Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Classic vigils may be wasting time!

VigilMore bad news for ghost vigils! The 'classic' vigil (ie. NOT using assumption-led methods) is usually divided into sessions (sometimes called 'watches'). During these sessions, investigators sit quietly waiting to see if something happens. They are usually stationed at 'hot spots', though a few non-haunted areas may be mixed in as controls. In the days before everything about a haunted venue was published on the web, investigators would usually have no idea what to expect. This would clearly help rule out psychological suggestion.

Generally, sessions would last around an hour with 15 minute breaks between. However, in this week's New Scientist there's an article on people operating drones. They have looked into how long operators can cope with the monotony of viewing an essentially unchanging scene, which is what drones do, apparently, for a lot of the time. They discovered, using a virtual reality program, that people can only pay attention to an unchanging scene for around 10 to 15 minutes! This is, of course, what also happens on 'classic' ghost vigils! So it is likely that any subtle event happening after about a quarter of an hour into a vigil session could easily go unnoticed! So three quarters of each session is essentially being wasted! Of course, this was not known at the time it was first decided that an hour was a good time for session.

It is now not so surprising that classic vigils rarely report any activity. It would be interesting to know how many of the events that ARE reported occur in the first 15 minutes! The problem is even worse with 'dark' vigils because it takes around 20 minutes for human vision to adapt to low light! There are, of course, many other good reasons not to vigil in the dark!

So can the classic vigil be saved? Shorter sessions, always in the light obviously, of about a quarter of an hour might be one idea. Another possibility is to have investigators actually ocupied doing something during a session. This might reduce attention being paid to possible paranormal phenomena but it could also keep general awareness levels higher. It would certainly be worth experimenting along these lines to see which methods work best. Of course, the use of multiple video cameras, which never get bored, is also strongly recommended for vigils

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Are ghost witnesses distracted?

ShadowThink of something distracting! I don't know about you but I find it hard to do that on demand. And why would I want to be distracted? To see my 'door ghost' of course!

I'd already discovered that it IS possible to expect the door ghost and still see it. But it only happens by accident and without conscious control. Then, the other day I remembered all about the ghost and yet still saw it. How did I manage that trick? I discovered, quite serendipitously, that being heavily distracted works. It is interesting how this ties in with my previous theoretical thoughts on this subject (see here and here).

So the next time I stood in the 'correct position' to see the ghost, I tried to distract myself. That's when I discovered that it isn't so easy to just distract yourself. Needless to say, I never saw the ghost! In future I'm going to plan in advance exactly how I'm going to distract myself. It remains, for me at least, a surprisingly difficult task. It's a lot easier if something that I am not in control of happens to distract me because, ironically, I'm easily distracted.

So, is this a voluntary way of seeing known misperceptions - distraction? It may well be! I suspect that deliberately becoming distracted may only work for strong misperceptions, like the door ghost. You may also need to be liable to notice misperceptions, as I am. It will be interesting to see if I can make one of those misperceptions, that I sometimes fortuitously come across, occur multiple times. Until now that has been impossible.

Another interesting possibility would be to ask people who've seen ghosts what they were thinking about at the time of the sighting. Were they distracted by a personal problem? Or day dreaming? Or perhaps anxious because they were traversing a spooky area? All of these might indicate that they were significantly distracted and so, perhaps, more likely to misperceive. We don't normally ask witnesses questions like this which is why we may not be aware of this as a possible factor in seeing ghosts.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Paranormally attracting fame?

PersonA few years ago I was sitting on a train when I suddenly realised that a famous person, whose career I admired, was sitting just a few seats away! I felt an overwhelming desire to go over and say hello. But, just before doing that, I played out some possible scenarios in my head. I saw myself saying 'Hello, Mr. *****, I'd just like to say I greatly admire what you've done for ***** over the years.' So far so good (!), but what would the reaction be? The best possibility was that he would say a polite 'thank you', turn away and I'd go back to my seat feeling elated and slightly embarrassed. Less pleasant possibilities included him saying 'Oh thanks. Which bits in particular were you thinking of?' Regular readers will already foresee a problem here! I have a terrible memory and I'm sure I would have mentioned something he hadn't done! Or in desperation lamely muttered 'Oh, you know, all of it!'. While turning beetroot coloured! I never got up.

