Thursday, 28 November 2013

Voices from beyond?

Crows in treeAmong several voices heard there was one that stood out as highly unusual. It was a female voice with a French accent and it said just one word that the listener, having barely studied the language at school, did not know. Regular readers will be familiar with my acquaintance (MA) who experiences microsleep with REM. This is a rare phenomenon, usually associated with certain sleep disorders, where someone goes straight into a dream state on falling into even a brief microsleep. Naturally, this can produce some very odd experiences, especially if the witness does not realise they have gone into a microsleep, which is not that unusual. Hypnagogia is common with MWR, with apparent voices sometimes heard while on the verge of a microsleep (when still awake).

MA says the voices sound different to ordinary real ones. They lack the resonance that a normal voice might have if someone was speaking out loud in a room, for instance. They can sound like listening to someone through a telephone. As MA finds it easy to tell from real voices, usually, they do not cause the anxiety that apparently unexplained voices might otherwise. MA knows they are unreal and just tries to remember what they have to say. The French voice was highly unusual, however. MA had never heard a foreign voice before, still less a word that was not immediately understandable. So, could it be something a little different? Maybe even a deliberate message, of some sort, from somewhere?

MA looked the word up online and soon found out it was a place name, in Switzerland! The place was Verbier. Not being a skier, MA had barely heard of the place. So why, assuming these hypnagogic voices originate in the listener's own memory, would this particular place name come up? And in a French accent? Looking up Verbier on the web, suddenly the connection was made. MA remembered a recent news story from Verbier. It was quite widely seen and even featured in this blog! However, MA was not thinking about Verbier, Switzerland, French, golf, foxes or anything else related to the news story.

Oddly enough, MA reports that much of the content of hypnagogic voices actually makes even less sense than Verbier! The phrases heard sound like snatches of overheard conversations that are neither directed to the listener, or anything they were thinking about. Though these words are presumably derived from the listener's memory, the way they are selected appears near random. MA says they often appear quite dramatic in content. They might even originate from dialogue heard on TV or movies.

But why did this particular voice have a French accent? If you're expecting a solution to this mystery, I don't have one. It may be related to how words are stored in human memory. Maybe French words are connected to French pronunciation somewhere in the brain.

It is easy to see how the apparently random chatter of voices could be interpreted by some listeners with MWR as messages from spirits, if they were not aware of their hypnagogic origins. With no obvious connection to what the listener is thinking about, or can even consciously recall, they might appear to originate from somewhere outside that person's head, maybe with a spirit. The fact that the voices sound different to 'normal' might even add to the impression of a communication from somewhere else. It would not be a surprise if someone with MWR might think they are psychic or even a medium.

PS: Why the same photo as last time? It's still bugging me ...

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Route to a coincidence

Crows in treeRecently I had a memory going round me head that, for some reason, just wouldn't go away. It concerned a place, far away, that I'd visited precisely once, many years ago. It was an obscure place, little known outside birding circles. I hadn't thought about it for maybe a decade or more and yet, suddenly, I couldn't get its uncommon name out of my head.

So, when I subsequently noticed a tiny advertisement in the street, something caught my eye instantly. The advert was for a taxi firm. The name of the company was the same as the place I'd been thinking about continuously, for no apparent reason, for the previous 24 hours! Could this be a synchronicity - a meaningful coincidence? Was fate trying to tell me something? Was it a message that I must go back?

Then I noticed something odd. The name on the advert was, in fact, NOT quite the same as the one I'd been thinking about all day. There was one letter different. Even so, it was remarkably similar and still an astonishing coincidence, given that both names are uncommon. I had probably misread it precisely because it was so similar to the name I'd been thinking about.

