Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A ghostly presence, at last!

CobwebTo some people, I suppose it's an appropriate time of year for a novel ghostly experience. For me, I'm interested in anything weird any time.

The other day I was walking along an alleyway, in daylight. I was walking slowly, staring at the ground looking for cobwebs, which can look spectacular in autumn. Regular readers will be aware of my interest in wildlife, which means I'm often looking around while walking, hoping to catch a glimpse of a bird, insect or unusual plant. Anyway, I suddenly had a strong feeling that there was someone behind me. I felt distinctly uncomfortable as the person was making no attempt to pass me, even though there was enough room. I carried on until the end of the alleyway and then looked back. There was no one there! What is more, I felt the 'presence' right up until I turned round, so no one could have run away in time for me not to see them.

Thinking back, I realised I never actually saw or heard anything! I just 'felt' that there was 'someone' walking right behind me. Though it was quiet, I would not necessarily have heard anyone behind me as some people walk almost silently. Had another person had my experience they may well have concluded that they had just been followed by an invisible ghost!

So why did I think there was someone there? I believe there were various contributing factors. Firstly, it was an alleyway which can make pedestrians feel uncomfortable with its lack of 'escape routes' (in case of problems) and restricted visibility in most directions. Secondly, I was walking slowly, which may have caused someone behind to become impatient. Thirdly, I was staring at the ground, which some people might regard as 'odd' behaviour. These last two factors could have caused me to feel embarrassment. Put those factors together and they could have made me feel distinctly uncomfortable, though I don't remember feeling like that consciously.

While these factors may contribute to being uncomfortable with the POSSIBILITY of there being someone behind me, they don't mean that I will necessarily SENSE someone there when they aren't. It's possible that I heard some slight noise, subliminally, that started off the idea that I was being followed down the alley. Once the idea got into my consciousness, it may have been sustained by the various 'uncomfortable' factors mentioned before. This may be how some paranormal witnesses get a sense of ghostly presence - a combination of 'uncomfortable' factors and an unexplained sound or other sensory stimulus.

I have now experienced several of the major natural causes of many paranormal reports. I often notice misperception, for instance. I have also had hypnagogic experiences and visual spatial distortions typical of OBEs. All of these experiences have been highly illuminating in understanding how many weird experiences can have xenonormal causes. One common paranormal experience that has eluded me until now is sensing an invisible presence. Perhaps, now I've had one, I'll get them regularly! Why is that not a comforting thought? Happy Samhain!

Monday, 29 October 2012

First eliminate the normal!

If you are investigating a haunting (or some other anomalous case) and you're looking for possible natural explanations for what has been reported, you may be wasting your time! You might look for a few obvious possibilities but what about all the other not so obvious ones? For any given reported anomaly there may be many different possible natural explanations. Unless you check them all out, you can never eliminate them. It doesn't matter how weird the phenomenon, if there are untested natural explanations possible, the best you can ever say is that it might be paranormal. Or not!

I often read reports of people on ghost vigils looking into strange incidents that happened on the night. While the things they test are OK as far as they go, I can usually think of several possibilities that either didn't occur to them or they didn't bother to check. I suspect, in most cases, the former is true. It is a shame because it is much easier to check possible explanations just after an incident, a luxury we don't usually have with witness reports received for investigation. I have often explained my own weird observations by checking them out at the time. Even waiting a few minutes can make it impossible to check certain aspects!

So how can we be fully prepared for every possible natural explanation when something weird happens? My solution is to look for weird events in everyday life. Regular readers will be aware that I am always on the look out for mysterious stuff to explain in my day to day life. It is an extremely useful way to discover possible natural explanations that would never otherwise have occurred to me. I would suggest that all anomaly investigators should follow this example and keep a look out for situations in everyday life which could be interpreted as paranormal. And most importantly, having found a natural explanation, you should look for clues or symptoms that point to that cause. You can also pursue xenonormal studies, when not actively investigating.

If you go on active investigation without being armed with lots of possible explanations for anything weird that you might encounter, then you may simply be wasting your time. Any results you present will always be open to challenge by others who can think of alternative causes. Of course, the are always some obscure natural explanations that even a well-prepared investigator will not think of. But at the moment, even quite obvious things are being overlooked making conclusions like 'unexplained', 'inexplicable' or even 'paranormal' look distinctly unsupportable.

Friday, 26 October 2012

How do you identify a ghost?