I was reminded of this incident the other day when I a well-known actor walked next to me. It made me realise that I probably bump into more than my fair share of famous people. And this is just in the course of every day life. I don't hang around stage doors (OK, once), the exits to conference halls or expensive restaurants. So, is there something paranormal about my apparent ability to 'attract' fame? Or is it just coincidence?

Well, thinking about it, the overwhelming majority of sightings I've had of famous people have been at railway stations or on trains! Now that can't be a coincidence. It seems that famous people, here in the UK anyway, seem quite happy to travel by public transport. They don't all go around exclusively in limousines. And I travel around on trains more than most people (or used to). So, I think the mystery is solved. It's probably nothing paranormal after all.

That still leaves the vexed question of what to do when I see someone famous. From what I've read, some celebrities welcome being recognized in the street though many are not so keen. I would only even consider approaching someone famous if it was someone I personally admired, rather than just a familiar face from the TV. But even then, after my experience with Mr. *****, I now know I won't being saying hello. So, Gillian Anderson, if you're travelling on a train you don't need to worry about me saying hello. I can't speak for anyone else, though.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Why did I ever vigil in the dark?

VigilOK here's an admission - yes I've been on vigils where the lights were off. Why, you may well ask? Well, pretty much everyone did in those days, though I wouldn't do it now, obviously. So why did we do it then?

No one ever questioned the idea that vigils were held in the dark, at the time. Unfortunately, that's often the case in paranormal investigation. People do things because they've seen others doing it. They don't ask themselves WHY things are done like that. In many cases, like assumption-led methods, there IS no obvious good reason to do it at all. Investigators really should ask themselves WHY before they do anything. For instance, what is the purpose of a ghost vigil in the first place? Is it to verify what witnesses have said about a haunted location? Or a desire to experience something paranormal? To do scientific research? For a dare? Or something else entirely? Looking at how vigils are run there often seem to be no clear aims which is probably why most produce no clear results.

Anyway, I'm avoiding answering the 'dark vigil' question! The real answer is that I did them because everyone else did. If I ever thought about it, I think the reason would have been that dark conditions were thought to somehow 'encourage' paranormal phenomena! The 'evidence' for this would have come from physical mediumship séances, which are usually held in the dark (see one of my experiences here). But what evidence is there that physical mediumship requires the dark to work? I've never come across any.

The simple reality is this - nearly all ghosts have been seen in conditions of 'normal' illumination (whether daylight or artificial). There are only an extraordinarily tiny number of cases where ghosts were reported to glow, which is what would be required to see them in the dark. So, sitting in the dark means that you're likely to miss almost every ghost that's ever been seen! And that's before even considering the massively increased possibilities for misperception with low level lighting. The most obvious thing to do for a vigil would be to reproduce the illumination that occurred at the time when the original witnesses had their ghostly experiences.

I can't say why so many people still vigil in the dark today - you'd have to ask them. For my own part I'd say, if something doesn't make sense in paranormal research you should definitely question it. And if the answer sounds unreasonable, ask for the supporting evidence. Otherwise you could be entirely wasting years of your life.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

What causes hauntings, if not ghosts?

Shadow ghostAsk almost anyone what causes a haunting and they will say a ghost. It comes as quite a surprise, then, to find that there is little, if any, compelling evidence to support this idea. And then the intriguing question arises - if ghosts don't cause hauntings, what does?

So why do I say there is no compelling evidence that ghosts cause hauntings? Firstly, we need to define a haunting. This question is discussed in detail here. The outcome is that a practical definition of a haunting is: a collection of odd, apparently paranormal, events reported at a particular location. That such a haunting is caused by a ghost appears to be pure assumption. Consider the following:

  • ghosts only appear in a minority of hauntings
  • ghosts often appear without any accompanying haunting activity
  • ghosts are never seen doing haunting things (like moving objects or knocking on walls)
  • ghosts do not easily explain hot spots or spookiness factors

So what other possibilities are there to explain hauntings?

There is the recording theory, of course. Of the paranormal theories, this fits the evidence from cases best, though as the linked article says, it is not without problems. So, is there a purely xenonormal theory?

I have examined a few well-known haunted buildings over the years and they all had the characteristic hot spots of haunting activity. And all the hots spots had likely xenonormal explanations. But what was interesting was that the explanations were by no means all the same. On the contrary, the hot spots in any particular haunting usually had a whole range of different xenonormal causes. So how did this collection of seemingly disparate phenomena come to be regarded as one haunting?

