Thursday, 29 November 2012

How far away is a reflected ghost?

ShadowA quick update on the 'door ghost' or 'doppelganger' story (catch up here). I saw the ghostly figure, reflected in frosted glass, once more. It definitely appeared to be standing BEHIND me in the reflection. However, I realised that I could see my hand, responsible for the misperception, in the same view in my peripheral vision! And it looked a lot closer, just as you would expect! And even though I could see both the 'original' and the 'reflection' in the same view, it still looked like there was someone standing behind me until I shifted position.

If you look at yourself in a mirror it is as if you see yourself through a window at the same distance on the other side. This has the effect of making your image in the mirror half your actual size, though, crucially, it doesn't appear that way. Any movement you make will appear half the amount you actually moved. So although you know you are, say, 1m from the mirror, your image shows you as apparently 2m away and half the size. There's an excellent discussion of this (with further explanatory links) here. Though an image looks twice as far away as it is, we also ' know' that it isn't really, introducing a contradiction which can produce strange perception effects. Research has shown (see previous link) that people generally misjudge the size and distance of objects in reflections. I believe that is a key point in understanding how the remarkably persistent 'door ghost' misperception works. Even seeing where my hand really is does not break the strong impression that is actually the feet of a person, or ghost, standing, rather menacingly, directly behind me!

I mentioned a few days ago that I thought that feeling mentally 'detached' may contribute to the effect. I still believe this is true but I think the basic mechanism is likely to be a fundamental misjudgment of size and distance. With a bland background offering no visual cues to size, my brain cannot correct its erroneous perception of my hand. It is only by shifting my hand, or my whole position, that additional visual information arrives that corrects the misperception. Is the mystery of the doppelganger finally solved? Maybe but it is certainly useful to have a reproducible misperception to observe regularly! And it looks as if there is another type of situation that can lead to misperceptions - reflections of objects against featureless backgrounds!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Are public expectations of ghosts changing?

The BBC are currently showing a ghost story on TV, The Secret of Crickley Hall. It feels like a big television event because, to me, it seems there are far fewer ghost stories on TV compared to when I was a kid. I wonder if it might be the effect of the reality ghost hunting shows. Perhaps traditional ghost stories feel a bit old fashioned compared to EMF meters and EVP!

I've always enjoyed ghost stories. As a kid, I assumed that they were just like the real thing. So it came as a shock to find out that they were not. Despite that, I continued to enjoy a good fictional ghost story. I suppose my enjoyment has changed over time. Once I looked for a dramatic plot with lots of scary bits. Now I like to see just how far the plot differs from real life hauntings. The answer is, usually, a lot!

I do wonder if the reality ghost hunting shows will, over time, change forever the public's idea of what a haunting is like. ASSAP receives lots of photos of orbs, mists and light trails. It seems that people readily associate such photographic artefacts with ghosts and hauntings nowadays when once they might have expected nothing less than than the walking, talking ghosts of the movies. Maybe the ghost stories of the future will have ghost hunters as their heroes and be centred around vigils where definitive evidence never quite arrives. If so, then I definitely prefer the traditional version.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Detached ghost!

ShadowOne of the advantages of seeing the same weird phenomenon regularly is that, each time more information can be gleaned about the elusive experience. Most people see something weird maybe a handful of times in their life. In such circumstances, it can be difficult for them to remember much about the experience beyond the basic details. But my 'door ghost' or 'doppelganger' is proving more obliging, turning up pretty much whenever I've forgotten to expect it. I won't explain it again, for fear of boring regular readers. For a catch up, go here.

Anyway, the latest experience caught me by surprise, as usual. I became aware of 'someone' standing behind me where I expected no one. Quickly remembering the cause of this misperception I was careful not to 'disturb' the phenomenon so that I could observe the experience. What struck me this time was that I felt a little 'odd' until the misperception was 'broken'. It was the same 'detached' feeling I get during OBE-type experiences. I think I was in that state because I was on 'autopilot'. That's my name for the mental state you go into when you are doing something you've done hundreds of times before. Your body 'knows' exactlly what to do without you really concentrating so that your mind can drift onto something else entirely. I suppose it's a sort of altered state of consciousness, albeit not a very profound one.