Ghost treeSo, you've seen a ghost! It looked like a human figure. But who is it? Though many people spend a lot of time doing research to find out who a ghost is, there is another strong possibility - it isn't anyone at all! But how can that be?

Consider the photo, right (original story of sighting here). It may not look much like a person, or even a ghost, but it did when originally seen. It appeared to be "an elderly person with frizzy grey hair" for a few seconds before reverting to its actual physical form, the one you see here - a tree! It was an example of misperception. Though this was only a brief sighting, misperceptions can sometimes last for a long time and be seen as a human figure throughout. But here's the point - there clearly was no 'elderly person', ghost or otherwise, present. So it isn't anyone and cannot ever be identified.

In cases of misperception, the features of the figure are largely determined by the object being misperceived and the lighting. In the example here, the bit at the top of the tree where a branch has been removed looks lighter and produces a 'face' when misperceived. Any 'details', like mouth, eyes and so on come from the viewer's visual memory. From examining many examples of misperception, it appears that our memory produces archetypal figures in such cases, rather than a recognizable person that we remember. So even the misperception is not an actual person.

While misperception is responsible for many ghost sightings, another common source of apparitions is near-sleep experiences, like hypnagogia. In such experiences, elements from dreams are mixed with real sensory input. So someone might be lying in bed and they see a figure standing nearby. The figure comes from a dream state while the real background is what they are actually seeing. In ordinary dreams there are often other people present, some real ones that we know, and sometimes others that we don't. It appears to be the same with hypnagogic states where sometimes figures are recognizable but many are not. So most of this category of ghost would also have no identity.

None of the above deters people from trying hard to identify ghosts. Indeed, they may try to identify figures that are little more than shadows or even just vague shapes! So how is it done? The key is the location where the ghost was seen. The 'identifier' will do some historical research to work out 'likely possibilities'. These may include people involved in tragedies (either at the location or elsewhere), famous people (!), people emotionally attached to the location and so on. All of these connections rely on the idea that ghosts are spirits, even though though there is no compelling evidence to suggest that is actually the case.

Finally, there is almost never a good enough description available from the witness to definitively identify a ghost with a particular person! So, all in all, I would say that you're probably better off NOT trying to identify a ghost in the first place.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Noisy ghost!

Warning: The video linked from this blog entry could make watching paint dry appear exciting. I don't know why some people say watching paint dry is dull. Clearly they've never just finished painting an outside wall and watched, helpless, as storm clouds suddenly appear from nowhere! Anyway, I'm nominating this video for the title of dullest on the internet! See what you think! It is, by the way, important that you watch this video on a fairly large screen, otherwise you'll find it even duller than expected!

The video is all about illustrating a point I made in an earlier post. I have noticed a lot of electronic noise on videos made of dark ghost vigils. This electronic, or image, noise shows up as apparent, but non-real, movement in the shadow areas of some scenes. Sometimes, this movement has been interpreted as something paranormal. So, I thought the world needed a video to illustrate this point. Sadly, such a video was always bound to be dull. If you want to liven up your viewing experience see if, like me, you think the wood itself appears to be moving in the shots where the torch is being waved around, between the 33 to 39 second marks. Needless to say, the wood is not moving, only the torch! Incidentally, the video was shot with a high ISO, which produces more noise. If you view it on a small screen you may be wondering where all this noise is!

The lessons are obvious. When making videos of ghost vigils, use adequate lighting and a low ISO setting to avoid noise. Otherwise, not only might the resulting noise be misinterpreted as something paranormal but it could also degrade images of something truly interesting! You wouldn't want a ghost lost in noise! And most importantly, please don't load dull videos onto the internet.

PS: Looking at the projected shadow on a steamed-up window thing (see yesterday) thing again, I noticed something interesting. When the image appears on the window, the light source is usually visible directly behind, which should make explaining the effect reasonably simple. However, the effect also works if the light source is just out of sight, making it look much more mysterious.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Shadow ghost at a window!

Bush window lightI first noticed the shadowy shape at the window because it was moving! Looking at it more closely, the dark shape resembled ghostly fingers just outside the window! A shadow ghost in the night? Or its hand, anyway!

The cause of the ghostly shape was soon apparent. The 'fingers' were leaves in a bush some distance from the window. They were moving because of the wind. And they were only visible because of two things. Firstly, the window was steamed up. Secondly, there was light shining from a distant window, projecting the shadow of the bush onto the steamed up window. In the diagram you can see the setup, with a distant light source on one side, the bush in the middle and a steamed up window on the other side.

