Sunday, 28 April 2013

The door ghost moves!

ShadowI've seen the 'door ghost' moving! Up to now it has always been a slightly menacing, shadowy figure apparently standing just behind me. But at least it never moved! For those for which this makes no sense, go here first.

So what is the significance of a moving door ghost, beyond it being slightly scary? Well, usually any movement has always 'broken' the misperception so that the ghost instantly disappeared. But on one recent occasion, it didn't. Instead, it looked as though the ghostly figure was itself moving! It is, of course, perfectly possible to have moving misperceptions. However, if movement normally 'breaks' a particularly misperception, it is very odd that suddenly it doesn't, if nothing else has changed. So what's going on?

I have noticed something else about the door ghost recently. It has become 'stronger'. By that I mean that it appears more frequently than it used to, and in less obviously perfect conditions. It's apparent new ability to 'survive' movement may be part of that pattern of 'strengthening'.

Not having any other 'pet' misperceptions that I see habitually, I've no idea whether this strengthening over time is 'normal' or not. But let's suppose it is, for the sake of argument. That might mean that a witness who saw a ghost regularly might actually see it better, and for longer, on each occasion. It might also mean that the witness who has seen the ghost the most times will see it better than anyone else in a multiple witness sighting. I can't think of any examples of that from reports but if anyone knows of such a case, I'd love to know about it.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Two UFOs but NO ghost from a train!

Two UFOs but NO ghost from a train!

View from a trainTwo UFOs on one daylight train trip - not a bad haul, I thought. One of the triggers for misperception is seeing a scene for only a short period - a quick glance. The current, by no means exhaustive, list of things that trigger noticing misperception is here. It occurred to me, while on a train ride recently, that looking out of the window of a moving vehicle was going to produce a lot of 'quick glances'. So, I decided to look outside carefully on the journey, to see how many misperceptions I noticed.

Slightly surprisingly, I didn't see any ghosts. I really thought I'd see at least one! Perhaps it's the lack of scarecrows these days! Anyway, I DID manage to see not one, but two, UFOs. The first one looked like a large hovering bird. As a birder, I knew that there were no such animals commonly seen in the UK. The Kestrel hovers but it isn't that big. The Rough-legged Buzzard IS big and also hovers (one hovered over me once which was scary) but it is a rare winter visitor. Ospreys hover but only over water and they are rare too. What is even weirder is that I saw the same 'bird' hovering in exactly the same place on the return trip! By now it was obvious that the 'bird' was actually something artificial. The object appeared to be fluttering slightly in the wind. I don't know exactly what it was but it appeared to be suspended on a stiff wire from below, possibly a flying banner of some sort. From the distance the train passed by, you couldn't see the bit that held the 'bird' in place but, from the way it was moving, a flying banner seemed a likely explanation.

The second UFO was a light in the sky. Remember this was daylight so an aerial light was an unusual sight. The object appeared to be holding position, something which can be a little hard to judge when observing from a moving vehicle. There was a darker object attached to the bright light. As the angle changed, due to the moving train, it became obvious that the UFO was a hovering helicopter. Why it was using lights on a bright sunny afternoon I've no idea! The same object at night would, of course, have been more difficult to identify.

So where did this brief 'experiment' leave my ideas about 'quick glance' misperception and observing from moving vehicles? With the 'bird' UFO, I only saw it for a few seconds. If I hadn't seen it again on the return trip, I might still have not the faintest idea of what it was! The 'bright light' UFO was visible for longer, allowing a good identification. If it had only been glanced between trees, however, it might still be a mystery. I'm still sure I will see ghosts, as well, from trains in future and will try again. Perhaps the bright sunny conditions were not the best for briefly seen mysterious figures!

