Thursday, 1 December 2016

Doppelganger?

Crows in tree A strange thing happened to me recently. I was at a meeting and went outside briefly. There, in a corridor, I passed someone who said hello to me. I didn't realise who it was until it was too late to say hello back. I hoped the person, who I know slightly, wasn't offended by my apparently ignoring them. I returned to the meeting.

Then something odd happened. I discovered that the person I'd seen in the corridor was not actually at the meeting at all, even though I'd expected them to be there. So who had I really seen - a doppelganger maybe? Looking round the room I saw someone there who resembled my acquaintance and might have been the person I really saw in the corridor. But the face, in particular, was quite different.

I was definitely convinced, at the time of the sighting, that I'd seen the person I know slightly. So much so that I was afraid I'd inadvertently offended them. But if it was someone else entirely, how could I have been so mistaken?

Though the obvious way to recognise someone is by their face, other aspects of a person's appearance or behaviour work too. One method of recognition is called gait analysis - recognizing someone by their walk - and it is surprisingly accurate (see here). It can work even when you don't get a good view of someone. Then there is a person's size and shape (see here). Again, it can work when you don't get a good view. I only saw the person in the corridor's face for a second or so but noticed their body for longer. Did I unconsciously, and incorrectly, 'recognise' them from things other than the face? If so, I believe I have an excuse.

I think there are two key points to consider with this incident which I believe was a misidentification of a real person, rather than a doppelganger sighting. Firstly, the person said 'hello' which started me thinking I knew them. This stranger may simply have said hello because we were both in the same meeting and so had a common interest. Secondly, I was definitely expecting the person I know slightly to be at that meeting. I think these factors may have biassed me towards 'recognising' an unfamiliar face.

Though I don't think it was a doppelganger, I think this incident is relevant to witness testimony of anomalous phenomena. There are anomalous incident reports, some ghost sightings for instance, where the witness may apparently recognise a human figure they see. In my experience of ghosts caused by misperception I've never recognised the figures. I have speculated that this is because our brains use an archetypal figure, rather than a specific remembered person, from visual memory in such incidents. But the features of misperceived figures are also determined by the shape of the actual object being misperceived. So maybe, on occasion, a misperceived figure might be 'recognised' as a specific person by a witness using such factors as perceived body shape and size. Obviously, with misperception there is no real figure to recognise but if it is 'identified' by a witness this reinforces the idea that it is a paranormal ghost.

I had previously thought when a ghost is positively identified by a witness that rules out misperception. I no longer think that. Also, I'm hoping that, in future, I might see an identifiable ghost myself, caused by misperception.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Ghost fox

Night foxI was looking out of an upstairs window recently at night. I noticed a fox on the opposite side of the road outside trotting along the pavement. It reached a point maybe 20m away and stopped. I waited to see what it would do next. I gradually became aware that it was no longer there, despite having watched continuously and not seen it move. I waited a while but then a pedestrian walked by so close to the 'fox' that they would undoubtedly have made it move had the animal still been present. So, a fox ghost then!

I was astonished by this incident. I could not believe I had manage to 'lose' a fox I had in plain view. Admittedly, the area where the animal went 'missing' was less well lit than most of the surrounding area. I think this was a special kind of misperception. I've come across other instances with birds (I am a keen birder). On many occasions I've seen a bird 'land' in a bush only for there to be no sign of it when the area is examined with binoculars. In reality, the bird flew INTO the bush rather than landing on it. It is a case of expectation causing misperception. With the fox, I believe it never stopped where I thought it did but instead went behind a nearby car out of sight. Because I EXPECTED it to carry on in a straight line, that's what I saw. And because I could no longer see any movement, I 'saw' the fox come to a standstill. Obviously, this kind of misperception would never occur in good viewing conditions, such as daylight.

So this is a different kind of misperception based on expectation. The way the fox 'vanished' was interesting. At one moment I was convinced I could see it. Then it was just no longer there, replaced by poorly-lit paving slabs. Anyone not aware of misperception might certainly have seen this as a fox vanishing. Indeed, that was just how it felt to me at the time and it was oddly disturbing. Solid objects are not supposed to vanish in plain sight.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Strange small figure

Shadow figureIn the photo (right) you may notice a small dark figure. It is just beyond the right-hand side of the bush in the centre of the photo. The figure was visible to the naked eye at the time, as well as in the photo. However, even before I took the photo, the object no longer looked like a human figure.