While it was not too difficult to work out what was going on in this particular case, that might not always happen. For instance, if the window was high up, as some are, it might not be possible to see the bush or distant light source through it. Another possibility is that a witness might only see the menacing shape at the window momentarily, because the distant light source goes off, leaving no time to see what is going on. This could certainly happen during a night-time thunder storm, with the bush only briefly illuminated by lightning. Just like in a horror movie!

The effect is more dramatic than you might imagine! Anyone who does not work out what is really happening could easily report it as a shadow ghost at the window. Obviously, there could be objects other than bushes projected onto the steamed up window. What if it was a real person instead, for instance? And I guess the effect would work with frosted glass just as well.

I'm pretty sure I've seen this effect, or something like it, before in a haunted house. Obviously, once you label a place 'haunted', paranormal interpretations of such effects become more likely! It's yet another example the 'ghost at the window' (see here).

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A very odd pigeon!

CrowThere is a railway station near me which has some decidedly odd pigeons. The street pigeon is so well-known that most of us hardly even notice them, even though they are common in most places in cities and towns. I first noticed the 'odd pigeons' wandering between parked cars near the station (the birds, not me). They didn't look right, and, in particular, didn't walk right for pigeons!

They behave like street pigeons you can see anywhere. They hang around on high vantage points, like roofs, a lot. Then, sometimes, they fly down and walk about in the places frequented by humans, looking for small items we have dropped, specifically anything edible. They are tolerant of human presence, right down to a metre or two, generally preferring to walk off rather than fly away when approached too closely. So why do these ones look so unusual?

It was because they're not pigeons at all but crows! This particular crow flock has been hanging around by the station since summer. I'm guessing they were born this year, somewhere nearby. They are often seen walking along the platforms of the station, in spite of the presence nearby of passengers, which is unusual for crows which are normally wary of humans. This flock even turns up in areas under cover (ie. no ready access to the open sky) which is also unusual for crows, though not for pigeons. So what's going on? Are they imitating the local pigeons or did they just learn for themselves how to forage in a way appropriate for a closely built-up environment with lots of people around? I don't know!

What has this to do with the paranormal? Well, firstly, if anyone reports seeing a 'pigeon' from that railway station, I'll suspect it could as easily be a crow! Secondly, the fact that nature constantly surprises shows that we should never take it for granted when considering possible explanations for weird events. It is always necessary to visit the area where something paranormal was reported to have happened. But apart from checking all the obvious things, it is also worth seeing if there is anything unusual about the area, like crows that think they are pigeons.

Incidentally, recent research has shown that crows can recognise and remember individual humans, if they associate them with a bad experience. Never underestimate, or annoy, the crow!

Monday, 22 October 2012

Autumn - a time for ghosts?

Autumn is a time of year that makes me think of ghosts! It's nothing to do with Samhain. It's more the fact that most investigations I've been on seem to have happened in autumn. Of course, that could be because the publicity surrounding Samhain prompts people to report ghosts that they wouldn't otherwise bother with. Either way, leaves falling from trees inevitably have me looking out for ghostly figures lurking! Another reason why autumn is a good time to look for ghosts is the lower light levels, not to mention fog, that encourage misperception. I suspect, though, that the main reason why I think of ghosts in autumn is simply because I tend not to think of them in summer! The sunshine, warmth and long summer days just don't seem to conducive to thoughts of apparitions!

I saw my 'door ghost' again the other day (see here to catch up). An interesting new variation was that there really WAS someone standing right behind me this time. Despite that, I still saw the 'ghost'! Interestingly, though, the real person standing behind me looked 'more real' than the ghost! It's difficult to say in what way, precisely, but it was easy to tell the difference. The real person appeared more colourful and moved more than the rather static 'ghost'. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is proving a remarkably resilient misperception.

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!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

New revelations about the 'door ghost'!

Regular readers will be aware that I frequently see a shadowy figure standing behind me, reflected in the frosted glass of an outside door (start here if you've not heard about this). It seems that every time I forget about the ghost, it reappears, typical of misperception. I have discovered, over time, that the ghostly figure is actually me, or at least my arm and hand!