Thinking back, I realised that most, if not all, my weird experiences have happened while doing some familiar routine activity, like walking around my locality.

So, I wondered if such a 'detached' mind state may allow someone to notice themselves misperceiving. Though we misperceive all the time, we rarely notice it. Indeed, some people don't seem to notice it ever! But perhaps when the conscious part of our brain becomes free enough, in its temporary 'detached' state, it can 'observe' what the unconscious is doing, including its mistakes!

It would be interesting to know what witnesses were doing just prior to experiencing something weird. I'm willing to bet it was something mundane and routine in many cases.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Isolated EVPs mystery

Shaken sound spectrumPlease play this audio clip: sound1. You should set your audio software to repeat, or continuous play, to try to catch the words, if any. If you have any problems playing the sound, see 'Advice about playing the clips' below.

Then try playing this audio clip: sound2.

Something that has puzzled me for some time is why the most convincing EVP recordings all seem to be single words or short phrases with little or no accompanying noise. In such examples words appear suddenly, from a silent (or low noise) background, just like normal human speech. In my experiments to reproduce EVP using formant noise (as featured in the EVP gallery) it wasn't like that. On my original recordings there were several minutes of noise produced by whatever natural sound source I was using. I would then go through the recordings and pick the bits that appeared to sound like voices. Once isolated, these cropped samples sounded quite voice-like with words discernible by many people. But it wasn't the same as those dramatic recordings where words just comes out of silence and then vanish, like normal human speech. Though my method demonstrated that ambient noises could produce voice-like sounds from which words could be heard, it was not a convincing reproduction of the best 'isolated' EVPs. If someone heard longer versions of my recordings, they might well have recognized the source of the noise and not noticed any 'words' at all!

So, on to the sound samples. If you haven't played them already this will come as a spoiler! I'll tell you what I hear in sound1. Against a somewhat noisy background, I hear a voice suddenly appear and distinctly say 'shaken, something I need frequently'. You may hear different words or maybe none at all. Anyway, to me it sounds just like some of those more convincing examples of EVP where a voice appears from silence, says some words and stops again, just like a normal human voice.

In sound2, I hear a rustling noise. It has the same rhythm as sound1 and appears to be a different version of the same clip. However, there is no obvious voice this time. However, to me at least, there is still a hint of the same words but they are difficult to hear against the rustling noise. If I hadn't heard sound1 first, I might easily not have picked up the idea of a voice in this sample at all!

So, what's going on? Sound2 is the original recording. It is of a piece of paper being rustled in someone's hand not far from the recorder. It is not that obvious what it is but you might guess from the sound alone. Sound1 was produced by filtering out all the frequencies above 2300 Hz. It then acts like formant noise, producing 'words' by combining the simultaneous frequency peaks around 150 Hz and in the 1500 to 2300 Hz range (see sound spectrum graph above). If you remove the higher frequency peaks, above 1500 Hz, the voice vanishes altogether because the formant noise effect no longer works. Here is a final sample sound3 where just those frequencies have been filtered out. You shouldn't hear any words now!

So what did I conclude from this experiment? Firstly, the more impressive short isolated EVPs can, indeed, be produced by bursts of suitable ambient noise (rustling paper in this case). Secondly, the very fact that the noise is short may make it unrecognizable and more likely to be heard as a voice rather than what it really is. Not all such short bursts of noise will sound voice-like. I had to reject quite a few to get this one. The ones that don't sound voice-like may be dismissed as noise by people reviewing the recording!