But then I realised something else. I'd actually seen that exact same advert before! It's design and position suddenly appeared oddly familiar. My meaningful coincidence was unravelling fast. It was now obvious that the chain of events went more like this. When I had seen the advert for the first time I'd clearly paid little attention to it and forget I'd ever seen it. However, the uncommon name had triggered a memory in my brain that then appeared 'unaccountably'. The only real coincidence was that the name of a taxi firm was one letter different to an obscure place I'd once visited. Which doesn't appear that meaningful.

From this incident you can see how apparently meaningful coincidences can sometimes be generated by purest accident. The crucial point in the events outlined above was that I forgot I'd seen the advert the first time. It is easy to think of similar sequences of events where someone forgets what prompted them to think of a particular idea. And if they don't remember that triggering event, any subsequent apparently meaningful coincidence will continue to appear significant. Even if, in reality, it isn't!

When analyzing reports of synchronicities it is vital to get a full sequential account of every relevant event. If there is an obvious point where a forgotten connection might easily account for the synchronicity, it is an idea well worth exploring. Note, also, that memories can be triggered by something that merely resembles the original thought. There doesn't have to be an exact match.

And the photo? Every time I look at it I have a nagging feeling it reminds me of something I've seen before. But what?

Monday, 25 November 2013

Seeing through blurry ghosts

Blurry orange shapeIf you saw this anomalous photo (right) would you have any idea what it was? I know what it really is so it seems obvious to me but I doubt that applies to many others. Amazingly, I have seen anomalous photos just as blurry as this. As I've commented in the past, most anomalous photos are pictures with 'something wrong with them' - at least from the point of view of a serious photographer.

I was on the point of deleting this obvious 'mistake' (caused by a focus problem) when it occurred to me that it might usefully illustrate the sort of anomalous photos I see all the time. What puzzles me is this. Why do people bother to examine photos like this one, which shows no sharp detail whatsoever? Even if there WAS a real ghostly face in this photo, it would be so horribly blurred that it would almost certainly not be recognisable as a face at all since everything in the photo is completely out of focus.

Modern cameras are so automated that they can take a reasonable photo in almost every situation. But sometimes they do make mistakes, like this shot. Perhaps, as a result of being used to routinely reasonable photos, people (other than serious photographers) don't realise that some parts (or even the whole) of some shots are photographic artefacts, rather than representing anything real that was actually physically present. In the photo above, the objects shown were obviously not blurry at all to the naked eye.

Not so blurryIf there is another photo of the same scene (taken at the same time ideally) this can hugely helpful in working out what such a 'problem' photo might really show. So here (right) is another photo of the same scene, taken just after the one above. Regular readers will be unsurprised to find that it shows a bird - a Chaffinch. Now the bird, the leaves, tree branches and so on are obvious. But note how the background is still out of focus so we still don't know what those bits are. But at least we can now make some reasonable guesses based on what we CAN see. The background probably contains more leaves, branches, a patch of sky (the blue bit) etc.

So, if we saw a 'face' in that blurred bit it would be difficult to say whether it was real or not. It could just be a result of the blur, making one object blend into another to give a result resembling a face. Even if there was a real face there, it would be difficult to say for sure and certainly impossible to say whether it was a ghost or maybe a real ordinary person. The fact that almost every anomalous photo I've ever examined has had a 'fault' (from the point of view of a serious photographer) tends to support the idea that most are photographic artefacts.

PS: I've just noticed, looking at the original blurry photo, it looks like a monkey face, looking right, with white shiny eyes. Or is that just me?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Followed by an invisible ghost

Red leafSeveral times recently I've heard someone following me along the same completely deserted street. On each occasion I turned around and could see no one there. It sounded like the same person each time as they walked with a peculiar shuffling noise. An invisible ghost dragging its feet, then? Well, no. On the last occasion I finally saw the real cause of the noise. Which is good because being followed by someone invisible is unnerving!

