 'figure' I'd seen was actually a tree. The 'dark' colour came from its brownish-grey trunk. So, not a real person but a ghost caused by misperception. Which was all very odd because the location was very familiar to me and that tree has been there for many years. So why had I seen it as a human figure (or ghost) for the first time ever in all those years?

I think it may be because I was feeling particularly uncomfortable about the idea of being seen by a passer-by. Sometimes, when looking for wildlife, I'm so caught up in what I'm doing, I don't even think about what other people might think. But on this occasion, for some reason, I did. I've noted before how potential embarrassment was probably an important factor in my experiencing a sense of presence (see here). However, of the ghosts I've seen, I do not recall any other instances of embarrassment during the sighting. A feeling of being watched, yes. Embarrassment, no. So clearly such a feeling is no prerequisite to seeing a ghost. However, it could be a contributing factor sometimes.

So what does it all mean? Firstly, I think we should definitely being trying to determine the state of mind of ghost witnesses just prior to their sighting. I think I've said this many times before. Secondly, the 'embarrassment' factor certainly fits into my observation that ghosts tend to appear when you least want them to. Thirdly, it might be that those who fear seeing a human figure are more likely to misperceive one than those who don't.

I know of no evidence that psychological factors can, on their own, make someone see a ghost. But they can, from the incidents I've been involved in, bias a witness towards misperceiving a ghost.

PS The photo is NOT the tree concerned here!

Monday, 10 November 2014

Disappearing in plain sight

FoxAlways on the lookout for wildlife, I noted a reddish-brown object in the distance. Could it be a fox? I looked at it for a while and decided it was not. There is a lot of reddish-brown vegetation around this time of year. My mind drifted off onto something else.

But then I happened to look back, just in time to see the reddish-brown object stand up and walk away! It was a fox after all. Most misperceptions are of inanimate objects being taking for moving ones, like a tree stump being seen as a human figure. But sometimes it works the other way round. This time I saw an animal as a plant! I suppose expectation played a part with so many red and brown leaves around at the moment.

So is this relevant to anomaly reports? Yes, it is. A person, or animal, could be seen to 'appear' out of thin air when, in fact they were in plain sight (being misperceived as something else) all the time. Someone could also seem to disappear. The most likely scenario for this latter possibility is if a moving person was casually noticed by a witness, who then lost sight of them for a short period. The figure might then blend in with their background and so no longer be visible, despite still being in plain sight. I've had a few experiences of figures 'disappearing' in circumstances where it appeared impossible. There was one where a woman disappeared in plain sight, described here. It has parallels with the scenario I just outlined.

I also had another, more typical, anomalous sighting recently. Looking out of a window I became aware of a strange figure, dressed in blue, in my peripheral vision. Staring at it directly, the 'figure' turned out to be a large blue bag with a large white flower just behind and above it. The latter gave an impression of a face. Just for a second or so, while still in peripheral vision, I actually saw the 'figure' as a real person, albeit a startling one. Indeed, its bizarre appearance was what attracted my attention. I saw the same scene more recently but there was no 'figure' to be seen, even in peripheral vision. That's because, although the blue bag was still present, the flower had wilted, breaking the misperception.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Sense of presence

CobwebIn New Scientist there is an account of an experiment that has reliably induced a sense of presence. The sense of presence is where someone is convinced that there is someone nearby who cannot be seen. It obviously gives rise to reports of ghosts. You see a video of the experiment here.

Like OBEs, the experience appears to be produced by conflicting sensory information. In the recent research, the sense of touch is used. Participants control a robot that rubs their back but when there is a delay added into the system, they feel someone else is behind them. I wonder if touch is the only sense which can produce this phenomenon. My own experiences of a sense of presence did not involve any tactile sensations. Instead, sound was strongly implicated (see here).

Was there a sensory conflict involved in my experiences? Unexplained sounds were the most obvious explanation. If you hear a sound that you attribute to a human being walking, in a position where they should be plainly visible, but they are not, that is certainly a sensory conflict (between vision and hearing). But in my experiences I think my state of mind was a contributing factor. I was doing something that might have appeared 'odd' to a passer-by so it probably heightened my sensitivity to the possibility of being watched. Such a mental state may amplify any conflict in sensory information.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Producing formant noise words to order

Nothing spectrogramFollowing on from my last post, I had a thought about formant noise, a phenomenon which must be eliminated as a possible cause when analyzing EVP recordings. My own experiments suggest that rhythm is more important than formant-like frequency peaks in producing words. I don't think formant noise works exactly like ordinary human speech. With formant noise, I think the brain hears an apparent bit of speech and tries to fit a word onto it from memory. This has parallels with visual substitution and explains why interpretations can drift - sometimes you hear one phrase, at other times another, from the same sound.

In formant noise, I think the frequency peaks are primarily important in switching the brain into speech mode. I don't think it matters too much which peaks are present, so long as there are some. I believe it is the rhythm that produces the actual words. So, I think it should be possible to produce specific words or phrases to order, by using just the right rhythm. I decide to try this idea.

My aim was to produce a formant noise clip that said the word 'nothing'. It's a simple word with an easily identifiable rhythm to it. I used various mechanical methods for producing sounds with no real voices involved. I have identified, in the past, certain mechanical sounds (that occur normally widely) that tend to produce better formant noise than others, so naturally I used those.

I recorded lots of attempts to produce the word 'nothing' but only found a couple which, at first hearing, sounded promising. Here is the first one : sample 1. Now here's the strange thing. It sounded like the word 'nothing' when played on the original recording with all the other samples. But when I isolated it sounded quite different. My interpretation is at the end of this post, so try listening to the sample first, to see what you think, before seeing what I heard. The spectrogram (above right) shows frequency versus amplitude for sample 1. You can see quite clear multiple frequency peaks occurring simultaneously, typical of both real speech formants and formant noise.

The same thing happened with the second promising attempt: sample 2. It only sounded like 'nothing' before it was isolated from the other attempts. On its own, it sounded quite different (see below for my interpretation). But then something even weirder happened. On listening this sample again, an hour or so later, I could no longer hear at as my original interpretation, even that one sounded perfectly stable and strong earlier. Instead it sounded like another word entirely (see below). But now, later again, it has reverted to my first - non-nothing - interpretation.

