Thursday, 23 January 2014

The exact circumstances

SkyRecently, in a familiar street I was shocked to hear an unfamiliar sound. It was a loud train horn. Though I've often heard these many times before in this street, they are usually distant background noises, generally barely noticeable. This time it sounded as if I was standing right by the track. The railway is actually about 500m away with a lot of buildings in between. So why were sounds from there suddenly so loud? There are various possibilities but I think the most likely is refraction, given that it was a cold, still morning (see here for an explanation and diagram).

Many years ago, in the early days of ASSAP, a number of ghost investigators, including me, wondered if there might be anything special about the environment of haunted locations. Since only certain places were haunted, we reasoned, there might be something special about the environment of these sites. So, we advocated 'blanket' environmental monitoring during ghost vigils. That meant measuring every environmental parameter possible to see if there was anything unusual about these places compared to non-haunted locations. However, we never found any environmental 'signature' for haunted places.

Irony number One: I don't know if this approach led to the widespread use of instruments on ghost vigils but I suppose it's possible. Nowadays there is a quite different use for these instruments. It is widely assumed, with no compelling evidence, that ghosts affect local environments and so that 'unusual readings' indicate their presence. Given that most ghost sightings are caused by misperception, hallucination or coincidence, this lack of evidence is hardly surprising.

Irony number Two: It turns out that the exact environmental conditions at a location can actually strongly affect whether anything paranormal gets reported there. As well as the 'spookiness factors' that bias certain locations towards producing reports of the paranormal, there are are also much more specific factors that can trigger strange sights and sounds. For instance, specific lighting conditions at a particular location may give rise to misperception. The train sounds I mentioned earlier are an example where specific environmental conditions produced a temporary puzzling unusual effect. An investigator visiting the site later is highly unlikely to encounter the same conditions. They might therefore see no obvious xenonormal cause for the effect and conclude, quite wrongly, that it was paranormal.

So, it is vitally important to record the precise environmental conditions during a reported anomalous experience. This may not always be easy as the witness may not accurately recall such details. There can be a temptation for investigators to guess the environmental conditions when the information is not readily available. This is dangerous. Just the other day I was walking around outside in shirt sleeves feeling pleasantly warm in the sunshine. Given that it was January in the UK, most people would think such conditions highly unlikely! It can be difficult to find this environmental information but it is important to try to get it. Without it there is a temptation to regard something as unexplained or paranormal when, in reality, there is a perfectly good xenonormal explanation.

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