So why are there not more reports of ghosts and UFOs seen from moving vehicles? There are some, of course. UFOs are quite frequently seen from cars and road ghosts are, typically, seen from cars too. I can't recall any reports of strange stuff being seen from trains, though. Maybe people 'turn off' when they look out of train windows, not really noticing what's out there. I've noticed that few people even look out of the windows of trains these days. Most are using a mobile phone or laptop, others are reading and some asleep. Maybe some people DO see ghosts out of train windows but realise that a few seconds glance of a mysterious figure will not be taken too seriously! I will look hard for a ghost next time I'm on a train!

PS: The photo shows a view from a train. The small white UFO, top left, and large area of orange, towards the right, are a result of reflections on the window! Such reflections are a common cause of anomaly photos in pictures taken from vehicles.

Seriously Strange ... with more stuff!

If you went to the Seriously Strange conference two years ago, you will notice that the next version, this September, has more stuff! As well as a long list of speakers, dinner and live experiments, there will now also be debates and workshops as well as other things. Overall then, it is a bigger event with more stuff! For details of what's going on, visit the revamped website here.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Noticing things that other don't

Comma with stonesThere was a mention of SPS - sensory processing sensitivity - in this week's New Scientist. Affecting around 20% of the population, SPS increases people's sensitivity to all kinds of sensory stimuli, like music, pain and coffee! One thing struck me, in particular, the impressive aptitude of people with SPS for visual attention, like noticing small differences between photos.

This reminded me of something that has constantly puzzled me when I've examine anomalous photos. In many cases, I simply can't see the anomaly! Sometimes, even when it is pointed out, I STILL can't see it. And the question always runs through my mind, how did the photographer even SEE this anomaly when, to me, it's so unobvious? Now perhaps there may be an answer! Maybe the photographer is affected by SPS.

Interestingly, these difficult-to-see anomalies are almost always photographic artefacts. Where the photographer sees a face or a mysterious figure, I see camera shake, lens flare, image noise and so on. Of course, it could be that I don't see the face or figure because, unconsciously, I'm aware that it's a photographic artefact. Even so, I may just also be lacking the photographer's visual attentiveness.

I wonder if anyone with SPS might think they were psychic? An increased sensitivity to various sensory stimuli might well promote noticing misperceptions. Until I meet some with SPS that idea might be tricky to test!

PS: The photo? I thought I saw a 'face' in it ...

Monday, 22 April 2013

When time goes missing

Some people will tell you that you can't research missing time experiences while watching TV. Until recently I was one of them.

It happened to me while I was watching a detective show (most things I watch on TV seem to be about detectives these days). Anyway, I noticed an odd gap in the plot. One minute the investigation was going along nicely, though clearly nowhere near a conclusion, the next the case was all wrapped up! Of course plots are not always unfolded linearly but this one made no sense at all. A huge chunk seemed to be missing!

Luckily I was watching a recording. A quick rewind confirmed what I suspected, that I'd missed a significant chunk of the programme. OK, I'd fallen asleep, nothing mysterious there. BUT, here's the weird bit. Normally, when I wake up there are one or two seconds where the world is a bit fuzzy. It's enough to tell me straight away that I'm waking up. But not this time! The story passed seamlessly from one scene to the next without a hint of interruption. No feeling of falling asleep, nor any of waking again or even any drowsiness. Indeed, it was only many seconds later, when I realised the plot no longer made any sense, that I realised the story had 'skipped', the word I used to describe it at the time.

I do not recall ever having this kind of 'skipping' experience before. As I said, I am normally only too well aware of waking up. On this occasion, my brain somehow managed to 'stitch together' what I was experiencing immediately before I went to sleep with what came after. It was truly an experience of 'missing time', so that the a couple of minutes I was conscious of was actually more like 15! And just to confirm that all this happened as I say, I had a witness nearby who saw me go to sleep and wake again! So I know I was not transported temporarily to a parallel universe or onto a UFO. I just sat there asleep! There were incidentally, no other symptoms during my 'experience' and I don't recall dreaming.