Incidentally, it is not at all unusual for people to filter out certain frequencies in EVP recordings in order to 'remove noise'. In reality, such filtering can enhance the formant noise effect, making it more likely to be heard as words. Of course, you may not have heard any words at all in any of these recordings. All I can say to that is that I heard some and they sounded just like recordings I've heard of isolated EVPs elsewhere, so I've reproduced the effect to my own satisfaction. Other people will have to do their own experiments!

Advice about playing the clips: The files are in WAV format. You may need to associate WAV files with a default sound application on your computer for the links to work. You shouldn't need to use headphones to listen to these clips (indeed it may be inadvisable as some are loud!). Ordinary computer loudspeakers should work fine though you may need to have the volume set high for some of the clips.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Moving shadow ghost vanishes!

Shadow ghostLooking out of a window at a wet urban night scene recently, I saw two small 'shadow objects' on a road surface. They moved for a while and then vanished. The whole sighting lasted for just a second or two! I continued to look for a while but they did not reappear, nor was there any obvious clue as to what they were! Unlike most shadow ghosts, these were not in peripheral vision and the lighting, provided by street lights, was good! I've never seen this variety of shadow ghost before and was intrigued!

When nothing else happened, I looked in another direction. On returning my gaze to the place where I saw the shadows, they were back! Again, they moved a little and then vanished. Some experimentation revealed some interesting properties of these shadow objects. Firstly, they moved as my gaze moved! Secondly, they appeared reliably AFTER I stared at another scene for a while and then back. That's when I realised they were a type of afterimage.

Most people are familiar with afterimages. These happen when you gaze for a while at a bright object, then look away and see an impression of it (often in a different colour) superimposed on whatever you're now looking at. In this case, I think a bright streetlight was reflecting a puddle and, when I looked away, it became a 'shadow object' in another scene. You can often tell for sure that you are looking at an afterimage because it usually is still visible even when you close your eyes. Also, it moves according to wherever you happen to be looking, unlike a real object in the scene.

In most situations afterimages are obvious. If you stare at a brightly lit pattern and then seen the same pattern superimposed on the next thing you look at (often in a different colour), it's not going to make you think it is paranormal! But in the particular situation here, an essentially black and white scene with some areas well lit by street lights, an afterimage may not be so obvious. I believe I was seeing the dark afterimage of a bright puddle reflecting a street light. This appeared as an amorphous black shape when seen on a modestly-lit bit of road surface. They moved because my gaze moved and they vanished as the effect wore off.

When it is not obvious what is causing an unusual effect, like these 'shadow objects', some people might consider them paranormal. Though most shadow ghosts are reported in peripheral vision, some are seen in central vision. I wonder how many may be caused by afterimages like this? It is certainly something to consider when shadow ghosts are reported in mostly black and white scenes.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Ghosts talking to each other

White noise"Sitting, reading, quiet, alone, indoors. Suddenly, an odd feeling, like falling, everything goes grey and there are voices talking to each other. The people speaking seem unaware of me. And then they are gone and I am back reading. It is like listening to a snatch of an unknown radio play. Except there is no radio, TV or any other electronic device on at the time. The voices of ghosts, perhaps? A few minutes later I have the same experience except that it is a completely different 'scene' this time, with different voices talking about something completely different. Seconds later it is gone, once again. I can usually remember what is said. It is like a fragment of a story where I don't know the beginning or the end."

This kind of weird experience might be taken for an encounter with ghosts. Or maybe aliens. Possibly even a time slip. It is, in fact, the most detailed description I have yet from an acquaintance of mine who has microsleep with REM (MWR) episodes. Many people have short periods when they fall asleep for a few seconds without even noticing - a microsleep. However, only a tiny number (usually those with certain kind of sleep disorder) go straight into a dream state, which is where the 'voices' come from.