The shadow ghost appeared once again, recently. What was interesting this time was that a real person walked by at the same time. They, too, were reflected in the frosted glass and also appeared as a shadowy figure, though further away than my 'ghost'. I fully expected this real person to look much more obviously 'real'! I also thought my misperceived shadow ghost would instantly vanish as my brain compared the two images! However, the ghost persisted! Indeed, it was difficult to tell the real person from the 'ghost'! They both appeared as a shadow figures, devoid of detail!

This is interesting because it means that people may see both misperceived and real human figures at the same time! In other words, it works a bit like a near sleep experience where real and non-real figures can mix in the same scene, with the whole thing appearing completely real! Such a mixture of the real and misperceived would be easily accepted by a witness as all totally real! It is little wonder witnesses find misperceptions such convincing ghosts!

So far, then, I have discovered that comparing a misperception with the real thing does not 'break' it. Nor does blinking! The only sure way I know to break a misperception is by getting a better view of the misperceived object. Having said that, misperception is fragile so it only takes one good view to see what an object really is. But in certain circumstances, like low light, a misperception may persist pretty much indefinitely.

Incidentally, the 'door ghost' is another example of a 'window ghost', as it is a reflection in a glass pane. I don't know of any reports of shadow ghosts reflected in frosted glass but I wouldn't be surprised if they exist.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Ghostly figures at windows

I looked out of a window, staring at nothing in particular, when I noticed a passer-by. But then, very unusually, the person turned round and stared straight at me! It was slightly unnerving! Is this, I wondered, what it feels like to be a ghost?

Regular readers will be aware that I often see human figures at windows that usually turn out to be potted plants or furniture. There is one window nearby where washing is often drying which sometimes strongly resembles a figure. The misperception usually only lasts for a second or two before I see what the object really is. But while I am misperceiving, the human figure is very realistic. When it 'disappears' it is like seeing a ghost! Hence my thought about knowing what it feels like to be a ghost!

I also regularly see photos that supposedly show ghostly figures at windows. They usually turn out, on closer inspection, to show either faintly seen objects in the room behind the window or things reflected from outside. Many of the photos are taken of reputedly haunted buildings, which may be why the photographers examine the windows! This 'ghost at the window' motif is common enough to be a class all of its own among ghost photos. Faces, or figures, at windows are also a regular feature of ghost cases.

You may have noticed that an unexpected 'face at the window' is also a staple motif of horror and thriller movies. I wonder if this is a coincidence? Have the horror movies led witnesses to expect weird figures at windows? Or did real-life ghost cases influence horror script writers?

Is there something about windows that encourages misperception? I think so! Firstly, windows usually conceal most of a real human figure and partial concealment is a feature of many misperceived objects. Secondly, when looking into a window from outside, the illumination is generally poor, another common factor in misperception. Thirdly, windows can reflect objects from outside which can 'mix images' with objects inside to produce unlikely shapes! So windows probably DO encourage misperception which almost certainly leads to many of the ghost sightings in such situations. And the effect even extends to vehicle windscreens (see here)!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Can ghost vigils be made scientifically useful?

Shadow ghostI have commented before that modern ghost vigils offer little in the way of useful scientific information. I suggested then that they be dropped in favour of on-site scientific studies, particularly into haunting hot spots. But not everyone is interested in this sort of work. So can the basic ghost vigil itself be made scientifically useful for those who are strongly attached to the format?

In deciding how to fix vigils, you first need to ask what they are for. Originally, a ghost vigil was an optional add-on at the end of a haunting investigation. The idea was to try to record and experience what had been reported by witnesses, and maybe, as a result, explain it. There was also the idea of trying to find out what made haunted places different to non-haunted ones. These objectives appear as useful today as they always were and could certainly be the basis for useful scientific research, if done with care.

However, the modern ghost vigil is dominated by assumption-led methods. Such methods cannot, by definition, question their own assumptions and so they have little scientific usefulness. Further, they could be done anywhere, so why waste a short trip to a haunted location with them? If you want to hold a seance or record EVP, you can do it anywhere, anytime. And since such methods are controversial, it would be worth putting in scientific controls to test their validity. This is hardly practical during a one-off trip to a haunted building.

So why not leave all these assumption-led methods out? The central assumption behind most of them is the idea that ghosts are spirits. However, there is no compelling evidence from ghost investigation studies that this is the case, making their use at haunted locations even less useful.