Meanwhile the door ghost (door what?) still puts in regular appearances, though it is yet to make any noise. I tried a couple of new 'tests' recently. Firstly, once I'd seen the ghost, I moved the hand (the one producing the apparition) very slowly. As I suspected, the ghost did not vanish as it would if I moved the hand quickly. The partial figure only vanished once the hand had moved a significant distance from where I normally see the apparition. I think it had, by then, moved to a position where a human figure no longer made any visual sense to my brain. So, it seems that misperception can survive movement of the object being misperceived, provided it happens slowly enough and doesn't go too far.

The second thing I tried was looking away, then looking back immediately. Also as I expected, this completely destroyed the misperception. It is a bit like closing your eyes to check if you are hallucinating. I suspect it happens because our brains can only be fooled once in such situations, something I'd already noted.

And the mysterious shuffling sound following me (if you haven't already guessed)? It was a slight breeze blowing fallen autumn leaves around on the path. I was surprised how much the leaves sounded like a human or animal shuffling about. It probably wouldn't have worked if the wind was stronger than just a slight breeze. If it had happened at night it would have been doubly unsettling as it would be difficult to see what was really going on.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Blurry ghosts

MovementAnyone who looks at a lot anomalous photos is eventually likely to come across the results of 'night portrait' or 'night mode' mode. Digital cameras usually have several automatic exposure modes for particular types of scene, like portraits, action, sport, snow scenes and so on. Each mode makes particular exposure settings appropriate to the scene being photographed. These settings usually override any that the photographer makes.

Some 'night' scene modes, particularly 'night portrait', combine flash with a long exposure. You can see the result here (right). The photo shows a lit torch lying on a copy of ASSAP's Seriously Strange magazine. This picture was photographed in near total darkness.

The flash has illuminated the scene, giving it a generally sharp overall appearance. That's because a flash only lasts a very short time, typically a few thousandths of a second. So, in low light, it's like taking an exposure of a few thousandths of a second. However, there is an obvious blurred area in this photo. This was the bit of the scene also illuminated by the blue torch on the right of the frame. It looks blurred because the camera moved during the longish period after the flash fired but before the shutter finally closed (some 2 seconds in this case). The rest of the photo remains unblurred because there was nothing illuminating it after the flash finished. This combination of a blurry area against an otherwise sharp background in a flash photo is a good indicator that night mode was used (which can be checked in the EXIF data, if available).

No movementThe second photo (right) shows the same scene but without the motion blur. This is the sort of photo you'd get with a flash when selecting another exposure mode.

Looking back at the blurred photo, note how the whole area illuminated by the torch got blurred. In particular, see how the words 'Bigfoot in Indiana' are blurred while 'also inside' are not! The first set of words was illuminated by the torch while second was not.

What makes these 'night scene' mode photos often get reported as anomalous is that they appear sharp overall. That makes the isolated blurry areas look like a paranormal effect. Also, the light source producing the effect may not always be obvious, as it is here. It could out of shot, illuminating something within the frame.

As well as blur, these type of photo also frequently feature light trails. These are not so often reported as paranormal but still appear inexplicable to many people.

People sometimes see apparent faces, figures or other unexpected objects in such blurry photos. Because these objects are blurry, and often transparent, it adds to the impression that there is something paranormal or ghostly going on. For these reasons, it would be best to avoid night mode on paranormal investigations!

Unfortunately, there is not usually a non-blurry version of the photo available to compare with the 'anomalous' version. If there was, like the pair above, it would be easy to see just what the real objects in the photo really are.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Photo of an invisible creature

Invisible creatureSo here it is, a photo (right) of an invisible unknown animal. Don't look too hard, I did say it was invisible! Now suppose someone saw a strange creature, that they couldn't identify, swimming in a lake, just like this one. And suppose they took its photo and this picture (right) was all they got. The very fact that the creature was not on the photo might be seen, by some, as evidence for its anomalous nature.

Of course, there are other interpretations of such an experience. The obvious one is a hallucination. There is also the possibility that the creature had simply moved out of shot before the photo was taken. You may notice a shiny wake going across the photo, suggesting just that! There is also the possibility that the whole circumstances of taking this photo had been misremembered by the witness.