Anyone not aware of MWR might think they are having a brief encounter with ghosts or aliens. Curiously, my acquaintance only has this particular format of MWR when reading at home. MWR episodes in other settings play out differently (sometimes with hypnagogic hallucinations). The fact that it always happens at home might lead someone else with the same experiences to think they were living in a haunted house!

The clues for paranormal investigators to look for here are (a) what the witness was doing when the incident happened and (b) the odd feeling (in this case like falling) at the start of the episode. For (a) we're looking for a situation that might encourage sleep. For instance sitting for a prolonged period, reading, watching TV, riding in a car (or other form of transport), lying down etc. It is possible that a witness may have a sleep disorder without even being aware of it.

What I find particularly interesting here is that the 'witness' above was listening to other people apparently talking to each other. That the voices play out a 'scene' recalls the popular idea that hauntings are produced by a particular (possibly tragic) event in the history of a location. So, anyone hearing such a ghostly 'scene' might easily be convinced that there is a haunting. However, while sounds are the most frequently reported aspects of hauntings, it is unusual to for a witness to hear clear voices saying recognizable words, perhaps reflecting the rarity of MWR. And even with the MWR episodes described here, which have definite natural causes, the same 'scene' is not repeated again and again. Once again we see the wide gulf between the popular idea of ghosts, as protrayed in fiction, and reali life cases.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Reflections on ghosts on a mountain!

ShadowI had my 'doppelganger' or 'door ghost' experience again recently but with a weird new twist - an OBE! Briefly, 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!

On this latest occasion I had a distinct, and odd, feeling that the 'ghost' was quite separate from me. Even though I KNEW, while I was watching it, that it was my own hand! The 'ghost' seemed to be further away than my hand should be. It was where it might be if it was indeed another person. Or a shadow ghost! It felt like an out of the body experience, as if I was seeing myself (or a bit of me) from afar. I have had OBE-like experiences before, so I guess it's not totally surprising. It might explain why this bizarre misperception is so remarkably persistent, despite the fact that I know what is causing it!

I now do wonder if certain misperception experiences may involve scale or distance illusions like this one. My own mini-OBEs have occurred when looking at regularly patterned backgrounds where depth perception is minimal. In the case of the 'doppelganger', I think the fact that the image is a fuzzy reflection (caused by frosted glass) against a limited view of a fairly uniform background behind, may compromise distance perception.

So, there may be another important aspect to misperception that I had not previously considered - compromised distance (and hence scale) perception! It could certainly be an important factor at night or in fog when many visual cues to distance may be missing.

Many years ago I used to go winter mountaineering where I was, on several occasions, caught in a white-out. This is where a white overcast sky blends in with a completely snow-covered ground so that the horizon disappears. It is very disorientating! A rock pointing out of the snow might be a pebble. Or a boulder! Sometimes ALL you can see is white. And being on a mountain, you wonder whether your next step forward will be on solid snow. Or ice. Or the unseen edge of a precipice. Distance (and size) is almost impossible to judge in such circumstances and I can well imagine there will be many misperceptions in such circumstances. I seem to recall it made me feel weird and not just because of possible dangers. I don't recall an OBE, or any ghosts, but it was a long time ago!

While a white-out is an extreme example, there will be other circumstances, like my door ghost, where a sort of OBE may occur, leading to misperception. Paranormal investigators should always visit the scene of a reported incident. In some cases, the reported events will appear to conflict with the geography of the location. One reason might be some sort of distance misperception. It will be crucial to establish the lighting, and any other circumstances that may have compromised distance perception, during the original incident.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Seriously dramatic ghosts!

Sky lanternThere is still time to get a ticket for the Seriously Unidentified UFO conference in Worcester on Saturday at a discounted rate online. If you turn up on the day without a ticket, you'll have to pay full price.

The theme of the Seriously Unidentified conference is that ufology is no longer moving forward as a subject. All the 'classic' cases, like Rendlesham and Roswell, are in the past. Now the majority of reports of UFOs appear to be of sky lanterns and mylar balloons! Interest in ufology has declined as a result.