I would not suggest that the many of reported missing time experiences occurred in this way. But clearly it is one possibile cause to consider. I've never come across this sort of 'time skipping' experience before. I wonder how common it is. If anyone else has experienced anything similar, where they've been asleep but NOT noticed because 'reality just continued normally', I'd be interested to hear from them.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The undervalued ghost witness

Shadow ghostWithout witnesses, there would be no ghosts (except in stories)! We KNOW people see ghosts. We don't KNOW instruments record them. To compellingly demonstrate that instruments can record ghosts you'd need a series of definitive studies with similar results. The objectives of these studies would be easy to state but incredibly difficult to do. Which is probably why, to my knowledge, they've never yet been done.

In scientific research we look for unknown factors or agencies, beyond current science. However, the only sensible way to do that is in terms of what we DO already know. So, we know people see ghosts, for instance, irrespective of what they may actually be. If we run an experiment where someone sees ghosts while an instrument is running continuously at the same location, we can see if there is any correlation. This correlation would need to happen many times for it to be statistically significant. This is great in theory except it requires someone to spot ghosts multiple times, over a reasonably short period of time, in a controlled environment with instruments present. That's why it's not exactly practical though, no doubt, a clever method could be thought of get round such problems.

Interestingly, the vast majority of 'instrumental ghost recordings' have NOT coincided with anyone actually seeing a ghost at the time. Typically, someone has found an 'odd' recording made at a haunted location, after it has happened, and decided that it might be a ghost! The best known examples of this are ghost photos. In the majority of such cases the 'ghost' only appears in the photo, nothing unusual having been witnessed at the time of exposure. In the vast majority of such cases, the 'ghost' turns out to be a photographic artefact. Interestingly, in those few cases where something weird WAS witnessed at the time of the exposure, what is shown on the photo is quite different (usually a photographic artefact) or there is simply nothing unusual there! This would tend to support the idea that ghosts cannot be photographed, though it is only the slimmest hint in that direction.

Most of the techniques popular on vigils involving instruments are, thus, unlikely to yield much useful new information about ghosts. Indeed, practically everything we actually know about ghosts right now comes from witness testimony. Which makes it ironic that witnesses are largely sidelined in modern ghost research. The emphasis is, instead, on ghost vigils, despite the obvious limitations of the assumption-led methods often used on them. Indeed, such methods are a good example of trying to investigate the unknown by using the unknown.

The fact that what we know about ghosts is so heavily derived from witnesses is not necessarily comforting. We are aware that there are serious limitations with witness testimony. Memory is clearly an issue, for instance. And even if people can recall what they experienced accurately, there is no guarantee that such perceptions actually corresponded with reality (misperception, near sleep experiences, etc).

Despite such reservations, witnesses remain, at present, our best source of information on ghosts. Which makes it unfortunate that so few are being interviewed rigorously, using cognitive interviewing techniques for instance. Much witness testimony now ends up on the web in the form of a short first person narratives, nearly always lacking useful details. Without being able to interview the witness properly, or even ask questions, this testimony is, sadly, of little value. And if it comes from someone far distant from the reader, there is little chance to even visit the site of the experience to look for possible xenonormal explanations.

It seems that a valuable resource is being wasted in the headlong rush for, often valueless, ghost vigils. I wonder how much useful information has already been lost in the last few years. Let's hope we haven't missed anything really important

Thursday, 18 April 2013

When a ghost lake appeared!

Lens flare lakeOccasionally there are ghostly reports involving not simply 'out of place' human or animal figures but whole landscapes (or parts of them), seemingly transformed. See this possible time slip report for instance. I had never experienced this myself nor expected to, it being an exceedingly rare phenomenon. But then ...

Recently, I was travelling on a train over a route I knew well from frequent use. I woke from a brief doze in time to see a familiar scene, approaching a station, with scattered trees, bushes and grass. In the middle of the trees there was a lake. I felt an odd sense of accomplishment as I'd never seen the lake from the train before in all the years I'd travelled that line. I knew the lake itself well, having visited it many times.