Instead, it would be better if ghost vigils concentrated on recording anything that actually happens at a haunted location. This is what happened in the days before the ghost hunting boom. It should be said that it is likely that very little will be recorded, which was the experience of those earlier vigils. However, at least what IS recorded is likely to be related to the actual haunting being investigated. There would be no need for lots of equipment, only things that were relevant to the reported haunting. So, for instance, if a cold spot was reported at a particular place, it could be tested with electronic thermometers. EMF meters might still be used but only if electrical interference was one of phenomena reported by witnesses.

By far the most important items of equipment would be HD video cameras. There should be as many of these as possible, deployed to cover each hot spot from several angles, if possible. Very importantly, normal illumination should be used - leave the room lights ON! This is important because dark conditions not only encourage witnesses to misperceive but also causes problems for video cameras. Many 'ghost videos' I have come across are shot in infrared or low light. This not only removes colour, an important means of distinguishing objects, but also tends to introduce electronic noise. Such electronic noise can show up as apparent movement in what is really a completely static scene. This can give the impression of shadowy moving objects being present! By using good illumination and HD video, we get high resolution images without noise. If something weird happens with this set up, it would be difficult to dismiss as a photographic artefact!

For instance, suppose a door was found to have opened by itself after a session. If there was a HD video camera trained on the door, using good illumination, it would on the recording and no one could deny that it had physically happened. And it could hardly be blamed on photographic artefacts!

By removing all the existing distractions of modern vigils, like seances, calling out, mediums and so on, participants can concentrate on trying to actually witness things themselves. And, if anything weird DOES happen, it ought to appear on the video recordings. Obviously, there is a lot more to it but the basic idea of stripping down vigils to their essentials would certainly move them towards scientific usefulness.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Non-events of the week!

ParrotNon-event 1: I was just buzzed by a parrot! You may laugh but they are quite chunky birds! I was once menaced by a Rough-legged Buzzard - that really WAS scary!
Non-event 2: Walking past a shop recently I suddenly realised I'd seen a face in the window. I am used to misperceiving objects as faces in windows so, as I went back for a second look, I fully expected to see an advert, dummy head or some other object that could, in peripheral vision, be taken for a face. But no, for once it was actually a person, adjusting the window display!

So what's interesting about these incidents? The parrots have moved into our area in recent months having been extremely rare before that. So, if someone nearby reported hearing a mysterious squawking sound in recent weeks, it would no surprise. Before that. however, it would be more difficult to explain. The point is this - things change! So, if you are re-investigating an old paranormal case, as some people like to do, it is important to know what has changed since it happened. It could make a big difference to likely xenonormal explanations. Some might have applied then that would not today. And vice versa.

And the shop face? Well, I know I see objects as faces or figures in windows from time to time (as regularly reported in this blog). It usually turns out to be a large pot plant or item of heavy furniture! The fact that I see a human face when there really IS one present is re-assuring! So far I have only see faces in windows when there are (a) real faces there and (b) occasionally when there are other objects present that could be easily misperceived. This is exactly what you'd expect from normal perception. Unlike most people, I notice myself misperceiving but otherwise my visual perception appears to be normal. If it wasn't, it would call some of my observations recorded in this blog into question! It is a bit like checking the calibration on a scientific instrument! I guess we can count this 'revelation' as non-event of the week number 3!

Friday, 12 October 2012

The bigger picture!

 RushCan you work out what that is in this photo (right)? I can't! At least, I wouldn't be able to if I didn't have the rest of the photo. Just looking at the heavily cropped picture here, there is obviously a reddish object, shaped like a boomerang, which appears to be either out of focus or blurred by camera shake. Either way, there's not much else you can really say about it! Attempts to enhance the photo reveal some sort of linear pattern running along the length of the object but little else.

I sometimes see anomalous photos like this. They are clearly cropped sections from a larger photo (you can usually tell by the unusual dimensions of the picture). There may, of course, be good reasons why the rest of the photo is missing. For instance, it may feature a person who does not want their image shared without permission! But the problem is that the rest of the photo may also provide vital contextual information that could explain what the mystery object is.

Some people might see such an odd object like this one as possibly paranormal, if it was taken at a haunted location and especially if it was not noticed at the time the photo was taken. But in many cases, there is a simpler, mundane explanation.