The change from the word 'nothing' to something quite different, when isolated, shows the importance of context. Clearly the sounds preceding the samples modified how they were heard. The drift in interpretation of sample 2 is typical of formant noise.

So, I still haven't produced the word 'nothing' yet. I suspect I am not getting the rhythm quite right. I still think it's possible though.

My interpretations: Sample 1 has always sounded like 'natural rhythm' to me. This might be because the word rhythm was floating around my head during this experiment! Sample 2 originally sounded like 'I'm fine' but then changed to 'reverie'. One interpretation or the other persists until I try again later.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Big clue to how formant noise works

SoundAn article in this week's New Scientist offers a clue to how exactly humans detect and decode speech, a subject relevant to EVP. It seems that our brains contain certain specific neurons that are solely concerned with processing heard sound of one particular frequency. There are many such neurons, handling many different specific sound frequencies. It explains how formants are used to decode speech.

The human brain is hard-wired to find combinations of integer harmonic frequencies pleasing (which may explain why we enjoy music). Combined integer harmonic sounds are two or more separate tones, heard at the same time, where their frequencies are related by a simple integer ratio. For instance, the two frequencies 1000 Hz and 2000 Hz heard together would be an combined integer harmonic because 2000 Hz is exactly twice 1000 Hz. Human speech uses such simple harmonic tones to construct the sound components of words. In human speech the harmonic ratios are typically numbers like 2/5 , 1/2, 1/3 etc. These tones, when heard together, are called formants. Formants are discrete sounds within a word, equating to phonemes in phonetics. Instead of hearing the two tones combined as a single musical note, our brain interprets the sound as a discrete sound within a word instead. So, for instance, the 'O' sound might typically consist of a 500 Hz and 1000 Hz frequency combination. Without this decoding human speech would just be a complex, but meaningless, noise.

The neurons that process sounds of a specific frequency are presumably where the formants get decoded. So, the 'O' example would trigger only the 500 Hz and 1000 Hz neurons and no others. Such a specific combination would differentiate the sound from non-speech noise. More than that, it would get converted to the specific 'O' sound as part of a word.

But what happens if you get frequency peaks typical of formants in non-speech sounds? They may produce formant noise, which gets interpreted by our brains as human speech even though it isn't. It might get reported as EVP. Many ambient sounds contain harmonic frequency peaks but few become formant noise. To become interpreted as human speech the sounds also need to have a rhythm and duration typical of spoken words. There are more details on formant noise here. You can hear some examples in the EVP gallery here.

So, in the brain, I assume if a sound has frequency peak combinations, that exceed a certain threshold, they will turn on 'speech mode' so that the brain interprets such sounds as speech, even if they are actually formant noise. Such a threshold system will inevitably make mistakes in certain situations. Formant noise must be eliminated as a possible source of apparent speech when examining EVP recordings.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The bird vanishes

RobinThe recent unseasonably warm weather is finally over. So when I was out the other day it was cold, wet and windy. I noticed, up ahead of me, a small bird fluttering down in the stiff breeze. It landed on a path and briefly pecked at something on the ground. Though the bird looked dark in the grey light and rain it resembled a Robin (right). But then it did something extraordinary. It simply collapsed out of existence - it crumpled downwards from a solid object to nothing.

I kept the spot where the bird had vanished in constant sight as I moved closer. Finally, I was just a metre or so away and could see clearly that it was actually a wet leaf. It certainly had me convinced for a few seconds as there was no real reason to think it wasn't a bird. It 'behaved' just like one. So, how had a leaf appeared as a bird?

Firstly, the low lighting and rain made for poor viewing conditions. Many objects looked dark, like the leaf, and a real bird would have looked much the same in those conditions. Secondly, I think the rain caused part of the senescent leaf to stick to the wet ground while the rest was held vertical, temporarily, by the stiff breeze. Thirdly, I think the 'pecking' motion reflected the wind as it rose and fell. Once the wind dropped, so did the leaf and it subsequently remained stuck to the ground. Fourthly, as mentioned recently, as a birder, I am always alert to birds and more likely to misperceive inanimate objects as them. This means that I tend to see most birds in any given location while occasionally noticing one or two that are not real. Non-birders, by contrast, will probably notice few, if any, of the birds in any given location but are also probably less likely to misperceive an inanimate object as one.

On another subject, we recorded our over half a million hits on the ASSAP website, for the first time, in each of the last three months. The highest number was in October with a total of 594103. I think interest in the Seriously Spooked ghost conference was partly responsible.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Crowdsourcing the paranormal

CobwebThe internet has had a profound effect on paranormal research. For instance, it is now relatively easy to contact other researchers instantly. And then there is crowdsourcing. Take one example - analyzing anomalous photos. A strange photo can be taken, get uploaded to the web and have lots of people analyzing it within minutes. Potentially, it's a fantastic resource. But there are problems with the way this process works in practice.

If you get many alternative explantations for an anomalous photo posted online, that's great. However, I've noticed that paranormal photos often get analyzed as being either genuine or fake. Using this method of analyzing means that if you can't show the photo is a fake your only alternative is to accept it must represent some genuine paranormal event.

I have personally examined over 3000 anomalous photos in detail and discovered that over 90% of them were neither genuinely paranormal NOR fake. They were actually photographic artefacts. The number of fakes I've come across is tiny. The photos I looked at were sent privately. I suspect the percentage of fakes is higher with photos shared generally around the web. That's because anyone faking paranormal photos is, presumably, trying to get a reaction. So spreading it around the web and seeing who gets fooled is obviously going to be more satisfying than sending it privately to just one person for comment. Having said that, I think the number of fake paranormal photos on the web is still small. Most of the publicly displayed photos I've seen appear to be photographic artefacts, as expected.