Then I had a weird feeling that something was not quite right! I realised there was a good reason for I'd never seen the lake from the train before. It was screened from view by a dense line of trees which were still very much in evidence! The place where I could see water was NOT part of the lake at all! It was flat and there was a line of willow trees along one side, marking the presence of a stream, but no lake. So what was going on?

One possibility was that the stream had flooded. However, I've never known this area to flood, even during the past twelve months of record-breaking exceptionally heavy rain. As it happened, that theory was discounted even before I lost sight of the scene. The 'lake' turned into the green grass that it really was before my eyes!

On the return journey over the same route I examined the 'lake' scene carefully. However, it stubbornly appeared only as grass without the merest hint of a body of water! So how on earth had I seen it unmistakably as a lake?

There are three possibilities that I can think of. Firstly, it could have been a mirage. Mysterious unknown bodies of water that later vanish often turn out to be mirages (see here). However, such mirages usually change shape if viewed from a moving vehicle and disappear gradually. This 'lake' vanished in its entirety in an instant. That points to one of the other two possibilities.

You will note that I had just woken from a brief snooze. It is, therefore, possible that this was a near sleep experience, specifically hypnagogia. But it also possible that the 'lake' could have been a misperception, the preceding snooze being merely a coincidence. However, that begs the question - a misperception of what? The only possibility is the grass itself, the willows along the stream perhaps adding to the impression of a lake. Well, I've never misperceived grass before and it strikes me as unlikely, particularly after re-examining the scene on the return journey. So I'm going with the hypnagogia theory for now.

Of course, seeing the odd out of place lake is hardly akin to a time slip experience. But it certainly part of the whole 'ghostly objects' realm of anomalous phenomena. It made me recall an experience I had in my mountaineering days. Back in the time before GPS, we had to use map and compass to navigate. My favourite trick was to study the contours on the map at the start and work out what my surrounding mountains ought to look like. From that I could usually accurately work out my position at any time without resorting to the map. However, the method failed spectacularly on one occasion when I managed to climb entirely the wrong mountain, only realizing my mistake when the real objective of the day became visible nearby! If I'd ever seen any 'ghost lake' on such trips, the whole method would have been useless.

PS: What I used to find my way is a type of 'contour navigating'. I wasn't aware, at the time, that it was a recognized.
PPS: I've noticed the phrase "... a weird feeling that something was not quite right ..." crops up a lot in my reports here!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Speakers at Seriously Strange

Seriously StrangeWhile some of the speakers at this year's Seriously Strange conference have already been announced, now there is a full list available. It is an intriguingly diverse roll of anomaly researchers. One can imagine some fascinating conversations going on in the green room!

Anyway, here's the list: Guy Lyon Playfair, Lembit Opik, Prof Chris French, Stephen Volk, Sacha Claire Christie, Richard Freeman, Lionel Fanthorpe, David Farrant, Hayley Stevens, Paul Vella, Jack Hunter, Trystan Swale, Steve Parsons, Dr Hannah Gilbert, Dr Hugh Pincott, CJ Romer, Cal Cooper, John Fraser. For more details on speakers go here. Many of the speakers also have their own websites and / or blogs! And there are still MORE speakers to be added to the list! And, as if the talks weren't enough of an attraction, there is the setting - the beautiful city of Bath.

The conference takes place at the University of Bath on the weekend of Sat/Sun 7-8 September 2013. If follows on from a similar, popular conference held to celebrate ASSAP's thirtieth anniversary two years ago at the same venue. There was a similarly diverse range of speakers then and it was well received. For more information on the conference, go here. Or to book straight away, at early bird discounted rates, just click on the picture!

What adds up to my weirdest ghost yet?

When I saw the figure I was astonished. There, in the corner of the room was 'someone' I did not know, crouched down low on the floor, as if looking for something they'd dropped! There was, of course, no one in the room, or at least there should not have been. Taken by surprise, the diminutive figure in a bizarre pose sent a ripple of unease right through me! I could easily appreciate why witnesses coming across a completely unexpected human figure can get distressed.