There are several things wrong with the 'figure'. Firstly, it is unusually dark for a human figure. That doesn't rule out some sort of shadow ghost, of course. A second objection is that at the apparent distance of the figure it would incredibly small for a human.

Looking more closely at the 'figure' it turned out to be a cluster of leaves attached to the bush by a couple of thin twigs from above. The twigs are not visible from a distance. Together, the leaves block more light than the nearby single leaves. That is why the cluster appears so dark. Finally, the leaf cluster just happens to produce a shape resembling the proportions of a human figure.

Had I taken the photo without noticing any 'figure' at the time I might later, on examining the picture, have thought it was a strange human figure - a miniature shadow ghost perhaps. In most anomalous photographs nothing unusual is noticed at the time of exposure.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Haunting noises

VigilRecently I entered a familiar building that I expected to be empty. Straight away I heard sounds from inside that suggested someone was there. I said 'hello' in a friendly way but there was no reply. I felt uneasy as it suddenly reminded my of a scene from a horror movie. And I knew what usually happened next!

I told myself to stop being silly and cautiously went to investigate. I entered the room where the noises came from and there was no one there! So, a ghost then! After a while I heard the noises again. Yes, you've guessed it, they came from that new fridge I wrote about recently (see here). It was a different noise this time but was undoubtedly coming from the fridge. The sound did gave a vague impression of objects were being moving around. Despite that I was puzzled by why the sounds gave me the strong impression someone was present when I first heard them.

I think at least part of it was that the sound source was round a corner, out of sight. So how different would it have been if the fridge had been visible when I first heard the noises? I could have immediately visually ruled out the presence of a real person. And I would have been able to hear that the noises came from the fridge, so also ruling out the possibility of a ghost. There is more about how noise coming from round corners in this article (here) about paranormal sounds.

So I've now been caught out twice by the same appliance! If I hadn't definitely tracked the noises down to the fridge I might well consider the building haunted by now.

I've learnt two lessons from this experience. Firstly, I can easily appreciate now how unfamiliar noises in a familiar environment can produce a feeling of a ghostly presence. Secondly, people really do say 'hello' when they enter what they think is an empty building and hear sounds they think show they're not alone. I thought it only happened in horror movies.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Knock knock

House with internal noisesWho's there? A ghost perhaps! I was alone in a building I know well. It was silent. Then I heard a loud single knock. I assumed something had fallen down in an adjacent room and went to investigate. Finding nothing out of place, I went back to my original position. A little later I heard the same single knock sound. Once again I investigated and found nothing to explain it. Maybe it was a haunting sound (see here for more on such sounds).

This time I decided to stay where the sound appeared to originate to see if I could hear it again. After a while, there it was. I now realised the sound was unmistakably coming from a fridge. Interestingly, it was a new fridge. I was used to the sounds of the old fridge it replaced and no longer really heard them at all. But the new fridge produced different sounds that appeared obtrusive.

This is a variation on the 'new house effect' (see here). Do you remember the last time you moved house (or flat)? Do you recall a moment when you woke up in the middle of the night in your new house, perhaps not quite sure where you were? Did you hear a distant knock or a loud creak nearby that caught you by surprise? Was there a shadow on the wall of your room that looked unfamiliar and even faintly sinister? This is the new house effect. Until you get used to the peculiar sounds and sights (and even smells) of your new house, they can seem a little disturbing, particularly in the middle of the night when the relative quiet outside can appear to magnify them. If the creaks and knocks are particularly loud and frequent it might even sound as though there is 'someone else' in the house with you. And if you're alone, that could lead you to think that the house is haunted.

What hadn't occurred to me until now is that even introducing some new item of equipment could set off a new house effect in an otherwise thoroughly familiar property. Anything that can produce noises without human intervention, like a fridge, could easily give rise to 'ghostly sounds'. It's not quite a case of a haunted object but certainly an object that can give the impression that a haunting is happening. Anyone investigating odd noises in a haunting case might consider checking if anything has changed in the physical environment of the affected premises recently.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Can really wanting to see a ghost allow you to see one?