Of course, some people do offer photographic artefacts as an explanation for paranormal photos posted online. The problem is, a surprisingly large number of the artefact explanations offered online for particular photos are wrong, in my opinion at least. But if a supposed paranormal photo actually has a natural explanation, does it matter which one it is? Well, obviously yes it does. Those of us who are serious paranormal researchers are looking for a scientific understanding of reported extraordinary phenomena. We are not campaigners trying to prove, or disprove, the existence of the paranormal.

Crowdsourcing is potentially valuable tool that the inte

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Do ghost cases have a use-by date?

VigilGhost sightings and hauntings have been investigated systematically for a long time. By systematic I mean in-depth interviews with witnesses, an exhaustive site examination and, if considered relevant, maybe a vigil. Then, once all the available information has been gathered, various possible explanations, paranormal and xenonormal are considered. It is almost impossible to come to any meaningful conclusion about the causes of a ghost sighting or haunting without such an in-depth investigation. Such cases form the primary bedrock of data concerning the nature of ghosts.

But is that bedrock eroding away over time? In other words, can we rely on old cases to provide undisputable information about the nature of ghosts? I'm not sure we can. It can be frustrating reading about an old case. On the face of it, the evidence can appear water-tight that something paranormal occurred.

But what if you come up with a new xenonormal theory that could also plausibly account for the reported facts of the case? It is usually impossible to go back and re-investigate. The witnesses may no longer be available and, even if they are, their memories are not likely reliable after such a long period of time. And a site visit may not help as the area may well have changed. And if the original investigator never considered your new xenonormal theory then they will not have collected relevant evidence to test the idea. What had seemed an excellent case now has a question mark hanging over it that can never be resolved. As such it can no longer add to the body of data about ghosts.

With sciences like physics or chemistry, you can always redo an old experiment because it should still work now just as it did a century ago. You cannot do that with a subject like ghost research which is based so heavily on old case reports. You cannot redo an old ghost case.

So, we have a problem! We cannot rely on all old ghost cases, however well they were investigated at the time. Current cases are different. It may be possible to re-interview witnesses and visit the site to test possible xenonormal explanations. But inevitably, current cases become old over time and the same problem arises once again.

Is this a serious problem? Surprisingly, I'm not sure it is, provided we always have a number of current well-investigated cases around all the time. The real problem is that not many people are investigating in-depth any more so the 'stock' is dwindling.

Free publicity!

There is, as far as I can tell, no awareness day for the paranormal, unlike with so many other subjects and causes. There is no need for one because we already have 31 October. So I've read quite a few new media articles about the paranormal in recent days. As a result, I think we may still need an awareness day after all.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Why so few animal ghosts?

Misp birdThere are many more human ghosts reported than animal ones. A recent experience got me wondering about why this should be.

Regular readers will know that I am a birder, so I'm always on the look out for birds. However, I'll be honest, at the time, I didn't know what species this was (pic right). Looking at the photo, I would guess it might be a dove, perhaps, given the light colour and overall shape. The 'dove' is just above, and to the left of, the centre of the photo, with its head facing the big tree.

After a few seconds of close examination it became clear that the object was not a bird at all. It was two large leaves, propped upwards in the grass and strongly illuminated in a patch of sunlight. It was, of course, a misperception. I was genuinely surprised, at the time, because it definitely looked like a bird for several seconds. Its movement in the wind just added to the impression of an animal rather than something inanimate.

Among birders, it's not that unusual to see an inanimate object as a bird. When you are really keen to see a bird, particularly a rare one, you tend to look for anything vaguely bird-shaped and then get your binoculars on it for a better view. Obviously, the binocular view usually resolves misperceived 'birds' into what they really are. In contrast, I strongly suspect that non-birders hardly ever misperceive inanimate objects as birds.

This may offer a clue to why the number of reported human ghosts outnumbers those of animals. To most people, other humans are both far more important and more regularly seen than animals. Misperception, which is a major cause of ghost sightings, appears to be based on visual experience. If humans are much commoner in your visual experience than animals then you are more likely to misperceive a ghostly human figure. Another factor I've noted is that what you misperceive is also affected by what you want most, or least, to see. Birders want to see birds so they see them, sometimes when they're not there. Someone seeing an unknown human figure while walking alone at night might not find it a comforting sight at all. They may well misperceive a tree as a ghost in such circumstances.

Well, it's an idea, anyway. I wonder if pet lovers see more animal ghosts than the general population?

Monday, 27 October 2014

Daylight orbs

Leaf orbIt's getting difficult to find any ghost enthusiasts who think orbs are paranormal any more. The general public, on the other hand, seems as enthusiastic as ever about them. I think it's mainly people who are seeing them for the first time in their photos and don't know what to make of them.

My interest in orbs, nowadays, is mainly about trying to photograph unusual examples. This photo (right), for instance, shows an orange daylight orb. The photograph was taken without flash. Though you can certainly create orbs with flash in daylight, it is not usually required as a light source. Ordinary sunlight will do, as here. Note how the orb here is not a classic circular shape.

Below there is a second photo taken of exactly the same scene less than a second before (below right). It shows a more conventional circular orb. I cropped both photos the show the orbs more clearly. They cover exactly the same scene. You can see where they overlap in the top right of the upper picture the bottom left of the lower one.

Leaf orbI think both orbs are probably created by the same object. I think that because there is exactly one orb in each photo and the objects I was photographing were drifting in a strong breeze diagonally from right to left across the frame. In any case, both orbs were caused by the same type of objects, namely falling autumn leaves.

I think the orbs are a different shape and colour because the leaves were rotating as they fell. So the upper orb is not circular because it actually consists of multiple overlapping orbs. This happens when an object is large enough to have multiple highlights, each creating their own orb. In the second photo there is just one orb and it is much brighter. I think this leaf had a single strongly reflective highlight when in this stage of its rotation. I would guess the leaf has its edge towards the camera for this shot. In the other shot I think the leaf was more flat to the camera, hence showing multiple highlights.

So we have another possible cause of multiple overlapping orbs in addition to insects, large water droplets and some large dust fibres (see the video here).