By contrast, interest in ghosts has soared in recent years. But it isn't on the back of recent dramatic cases. We have had no new extraordinary ghost cases recently to match the Cheltenham Ghost, to name but one. Before I became an active ghost researcher I read many books about hauntings avidly. The cases described were dramatic and appeared clearly paranormal. I couldn't wait to start investigating for myself. When I did, what I actually found was the equivalent of 'sky lanterns and mylar balloons'! The cases appeared relatively undramatic and most were explainable by natural causes. Talking to other investigators, it became clear that my experience was far from unusual. Where had all the really dramatic cases of yesteryear gone?

All of this makes the huge rise in the popularity of ghost research appear odd, at first sight. However, the 'ghost hunting boom' has very little to do with ghost cases, dramatic or otherwise. Instead, it revolves around holding ghost vigils, a relatively unimportant optional add-on in traditional case work. And the assumption-led methods used would produce 'positive' results anywhere, whether haunted or not. So the dearth of dramatic ghost cases is of little consequence to this 'boom'.

Why aren't there any dramatic ghost cases anymore? Has something changed in the world of ghosts themselves? Or is there something different in the way we investigate? Perhaps we should have a conference to discuss these matters too!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Like a scene from a ghost movie

Autumn leavesTurning round gingerly, I fully expected to see someone shuffling along slowly behind me, watching me, in the alley. Instead, I saw no one (and no animal)! BUT I could still hear the sound of someone moving! It was like a scene from a ghost movie!

This happened recently, when I was walking along the same alley where I had felt a strong sense of presence before, specifically someone walking behind me (see here for the full story). Once again I was looking for autumn cobwebs, an action that could have appeared 'odd' to a passer-by, so I did not turn round until I left the alley. Once again I had the strong sense of a 'presence' behind me. I had forgotten about my previous 'presence' experience there but soon remembered! I tried to work out WHY exactly I felt there was someone behind me and quickly realised it was a sound. It was an odd, faint, unfamiliar sound, as if someone was shuffling along.

I soon discovered the real source of the strange sound. There were large fallen leaves all over the pavement blowing around. They made a curious knocking sound, suggestive of someone walking along. There was also a 'swishing' element to the noise, which produced the 'shuffling' component.

As I had previously suspected, it was an unexplained sound that produced the feeling of a presence. I think unexplained sounds may be a common cause of a sense of a presence. If you hear something that sounds like someone moving about, but there's no one visible, it seems likely to trigger a feeling of an invisible presence. It was interesting that I only experienced this latest 'presence' after I'd forgotten about the previous incident, which is typical of misperception. I wonder if this happens where people live in haunted houses and have regular weird experiences. Are such experiences more common at times when the witnesses are not specifically expecting them?

Investigators who get cases of people feeling a presence outside in autumn and early winter should check for fallen leaves! Also, in haunting cases, it would be worth asking witnesses if they were expecting something to happen when they had each individual odd experience.

Ironic postscript: When I was followed by a REAL person in the alley, I didn't hear them! People have such quiet footwear these days, especially trainers!

Monday, 12 November 2012

Flying shadow ghost

CrowI had that odd feeling that something was wrong but did not know what it was. It is a bit like the feeling you get when you go into a room and can't remember why. I found myself staring at a perfectly ordinary car bonnet for no reason I could fathom. Then I worked out what was wrong. I had looked at the same scene just a few seconds before and there was an obvious moving reflection in the bonnet but nothing nearby to have caused it. Looking at the bonnet, I worked out hat the only way there could have been such a moving reflection in the bonnet was if it was caused by something from above - a flying shadow ghost, maybe.

Then I looked down and noticed, not far from the car, a crow on the ground. It had certainly not been there when I saw the reflection in the car bonnet. Now it became obvious what had happened. I had seen the reflection of the crow as it descended to the ground without noticing the bird itself. This was perfectly feasible given the angles and sizes of the objects involved.