RushThe photo, right, shows more of the picture that the photo above was cropped from. The red 'boomerang' is at the bottom of the image. Above it is a clear image of a rush leaf with water droplets. Suddenly, a likely solution suggests itself! The 'boomerang' is almost certainly an old rush leaf, turning brown.

In a wider sense, the same kind of problem applies to many reported paranormal incidents. Though the witness may describe, in admirable detail, the weird thing they saw, contextual information about what else was going on nearby is unlikely to have been noticed or remembered. As I noted recently, in some cases a witness may have actually seen the explanation for their mystery incident but either not noticed it or not realized its significance.

The central problem is that people can only pay full attention to one thing at a time. So if you see something weird you're likely to watch it to the exclusion of everything else going on around you. Even with a photograph, where you have time to study it and pay attention to all of it, many people concentrate on the bit they think is weird or unusual. So they crop the photo to just show the 'anomaly' as that is all that is important!

When you analyze an anomalous photo, it is vital to examine every part of it, not just any obvious anomaly. The rest of the picture may offer clues to explain the anomaly. For instance, if there is a bright light source at the edge of the frame, it is a likely explanation for large anomalous circles of light in the centre of the picture. It would almost certainly be an example of lens flare. If only we knew what was going on at the time around most reported paranormal incidents, they would be easily explainable!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Another day, another ghost!

Tree misperceivedWhen I first saw the scene pictured here (right) I saw, just for a couple of seconds, a human figure on the bank looking (my) left. Looking at the photo (taken at the time), I'm surprised that I didn't think the figure was looking right!

I'll admit, it didn't occur to me at the time that it might be a ghost. I just thought it was someone standing by the water. The fact that the 'figure' quickly turned into a tree, which is what it really is, didn't surprise me either. What I DID find surprising was that I ever misperceived this pollarded tree in the first place. I guess the pollarded bit at the top, the light coloured area where branches have been removed, vaguely suggests a face.

I started to notice misperceptions only after I started to realise how they work. I'm sure I misperceived just as much before but simply never noticed. So what exactly did I used to see in the days before I noticed myself misperceiving? The possibilities would be: a) a tree, b) a human figure or c) simply failed to register the scene at all. It's impossible to know the answer to this question without doing some research. My guess would be that it could have be any of the options, varying from occasion to occasion.

Our brains like to make sense of what they perceive, so it would probably depend on expectation. There certainly COULD have been a person standing in that position (on a path nearby) so I could easily have seen a 'figure' and thought nothing of it. If a figure was unexpected in that position, I would probably have seen a tree instead. If I was thinking about something else entirely, I probably wouldn't have even registered seeing the scene. And if I'd been expecting a ghost, I would probably have seen a ' ghostly figure' which would have promptly 'vanished', so confirming its identity!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Why NOT to give a witness your opinion on a case!

I have mentioned before how witnesses will often remember 'new' aspects to an experience they have already described in detail. It almost always happens when a plausible 'natural explanation' is suggested for the experience. And the 'new' aspect invariably serves to discount the natural explanation suggested as a possibility. In this week's New Scientist there is a feature on memory and I think it goes some way towards explaining this phenomenon.

It is well known that memory is unreliable and that it can change. Recent research has found specific causes for memory alteration. For instance, whenever we recall an event the chemical changes required to reproduce it actually change it forever! So your memories change whenever they are recalled, though usually only subtly! And it seems that memory may have evolved to allow us to predict future events rather than as an autobiography. When you imagine a future possible scenario, it actually changes existing memories! And people in close relationships, such as a couple or siblings, can 'adopt' some of the memories from the other person involved. So some of your treasured childhood memories may actually have really happened to your sibling! This puts into perspective reports of paranormal events from couples and family groups. Another interesting thing is that people tend to remember things that reinforce their own view of themselves, while forgetting things that contradict it. So if someone thinks they are psychic, they may remember the few times they successfully predicted the future, while forgetting all the others when their prediction failed.

How might this help explain the 'new' memory scenario I mentioned above? It seems likely that when the witness considers the 'natural explanation' being suggested, they try to fit it with what they remember. In doing so they may affect the original memory itself, just as they would if they were imagining a future possible scenario. But why should this memory alteration always happen to contradict the suggested explanation? That is probably because the witness has, possibly unconsciously, decided that they what they experienced really was paranormal. So any explanation that challenges that idea will cause the memory to alter in such a way that dismisses the possibility. Also, they will remember anything that serves to confirm their paranormal interpretation of the incident, while forgetting anything that might contradict it. As I commented recently (here), witnesses may actually see the solution to the mystery of their weird experienced at the time but either not realise or remember it.