When the figure, by now obviously a ghost, quickly vanished, it left only only an untidy pile of clothes in its place. Usually, the ghostly figures I've misperceived have been in locations and positions in which I might normally expect to see someone, such as sitting on a chair. So this ghost broke all those 'rules' I'd previously noted when recording my misperceptions.! So what's going on?

Firstly, the ghostly misperception connection with clothing IS well-known, though usually when it is draped in a way to suggest someone is wearing it (on the back of a chair for instance), rather than randomly piled up. The main feature that produced the 'figure' was a portion of light orange garment, about the same size and shape as a human face. No one looking carefully at it would think 'face' but, taken with certain other garments in the pile, the whole shape vaguely suggested a diminutive human figure crouching.

Secondly, unlike previous misperceptions, this 'figure' was definitely NOT somewhere I expected to see someone. So why did it appear in the first place? Was it a particularly 'strong' misperception? Curiously, no! Once the figure had vanished, I looked at the pile amazed that I had ever be mistaken it for a person. Rather, I think it may have been the addition of factors that, taken individually, may each cause misperception on their own, combining together. I think when you get two or more of these factors together it may 'amplify' the effect, allowing less likely objects to be misperceived. In this case the individual misperception factors were poor viewing conditions and a quick glance.

It's just an idea, at present, which I need to test. But if it works, it could be a way to make misperception easier to see!

Friday, 12 April 2013

Want to help make a movie?

Room 8ASSAP member and director Richard Craske is planning to make a movie about the paranormal. Called Room 8, it will also feature Carrie Searley, ASSAP's own Secretary and Media Officer, as musical director.

If you've ever fancied working on a movie, this could be your chance. In return for a contribution to the initial financing of the project, you could get to be an extra in the film, or an associate producer, or receive some film training. To find out more, go here, on the Indiegogo website. There you will find a video explaining what the project is all about and how you can participate in it. You can also find out more about Richard at his own website here.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

How 'glitches in reality' hint at the paranormal

Consciousness is a word used a lot in paranormal circles. But what exactly IS it? I think that the scientific understanding of consciousness (let's call it SC), related to a person's awareness of their surroundings and themselves, is not the same as what is often talked about in paranormal discussions. I suspect that the 'paranormal consciousness' (call it PC) is not simply awareness but also personality and life memories. In other words, it is the psychological essence of what makes one individual different to another. It is often speculated that PC may exist, either occasionally or continually, independently of our physical bodies. Ironically, it is the way SC works that gives rise to many apparent paranormal experiences which give rise to such speculation.

So what is the scientific understanding of consciousness - SC? Well, suppose someone asks you to raise your right arm. Your brain actually starts operating, to comply, even before you are consciously aware of it. Clearly, this means the unconscious part of the brain is the bit that does the real work, only informing the conscious bit afterwards. Most things our brains do are unconscious, including perception, motor control, etc. Consciousness is, in effect, the tip of an iceberg, the small bit of brain processing that we actually experience. Most decisions are taken by the unconscious part of our brain. Many, such as motor control of muscles, we are completely unaware of. Some, like deciding to move an arm, we are told about only after the action has started. A few, executive decisions like what to wear, we make consciously.

As animals, we need consciousness to make executive decisions about what to do. Otherwise we would spend all our time simply reacting to external events. Consciousness is, however, an illusion. We only see the edited highlights of what our unconscious brains brain is doing, to help with those executive decisions. We may think we are deciding consciously what to do all the time but, in most cases, we are rationalizing about decisions already taken for us by the unconscious. When an insight pops into consciousness, it has not come from nowhere or 'the universe' but from our unconscious brain which 'thinks' every bit as much, if not more, than the conscious bit. It may feel like telepathy but it's just one way that thoughts traverse the conscious / unconscious boundary.