I am also interested in illustrating aspects of the orb zone theory. For instance, there is a video here showing orbs 'popping' out of existence. In reality, they are leaving the orb zone. And there's a video here showing dust actually turning into orbs. It is easy to discuss the orb zone with diagrams but videos are better at actually demonstrating how it works in practice. This leaf orb example shows there are still new things to learn about orbs.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Door ghost turns nasty

ShadowRegular readers will be aware of my 'door ghost'. If not, see here for background. I have not been 'experimenting' with this surprisingly obliging ghost recently and it is exacting its revenge.

I have noted before that the door ghost usually only appears when I've temporarily forgotten about it. Recently the ghost has taken to appearing when it is very inconvenient. It seems to delight in appearing when I'm in a big hurry or distracted by a major problem. Unsurprisingly, the ghost's appearance in these circumstances just adds to my stress level.

I wonder if this annoying habit might contribute to the generally held view that ghosts are scary. If they tend to appear mostly at highly inconvenient times it is likely to increase the discomfort of their witnesses. Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to test the hypothesis. Ghost sighting accounts seldom, if ever, include the state of mind of the witness just before the event. Personally, I think that state of mind could be important to generating the sighting itself, at least where it is one caused by misperception. I think questions about prior state of mind could be usefully included when interviewing ghost witnesses.

Ghosts have a marked tendency to appear when least expected, even on vigils where they often appear during the tea breaks. I now wonder if a raised stress level in the witness may further improve their chances of seeing a ghost. As to why stress should act in this way, I can only speculate. I suppose stress may deepen the level of non-expectation that appears to be a prerequisite to actually seeing a ghost.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

But it never happens to me!

Apparent figure by fence'There was definitely no one there when I took the photo but when I got home and examined it closely, this is what I saw'. I hear this sort of thing all the time when someone is giving an account of how they took their ghost photo. But it never happens to me. Until the other day!

There was certainly nobody visible when I took the photo (right). I know because I carefully checked at the time. So, you can imagine my consternation when I examined the photo later to discover a figure in tricorn hat with pony tail plainly visible.

In case you can't see it, here's what I see. There is what appears to be a human figure, just right of centre, sideways on facing right, as if walking in that direction. The figure, which appears to have a ponytail, seems to be wearing a tricorn hat and what could be a frock coat (only the top part is visible). Of course, readers may not see the ghostly figure at all. It depends on the equipment used to display the image and probably whether readers are prone to noticing misperception.

Here are are some other odd points about the photo. Firstly, the ghostly figure only became apparent when the image was resized downwards ('zoomed out'). Secondly, the tricorn hat and ponytail are, of course, a fashionable look that occurred together in the same period in history. So the figure makes sense as a real historical person. Thirdly, the figure appears to be in scale with its surroundings. So, again, it looks reasonable as either a real person or ghost. Fourthly, the figure looks oddly insubstantial, with the faded colours, suggesting a ghost rather than a real person. Fifthly, I took this photo deliberately because I thought the object pictured might suggest a human figure, even though I never saw one at the time, even as a misperception.

Apparent figure zoomedI took a second, zoomed, photo of the same object at the same time. I did that so that, if I looked at the photo years later, I'd be sure what it really was. If everyone did this I suspect there would be fewer ghost photos reported. The picture here (right) is NOT the second photo but a tightly cropped version of the one above. I did that just in case there was a real ghost in the first photo which had disappeared before the second shot was taken. The second shot looks just like this one but with more detail visible. In other words, there was no change in the scene between the two shots. In this closely cropped version of the original photo, as well as in the second zoomed photo, the 'tricorn-hatted figure' is revealed to be a dark reed.

Oddly, I still see the 'tricorn-hatted figure' in the upper version, even after comparing it with the second one. I think that the tricorn-hatted figure is a misperception (which is why some people won't see it at all). The fact that the 'figure' doesn't appear in the zoomed version suggests that the two versions are materially different. The change happened when I resized the photo to a lower number of pixels. So, the tricorn-hatted figure is an artefact of the resizing process in the photo editing software. That is why it is important to obtain the original when examining anomalous photos. People often 'tidy up' their photos, to eliminate extraneous background, for instance. Or they may compress photos to send them with an email. But even such simple edits, like cropping, resizing or compressing, can change the look of an object dramatically, as in this case.

I think this particular 'ghost photo' works because of the points I mentioned earlier, such as its scale and historical accuracy, which contribute to a credible ghost figure. Scale is a crucial factor in misperception.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Is seeing the famous normal?

Crows in a treeRegular readers will be aware that I appear to spot more famous people than might seem normal. I spotted another, an actor, just the other day. Indeed, I've seen 5 since I first mentioned it in January last year. That gives an average of 0.23 celebrities a month which I suspect is rather higher than most people! As I've said before, I don't actively seek out celebrities, nor do I go to places where you might reasonably expect to see them, like expensive restaurants.

The vast majority of famous people I've seen were actors. There were also a few politicians and the odd captain of industry. I think this probably reflects which famous people I would actually recognise. I know what a lot of actors look like but relatively few politicians. A key factor I've noted in these sightings is that the majority are on public transport, particularly trains. That applies to the latest example. I don't actually travel that much on trains so I still might be unusually lucky. I used to commute by train for years and never saw even one celebrities. This is probably because the famous tend not to work office hours. It appears that off peak trains are the best place to look for them.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who regularly sees lots of famous people to compare rates with my 0.23 per month. Is that really as high as it appears?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Dancing ghost!

Crows in a treeIt's the weirdest ghost I've ever seen! It was an obviously human figure dancing. But the bottom part of the figure was completely invisible! I can't recall ever hearing of a ghost dancing, partial or otherwise. The bizarre sight gave me an odd feeling that I can't describe.

I was in a theatre watching a concert. There were lots of people dancing but they all appeared to be fully present! I wouldn't have even noticed the partial figure had my view of the stage not been temporarily obstructed. I decided to look around the audience instead, which was when I noticed the ghost. I stared at it for quite a while but could think of no other obvious explanation other than that the figure was a ghost.

Gradually my eyes became accustomed to the dark and I realised that the bottom half of the figure was actually behind a sort of screen. I hadn't noticed the screen before. The person was, I think, dancing in as walkway that gave access to seating. From my viewpoint, the screen obscured the bottom half of anyone walking in that area. The peculiar effect could probably only be seen from a few seats.

