Friday, 28 September 2012

I can see it, why can't you?

Sometimes I just don't see it - the ghost, that is! I examine anomalous photos all the time and I always look at them carefully before reading any accompanying text. I like to see if I can see something odd for myself. While it's generally obvious - an orb, a mist, a transparent figure - sometimes I can't see anything weird at all. Then I read the text and it might then become obvious. But sometimes, just occasionally, I still can't see anything weird, even when someone has described what it is, where it is and even put a ring around it!

Ghostly maskThere are also examples of photos where I can see something, like a face, but other people cannot. Once again, I tell them exactly where it and what it looks like, to no avail. The photo here (right) is an example of one that I can see but some others can't. Have a look and see if you can see anything odd. My 'answer' is given at this link*, but see if you can work it out first.

So what's going on here? Here are a couple of ideas I've been playing with. Firstly, in nearly all the photos where someone else can see a ghost/face/whatever that I can't, the photo has a 'problem'. By that, I mean it is over- or under-exposed, out of focus, motion blurred, has very low resolution or some other obvious photographic imperfection. That means that is hard to make out what things are in the photo, even sometimes those objects which are not thought weird! My idea is that, because as an experienced photographer I understand the limitations of such a photo, I 'know' that what I'm seeing is really noise, pixelation, blur or similar. So, even though consciously I am genuinely trying to see something weird, unconsciously my brain can literally only see noise or blur.

That led into my second idea, that this is a form of misperception. Unlike an optical illusion or simulacrum, which always works, misperception varies from person to person and even from occasion to occasion (one time you might see it, another time not). And what we see when we misperceive is generally whatever we are expecting to see. So, because I expect see noise or blur, that's what I see!

So, why do the photographers themselves see something weird in such photos? It often comes down to why they noticed something odd in the photo in the first place. In many cases, it's because they were EXPECTING to see something weird, even if only unconsciously. For instance, it might be a photo of a haunted house or of a loved one who has had dramatic recent events in their life. So the viewer might be half expecting to see a ghost in a haunted house photo, for instance. Obviously, when I first look at such photos, I'm not aware of this background, which provides another reason why I might not see what they do.

We don't normally get misperception in still photos because, unlike in videos or real life, they offer an opportunity to examine an object closely and at length, two things that tend to destroy misperception. However, the people taking the photo are usually insistent (and persistent) about what they can see, which suggests that visual substitution, characteristic of misperception, may indeed be taking place. It would take some cunning experiments to tease apart what is really going on here but my current best guess is that it really is a form of misperception. I'm sure some people may think I am being 'awkward' by not seeing what they can but perception is a lot more complex than most people imagine.

*As the link explains, I don't think the particular photo shown here is misperception, strictly speaking, because there is no visual substitution.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The yellow grass mystery

CrowAround here, the cracks in our pavements have recently featured lots of yellow grass. Nearby grass verges, by contrast, look verdant after recent heavy rain. The yellow grass is solely confined to cracks in the pavement along streets. It's weird enough to make you avoid walking on them, as some people already do.

I have noticed it on many streets hereabouts. It's always the same, yellow grass in cracks in the pavement but nowhere else. Interestingly, I have also found a very small number of bits of grass in the pavement which were green. This rules out the idea that it is lack of rain that has caused the grass to fade away. So, do we have a genuine anomaly here?

In fiction, some authors like to tell stories backwards. Sometimes this happens in real life, too. In this particular case, I had already found the solution before I first came across the mystery, I just didn't realise it! The thing is, with my poor memory, it took me a little while to put the clues together. I recalled seeing a man riding what I think was a quad bike, small tractor, or something similar, a few days before I noticed the yellow grass. He was holding a spraying device and applying something to specific patches of pavement. It isn't too much of a stretch to imagine that he was applying herbicide to grass growing in cracks in the pavement.

So what if I had never seen the man on the bike/tractor/whatever/I'm no good at small personal transport vehicles? I might still have been able to deduce that it was a human caused phenomenon by its peculiar distribution. However, I had no idea that people sprayed pavements. Once again, a trivial mystery shows how, through lack of relevant information, something mundane can quite easily be misinterpreted as an anomalous phenomenon.

I had another example of seeing the solution to a mystery before the mystery itself appeared, just the other day. I saw, in my peripheral vision, a mysterious black shape leaping over a tall fence! I turned immediately but saw nothing odd at all - just the fence. I watched for several minutes but nothing more happened. Then I recalled that, moments before, I had observed a crow standing on that very fence at the same position! Again, it's not much of a stretch for the 'black shape' to be the same crow flying off. Had I never seen the crow, I would just have put the experience down to the unreliability of peripheral vision. Or assumed it was a shadow ghost. Or Spring Heeled Jack!

I wonder how often we see the answer to a puzzle before the mystery itself appears, without realising it? It's probably fairly common given that effect usually follows cause. The problem is not paying attention while the cause to a mystery is in progress.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Strange noises off

One of the commonest symptoms of a haunting is odd, unexplained noises. So when I heard a dull thumping noise recently, while in an empty, locked building, I couldn't avoid thoughts of the paranormal. I searched in every room for some possible cause of the loud noise but could find none.

I paused to think about witness accounts about accounts of hauntings that I'd heard. Among reported noises there are footsteps, knocks, snatches of music, whispering and the sound of furniture being moved. What I had heard sounded more like furniture being thrown around! I expected to enter a room and find some large bit of furniture overturned! Instead, nothing out of place!