It is our tendency to believe absolutely in the illusion of consciousness that can lead to apparent paranormal experiences. For instance, we may sometimes catch our visual perception system making incorrect guesses at poorly-seen objects. Such misperceptions may be taken for ghosts, UFOs or other anomalous phenomena. Or we may take an understandable error in the way we interpret sounds as human speech as real words. Thus sounds that share important characteristics with human speech, like formant noise, can giving rise to some EVP type experiences. Or when we occasionally enter the unfamiliar borderland where conscious and unconscious brain states overlap, we may have near sleep experiences, a rich source of hallucinations, easily mistaken for such things as ghosts or aliens.

As I said, SC is essentially an illusion, to give us the impression we have total control over our bodies. If we happen to notice glitches in that illusion, they can appear as paranormal experiences. Of course, one cannot hope to discuss the massive topic of consciousness (which is still little understood) in a short blog post. But I just thought I'd point out that our increasing scientific understanding of the subject is serendipitously illuminating how some of our weirder experiences occur too.

PS: Please mentally insert a picture of a brain in this article, by way of illustration. I'm afraid I was a bit pressed for time ...

Monday, 8 April 2013

Clear your mind and see a ghost?

ShadowA hint. A clue. Another way to encourage see ghosts? I saw the 'door ghost' again recently, which is hardly news ('what is the door ghost?'). However, this time I was able to get it to appear by a new method - by 'clearing my mind' - trying to think of nothing! I have tried this before, without success. On previous occasions I found it too hard. I've never been good at 'clearing my mind'. Whenever I try to think of nothing, 'something' always pops into my head, unbidden. I don't know if this is a common problem but it certainly affects me. Anyway, this time my mind 'cleared' easily for once and the ghost duly appeared!

So what does this observation suggest? Well, the most obvious conclusion is that I don't notice many misperceptions, which take place all the time, because my mind is just too busy! So how might this process work?

When I see an object poorly, my brain makes a guess at what it might be and passes that image, taken from my visual memory, to what I am consciously seeing. If the object is subsequently better seen, the image will be 'updated' to become more accurate. From my experience, this process of correcting what I see happens rapidly, usually within seconds. So, if my mind is tied up with some important (to me!) thought or other, I'm unlikely to notice the first guess (which might be a ghost). This would tie up with my observation that I am often day dreaming when I see a ghost. In both cases I am not actively turning something over in my mind. It is that 'active' consideration that seems to be what stops me noticing ghosts much of the time.

Of course, I didn't see ANY ghosts, even when day dreaming, before I accepted the idea that what we see is just the brain's edited highlights of what is visually present. Without this prerequisite, it is unlikely that simply 'clearing my mind' or day dreaming would ever be enough to allow me to see a ghost.

This latest observation does suggest an interesting new possibility. The next time I see a ghost spontaneously (ie. NOT the door ghost but something completely unexpected) I might be able to 'bring it back', to view it again, after it has vanished. I already have the method of visualizing what it looked like to try (see here) but if that doesn't work I can also have a go at 'clearing my mind' as well. Bringing back a spontaneously seen ghost would be fantastic! It would give me a chance to more clearly fix in my mind the details of the image. The trouble with spontaneous sightings is that you aren't expecting them and they're over in seconds giving little time to note much other than 'old woman' or 'fair hair' and other such generalizations! Unfortunately, though I can bring the door ghost back, it never has more details than a shadow with legs and feet! It would be more interesting to 'bring back' one of the more 'substantial' ghosts I've seen. I'm particularly interested to see what facial features and clothes they may have.

Unfortunately, I can foresee a problem! If I need to be day dreaming or thinking of nothing to see a ghost, I may not be in very good brain state to observe detail! And once I start to concentrate, the ghost may vanish! It might explain why many descriptions of ghosts from cases are vague!

Friday, 5 April 2013

What can anomalous photos possibly have in common?