Given that I had no idea of the presence of the screen and that, in the dark, I couldn't see it at first, seeing the person as a partial ghost was understandable. While the human figure reflected light from the stage well, the dull screen did not. The visual effect was so realistic as a ghost that, had it been in a movie, I would just have thought it was CGI.

I think two things come out of this incident. Firstly, when people report seeing partial ghostly figures, it is important to consider the lighting conditions and examine exactly where the figure was located and where it was seen from! Secondly, this is the third time (see here) I've seen something bizarre in a darkened theatre. Maybe these lighting conditions, which are conducive to misperception, may partly explain the long reported association between theatres and ghosts.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A group of ghosts

'Group of ghosts'My first thought was 'oh look there's a bunch of people in historical costumer over there'. My second thought was. 'I wonder if they could be ghosts'? Don't ask me what historic era they were from as I'm not good at that kind of stuff. I'd guess at well before the twentieth century! I asked someone nearby if they could see the group. They could.

This incident took place at a railway station and the figures were standing on a crowded platform. That's important because people nearby were clearly leaving room for the figures, which leads me to conclude that they could see the figures too. Overall, then, the evidence points firmly to these figures being ordinary people in historical costume. I suppose they may have been on their way to a fancy dress party, historical reenactment or some similar event.

It got me thinking. In almost every ghost case I could think of, there is only ever one apparition seen at any one time by witnesses. In my experience, sightings of groups of ghosts are extremely rare. A single figure appears to be very much the norm. But why?

When looking for explanations for any aspect of ghosts attributes it is important to remember that ghost sightings have many different causes. Among the main ones are misperception, hallucination and real people. So, any general attribute of ghosts needs to apply to misperceptions and at least some of the other common causes. So why would people misperceiving tend only to see one figure rather than a group? In my experience, the most often misperceived objects are visually simple. It isn't hard to see a tree stump as a human figure when glanced in your peripheral vision. But what object, or objects, would visually resemble a group of people?

Tree stump as ghostBy coincidence, I took the photo here (above right) recently. It resembled scenes that have caused me to misperceive figures in the past. Though the scene didn't cause a misperception when I first noticed it, I thought it might if I tried hard enough. I tried glancing at it in peripheral vision but it didn't work. The problem is, once you've seen what an object really is, it's difficult to misperceive it. It demonstrated how the visual complexity of such a subject doesn't work well work as a misperception. In contrast, the photo of a tree stump (right) is visually simple and WAS seen as a human figure, both at the time of exposure, and later as a picture on the ASSAP website.

With hallucinations there are no obvious reasons why groups of figures should not be seen. My best guess, in this case, is that people expect to see single ghosts. A lot of ghost stories involve sightings of just one ghost at any one time.

Whatever the reason, the fact that a very large proportion of ghost sightings involve single figures is clearly an significant clue to the nature of ghosts.

Friday, 10 October 2014

New technology to photograph ghosts?

VigilI believe it is possible to photograph ghosts (see here). The thing is, despite having examined several thousand ghost photos personally, I've yet to see one I find convincing. But I still live in hope. One of the problems is that the vast majority of ghost photos occur when the photographer sees nothing odd at the time of exposure. The anomaly is only noticed later when the photo is examined. This, inevitably, means that most apparent ghost photos are, in fact, photographic artefacts.

Ghost sightings are very rare, so it's not surprising that there are few ghost photos around. But when CCTV became widespread, there was a buzz among ghost researchers. Given all those millions of hours of video recordings, someone was bound to catch the odd ghost or two. Unfortunately, it didn't quite turn out that way. We discovered that spiders and insects seem to take a delight in wandering over CCTV camera lenses and appearing like shadowy transparent 'figures'. There were also the usual photographic artefacts familiar from conventional cameras. What we really wanted was someone to see a ghost and photograph it at same the time. Then we could get some idea of what the witness actually saw.

So when mobile phones with cameras became widespread, there was, once again, optimism among ghost researchers. With all those people wandering around with a camera (including video) in their pocket, someone was bound to see and photograph a ghost sooner or later. Sadly, we are still waiting for a reasonable example. The problem is that when people see a ghost, they tend not to think about taking a photo. Or they don't even realise they are seeing a ghost until it has gone because most apparitions look like perfectly normal human figures (see ghosts).

Have we now, finally, got the technology all ghost researchers been waiting for? I'm talking about lifelogging. Though still a rarity, it is possible that it will become a popular thing in the near future. Lifeloggers wear a camera that works automatically. Some models take photos at regular frequent intervals, for instance. Others record video continuously allowing you to keep and review the last few minutes when something significant has happened - like seeing a ghost! Some models use sensors to decide when there is something worth taking photos of - like a ghost, hopefully!

Whatever method these devices use, they offer the opportunity to take photos when the wearer is otherwise engaged or maybe not aware they are seeing a ghost. Will it prove another false dawn in the long trail towards the goal of a good photo of a ghost? I do hope not.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Premonition or ghost?

What's making noises in your house?I was on the first floor of an otherwise empty building recently, waiting for someone to arrive. I didn't know exactly when they'd appear but it was certainly 'soon'. So when I suddenly heard someone moving around downstairs, it came as no surprise. But when, a few minutes later, I heard an external door open and the person came in (for the first time), it came as a shock! Just who or what had I heard before? Could it be a ghost?

The building concerned has no history of any haunting, before or since, so I doubt it was a ghost. However, the incident is the latest in a series of similar events I've experienced over the years. It is always the same scenario. I am expecting someone and I start hearing sounds that indicate they are present. Except they are not. In no case is there any evidence that any ghost is involved. So I'm left to conclude that it is my expectation that is probably responsible.

All buildings produce sounds pretty much all the time. There are creaks in joists and floor boards as the temperature changes (see haunting sounds). Automated machinery, like fridges, heating, plumbing or air conditioning, produces sounds as it operates. The wind or heat of the sun may cause forces that produce slight movements in the structure of a building that also produce noises . There are also noises from outside that leak inside and can sometimes sound like they originate within the building.