Geographic proximity is an obvious factor. Could it be a coincidentally high concentration of unconnected xenonormal hot spots? That's one possibility but I think there's a more likely one. The other obvious linking factor in a haunting is witnesses. Once a place starts to be regarded as haunted, people will tend to view any odd occurrences as part of the haunting.

But how does a place become seen as haunted in the first place? Odd (but explicable) occurrences happen all the time, everywhere (as reported in this blog many times), but only a few places get labelled as haunted. If a location has many spookiness factors, that is likely to increase the likelihood of odd occurrences being taken as paranormal. But, looking at case reports, I think there needs to be a 'trigger' or 'central' event around which the haunting reputation gathers. This particular phenomenon needs to be dramatic and, most importantly, repeatedly reported. I think haunting reputations often centre on one single repeatedly reported phenomenon, like the child crying in one room at Muncaster Castle. After that trigger event, other oddities will inevitably be noticed and added into the haunting.

By coincidence, I came across this recent paper after I wrote the above! It explores essentially the same idea, using the term 'psychological contagion' to cover how belief affects interpretation of unusual (but explicable) events. It suggests that, though odd phenomena may be reported as paranormal when looked for, it is unlikely they will come to be regarded as a haunting. For that, I think we still need to dramatic trigger phenomenon. In many cases I think the trigger phenomenon will be an unusually dramatic and frequently experienced misperception.

Seeing your own ghost!

Yesterday I mentioned that I can sometimes get forewarned if the 'door ghost' is about to appear. But hang on a minute - the unconscious bit of the brain does not KNOW it is misperceiving. It thinks what it's seeing is real. So how can it 'expect' to misperceive a ghost, let alone tell the conscious bit in advance? It's clearly a bit more complicated than I considered yesterday!

I suspect I only became 'confident' that I'd see the door ghost because I see it regularly. I'm sure if it was a once-off observation there could not be any forewarning. Secondly, I usually only see the door ghost if I've forgotten about it. That presumably means the unconscious bit of my brain has forgotten about it too, which is why it is fooled all over again!

But what's happening when I get a feeling that I'll see it, and do? Clearly the unconscious part of my brain must think it is seeing something real or it wouldn't pass it on to the conscious bit. So how is that possible? Perhaps it requires that the unconscious bit is fooled in some way. We know it is easy to fool perception in the brain. We see it in optical illusions, which rely on certain perception mechanisms being 'fooled'. From my experience it appears that there IS a way to 'fool' the unconscious bit of the brain to misperceive while the conscious bit is expecting it. The question becomes, is there a simple way to do this?

You may ask, is there a point to this, beyond curiosity? Yes there is! If you are investigating a sighting you believe to be a misperception, it can be difficult to reproduce. Indeed, your best bet is to take along someone who knows nothing about the case (or even ghosts!), leave them in the relevant area and hope they see something odd! It would clearly be much more useful if one of the investigators themselves had a way of seeing the misperception and comparing it with the witness's original description. So a trick to induce misperception on demand would be very useful indeed!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Expectation and confidence = ghost? NOT!

ShadowSo, I tried to see the 'door ghost' with confidence alone, fully expecting to see it (see here for background). But it didn't work! I will try again, obviously, but it's not looking too good so far.

But then a new twist occurred. I just remembered about the ghost when I was in the correct position and then it was there! I'm sure it had not been there before I thought about it. I appear to have been given a 'warning' that the ghost was about to appear!


Putting together all these factors, a rather odd picture is emerging of how I see the misperceived ghost. It seems that if I've forgotten all about the ghost then I pretty much always see it. If I remember about it and look for it, I don't see it. If I'm confident about seeing it or 'will' myself to, I still don't see it! But sometimes I get a feeling ('confidence') I will see it and then do. I feel a Venn diagram approaching ...

