Friday, 3 January 2014

Ghost misidentification

Misperceived womanGhosts are supposedly identified with particular people in many haunting cases. However, there are few examples where the figure is actually recognized by an apparition witness, either at the time, or later by comparison with a picture. So, I am always highly interested in those rare cases when someone says they actually recognized a ghost they saw.

Many apparition sightings are caused by misperception. From my experience, the figures seen in misperception appear to be archetypes, rather than specific individuals drawn from the witness's own memory. So, I might see a 'shadowy male figure', an 'old woman' or a 'young person in a grey coat', for instance, rather than someone I actually recognise. Taking a specific example, I once saw the reeds photographed (right) as an 'old woman'. Not someone I know, just an old woman. I think that impression probably came from the light colour of the reeds suggesting white hair!

So, if someone claims to actually recognise a ghostly figure, would that necessarily rule out misperception as a possible cause for the ghost sighting? At first sight, yes. However, a recent experience has given me second thoughts.

I was surprised, to say the least, when I recently saw of friend of mine on a city street. The location was a long way from where I'd ever expect to see them. Bemused, I approached to say hello. Then I realised I was mistaken - it was not my friend. But what really shocked me was how little the person resembled my friend close up.

How could I possibly have made such a bizarre misidentification? I looked at the person more closely and realized that the only thing the two people had in common was similar clothes. It made me recall several similar incidents in the past where I've mistakenly thought I'd seen an acquaintance. In fact, I've often 'identified' a person on just one characteristic, like clothes, gait, hair, face, etc. Such single characteristics are too vague to reliably identify someone in a crowd of strangers (though people with prosopagnosia manage it) . But that doesn't stop me, and no doubt others, 'recognizing' an acquaintance mistakenly (and sometimes correctly).

So, if a witness sees a ghost, it is quite possible that they might mistakenly identify them, perhaps based on just one characteristic. And this could apply as easily to a ghost sighting caused by misperception as any other type. I might have identified my 'old woman' ghost with someone I knew if they'd shared a key characteristic, like 'clothing'. But it would still, in reality, just be a reed!

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