Friday, 4 January 2013

On hearing a ghost!

Weird, unexpected noises are the most common phenomena reported in hauntings. I have previously speculated that they might be one of the causes of a sense of ('invisible') presence. So, as paranormal investigators, we should really be considering if the hearing of witnesses, and indeed ourselves, is up to scratch before placing too much reliance on it. We should also consider the fact that hearing is a much less detailed sense than vision. Two objects can make sounds that are pretty much indistinguishable to most people despite looking completely different. One person's 'ghostly footsteps' may be another's creaks due to thermal expansion.

Most people have had a build-up of earwax, leading to impaired hearing in one ear, at some time. While this obviously reduces sound sensitivity, it also largely removes our ability to tell the direction of a sound. In my experience, during such periods, I have heard several weird noises which appeared to be coming from somewhere unfeasibly close. In reality, they turned out, on investigation, to be normal ambient sounds which just sounded unfamiliar. That's because my impaired hearing in one ear meant I could not tell where they were coming from. Also, the earwax affected the frequency sensitivity of my ear, making familiar sounds appear different. In fact, the sounds were quite spooky. I could easily have believed they were haunting noises.

Ghostly soundsEven with excellent hearing, people often fail to work out correctly where a sound is coming from. That's because sounds are often reflected or diffracted (bent round corners) on their way from their point of origin and this is not always obvious (see diagram - S: sound origin, L: listener). There is also another reason why people misattribute the origin of a sound - expectation! Our senses do not operate independently but help each other in collecting information about our environment. Anyone who wears glasses knows this. You will have noticed that it is easier to hear someone talking if you wear your glasses. That's because seeing someone's lips moving assists with understanding what they are saying! Seeing and hearing interact to assist overall perception!

My recent attempt to locate a strange noise was unexpectedly difficult. That's because I couldn't see anything present that I would associate with that noise. It would probably have been quicker if I'd shut my eyes and just moved my head until the sound got loudest. The other day I was woken in the middle of the night by a noise I thought was an alarm clock but I couldn't stop it by switching the alarm off! That's because it wasn't an alarm clock at all but another electronic device! But it took me a minute or two to work that out. Once again, if I'd shut my eyes and listened to where the sound was coming from, I would have found it much quicker!

In my experience, in many investigations both witnesses and investigators routinely get the origins of mysterious noises incorrect. They seem to be heavily swayed by expectation! There are almost no known advantages to holding ghost vigils in the dark but here's one - better location of sounds! That's no reason to hold a vigils in the dark but turning off the lights for a few minutes to locate a specific sound could indeed be useful - provided those present have good hearing, of course!

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