So what does this all mean? The obvious interpretation is that misperception is controlled unconsciously. And sometimes the unconscious gives a short warning, making its way into consciousness just prior to the event! The first statement is not surprising (though I'm still determined to prove it wrong). The second statement is unexpected. Oddly, I have sometimes felt confident that I was about to see a ghost at a haunted location but then nothing happened. It would be interesting to know if any witnesses feel they might be about to see something weird just before a ghost appears. Or if they feel a sense of (invisible) presence before seeing an apparition. It is an interesting aspect of misperception that needs exploring!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Snow rods

Snow rodsAt first sight, this photo (right) shows a couple of teasels. On closer inspection (and depending on your screen) you may be able to also make out a lot of diagonal short white lines in the background. They look just like flying rods! So is it a swarm of insects? The snow on the teasels suggests this is unlikely, though certainly not impossible.

The rods are, in fact, tiny falling snow flakes. Unlike snow orbs (see here) no flash was used. And the shutter speed (1/250s) was fast for an insect flying rod photo.

But surely, you may say, anyone taking this photo would know it was snow. However, the very light falling snow was barely noticed at the time of exposure. So, someone looking at the photo some time after the event might easily take these objects for flying rods. The 'rods' do not have appendages but, then, nor do all insect rods. So we have a new type of flying rod - the snow rod! I'm sure that, if someone has not already photographed falling snow and seen 'rods', they will soon!

PS: Further to yesterday's claim that snow cover should encourage misperception, my 'door ghost' has become particularly realistic with the snow! Indeed, I was startled by it, thinking for a couple of seconds that there really WAS an unknown person directly behind me.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Snow ghosts

Snow sceneThe world is icy monochrome round here at the moment. It looks to me like there should be a ghost round every corner! It's because we've had a significant fall of snow in the UK. So to test my idea that misperception should be more common in such conditions, I've been out getting cold.

Why should snow cover encourage misperception? Well, misperception is all about failing to recognise objects accurately. So anything that makes recognition less easy will enhance misperception. Snow does this mainly by covering object boundaries making them less recognizable. It can even 'join' separate objects together (by covering their visual boundary) to create an exotic 'new' object.

So I was out surveying the snowy scene looking for things to misperceive. One impressive object was an ivy covered post with a thick white cap of snow. Looked at briefly, it recalled a rather disturbing human figure! There were lots of other unfamiliar shapes which suggested various unknown small animals! However, few of these shapes resembled figures (and hence ghosts)! The problem is, you still need something that resembles a human figure to start with, even before it is covered in snow.

This might explain why there are not huge numbers of reports of ghosts in snow scenes. While misperception will certainly rife in such circumstances, it will not necessarily be of human figures. There is also another reason why there are not huge number of weird reports from snow scenes - the cold! I noticed that many people were hurrying to get out of the cold as quickly as possible. They certainly weren't standing around musing on odd shapes in the snow! Who knows what weirdness might be going on unobserved in all that white and dark!

PS: Yes, I got a bit cold on my trip out! I find it hard to believe I used to do winter mountaineering! Here's a route I did once - Sron na Lairig. The past is a foreign country ...

Friday, 18 January 2013

Moving strangely

RobinI noticed it straight away. In a scene where everything was completely still, on a windless day, something nevertheless stirred. It was a curved metal wire sticking out of the ground and gently swaying up and down, for no obvious reason. Though the wire looked as though it wouldn't take much effort to move, there were many other things nearby, like bushes and plants, that would have been even easier to move. And yet they were completely still. So why was this one object moving?

I looked around, not really expecting to discover any obvious answer. Then I saw the Robin! It was just landing on a nearby roof. Suddenly I had a perfect suspect for the mysterious moving wire. The wire gradually stopped moving. Clearly, whatever had set it in motion was no longer acting. A Robin perching on the wire and then taking off fitted the clues perfectly. Of course, I don't KNOW that the Robin caused the phenomenon but it's definitely the theory to beat. Without such a strong suspect, I'd admit I would have been left completely baffled.

I also came across a bizarre pattern in the recent snow. Before the lying snow became thick, there was one area which had almost no cover at all. This was despite there being nothing but open sky above it. The snowless patch showed the unmistakable patterns of the wind having blown away the thin snow cover. What was interesting is that this phenomenon was confined to just one area near one particular house in a street. I believe it was caused by winds being locally accelerated and funneled into a particular direction by the layout of houses nearby. This sort of thing often happens when significant obstructions to wind flow, like buildings, cause local turbulent flow. It is like the whirlpools you see in water near the banks of rivers. We can't usually appreciate these local wind effects but light fresh snow shows them up clearly.