So what's my point? It is simply this - a photo is seldom, if ever, definitive evidence of anything anomalous on its own. I often see reportedly anomalous photos showing scenes that do not appear strange in any way. The only oddity is that the witness insists that some obvious, solid, real-looking object clearly visible in the photo was not actually there at the time of exposure. Most frequently it is a human figure or animal. Or, more rarely, as in this case, that a very obvious object WAS visible at the time of the exposure, even though it is not in the photo. So, the only evidence that there is anything odd going on at all is the witness testimony. Maybe the witness DID see something anomalous. Maybe they didn't. But the photo, on its own, cannot help resolve that question.

In such situations all you can do is look into the case in the same way that you would with a non-photographic incident. You'd need to interview witnesses, visit the site and so on. The photo may contain some clues to what might be going on (like the wake in this photo) but it cannot tell you anything definitive.

Witnesses usually want a definite 'answer' as to whether a strange photo shows something anomalous or not. If it contains an obvious photographic anomaly then this is usually possible. But in some cases, like the one outlined here, only a fuller investigation will help. There is a general popular belief that cameras 'don't lie' which tends to support the idea that all you need is a good photo to resolve an anomalous case. Unfortunately, that is almost never true.

Monday, 11 November 2013

What if there was a second photo?

Distant UFOWith very few exceptions, I don't manipulate photos on this website. And in those few cases where I do alter a photo, it usually obvious and only done for illustration purposes. So, I was a bit disappointed to have to change the UFO photo (right) that I took recently. For those who are interested, I have made it lighter, more contrasty and softened it. It was all in the cause of making it look more mysterious. The result is a dark, circular UFO against a cloudy sky.

In my defence, most photos I see of anomalous phenomena tend to suffer from one or more photographic 'faults' (I put that in quotes because some peopole deliberately use these 'faults' for effect). They may, for instance, be out of focus, motion blurred, over- or under-exposed, noisy or of very low resolution or highly compressed. And in many cases it is that very 'fault' that is responsible for the apparent anomaly in the photo (producing a photographic artefact). So, in this case, I had to deliberately 'apply' some 'faults', simulating over-exposure and focussing problems. If I hadn't, it might have been too obvious what the UFO really is.

Note how the background of clouds give no real clue to the size of this object. We know it is in front of the clouds but without knowing how high they are, that doesn't help much. The best clue is the overall shape of the object. It is basically circular but there is a slight extension downwards, reminiscent of a balloon. Which is, of course, what it is.

UFOHere is a photo of the same object, unedited zoomed in, taken just 8 seconds later. Now the shape is more obvious and so, too, the string attached. It is now clearly a toy balloon, probably just a few tens of centimeters across. It was the string, still just about visible even in the original distant shot, that forced me into manipulating the image. Indeed, you might still be able to make it out now, depending on your display unit.

So what is the point of this exercise? Well, whenever I see an anomalous photo which suffers from a photographic 'fault', I always wonder what might have been recorded if only the photo had been well exposed. That, in essence, is what analyzing such photos is all about. Anyway, this pair of photos shows what it might look like in just such a case.

There is also another important point. When we think about photo manipulation with respect to anomalies we tend to think in terms of objects being deliberately added. However, simply playing with things, like contrast, can enhance or diminish details that can alter our entire perception of what is in a photo. And such manipulation is harder to detect than simply adding in objects.

Friday, 8 November 2013

When flying objects become unidentified

UFO aircraftOccasionally I have seen a remarkable object crawling across the night sky. It consists of a bright white light, usually silent. The photo (right) is a typical example (zoomed in). It is, of course, an aircraft but, in certain circumstances, it could easily be interpreted as a UFO.

