Friday, 2 November 2012

Sensing an invisible presence

CobwebI have, on occasion, been alone in a locked building when I've heard an unexpected sound from another room. I usually reason that it is just a normal building sound (see here for a discussion on unexplained sounds in buildings). But before such thoughts kick in there is, just for a split second, a more immediate emotional reaction. What if I am not alone in the building at all?

This made me think about my recent 'sensing an invisible presence' experience (described here). I was walking along an alleyway, alone, when I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling that I was being closely followed by someone. On looking round, this turned out not to be the case. My feeling was that the experience may have been initiated by something I heard that suggested someone walking. But, if so, why didn't the feeling vanish quickly, as it had when I was in a locked building alone?

The key difference between the two situations is, of course, that in the alleyway there easily COULD have been someone behind me. And if I'd turned round straight away I could instantly have satisfied myself that there was no one there, but I didn't. And the reason I didn't was that I was walking along very slowly, staring towards the ground looking for cobwebs (as you do when, like me, you are interested in natural history)! I was aware that this behaviour might be regarded as 'odd' to a passer-by and I didn't want to catch their eye!

Many people, including me, tend to exaggerate social embarrassment. Think of the fuss some people make about wearing just the 'right' clothes for a particular social situation, to avoid a faux pas! Had there actually been someone following me in the alley they would probably simply have walked round me and forgotten the incident instantly! As I've often mentioned in this blog, people out walking tend to notice very little about what's going on around them. Even if they HAD noticed me, it's unlikely they would have cared what I was doing. Perhaps if I'd been wearing a clown's outfit they might have noticed but otherwise, I doubt it.

So the sense of presence that I felt was probably the result of an aural misperception. The obvious objection is that I cannot remember actually hearing anyone. While this does not rule out that I heard such sounds and then forgot them, it is hardly evidence that I did! However, I know that unexplained sounds I've heard while alone in a locked building have made me think there might be someone else present. It therefore seems, on balance, the most likely explanation to me. It is, incidentally, quite normal for people who misperceive to forget or not notice the actual real sound or object that they misperceived. There is also a direct parallel here with the idea of embarrassment promoting misperception, discussed here.

I think a 'sense of presence' may well be produced by aural misperception in many such cases. But there are other causes too. It has been suggested that EIFs produce such a sense of presence, for instance. This is, I think, one of those phenomena (like apparitions or UFOs) that can have different causes in different cases but all leading to the same experience. And once someone is convinced there is a 'presence' around, the feeling may linger for some while. In my case it ended when I was sure there was no one there. But if the witness believes it is an invisible ghost causing the feeling, it may go on for an extended period.

Consider, once again, the idea of being alone in a locked building. If you heard not just one odd sound but several consecutively from another room, it would become difficult to shake off the idea that there was someone else present. And only discovering a natural explanation for those noises or searching the building from top to bottom could definitively dispel the notion. And what if you were in a haunted building? You might then, having exhausting possible natural explanations, think there was an invisible ghostly presence. And what about weird noises in a building you are not used to? This could clearly be a case of the new house effect which might lead to a feeling of a presence being around. It is clearly a subject ripe for research! Next time I feel a sense of presence I will try really hard to remember what caused it. And I'm betting it will be sound!

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