Some UFOs are described as 'suddenly changing direction' which is seen as an indication of 'impossible' (for which read extra-terrestrial) technology. However, in the case of low altitude sky lanterns or mylar balloons, such sudden changes in direction can be caused by turbulent wind flow around large objects like buildings or trees. So, just because it suddenly changes direction, it doesn't mean your UFO can't be a sky lantern!

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.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Expectation and confidence= ghost?

ShadowYou may recall that I never see the 'door ghost' if I'm expecting it (see here). I've tried to 'clear my mind' while in the correct physical position but to no avail. However when, the other day, I remembered the door ghost while 'in the position', I had an unexpected feeling of confidence that I would see it anyway. And I did! As soon as I moved my hand slightly, the ghost vanished!

This is new! Never before have I remembered about the ghost and then gone on to see it. It isn't the same as when I thought I was seeing a real person but it turned out to be the ghost. Instead, this was no different to when I normally see the ghost, with no one around. I had thought, from previous experience, that this might be impossible. So how did I manage this apparent trick of a ghost on demand?

I don't honestly know, is the answer! I just had a 'feeling' that it was going to happen this time and it did! So all that 'clearing your mind' stuff was clearly the wrong way to go. It seems that I need to be strongly confident that I will see it. Well, on one occasion anyway. I don't know if it will ever work again.

I'm not sure where my unexpected confidence came from, it was just there. That probably means it came from the unconscious part of my brain which is, of course, responsible for the misperception in the first place. So it is entirely possible that it will only work when my unconscious decides it will, which is the position I've been in all along. That would put it beyond my conscious control. I will need to try again and see if I can 'will' the ghost to appear using pure confidence.

There was clearly a strong element of expectation in this sighting, of course. My confidence no doubt comes from having seen the door ghost many times before. Expectation is a strong element in many ghost sightings. You are more likely to see a ghost in a place you believe to be haunted than elsewhere. I wonder if, having seen a ghost in a particular place, you are the also more likely to see it again, thanks to expectation? This current observation suggests this may be true though I don't have any case data to test this point.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Time distortion in weird experiences

Distorted clockMy acquaintance who experiences microsleeps with REM (MWR) has a theory - dream time is slower than real time. Very few people experience MWR, where you go straight into a dream state on falling asleep. It is a phenomenon generally associated with certain sleep disorders. One interesting point is that it allows people to do dream experiments, albeit usually unintentionally. It also gives rise to some vivid weird experiences which could easily be taken to be paranormal.

Recently my acquaintance fell asleep briefly on public transport and instantly had a dream. Though the details were soon forgotten, as often happens with dreams, it was clearly a complex and fairly lengthy dream sequence. But the thing is, it cannot have lasted for more than a minute or so, even though it felt much longer. This kind of 'experiment' would be much more difficult to do if dreams did not correspond almost exactly with a sleep period, as happens in MWR.

Stephen LaBerge did a study on lucid dreamers (see here) showing that estimated time intervals during dreams are essentially the same as in real life. This did not, however, rule out all time distortion effects. Many people still claim to have experienced long period dreams during short real-time REM sequences. So how can that be? One possibility is that dreams are more like movies than real life. In other words, they show just the plot highlights, missing out all the 'boring' bits in between when nothing much is happening. Thus, you could 'live' an entire day's events in just a few minutes of 'episodic' dream time. Also, dreams often contain information that we 'just know', even though we don't experience it. For instance, we might know who the other people in our dream are, and the location, without actually taking the time to recognize the place or individuals. This 'back story' information means we can pack more 'action' into a short dream. Bits of a dream can be 'skipped' because we know what happened without needing to experience them.

This would mean time still goes at 'normal' speed in dreams but its episodic nature gives the appearance of things happening faster. And this episodic character could introduce apparent time distortions. An event that should take 10 minutes in real life may be skipped over in a second in a dream. The rules of ordinary waking reality are routinely bent in dreams.

So what's the point of all this speculation? Well, in hypnagogia, and other near sleep experiences, real life perceptions are mixed with dream material. So someone lying in bed in a hypnagogic state may see the real room they are in but also a human figure that comes entirely from their dream state. So my question is, what happens to time in these situations? I strongly suspect it could appear to be distorted sometimes. I suspect such experiences will often appear longer to the percipient than someone observing them at the time.