VigilI've really wanted to see a ghost ever since I was a kid. I utterly failed in that ambition for many years, despite many long nights spent in haunted buildings. Then, a few years ago I saw my first. Since then I've seen a number and can't even remember much about the first one any more. The thing about these ghost sightings is that they were a lot less dramatic than the portrayal of such events in the movies. In most cases, I was unaware I was even seeing a ghost until it vanished! This experience tallies with many other ghost sightings I've looked into that have happened to other witnesses. My own sightings were, in most cases, caused by misperception.

As well as ghosts I also started to notice other misperceptions a few years ago. We all misperceive all the time but almost everybody fails to notice it almost all of the time. Our brains 'fill in' details of the parts of our visual field that are poorly seen with a best guess from visual memory (visual substitution). Most of my misperceptions could not be interpreted as paranormal which is why I don't mention them here.

These 'normal' misperceptions fall into two broad types. Firstly, there are visual substitutions that look 'right'. In other words, they are objects that might well be found in a particular situation but just don't happen to be physically present. Secondly, there are objects that look out of place, things that are unlikely to be present and, of course, are not. The one I see most of is the second type - 'wrong' out of place stuff. I guess this makes sense as I have a marked tendency to notice things that appear 'wrong' in some way.

But here's an odd thing - why should my brain's 'best guess' be something unlikely to be seen in a particular situation? Firstly, I suspect these 'wrong' guesses are vastly outnumbered by the 'right' ones. It's just I don't notice all the 'right' ones because they don't stand out. Secondly, misperceptions are not pure guesses - they are based on the actual visual shapes and colours visible. If these strongly suggest a 'wrong' object then that becomes the 'best guess'.

I am still not sure why I suddenly started to notice misperceptions. I have speculated that it might be that, after reading about research into perception, I gave myself unconscious 'permission' to see them. Or, more recently, I wondered if my birding made me more sensitive to anomalies in my visual environment that others might miss. I am still not convinced either way.

Given that noticing misperception shows no sign of going away, I can only assume that my brain is permanently working differently to the way it used to. Such neuroplasticity is, of course, a well known phenomenon. But why did it happen in my case? My latest idea is this. Having always yearned to see a ghost, perhaps, having seen my first I unconsciously 'remembered' my brain state at the time and managed to reproduce it. Yes, it could be that I see ghosts now because I've always really wanted to in the past! But I'm still not totally convinced.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A strange voice recognized!

WavesRegular readers will be aware of my acquaintance (MA) who has microsleep with REM (MWR) experiences. These are short part-dream, part-reality experiences that frequently feel paranormal, despite having natural causes. A small proportion of the population has such experiences, often those with certain sleep disorders.

One regular type of MWR that MA gets is voices. It is like a snatch of an overheard conversation, though only one voice is ever heard at any one time (except for a single occasion when there were two). The snatches are often bizarre: ('I have a glorious question going forward tonight', 'Newcastle politics 19', Screeches are off the agenda'). As recently discussed (here), MA has never been able to identify the speaker as a particular known person or even to a region or foreign country. Until now!

MA does not remember what this recent voice said. That's probably because MA was so surprised by the voice itself. It was unmistakably a person MA had heard before. It was a well-known male public figure with a distinctive voice. MA has never met the person but had heard him on TV just the previous evening. This seems unlikely to be a coincidence. It appears likely that MA's brain had used the distinctive voice having heard it recently.

If this is true then why are all the other voices MA had heard before been unrecognizable? The short answer is, I don't know. But if I were to speculate I'd say most were 'archetypal' voices, just as misperceived ghosts are often no one in particular, just an archetypal human figure. It would explain the lack of any regional or foreign accents. So why was this latest voice recognisable? Again, I don't know. The voice was particularly distinctive which may be a clue. Perhaps, for that reason, it was more memorable. We'll have to wait and see if a recognisable voice happens again. If it does, it may provide a further clue to what is going on.

If these voices can include recognizable people it may further encourage the idea of a paranormal origin in those who experience MWRs without realizing their real cause. If the voice heard during the MWR said anything other than words MA has heard that person say before, which is highly likely, it would be interesting. It would show MA's brain was effectively mimicking the famous person. Since people sometimes report meeting famous people in their dreams, I guess this would not be that surprising.