Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Why are we scared of ghosts

Misperceived treeMore specifically, why are we scared of apparitions? I can easily see why someone might be anxious when a series of unexplained events occur in a particular building. However, despite the common assumption, there is very little evidence that ghosts are in any way responsible for such hauntings. Ghosts are never observed actually producing haunting phenomena and are only seen in a minority of such cases. They also don't explain such well-attested aspects of hauntings as hot spots, for instance. It is most likely that ghosts are an uncommon symptom of hauntings rather than their cause.

So why should anyone be afraid of a ghost? In many cases they are not. That's because often the witness is not even aware that they are observing a ghost until afterwards. Apparitions are generally described as looking just like a normal human being, which is probably why they are often not recognized for what they are at the time.

Nevertheless some witnesses certainly find apparitions scary. Why should this be? An article in this week's New Scientist might provide a possible answer, at least in those many cases where ghosts are misperceptions. The piece describes a problem in robotics, namely that people find robots which closely resemble humans disturbing. Research suggests that this is because we recognise such robots as human but they do not behave 'naturally', causing a sort of cognitive dissonance in witnesses.

The same thing may be happening in apparitions caused by misperception. We see them as human figures but they may 'behave' oddly or look 'strange'. In the case of a poorly-seen tree being misperceived as a human figure, its unnatural stillness may appear uncanny. Also, the precise form of such a 'figure' will be determined by the object being misperceived. This may give such an apparition a distinctly unusual appearance. In the photo above, for instance, a tree stump was misperceived as an 'old woman'. The 'woman's' appearance would have been affected by the shape and colour of the stump to give 'her' a distinctly odd appearance.

I suspect the wider question of why people are generally scared of ghosts is probably a cultural phenomenon. With ghosts routinely portrayed as scary in movies and ghost stories it is perhaps not too surprising. The reality, as always, is a little different.

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