I remember one vivid hypnagogic experience I had when I was young. I could hear real people speaking in the distance but the room I was in 'looked different' to normal somehow. Oh, and I was paralysed! As far as I can remember the voice sounds were normal, not speeded up or slowed down. However, it was a long time ago and I could easily be wrong on that detail!

The point of all this is that if time appears distorted during a near sleep experience, it could contribute to the feeling of the event being paranormal. It could transform mundane real perceived events into something weird! Suppose, for instance, there is no actual dream content in a particular near sleep experience. Instead, ordinary real events may appear paranormal due to perceived time distortion. For instance, a falling object may seem to fall unnaturally slowly! This is sometimes reported in poltergeist cases. Maybe time distortion explains why the room 'looked different' (though in no way I could describe) in my own experience.

And what happens if time is distorted episodically? Things might appear to change in an instant! So a person may appear to vanish when, in reality, they just walked slowly away. This has obvious potential to appear paranormal. It is clear from such theoretical examples that time distortion effects in near sleep experiences could transform ordinary situations into apparently paranormal ones.

At present this is all just speculation. It would be interesting to look at accounts of known near sleep experiences, rather than apparently paranormal ones, to see if any time distortions are apparent. Unfortunately, most of the experiences I come across are of the latter type. Maybe my MWR acquaintance can help with this!

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Theory versus practice

Overexposed How many keen photographers report taking anomalous pictures? Having had contact with many people who've taken anomalous photos, over the years, I've never got the impression that any were keen photographers. Of course, there's no reason why they should be. However, more oddly, I've got the same impression sometimes when talking to people who have analyzed anomalous photos. While they generally show significant theoretical knowledge of photography, they often miss simple anomalies that any enthusiastic practical photographer would spot instantly.

Take the tree photo (right) here. You will notice that some of the branches appear to fade away into the distance. Why would that be? It is unlikely to be a focus issue because the effect seems to be more related to the thickness of the branch than its distance from the camera. A keen photographer would probably guess that it is overexposure caused by exposure bracketing. And, indeed, the EXIF shows +3 stops exposure bias was applied to the frame. In other words, the picture was deliberately taken with a longer exposure than that selected by the camera's in-built light meter. Photographers play with exposure bias to reveal extra detail in situations, like high contrast, where a light meter does not cope well.

This is the sort of thing an enthusiastic photographer knows about from simple experience. Such a person would also be familiar with many photographic artefacts (see here) and their causes. This is probably why they rarely, if ever, report anomalous photos. From my own informal survey of anomalous photos, most photographic anomalies are caused by those aspects of photography that are likely to be well-known to keen practical photographers. In my opinion, practical experience of photography is more helpful than a theoretical knowledge of the subject when analyzing anomalous photos.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Birders and cryptids

WaxwingIt is a Waxwing winter here in the UK. That means that the Bohemian Waxwing (pictured right), to give it its formal title, has arrived in good numbers for the winter. Every few years, at irregular intervals, large numbers descend on this country due to a lack of food in their usual wintering grounds in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. It is an colourful, exotic-looking bird by British standards. Most years there are very few found in the UK so Waxwing winters are a rare treat.

When 'out of place' birds (properly known as vagrants or accidentals) turn up in places like the UK, it is usually not long before they are noted by birders. The news is usually spread rapidly these days, electronically, and other birders can arrive within hours or even minutes to share the find. The bird will often stay around for hours or even days, allowing many interested people to see it.

It is a source of disappointment to me that the UK's thousands of active birders never report seeing a cryptid. Or, at least, I've never come across any such report despite studying birders literature for many years. It is a pity because they would make superb witnesses! Birders go round equipped with excellent optical equipment, like binoculars and telescopes, and often including cameras and, most importantly, have a detailed knowledge of natural history.

One reason why birders never report cryptids could be because of their extreme rarity. Set against that, birders routinely find birds that have only been known to reach the UK less than a dozen times! They actually go looking for the rare and find it with astonishing regularity. Another possible reason for the lack of birder cryptid reports may be that, with their detailed knowledge of natural history (not just birds but often mammals, insects, rodents, amphibians and many other animals), they are unlikely to misidentify any known animal as a cryptid. I'm quite sure that many cryptid reports are misidentifications made by people without the relevant experience required to correctly identify rarer animals.

If a birder ever does report a cryptid, I think we'd have to take it seriously. Many birders carry excellent camera equipment these days which could make the evidence widely available. But given the lack of reports so far, I'm not holding my breath!