It is likely that once a memory has been altered in this way, it will not go back to the way it was before. This means that it may not be a good idea to suggest likely natural explanations to witnesses! It is better not to discuss your theories with witnesses unless they insist on knowing. In some cases people accept suggested natural explanations happily, even expressing relief! But there are always those who react in the way I've described.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the 'new' details remembered by the witness are correct. However, this scenario happens so consistently, often multiple times with the same witness, that it is difficult to dismiss the idea of it being an example of memory altering. All of this reinforces the logic of using things like cognitive interviewing techniques which seek to minimise memory alteration. Memory should always be treated as the fragile and unreliable thing that it really is!

Monday, 8 October 2012

More shadow ghosts - flying and lurking!

Bird shadowTake a look at the photo, right. Though it looks dark, it was only slightly underexposed. The photo is untouched (apart from cropping to highlight the area of interest), straight from the camera. The photo shows some vegetation with water in front and behind (even though it may not be obvious). But note the shape in the water at the bottom. I t looks like the reflection, or shadow, of a bird in flight. But where is the bird itself? Could this be a shadow on it's own, without the object that casts it, like a shadow ghost?

The second photo, below, has been lightened and the contrast increased. As a result you can now see the bird that cast the shadow clearly, flying low over the water. The reason the bird is difficult to make out in the original photo is because both it and vegetation behind are dark, blending into each other. This kind of thing occurs quite frequently in anomalous photos. Digital photos have a low dynamic range compared to film. The dynamic range is the number of shades of grey between white and black. With a low dynamic range, it can be difficult to distinguish overlapping objects in dull or bright lighting conditions.

I mentioned recently that I have a poor memory. This means that, after a gap of a few weeks, I can see the same misperception twice, having forgotten about it! So it was that I saw the 'door ghost' (originally reported as a doppelganger - see here) once again. Briefly, I am seeing bits of my own body reflected in the frosted window in a door. Part of the reason that this misperception works is that, due to the lighting conditions, the 'ghost' appears very dark. It is a case of very high contrast lighting conditions, just like the bird photos here. Even though human vision has a much better dynamic range than photos, there are still conditions where it can be fooled, like this is one!

Bird shadowOn this occasion, not only did I see a 'dark figure' behind me once again but, this time, it looked quite specifically like someone's legs and feet standing on the path right behind me. It was particularly effective because that is exactly what you'd expect to see, given the angles involved, if someone really was standing in that position behind me. Examining the 'legs' carefully, I worked out that it was my hand! I happened to have two fingers crooked while the others were held straight. The effect, when reflected and viewed like a shadow in the frosted glass, was like a shadow pair of feet with legs above them. It was the most convincing version of the 'door ghost' yet! Indeed, for a second or two I really thought there WAS someone standing there, until I remembered the misperception! Needless to say, there was no one there - yes, I checked!

Incidentally, looking at the 'enhanced' photo, right, notice how, although we can now make out the bird well, details from the ripples in the water have vanished! Whenever, you alter an image to bring up a particular feature, you inevitably lose something else. Any alteration to a photo inevitably destroys some of the original data in the photo. This is why you should never 'enhance' a photo too much as it will become less and less like the original. Indeed, go on 'enhancing' enough and you will introduce artefacts - objects that are purely a result of using the photo editing software. These artefacts are 'objects' that were never in the original image at all!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

If it's close to the camera, it's probably not a ghost!

Photography, one of our most familiar technologies, can cause problems to those hoping to record paranormal phenomena. In particular, the distance of an object from the camera can have a huge bearing on whether it is paranormal or not.

While everyone knows about photos, few realize the many important differences between photography and simply viewing a scene with the naked eye. There is a list of some the major differences in the way cameras and the naked eye record images here. One thing that isn't mentioned there, which turns out to be the cause of many 'anomalous photos', is the difficulty of measuring the distance of objects from a camera.

Most people know that our two eyes give us a stereo view of the world but our brains do not rely solely on that mechanism for judging distance. With the naked eye, we judge the distance of an object by combining three different mechanisms. They are stereopsis, perspective and motion parallax.