GrassGrassAnomalous photos have one thing in common - they show something that is, at first sight, inexplicable. In many cases that unexplained 'something' is taken, by some people at least, to be an anomalous phenomenon, like a ghost, UFO, out of place animal, alien etc. Given that these photos are of so many different phenomena, you wouldn't expect them to have anything much in common. But, oddly, they do!

I've examined thousands of anomalous photos in detail, by which I mean I've analysed the originals. There are many more weird photos on the web but it is rare that much can be deduced from them. I've noticed something that applies to nearly ALL the photos I've examined personally. Despite being of many different subjects, from a large number of photographers, using many different camera models, nearly all the photos are 'faulty'.

There isn't really a good word for it, so faulty will have to do. By faults, I mean deviations from the photographic 'ideal'. Most people would not see much wrong with these photos but serious photographers will generally spot the 'problems' immediately. These faults include such things as:

  • very low resolution (often leaving the photo pixelated)
  • excessive compression (often leaving the photo pixelated)
  • under- or over-exposure (causing complete loss of detail in the affected areas)
  • out of focus (with blurring causing loss of detail)
  • long exposure (with camera shake causing blurring of objects and loss of detail)
  • reflections (for instance in glass just in front of the camera)
  • image noise (causing loss of detail)

Just about every anomalous photo I have examined has one or more such 'faults'. The most common problem is high compression and it is becoming increasingly common. I think it is because many anomalous photos come from phones these days and are compressed to make them easy to email. These compressed photos often contain spurious details which do not correspond with actual objects visible at the time of the exposure.

For example, in the pair of photos, above, there is a wall with some grass behind. In the photo on the left you can just make out details of the wall and grass, though it is already pixelating (some of the 'detail' is spurious). The photo on the right shows a small section of the photo on the left zoomed. Now you can see the rectangular pixels clearly (depending on your computer screen). However, any shapes formed by those rectangles are not real, just artifacts of the pixelation (such as the moderately obvious apparent horizontal 'line' across the grass about half way down). See here for a dramatic example of how a disturbing skeletal face appeared in a photo when it was zoomed too much, resulting in pixelation! The same thing happens when photos are heavily compressed.

So why are there so few well-exposed photos of anomalous phenomena? One obvious reason is that it is the very photographic faults themselves that cause the apparent anomalies. And in my experience, this is indeed usually the case. When I look at a new anomalous photo, instead of looking for the anomaly, I first search for the photographic fault! And that fault generally explains the anomaly when I find it (see here)!

It would be fantastic to see a really well-exposed photo of an anomaly. It isn't too much to expect with modern automated, high specification cameras, is it?

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Orbs turn up in unexpected places


Misted lensIn the unseasonably cold weather here in the UK (it is snowing as I write - in April!) I took this slightly unusual photo (right) recently. Through the general mist you can see some parked cars, trees, a fence and other stuff. I often see misty photos which people think might be paranormal, maybe even a ghost!* In most cases they are taken at night and involve the use of a flash. The mist in such cases is usually caused by the photographer's own breath on a cold night. It might not even be visible to the photographer at the time of exposure but, near the camera, the brilliant flash is still able to pick it up. These flash photos sometimes also include orbs, with their usual cause.

In the photo here, however, we have a mistiness and orbs, neither of which is caused by flash. What has happened is that the camera lens has misted up after being taken from a cold environment into a warmer one. In my experience this is a surprisingly rare event as it takes quite a large temperature and humidity difference to occur! It can, nevertheless, be responsible for some 'misty ghost' photos.

But what is causing the orbs in this photo? Even on close examination they look like ordinary orbs, implying the usual cause. In other words, they must be something small, out of focus and near the camera. In this case, I think it is tiny liquid blobs that have formed within the otherwise uniform thin layer of condensed water. But why are they visible at all? Usually, things on a camera lens don't show up because they are too out of focus. But in this case, the zoom lens was set to wide angle, in which the orb zone is much closer to the camera than is usual. If the zoom lens had been set to a 'standard' or telephoto focal lengths, I think there would have been no orbs, though the mist would still be evident.