A little later, having forgotten about the odd noise, I happened to open a small cupboard and found the source of the noise! Some small plastic items, that I had stacked soon before the noise, had fallen down onto a wooden box. The latter had resonated and amplified the sound of the impact, making it sound like heavy objects falling. Had I not discovered this, I might still be thinking in terms of hauntings!

Once again, a trivial incident contains several interesting points of detail for those trying to explain haunting phenomena. Firstly, if a unstable pile is going to fall over it is most likely to do so soon after it is first stacked. So, in cases where falling objects are reported, it would be useful to know when they were last stacked, in relation to the time of their reported fall. And just because an item is securely stacked when you examine it, it doesn't mean it was always has been!

Secondly, in the incident reported here, some relatively light objects sounded much heavier and larger because of the hollow wooden box they fell onto. So, I was looking for something big when it was really something small that fell. It is important to examine what the fallen item fell onto when considering if it made an 'unnatural' noise!

Thirdly, the fallen items in this incident were found shortly after the noise. If they had not been discovered for a longer period, the two things might not have been so readily connected as cause and effect. Indeed, they might even have been reported as two separate incidents - an inexplicable noise and some 'moved' objects!

The next time you solve a seemingly trivial non-paranormal incident of this type, it would be worth asking yourself this - if you'd seen only the report of the incident, maybe days or weeks later, would you have solved the mystery so readily? That's one of the great difficulties in investigating paranormal incidents. As investigators, we have only an eye witness account, quite possibly inaccurate, and the scene of the incident, quite possibly changed, to go on. Reconstructing what really happened can be a lot more difficult that it might at first appear!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Do coping strategies look psychic?

Being a super-recognizer could appear like a psychic ability. A super-recognizer (SR) is someone with an exceptional ability to recognize individual human faces. Around 2% of the population have this ability. A SR can remember someone they may have only met once many years before. They may also remember things about that person. This ability to know things about people they cannot normally recall might make SRs appear psychic.

In this week's New Scientist a few more bits of information about this little studied ability were described. For instance, SRs don't seem to be able to visually distinguish objects, other than faces, any better than most people. Also, it appeares that SRs process faces as a whole, rather than concentrating on parts, when recognizing them.

But perhaps even more interesting is that there are also around 2% of the population who are prosopagnosics - they cannot recognise faces at all! And the weird thing is, some people with this condition are not even aware of it. That's because they have unconsciously developed mental coping strategies which mean it hardly affects them. So, they may remember individuals by things other than their face, like their gait.

This is interesting because it means that people with prosopagnosia may have unknowingly developed an enhanced ability to notice things about people that most of us simply miss. This, again, can potentially appear like a psychic ability. Such people may notice a lot about a person they've only just met and be able to deduce much more about them than other people. It's a bit like the way Sherlock Holmes could deduce facts about someone he'd only just met simply be noticing small things in their appearance.

I think many people who believe themselves to be psychic may actually have 'unconscious insight'. That is, they have an enhanced ability to notice things about a person or place that most of us miss. And these abilities may come either from an exceptionally developed ability (like being a SR) or having to cope with a lack of such an ability (like prosopagnosia).

I have personal experience of mental coping strategies. I have a terrible memory which means I have always had problems with exams. There was one occasion where I HAD to pass an exam and discovered, to my horror, I could not answer any of the questions. Once panic had subsided, I looked at one question in detaill and realized I could derive the answer by extrapolating from one of the few principles I could remember concerning this subject. Amazingly, I passed! I guess they gave bonus points for starting from first principles! Since then, I've found that extrapolating from a few known facts is actually quite useful in paranormal research, where definite knowledge in thin on the ground. I'm sure many people use mental coping strategies all the time without even realizing that they are.

One plausible definition of a psychic might be "someone who supplies information, on a particular subject, that they were not previously consciously aware they had". If you accept that as a starting point, it soon becomes obvious that anything that enhances someone's ability to notice and remember things could easily appear as a psychic ability. We all know much more than we can consciously recall at will and, in certain circumstances, this information can reappear unexpectedly, usually in response to some mental trigger. It would be worth studying psychics to test for unusual, but non-paranormal, mental abilities and coping mechanisms. Did I mention I have a bad memory?

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Can you slow down time?

Is it possible to slow down time? Apparently some sportsmen and women can. When about to initiate a physical action, like hitting a tennis ball, they perceive things to go slower than usual, so giving them longer to choose the right shot. Dr Nobuhiro Hagura of UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience has done some initial research (see here) into this apparent ability and has confirmed that it exists. Some people really can make time appear to go more slowly.

It is thought that the phenomenon may be due to the brain processing visual information more quickly. Some neuroscientists believe that there are internal 'clocks' within our brains, like the clock speed of a computer, which determine how fast we process information. In certain individuals, like sports people who train by doing the same thing repetitively, their brains may change (through neuroplasticity) to 'speed up' in certain situations.

For 'ordinary people' time can appear to run slowly too, sometimes, such as in highly stressful situations, though it may be a different mechanism from the sport effect. Some reported paranormal experiences appear to be stressful, according to the witnesses. It is possible that, as a result, they may report the event as lasting longer than it really did. With 'quick glance' misperception, for instance, the whole thing may be over in seconds. But it might be reported as lasting longer than that, causing the investigator to mistakenly discount such a 'glance' misperception as a likely cause. It is worth looking for any apparent time discrepencies in incidents that the witness reported to be stressful.

Just as our brains offer us only the edited highlights of reality through our senses, it seems they also tell us how fast time is moving! It is important to take such effects into account when we consider witness reports of the paranormal.

PS: There is now a meta-analysis of attempts to replicate Daryl Bem's precognition experiments - see here.