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!

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Unexpectedly seeing an expected ghost!

ShadowWhen I saw the 'door ghost' again recently, it was the first time I've ever seen it when I was actually expecting to! Actually, I was expecting to see the real person I knew was standing behind me in the very position where the ghost normally appears. However, I've discovered that someone standing behind me is indistinguishable from my door ghost.

But when I looked round I had a shock! The person behind me was NOT where I thought they were and could NOT have been the shadowy figure I'd seen at all. In other words, I'd seen the door ghost by thinking I was looking at a real person!

My 'door ghost' is the misperception of a shadowy figure that I usually only see when I've forgotten to expect it. The 'ghost' is actually my own hand which, when reflected and seen in peripheral vision resembles the legs and feet of a person standing behind me! I have tried to 'will' myself to see it but it hasn't worked so far. But this incident shows that it IS possible to see the ghost even when you are expecting it, by thinking there's a real person there. It seems I need to 'fool' my brain into seeing it rather than simply looking 'hard enough'.

This gets to the heart of misperception. The visual perception part of our brains substitute in objects from visual memory when there is insufficient information coming from the eye to recognise them correctly. Misperceptions vanish when you get a better view. But misperceptions are a 'best guess' and not always completely wrong. If I am expecting to see the 'door ghost' I will not see it because I know it's really my hand. So even if I can't see my hand well enough to recognise it, my brain will actually substitute it with a hand! In other words, I will misperceive my hand as a hand, and so see no ghost! I've been trying to see the ghost deliberately by 'clearing my mind' in an attempt to 'forget' what to expect. Maybe if I did it for long enough it might work, but not so far.

The current incident shows that expectation manage to do the trick. I was expecting to see a real person as a ghostly figure but they were not visible from my position. So my brain substituted my hand with a figure, its best guess based on what I knew, just as it would do with no one there. However, I don't expect the trick to work again! After all, the next time I am in that situation I will EXPECT to see a hand instead of a real person!

This incident shows, unsurprisingly, that when someone misperceives an object as a ghost it can be strongly affected by the expectation of seeing a real person. I have noted before how misperceived objects tend to be in positions where you'd expect to see a person, like on a footpath or a seat. I don't know that statistics but I believe a lot of ghost reports are of figures in places where you might expect to see someone (at windows, walking along footpaths etc) as opposed to really unlikely locations.

Many ghost reports mention that the witness thought they were looking at a real person at the time of the sighting. But then, many ghost reports are caused by misperception.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

There's no way that UFO is a sky lantern!

New Year UFOThere are many New Year traditions. One of mine is to look for UFOs just after midnight on New Year's Day (see here). For the last few years they were always there, guaranteed! They are usually glowing orange, sometimes yellow or white, and float silently through the dark sky. They often appear in small groups as well as individually. Anyone wanting to see these UFOs should try looking at the same time and date in the UK. I don't know how common they are across the country but it is well worth looking, just in case.

No doubt you're thinking these are sky (or Chinese) lanterns but here's a photo I took of one yesterday. Though it resembles a sky lantern in colour the shape is wrong. Sky lanterns are narrower than the noticeably wide object photographed here. So what is it?

Well, actually it IS a sky lantern. I have lots of other photos I took at the same time which look much more like a typical lantern. The reason that this one looks a bit odd is that it had a longish exposure (1/40s). The elongated shape of the lantern is produced by camera shake. Such camera shake would be more obvious if there was anything else in the photo apart from dark sky. You'd then see everything else elongated in the same way!

This is one of the things to look out for in UFO photographs. They often consist of large areas of featureless sky which can easily hide things like focus or long exposure problems affecting the photo. A featureless sky can also make it difficult to judge the size and distance of an object. I've seen photos of birds, and even insects, masquerading as 'huge' UFOs!

I also saw another UFO yesterday which was much more mysterious! It consisted of a bright white light, barely moving, silent against a twilight sky. I only managed to identify it when I got some binoculars on it. It was an ordinary plane! What made it look odd was that it was heading directly towards me so that all I could see was it's bright forward light. It's direction of travel also explained why it didn't seem to move much across the sky. I like to think I'm familiar with planes but sometimes they can still surprise! What would have happened if I hadn't had a pair of binoculars handy?