It is not often that I find out something new about orbs (see here for a brief summary of the information discovered so far). Most paranormal researchers now accept that orbs have natural causes and are bored with them. If a formerly popular part of the ghost hunting boom can fall from favour, maybe other bits will too, like assumption-led methods. Perhaps, one day ...

*The idea that ghosts might be misty appears to be largely fictional. I've never come across a real life case. The vast majority of ghosts are described as looking perfectly solid and normal. But the mist idea, like so many others in our field, remains widely popular despite lack of supporting evidence!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

EVP without the E?

Fan noiseIt was the unmistakable sound of a child calling. I looked around but there was no one there. I checked nearby windows in the street where I was walking. None were open, unsurprising given how cold it was, and there was no one visible in them. Then I heard the sound again. This time I realised its true source. It was a windy day and there was a tree bending in the wind while emitting the strange distinct human-like sound. It was like EVP with the E - a human sound without any electronic recording equipment involved.

OK, there were no actual words involved but I've heard those too, on occasion. I have, several times, heard sounds with recognizable words, only for them to turn out to be unusual environmental noises. One of the most common is electric fans. These give a white-noise like sound and I've heard short 'phrases', or even 'singing', sometimes. The diagram above is a spectrogram of some fan noise.

Given that 'formant noise' can produce apparent words in recordings from non-speech environmental sounds, there seems no obvious reason why it shouldn't also occur 'live', with no recorder involved. The examples I've mentioned appear to support this idea. So the question that naturally arises becomes, why don't we hear the 'voices' when EVP recordings are actually being made?

When I have deliberately tried to create formant noise I usually can't hear anything voice-like at the time of the recording. However, when I play it back, sometimes there is an apparent voice saying something quite distinct. This is even without reducing the audio spectrum envelope, which definitely increases the voice-like quality of the sound. So what's going on?

I think it is simply a question of attention. When I'm making a recording, I'm not really paying much attention to the sound I'm creating by, say, rustling paper. Even if I do listen hard, it can sound a bit like a voice but I never hear words. But when I play the recording back, I listen for the most voice-like bits and then isolate them. I then play these repeatedly and, often, distinct words emerge.

This most likely happens through the verbal transformation effect. If you hear a word (or phrase) repeatedly, it will eventually transform until it appears to be a different, though similar sounding, word. The transformed words have a similar phoneme structure (so 'truce' may transform to ''truth' when heard repeatedly). Research has shown that if you hear a nonsense word (ie. a series of phonemes that are not a real word) repeatedly it is more likely to be transformed to something else than if you start with a real word. Indeed, the most frequently transformed nonsense words are those that comprise phoneme sequences that are never normally heard in a natural language. The word transformations can end up in either real words or nonsense words. Obviously, if you are expecting real words then it is more likely they will end up as real words. So, if you listen to 'formant noise' repeatedly, it is likely to be transformed into real words with the 'missing phonemes' being supplied by phoneme restoration.

Obviously, things like the verbal restoration effect can only work on repeated listenings, which is not possible with 'live' listening. It takes concentrated attention being paid to a particular recording for this kind of effect to occur, which is why I don't hear words when creating formant noise.

So why do I sometimes spontaneously hear 'voices' or 'words' live when listening to certain specific sounds? I suspect it may be a form of audio misperception. When I became sensitive to visual misperception, maybe audio misperception was 'turned on' too. We now know from research that the different senses are more mixed when being processed by the brain than had been previously supposed. Maybe 'switching on' visual misperception also triggers the audio version. I have heard of some other people hearing 'words' in the sounds of electric fans. It is possible that their misperception is 'turned on' too. If any reader has heard such voices, could you please get in touch? I'd also be interested to know if you ever get any visual misperception.