This is certainly the kind of scenario that can lead to a report of an anomaly. Someone glances at a scene, then looks away. A thought crosses their mind - they've seen something odd - but what? They look back and all is normal. Then they remember the oddity. Unlike in my case, they can see no obvious normal explanation for it! Witnesses often report that while they are viewing an anomaly, they cannot see anything wrong. It is only afterwards that they realise there was 'something wrong'!

Meanwhile, in such cases, the investigator is left in the position of a TV detective turning up at a crime scene who says 'so what have we got here then?'. They have to piece together what has happened with only the witness's account to go on. And that account might not even be accurate! When someone has a nagging feeling that they've seen 'something wrong' it could well lead to confabulation! Our brains appear to have a need to make sense of what they perceive and remember. Even if that means changing things a bit to 'fit' better!

Here in the UK we've recently been had Guy Fawkes Night, an event that seems to stretch over about a fortnight these days. If there are fireworks being let off nearby but you cannot see them, it can give rise to odd sounds that appear to have no obvious explanation. I've heard just such weird noises recently that made no sense until I realised there were fireworks being let off! Ghost investigators should beware of 'noisy ghost' reports around his time of year!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

How can you not see a parrot?

ParrotThe squawk was very loud! From experience, I knew the parrot must be within a few metres of me but looking round through 360 degrees, a dizzying number of times, I saw nothing! Though I've been familiar with parrots from various locations for years, they have recently moved in locally. They turned up in numbers a few months ago and now regularly fly around in flocks, squawking. Even the locals, who invariably fail to notice the local fauna, have talked about them. Almost crow-sized, bright green and with a habit of flying around in noisy flocks, the Rose-ringed Parakeet is indeed difficult to miss!

Despite that, they can sometimes be difficult to spot, as my experience showed. I've recently noticed that they will sometimes cling on to vertical brickwork on the side of houses! Few bird species do that, especially the large ones! I recently saw two parrots, attached to a wall, near someone's window, calling loudly!

If this had been an anomalous phenomenon case, the witness might have reported that they'd heard a bird squawking loudly at their window but could see nothing on trees or houses nearby. Their conclusion? A ghost bird! Without the crucial information that parakeets sometimes cling to vertical walls, it would be difficult to work out the true explanation!

This is, of course, the eternal problem with investigating reports of paranormal phenomena. We only know what the witness experienced, plus anything we can deduce by examining the site. That's why we need to be in possession of relevant specialist information to solve such mysteries.

Investigators cannot be experts in every possible cause of weird experiences. But they should understand the limits of their own knowledge. Too often, investigators declare something 'unexplainable' when what they really mean is 'unexplainable by them'! There is no shame is asking for other people's help or doing background research. In this case, for instance, it would be worth talking to someone with expertise in birds before declaring the case inexplicable! It is also worth doing as I do and looking out for weird, but normal, experiences in every day life and imagining how they would look to someone who had only witnessed the puzzling part of the action. This DOES work - I've explained otherwise bizarre reports in this way! Having said that, I never DID find the parrot mentioned at the start of this post. Maybe it was hanging from a wall just round a corner!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Shadow ghost at window!

Shadow ghostI opened the curtain but there was no one there! I had just seen the shadow of a someone walking past a window. I was surprised because it looked as though the person casting the shadow was just outside the window, which is very unusual! So when I saw no one just outside, or anywhere near, I was puzzled! Then I realized the shadow must have been cast by someone walking along the street, rather further away. So why, I wondered, had I never noticed this disconcerting illusion before, given my long familiarity with the window concerned?

Then I realised there was something else which was rather unusual - low angle sunshine pointing directly at the window. The sun takes a slightly different course across the sky every day, depending on the time of year. To be shining directly at the window at a low enough angle to project shadows of passers-by on the street, it has to be near the horizon. It also needs to be shining through a narrow gap in nearby buildings. This can only happen for a few minutes (I timed it) of a few days every year!