When we spend a lot of time in a building we start to unconsciously filter these noises out so that we don't notice them after a while. But we might start to consciously notice the noises again if we are expecting some sounds to indicate an event we are waiting for. I think expectation can 'turn up the volume' so we start to notice noises previously filtered out by our brains (see also new house effect).

In this incident the expectation was simply someone arriving. But it could be a witness who thinks their house is haunted. Or an investigator on a ghost vigil! Interestingly, another interpretation of my experience is as a premonition. However, since I knew the person was about to arrive, it is not exactly evidence of anything paranormal.

Monday, 6 October 2014

A UFO appears precisely on cue!

UFOWatching the sky recently I noticed something very odd indeed. There were some low clouds moving quickly in the stiff breeze. But the higher clouds above them were moving, more sedately, in the opposite direction! I've never seen this before and hadn't realised it happened. It is relevant to anomalous phenomena for at least two good reasons. Firstly, it is counter-intuitive and so a bit of anomaly in itself. Secondly, I've heard people arguing that the UFO they saw could not have been a balloon because it was moving in a different direction to the clouds above it.

I was thinking about these points, while still watching the clouds, when something quite extraordinary happened - I saw a UFO! It was a small silver object moving quite rapidly across the sky. Careful examination revealed it to be a small balloon, like the one in the photo (right). It was moving in the same direction as the low level clouds. If there had been no low level clouds present, I would have observed the UFO moving in the opposite direction to all the clouds in the sky!

It was, in other words, a perfect illustration of the point I had been considering just before it appeared! For a rare theoretical phenomenon to be observed just when you first think of it must be incredibly rare. It is tempting to consider this incident anomalous in itself. There is, however, no reason to think it is anything other than an amazingly rare coincidence.

The phenomenon of winds moving in different directions depending on altitude is well-known. It is called wind shear. This particular example coincided with a cold front passing during my observation. So, it would appear that the argument that a particular UFO could not have been a balloon or sky lantern, because it is floating in a different direction to the clouds, is not valid. As to whether seeing something you have just been thinking about, playing out in front of you, is anomalous, I reserve judgement! Maybe if it happened again I'd start to think there was something truly strange going on.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Unfamiliar recall

Crows in a treeWhile at Seriously Spooked, I saw someone (let's call them A) that I recognized instantly. I was also sure I'd never met A before. I decided I must have seen their picture on the web. Except, I couldn't think where. A's identity was later confirmed to be who I thought it was. So, how could I recognise someone I'd never seen before, even in a picture? Maybe it was a psychic insight.

I was discussing this puzzle with someone else when they pointed out that A had actually been at Seriously Strange, about a year before. That's when I started to remember that I HAD indeed seen A at Seriously Strange. In fact, I'm now pretty sure I'd actually spoken to A there. So, mystery solved. But then something struck me.

I have mentioned before how people who recall facts, without being consciously aware that they knew them before, may well consider themselves psychic. I have always excluded myself from that group of people because I have a terrible memory! I'd assumed that cryptomnesia is a phenomenon associated with people can remember a great deal of information, some of which perhaps gets 'misfiled'. But now I'm wondering if it's the other way round completely.

I was able to recognise A but could not recall why. I might still think it a possible psychic insight had I not, by chance, mentioned the event to someone else who was able to fill in some gaps. If I'd had a good memory, on the other hand, I would probably have known instantly why I recognized A.

Later at Seriously Spooked, someone asked me a technical question concerning a subject which I don't know well. Instead of saying 'I don't know', I confidently supplied an answer. It felt right at the time but later I wondered if I'd made a fool of myself. So I looked up my 'answer' and discovered I was completely correct! Even though I can't recall how I came by the information. I think it is probably another example of cryptomnesia. I think that some word or phrase in the question acted as a key to a memory I didn't realise I had. That might be why I felt oddly confident in my answer.

It would be interesting to test the memory capabilities of people who get apparent psychic insights versus the general population. I think you can guess what result I would predict.

Regular readers may recall a song called xenonormal (see here). Now there's another musical piece sharing the name.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Seriously Spooked

Seriously SpookedASSAP's Seriously Spooked conference, held last Saturday at Aston University, could have been entitled 'an alternative view on ghosts'. But why?

When ASSAP was formed, and for a while after that, the number of people actively investigating ghosts was relatively small. Within that community one of the most popular ideas was that ghosts were some kind of recording somehow imprinted onto the local environment (see here). Another view, fairly widely held, was that there were many different causes for ghost sightings that varied from case to case. Surprisingly few members of the ghost community thought that any ghosts were spirits for the simple reason that there was no compelling evidence from investigations.

Today, of course, the ghost investigation scene has changed out of all recognition. Far more people are involved and the majority take the view, popular among the public, that ghosts are spirits as a given. This is, no doubt, why assumption-led techniques are widely used. Witness interviewing is now much rarer with the emphasis on ghost vigils.

But there are still a small number of people who persist with the 'old' ideas and techniques of investigation. There is a good reason for this. In spite of all the vigils going on, there remains no compelling evidence that ghosts are actually spirits (see here). This group of people effectively form an 'alternative' ghost investigation scene. Many of them are highly experienced, having investigated for decades.

Members of this 'alternative scene' continue researching in their own way. Despite their small numbers, progress is still being made in ghost research. For instance, we have always known, through investigations, that a high proportion of ghost cases are caused by misperception. However, a central mystery remained - how could a witness see details, such as hair colour and clothing when they were, in fact, looking at a poorly-seen tree stump? We now that the visual substitution does this trick. Witnesses really do SEE 'details' about figures because their own brains add them to their visual field. Once this was realised it became obvious that an even greater proportion of ghost cases could be explained in this way. Many others are explained by hallucination and coincidences. There still remain, however, a small proportion of intriguing well-documented cases that are not explainable by these causes.

So Seriously Spooked was mainly for those people who have taken the 'alternative' path to ghost research, or maybe would like to. It was reassuring to see that the 'alternative scene' is thriving.

PS: For more on what actually happened on the day read one person's view here.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Ghost insects?