In areas near major airports, planes are often 'stacked' while awaiting a landing slot. They move relatively slowly and close to the ground compared to ordinary flight, making them much more obvious to people on the ground than usual. At night you can see one bright light and, if the aircraft is close, two coloured lights on either side. The three lights generally make the sight obviously an aircraft though some UFOs have been described as having multiple lights.

So why would anyone report an aircraft as a UFO? Firstly, when seen at night with lights on, aircraft will look less familiar to many people. Sound normally gives away a flying object as an aircraft. However, when they are distant, or in certain wind conditions, aircraft may appear silent. It is interesting to note that a great many UFOs are described as silent. Indeed, it is tempting to see this as an unofficial popular 'test' that witnesses apply to consider whether an unrecognized object might be a UFO. Interestingly, there are also times when the aircraft do make a noise but there is something louder near the witness which drowns this out. Surprisingly, witnesses may not readily recall this when questioned after the event.

While aircraft in a stack are a familiar sight to anyone living near a major airport, they may not be to visitors to the area. And these stacks can be a fair distance from the airport (see here, for instance, for the stacking patterns for London's Heathrow airport). So witnesses may not readily associate lights in the sky with an airport that could be many kilometres away.

I have come across many UFO reports that sounded just like aircraft in the circumstances I've described here. I've also seen many photos of 'white light' UFOs that could easily have been caused in this way. In many such photographic cases the UFO was not noticed at the time of exposure. Again, something not noticed at the time appears to be seen as an unofficial popular 'test' of something anomalous by many people. Mundane flying objects can easily become UFOs, given the right circumstances and witness.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Fox ghost!

Night foxCan prolonged staring at something in low light trigger misperception? This was what I speculated yesterday when looking at the 'psychomanteum effect'. This raises two obvious questions - is there any evidence that this actually happens away from a psychomanteum and how would it even work?

Oddly enough, I do have some experiences which might be explained in the way suggested. I am interested in natural history and am always on the lookout for animals in the wild. One thing I do regularly is watch for foxes after dark. As any field naturalist will tell you, one of the best ways to spot animals is to look for movement in an otherwise still scene. It can be difficult to spot a static animal as they often blend in with their surroundings. But as soon as they move, they become easier to spot. So, to look for foxes I carefully watch a poorly illuminated area where I've seen them before, waiting for any movement that might indicate their presence. And the technique works well!

But I've noticed something odd while watching these static night scenes. I frequently see apparent slight movements, but when I focus on the moving 'object', it turns out there is nothing there! These 'objects' appear out of nowhere and disappear once I pay them close attention. A ghost fox, perhaps? Well, in fact, it looks just like a classic case of misperception! I had previously dismissed these occurrences as simple 'low light misperception' but now I see there is actually something different going on.

Typically, misperception occurs when you first look at an object, whether it is a familiar or unfamiliar one. As you pay closer attention to it, the misperception dissolves. The 'ghostly figure' becomes the poorly-seen tree stump it really is. In the 'fox' example the misperception occurs in a scene that has already been seen properly and all objects correctly identified visually. So why do these misperceptions occur after the scene has been stared at for a while?

I think that if you stare at a static scene for long enough, your perception system may reevaluate what it seeing and try new visual substitutions for things previously identified. But why? Well here's a thought. In everyday life we almost never stare at unchanging scenes. There is almost always change in our visual fields, even if it is just us adjusting our viewpoint of a static scene. If our perception system is adapted to this constant change, which seems highly likely, it may be continually 'guessing' at what it is seeing, even when there is no actual visual change occurring. And when the viewing conditions are poor, this may lead to 'new' guesses from time to time.