This is an example of how a rare coincidence can produce an apparent paranormal phenomenon. Not only can this 'shadow ghost' phenomenon only happen for a few specific minutes per year, it needs someone to be walking past at the right time outside and someone to be watching the closed curtain inside simultaneously! What are the odds?

If an investigator came along to find out what was going on, it's probably not the first explanation they'd look for! And if an investigator DID suggest a rare coincidence as an explanation, many people would dismiss the idea as too far fetched! And yet, these things happen!

So, when should you consider a rare coincidence as a possible explanation for a paranormal report? Only after more obvious possibilities have been thoroughly exhausted and there are usually plenty of those. Coincidences can be hard to investigate as, unless you see the event unfold for yourself, they can be difficult to imagine! The best thing to do is to look out for unlikely coincidences in your own life to work out how you might have detected them after the event.

PS: Media coverage of the forthcoming ASSAP Seriously Unidentified conference here. To find out more and book your place, go here.

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!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

What flipping adverts tell us about ghosts!

It's a bit like having an extra sense! Since I've started noticing misperception, I am getting an insight into how my brain is handling sensory input. For instance, today I noticed a billboard with an advert on it. At first it contained an unlikely, slightly grotesque image before quickly flipping to a more prosaic scene. Adverts are a common source of this misperception 'flipping', where I see one image and then it flips to another, in an instant. There is no fade to grey or shapes rearranging themselves. One second it is one picture, the next a quite different one, like those optical illusions that constantly flip between different versions (such as the Necker Cube). With misperceptions, unlike optical illusions, the picture never flips back.

This raises the question - why are advertising billboards a common source of misperception? I think it's because, you never know what's going to be in a new advert. By contrast most things you see in everyday life are familiar; houses, cars, roads, trees, people, grass, clouds, etc. With familiar objects our brains can easily produce a suitable visual substitution from memory. Would you really notice if one leaf on a tree was exactly as seen by your eyes while another one, less well seen, was a memory substitute? But when faced with a novel image, the brain has a trickier job and sometimes gets caught out changing images.

Here's another question - why didn't I see adverts 'flip' before I discovered misperception? I'm sure my brain still got it wrong, occasionally, for a second or two, so why didn't I notice it? The key word is 'notice' here. We walk down streets every day noticing very little of what is actually going on all around us. Unless, like me, you become interested in natural history, you probably won't notice the street pigeons or foxes. So I never noticed flipping misperceptions until recently because I wasn't interested in the subject. We lavish most of our limited attention on what really interests us.

Next question - why do people who see misperception ghosts notice them? Perhaps it is triggered by a belief in ghosts. Or maybe they noticed a misperception so bizarre they couldn't ignore it. Or perhaps it is simply genetic variability! People who notice such misperceptions may well consider themselves psychic. However it happens, I think some ghost witnesses may see the 'substitute' image for much longer than people like me. What evidence do I have for that? Two words - ghost photographs!

I see many anomalous photos that the photographer says contains a face, figure or other object that I cannot, despite extensive examination, see! As I've speculated before, I think this is a form of permanent misperception. One viewer always sees a ghostly figure while another never does. A crucial point about a photo is that it never changes over time. If one person saw a tree stump as a ghost and someone standing next to them couldn't see it, you could put it down to a different viewing angle. If the second person moved to the same spot as the original witness and could still see no figure, you might put it down to changes in lighting over time. But with a photo, these factors don't apply. Everyone sees exactly the same photo but different people see different things in it. I suspect that someone who sees a ghostly figure in a photo may also see one with their naked eye that is really a tree stump. And for an extended period of time!

It is fascinating to see how human perception actually works. We have an illusion that normal sensory perception is a faithful representation of the physical world around us. Instead, it is more like watching an edited movie where we what we see can depend on what we know.