Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A ghostly footstep too far

Ghostly soundsAlone in a locked building, I recently heard what sounded like a footstep. And it certainly wasn't mine! Was it a ghost? Regular readers will no doubt be expecting me to explain how I found a simple natural explanation for it. However, just for a change, I didn't, despite looking! However, that does not mean I concluded that it probably WAS a ghost, as some people might have.

Had this incident been part of an on-going series of inexplicable noises, particularly footsteps, I might have been tempted to think it was a haunting phenomenon. Even then, I would have wanted to do an exhaustive search for possible natural explanations first. On this occasion there was no time to do that.

I thought I'd mention this incident just to show that there ARE sometimes weird things that happen in my life that I can't explain. If I was even tempted to jump to the conclusion that it was a ghostly step, another recent incident would have dissuaded me. I was in a shop when I heard the loud sound of a child screaming nearby. I looked around but saw nothing. Then I realised the sound was caused by me! It was the sole of my shoe rubbing on the wooden floor giving a dramatically convincing impression of a child's scream.

We misperceive sound much more readily than things we see. That's no doubt because when you see an object, you get so much more sensory information about it, compared to hearing its sound. You can see its shape, colour, transparency, reflectiveness and so on. If you hear an object, all you get is a varying wavelengths of sound and not much else. There are far more different things that sound identical compared to those that look the same! In addition, to see an object we usually need to have it in line of sight and so get light straight from it. By contrast, sounds frequently arrive from objects round corners, by diffraction and reflection. These processes can distort the sound making it less recognisable (see diagram).

Sound is the commonest reported haunting phenomenon. Perhaps this isn't surprising given how easy it is to misinterpret. I suppose it also depends on the context and expectation. If you hear a footstep when you know you're alone, you might think 'ghost'. If you hear an object falling, in the same situation, you might think you didn't stack some books well! My ghostly footstep could have had any one of a number of mundane causes. Now had I seen a human figure walking past me, I might have been more easily persuaded it was a ghost!

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