Crows in a treeMost paranormal experiences are seen or heard. A small number concern anomalous smells. But occasionally odd things happen that we can only detect through the sense of touch.

Recently, I stepped on 'something' with my bare feet. Disturbingly, it tickled and moved! I removed my foot hastily, assuming I'd stepped on an insect or spider. When I looked closely and carefully at the floor I could see nothing. I was not wearing my glasses (short-sighted) but, even so, I can usually see insects quite plainly without them. I have never come across a report of a ghost insect but, given that people report ghost animals, I don't see why they shouldn't exist.

A little later, I happened to be wiping the floor when I came across something in the exact place where I'd felt the 'insect'. It was a small piece of clear plastic film, probably shrink wrap. It blended in so well with its surroundings, I only found it when I moved it with a cloth. I tried standing on it and, sure enough, it moved under my foot, feeling uncannily like something small and alive!

We tend to rely far less on touch, compared to sight and sound, to get an idea of what is around us. However, there are occasions, like this one, when touch is all we have to go on. Personally, I don't think touch is particularly reliable on its own. And, even when combined with information from other senses, it can often give a misleading impression of our surroundings. When ghost vigils are held in the dark, touch can become a key, and often unreliable, source of information. I think we should always treat paranormal reports based largely on touch with caution (see here for a more dramatic example).

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Paper defies gravity

Paper standing on edgeI dropped a small sheet of paper and watched, helplessly, as it fluttered to the ground. I wanted to know where it landed because it was important and I could easily have lost it under nearby furniture. What I saw next was the most astonishing thing I've seen in years! The piece of paper not only landed on its edge but then stayed there, fully upright and motionless, for all of a second before it fell on its side. I tried to reproduce the feat again and again with the same bit of paper at the same location. I couldn't even get the paper to land on its edge, far less remain upright defying gravity. The incident reminded me of the sort of apparently physics-defying events I've read about in poltergeist cases.

The photo (right) shows an identical sheet of paper standing on its edge, just like the one described above. Having failed to get a sheet to stand upright on its own, the photo had to be digitally manipulated to remove the support used!

So how could this bizarre event possibly happen, if not by paranormal influence? If a piece of paper is dropped, it flutters to the ground travelling from side to side, as well as downwards. I found this article on the subject of falling flat objects. It is clear that falling paper does odd things, like actually rising for part of the time during its descent.

Falling paper points in all sorts of different directions as it falls, including vertically upwards sometimes. So there is a tiny chance it can land on its edge. In fact, the odds against this happening by chance are probably not that huge. If you drop a piece of paper enough times, it WILL land on its edge eventually. But the real puzzle is how it can it remain upright, even for a second?

A piece of paper standing on its edge is in unstable equilibrium. The slightest force on either side of the paper and it will topple over. Although this incident happened indoors, where wind would not be a factor, there are always slight convective currents of air present everywhere. These are always likely to be strong enough to push the paper over. So how could the paper that fell stay upright for a whole second?

It could happen if the air currents on the two sides of the sheet happened, for a time, to be of equal force and opposite direction. This might happen if the currents caused by the paper falling combined with ambient convection currents so that they cancelled each other out across the paper. The odds against this happening by chance are probably quite high. However, without knowing what the air currents look like for a falling sheet of paper, it's difficult to say. It might be that, due to way the paper descends, if it happens to land on its edge, the air currents might often tend to be just right to support it for a second or two. The most difficult bit might actually be getting the paper to land on its edge.

Given that nothing even remotely paranormal has ever been experienced in the location where this incident happened, a natural explanation, like that suggested here, seems the most likely possibility.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A feather not falling

Feather People who don't believe in ghosts might well start to, if they see one. But, of course, things aren't always quite what they appear. Take the photo of a feather (right), taken recently. Would it make you believe in levitation?

The photo shows a feather, apparently in mid-air with nothing supporting it in that position. The picture is reasonably sharp and has not been altered in any way (except cropping of stuff around the edges). So what can we conclude, just looking at the photo?

The most obvious possibility is that the feather was caught in mid-air as it fell slowly towards the ground. Or it might have been blown into the air by a stiff breeze, perhaps. The photographer, however, says the feather actually remained in mid-air all the time, juddering a little. So could it have been levitating in some way?

A close inspection of the feather, by the photographer at the time, showed that it was caught in a spider's web. You can't see the web in the photo but there is a blurred bluish linear object just below the feather. That is a bit of the web, diffracting sunlight.

The point is this: the photo on its own could not answer the question of how the feather was apparently floating in space. Nor could a naked eye view from the distance where the photo was taken. And that is a problem with many reports of the paranormal. Vital bits of information that could explain what is going on are not, and in many cases could not, be noticed by the witness.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Why I didn't see a stoat

Apparent foxAs an amateur naturalist, I am always on the lookout for animals. I mention this because when people look at this photo there's a good chance they're going to say 'what fox?'. Yes, when I saw the scene pictured (right) with the naked eye I thought the object just to right the bush was a fox. To me, the animal was sitting in the grass, facing right.

The 'fox' was a misperception. I have discovered that it is possible to photograph misperceptions (see here) so some people may indeed see a fox in the picture, just as I did at the time.

After noticing the 'fox', I then looked at it in greater detail. It soon stopped being a fox but it wasn't obvious what it really was. The 'head', though broadly the right shape, looked too small for a fox. Indeed, the whole 'fox' looked too small. In fact, the object more closely resembled a stoat or even an otter. While a fox would have been entirely possible at the photo location, a stoat would have been unlikely and an otter incredibly unlikely.

Apparent foxSo why didn't I see a stoat at the time? Well, misperception uses visual memory. I see foxes fairly frequently, maybe once or twice a week. Stoats I hardly ever see. So I saw something I remembered much better. Some people might have seen a more exotic animal, maybe even a cryptid.

So what was the 'fox' in reality? I have a closer photo (right) but I wish now I'd got a better one. It is clearly a pile of sticks and senescent leaves but I couldn't say how it came into being without a better look. The second photo was taken from a different angle and the object doesn't obviously resemble an animal any more.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Low flying UFOs

I occasionally come across UFO photos that show a dark blurred object in the sky that could be anything. Nothing unusual about that except that the object appears to be IN FRONT of nearby trees or buildings! And the UFO was generally not noticed at the time of exposure.