But can't the perception system simply remember what is there, as nothing has actually changed? Well, as I speculated recently (here), it may be that our perception system does not remember its previous mistakes. Maybe the 'psychomanteum effect' shows how this works in more detail. If you stare continuously at an unchanging scene, you are only paying attention to any one object in it at any one time. The rest of the scene is maintained by memory. But maybe, after a few minutes, that memory 'expires' (like short term memory) and the whole scene is re-evaluated, with some inevitable mistakes in poor viewing conditions. More clues, perhaps, to how misperception works and how some reports of anomalous phenomena are generated. I also wonder if looking for wildlife is why I am more sensitive to noticing misperceptions than most people.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Ghosts and mirrors

Water distortedIn this week's edition of New Scientist (I don't seem to have written that phrase here for a while) there is an article of psychomanteums, though it does not mention that name. Essentially, a psychomanteum consists of someone gazing at their own reflection in a mirror in low light conditions for a prolonged period. After a while some people may see apparent changes in their reflections.

I first tried this exercise many years ago. I had read that you could see yourself as an old person! At the time, I did indeed see what appeared to be a wrinkled version of my face. Having been told what to expect, no doubt suggestion played a part in what I actually saw. Some people believe that this technique can allow you to see spirits.

One thing that struck me in the New Scientist article was this description of one current theory about how the effect works: "As the brain struggles to make sense of what it is seeing, it might pull scraps from our memory to make up for our poor perception ..." This sounds like the way misperception works! As regular readers will be aware, I notice misperception a lot these days, while most people hardly ever seem to. So, I thought I might be a good subject for a some low light mirror gazing.

When I tried recently, it wasn't long before I did indeed see apparent changes in my reflected face. I tried two forms of illumination. In the first, my face was mostly illuminated from one side by an artificial light. In the second view, my face was mostly illuminated with natural daylight but from the other side. In both cases, I saw pretty much the same thing. Areas of my face would disappear and then reappear, despite no changes in the illumination. My lips would seem to be moving, even though physically they were not. And certain facial features, like my eyebrows, would seem to change shape as if to exaggerate features hardly noticeable normally. It was like looking at a caricature.

If the psychomanteum does work by misperception, or a related effect, it could provide a useful experimental tool for looking into how some ghosts are seen. Needless to say, I'm already thinking of trying some more experiments! The psychomanteum appears, if discussion of it on the web is any guide, to be a hot topic in parapsychology at present. So it seems that researchers are approaching this fascinating effect from both the parapsychological and psychological viewpoint. I wonder if they will come to a similar conclusion?

Friday, 1 November 2013

Hair raising bush disturbance

Night foxI've bemoaned before the lack of 'Hollywood moments' in real life paranormal research. Where are the vaporous talking apparitions you can discuss metaphysics with, for instance? But I have experienced one or two moments that certainly had horror movie shock value.

There was, for instance, one dark evening when I was walking along a deserted alleyway. As I am very familiar with location in daylight, I didn't feel any anxiety in traversing it at night. But there was a loud sound of movement in the bushes just ahead of me that evening that literally made my hair stand on end. I walked towards the bush. It continued to move noisily without any obvious cause. Then the disturbance moved to another nearby bush. Baffled, I stood still, determined to find out what the cause was, whether paranormal or not. Then a dark shape broke cover and ran straight at me, giving me another Hollywood moment!

Readers will no doubt be unsurprised, given the photo, that what I saw was a fox running close past me at speed. It seemed that I had inadvertently come between the animal and its only means of escape from the bushes, so it had to run past me get away. There will be occasions, of course, where the witness to such an incident will not recognise, or even see, the animal responsible for a strange disturbance in vegetation.

I took the night photo here (above) recently. The fox was sitting right out in the open next to a street. There were people passing nearby but none appeared to acknowledge its presence and I doubt they noticed it. Had it been daylight the animal would have been obvious but in street light only, it was able to sit, apparently unconcerned, close to passing late night pedestrians.

The thing to remember about wild animals is that, even though you may not notice them, they will certainly notice you. The fox in the photo would have run away instantly if any passing pedestrian had shown any interest in it. I know because I've done just that. I'm sure some reports of ghostly activity, or other anomalous phenomena, can be traced to unnoticed wildlife activity.