Thursday, 19 July 2012

The enduring mystery of the haunting hot spots

The mystery is this - haunting hot spots are widely known while their implications for shining a light on the true nature of hauntings is routinely ignored. Why?

Haunting floor planBriefly, while buildings are said to be haunted, apparent paranormal activity is usually restricted to just a few small areas, typically individual rooms (or parts of large rooms). Even stranger, the 'activity' reported for such individual hot spots is typically always the same. In the (theoretical) example shown in the floor plan (right) here, for instance, in room A an apparition has been seen occasionally while in the hall, B, the sound of footsteps are regularly heard and faint music is sometimes heard at position C, in the corner of the largest room. These are haunting hot spots (see here for real examples).

The existence of these haunting hot spots is not disputed. Indeed, many accounts of hauntings and ghost vigils routinely list particular locations within a building where the same specific phenomena have been repeatedly reported by different witnesses. So clearly it is a consistent feature of hauntings. So why is it ignored? Given that we gave so few truly consistent features of hauntings, it would appear odd to ignore such an obvious, and potentially important, one when analysing the haunting phenomenon.

To find the answer to this mystery, let's consider three of the most popular rival explanations for hauntings. Firstly there is the widely held belief that hauntings are the activity of sentient spirits. Then there is the 'recording' theory of hauntings and, lastly, misperception.

How do hot spots fit with idea of sentient spirits (as some people consider ghosts to be)? Not well! It would require spirits to affect only certain places and then only in very specific and limited ways, for no obvious reason. Where are the spirits when they are not in these hot spots? If there is something stopping spirits producing paranormal activity in other places, how do they 'jump' from one hot spot to another? There are lots of questions raised but no obvious answers. To make the spirit idea fit with hot spots you need to introduce lots of pretty arbitrary 'rules' for their behaviour for which there is no other obvious evidence.

The fit of hot spots with the idea of recording ghosts is much closer. If hauntings are really caused by some previous (human) activity somehow being 'recorded' in some way at a particular location, you would expect the same activity to be repeatedly 'replayed' in the same place. There are still some questions raised, though. Why, for instance, are only certain aspects of an activity, like its sound or visual image, ever recorded? Why not full movie-style images with surround sound on all occasions everywhere?

Finally what of misperception (quick explanation here with full details here)? The fit here is excellent. Misperception would produce exactly the sort of phenomena described for hot spots. Since misperception is produced by the presence of certain objects, it will not generally move around and will be confined to a small area. Such objects either produce misperceived sound or a visual impression but rarely, if ever, both together. Some people will see the misperception, others will not, but all of those that do will generally agree about what they have experienced. Misperception fits the hot spot phenomenon 'as is', without the need for special conditions or rules.

When considering rival explanations for some evidence, science usually goes with the one that requires fewest assumptions and special considerations. That's especially so when such 'considerations' have no other evidence to support them. Scientists have discovered, through trial and error, that the simplest theory tends to be the one that is correct. Perhaps nature likes to keep things simple! In this particular case, it is clearly misperception that fits hot spots best, with recordings a worthy second and spirits a poor third.

I'm not saying here that all haunting phenomena are caused by misperception, though it probably explains many cases. Investigations have revealed that haunting phenomena have several different causes. Some, like near sleep experiences, are clearly caused by hallucination. Of the remaining haunting phenomena some may, indeed, have a paranormal cause. If that is so, the existence of hot spots strongly favours recordings over spirits as a likely cause.

So why are the implications of haunting hot spots ignored by so many people? The obvious explanation is that these people have already accepted that ghosts are spirits, despite the lack of compelling evidence for that, and don't attach any significance of hot spots. Their use of assumption-led methods, most of which use the idea that ghosts are spirits as their base assumption, is evidence of that. So perhaps it's not such a mystery after all.

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