It is difficult to tell the size of an object in the sky unless you know its distance. And you can't tell its distance unless you know what kind of object it is. You can tell how far a plane is away, for instance, by seeing how big it looks in the sky and by knowing its approximate physical dimensions. However, with an unidentified object, you don't know its dimensions because you don't know what it is! The only way to tell the distance of an unknown aerial object is if it interacts with something of known distance. Obviously, if it is seen in front of an object like a cloud or mountain, it must be closer than those things. So anything in front of nearby buildings or trees is going to be small and close.

DragonflySo what might these blurry objects, that are closer than nearby trees, be? I had an idea but it was reinforced by something I saw the other day. I was looking out of a first floor window when I noticed several dragonflies flying by. We normally associate dragonflies with water and low level flight. But, in this case they were flying at around 3m height and nowhere near any body of water.

I would never have noticed these dragonflies if I hadn't happened to be looking out of the window. I certainly wouldn't have noticed them from below, unless I happened to look up. But what if I'd taken a photo of the building from the outside? The building would be in the photo, obviously. And in front of it a dark blur. The blur would arise either from the object's motion or its being out of focus. Or both! And it's unlikely that I would have noticed the dragonflies at the time of exposure.

So what were these dragonflies up to, away from their usual watery habitat? It is possible they were migrating. Relatively few dragonfly species migrate. But some do. Of course, this is only one possible cause of low-flying small UFOs. Others might include birds, model planes or even drones. Just like ghost sightings, there are more than one cause.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

What UFOs and ghosts do NOT have in common!

UFOThe Rendlesham UFO case was the subject of last night's Seriously Strange London lecture. You can get an idea of speaker Ian Ridpath's investigation results at his website on the case here. Anyway, one of the points that emerged in the ensuing discussion was an idea about why there don't appear to be any 'big' new UFO cases, like Rendlesham, any more. This trend was a major topic of ASSAP's UFO conference in 2012.

The idea that emerged last night concerned modern technology. Most people now carry a video camera everywhere, in their mobile phones, so if they see a UFO they can record it easily. And then they can upload the video to the internet for others to view and comment on. And, in many cases, the objects will turn out to be readily identifiable as terrestrial objects. For example, see this video featuring orange UFOs in a triangular formation or this one showing a strange light in the sky.

Thus, modern technology can help to rapidly explain what might otherwise be puzzling UFO sightings. Before the internet and mobile phone, we generally only had eye witness accounts of UFO sightings to rely on. And as investigators know, witness accounts can be inaccurate due to things such as misperception and the peculiarities of human memory.

All of this appears a highly plausible explanation for the lack of contemporary 'big' UFO cases like Rendlesham. But what about ghosts? There seems no reason to think that people who see ghosts are any less likely to be carrying a mobile phone than UFO witnesses. But there are very few, if any, photos of ghosts showing exactly what a witness saw at the time. There are plenty of photos of apparent ghosts not seen at the time of exposure. I say 'apparent' because in the vast majority of such cases that I've examined, the 'ghost' was actually a photographic artefact. So the question remains, why the lack of photos showing ghosts as the witness saw them?

I think there are several possible explanations. Firstly, in many cases, the witness was not actually aware they were watching a ghost at the time they saw it. Secondly, many ghost sightings occur when people are not fully conscious, as in near sleep experiences. In both of these cases, it is highly unlikely the witness would have taken a photo at all. Thirdly, some people may actually take a photo of a ghost but later find there is 'nothing there' when they view the resulting picture. I say 'nothing there' because if the ghost sighting was a misperceived tree, for instance, it will be in the picture but there will be no human figure! The witness would probably conclude that either the ghost was a hallucination or that it could not be photographed.

I suspect all these factors, and maybe others, play a part in the absence of such ghost photos. If anyone knows of a photo, on the web, showing a ghost just as it appeared to the witness taking the photo, please let me know! I am still trying to do achieve this myself as my last post explains.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Aiming to photograph a ghost!

When you're no longer young, you don't tend to have fewer ambitions. But there is still one that burns brightly in me - to photograph a ghost! There are many photos around purporting to show ghosts but, of the ones I've personally examined, most are photographic artefacts. But what I want is the real thing! Not too much to ask, surely?

To make the idea a bit more practical, I have set three specific conditions that would make a photo count in fulfilling my ambition. Here they are:

  • I must see the ghost as a real human figure at the time of exposure, even though it turns out not to be one
  • The photo must appear to show a human figure, if not to me then to at least one other person
  • it mustn't be a simple photographic artefact

The first condition means that it could be a misperception ghost, for instance, but not a hallucination. And obviously, if it was a real person, it couldn't be a ghost! With the second condition, I acknowledge that once I've realised the figure is not really a human, I might never see it as one again, in the photo or in real life. But if at least one other person DOES see it as a human in the photo, that will do. The third condition rules out all the common ghost photos where nothing odd is seen the time of exposure.

Ideally, I'd like the object to look unmistakably like a human figure, even to me, in the photo. I think this is possible because I've recently found that misperceptions can be photographed in such a way that they still work as a picture. See here for details including an example. That would be the ultimate ghost photo for me! So, whenever I have a camera in my hand, I am always on the lookout for a suitable ghost. It hasn't happened yet but I keep looking.

Tree stump as ghostThen unexpectedly, the other day, I came close to fulfilling my ambition without even taking a new photo! Someone saw one of my photos and thought it showed a human figure! It was a figure I photographed last year and described here. The photo is reprinted here (right). I said at the time that the tree stump (which is what the object really was) still resembled a human figure to me even in the photo but no one else, at the time, said they saw anything! So when, quite by chance, someone saw the photo, without knowing anything about it, and described it as a human figure, I was surprised and gratified.

While this photo technically satisfies my three conditions, it is a tiny 'figure'. I'm sure a much bigger, more obvious one could be produced. I could add a fourth condition concerning size but then it starts to look messy!

So the search goes on!