With a photograph we obviously lose stereopsis as a way of judging distance (unless using a 3-D camera). But we also lose motion parallax. If an observer is moving while viewing a scene, objects nearby appear to move more quickly, relative to the distant background, than those further away. This effect, called motion parallax, allows us to judge how far things are away. Clearly, an observer cannot move relative the objects in a still photo (unless it's a hologram) so we lose this ability as well.

Gull and cormorantSo that just leaves perspective. Unfortunately, it is relatively easy to fool the brain with perspective, as illustrated here. So, in photos we rely on things like observing which objects are in front of others and their size relative to things of known dimensions. But even these methods can go wrong. We might see one object in front of another but we don't lnow HOW far is it in front. And what about objects that don't overlap? Or those taken against taken against the sky, like UFOs, or other featureless backgrounds? And what if we don't know the size of objects, even familiar ones, in the photo?

Take the photo, right, for example. Which bird is closer to the camera? It isn't possible to say, just be looking, given the fairly featureless background of the sea! As it happens, they are about the same distance. This is because the cormorant, the lower bird, is about 50% longer in the photo than the gull, which corresponds to their real relative sizes. As to how far they are from the camera, you'd have to use the methods of photogrammetry to work that out. These sort of techniques are not usually available to someone who just happens to have taken a ghost photo!

From studying thousands of anomalous photos, I've noticed that the commonest types are all semi-transparent objects in the near foreground. These include orbs, vortexes and many mists. All are so close to the camera that they are out of focus. However, this isn't always apparent because, as in the case of orbs, highlights in out of focus objects appear as relatively sharp transparent circles, rather than simply going fuzzy (see here). In many cases, these nearby objects are only visible in the photo because a flash has been used. But while they are always in the foreground, it can be difficult to tell their exact distance from the camera. Sometimes, perspective can make them appear far away when, in reality, they are very close to the camera. There are even cases where very nearby objects can appear to be behind other things in the photo (see here for an example). It is, however, an illusion caused by perspective. If we were watching such an object in real life, we could shift our position and see that one object was much closer than the other, using motion parallax.

Whenever you see an object in a photo which is transparent and in the foreground (usually, but not always, illuminated by flash), there's an excellent chance that it is a mundane object, like a dust particle or a camera strap, which is out of focus. With anomalous photos, if it's close to the camera, it's probably not a ghost! Though the camera doesn't lie, it tells a version of the truth that can mislead those not familiar with the way human perception works.

Monday, 1 October 2012

How do you know you've never hallucinated?

Ghost treeI've never had a hallucination! I don't misperceive! Not my words, but those of people I've spoken to when I've offered possible explanations for their strange experiences, at their request. The last bit is important! I don't go around forcing my theories onto unwilling witnesses. I only offer my opinion if someone asks for it. And I emphasize that is is only an opinion, based purely on the evidence that they've offered.

How can anyone be sure they've never hallucinated or misperceived? Well, since everyone misperceives all the time, I guess if you're awake you know you must have done that one. Most of the time it hardly matters because our brains are making good, informed guesses about what is being perceived and probably getting it right most of the time. If you're in a familiar room, what is in your peripheral vision is probably quite correct, because your brain knows what's there, even if can't see it too well in the 'corner of your eye'. While everyone misperceives, only a few people notice it and those that do might report what they see as paranormal (like the 'ghost tree' pictured - see here for story).

What about hallucinating? The problem here is that there is still a commonly held view that hallucinating is symptomatic of a medical condition. For this reason, many people resist the idea that they might ever hallucinate. In reality, most people have near sleep experiences at some time in their life and, usually, it is not a sign of any kind of 'condition'. A big problem is, how do you actually know when you're hallucinating - it can be very difficult to tell. I'm not going into that complex question here because the real point is this - how can anyone say definitively that they've never hallucinated? In my opinion, it is almost certainly impossible.

When people say they don't hallucinate or misperceive, they are generally using it as a way to discount those possible explanations for their weird experience. But, in reality, we all misperceive and most people have hallucinated at some time or other. Maybe they hallucinated at precisely during the time when they had their weird experience!

The main point is this - people use arguments to discount possible explanations for weird stuff that don't always stand up to close scrutiny. Before you allow yourself to be persuaded by such arguments, ask yourself if they are realistic.

PS: I saw a common name on an email sent to me recently, except it turned out to be a rare one (with a similar spelling) when I looked again! I had misperceived the real name to a common version, actually seeing it with the wrong letters! See here for similar text misperception.