Friday, 19 October 2012

Time for annual ghost 'debate'!

At this time of year there is, predictably, a lot of media interest in ghosts. Typically, either 'ghost hunters' or 'skeptics' will be interviewed, often both together, pitted against each other. Almost all participants, on both 'sides', will assume that ghosts are spirits during their debate. The 'ghost hunters' will offer evidence of these spirit-ghosts's existence and the 'skeptics' will dismiss it. It has become as much part of the tradition of this time of year as pumpkins and spooky costumes. But the 'debate' never moves forward!

When a debate reaches such a long-term impasse, it is surely time to re-frame it so that it can proceed. Suppose, for instance, we junk the assumption that ghosts are spirits. There is, after all, no compelling evidence from carefully investigated cases that ghosts ARE spirits! Having removed that problem, we now need to redefine ghosts according to evidence from actual cases.

No one could seriously deny that people have, from time to time throughout history, witnessed human figures that were not physically present. And just about everyone who has had such an experience would say they were 'seeing a ghost'. So, let's redefine ghosts to be 'human figures seen that are not physically present'. Now, that tiresome question 'do ghosts exist' becomes easy to answer. Yes, of course they do! The big question then becomes, 'what causes people to experience ghost sightings'? But at least we are now dealing with something that undeniably occurs, human experience, rather than referring to hard-to-define metaphysical concepts like spirits.

Here we bring in a second key concept derived from investigations. With the spirit idea, there is only one cause of ghost sightings. But with human experience, there can be many, all leading to the same result. Everything we experience happens in our brains (for the sake of this argument anyway), fed to some extent by our sensory organs. However, some experience can originate within our brains without a need for external sensory stimuli. If you dream. for instance, you are not seeing with your eyes but playing out a scene created in your brain. In near sleep experiences, like hypnagogia, dream content is mixed with sensory input so that a non-physical human figure may appear in a real scene. And in misperception, poorly seen objects may be substituted with others from visual memory, so that a tree might appear as an entirely realistic human figure. Misperception allows multiple witnesses to see the same ghost because two people can see the same poorly-illuminated object! Investigations confirm that ghost sightings can have many different causes, though all end up with human figures being seen when none are present. And notice how we have not excluded the paranormal , or even spirits, as the possible cause of some ghost sightings! This is not an attempt to make ghosts purely 'normal'!

So, we have now moved away from the sterile 'ghosts exist / oh no they don't' debate to something nearer to what ghost witnesses actually experience. This re-framing of the debate produces a host of new possible lines of research. And luckily, they are amenable to scientific research, allowing progress to be made. This is the sort of stuff I'd like to see debated in the annual ghost media coverage. But, sadly, I think the media enjoy the current spirited debates so I'm not holding my breath!

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