Monday, 28 April 2014

Unrecognized ghosts

Misperceived treeIt was always unlikely but I thought I saw a famous actor in the street recently. Of course, famous actors do walk along streets but not usually in the anonymous suburb where I was. As I got a better look, the person was not a celebrity after all.

I seem to have a knack for seeing famous people, as I've mentioned before. But I also have a tendency to 'over recognise'. I often 'recognise' people I know, or celebrities, who turn out, on closer inspection, to be someone quite different. Indeed, this may actually be why I notice more celebrities than some other people.

My habit of 'recognizing' people who are really someone else takes the form, I'm sure, of misperception. I actually see the person I think it is, not just someone who resembles them. These misperceptions are so real that I've even taken evasive action when I've 'seen' someone I've been trying to avoid! Such misperception with faces is not surprising. As cartoonists know, you need very few characteristic facial features to recognize someone.

But here's the puzzle. I have never recognized any of the ghosts I've seen. Admittedly, that's not many ghosts compared with all the strangers I've seen. But it adds weight to the idea that misperceived ghosts are usually, if not always, archetypal figures and faces rather than identifiable individuals. In the many ghost reports I've read few, if any, witnesses identified the ghosts they saw at the time. So, if we hypothesize that misperceived ghosts are always unidentifiable, why should that be?

Many misperceived figures are caused by inanimate objects, like trees or patterns of shadow. Though these shapes can certainly resemble human figures visually, they will typically lack the specific detailed patterns, in the appropriate place, to suggest a face. The reeds in the photo (above) were seen as an 'old woman' but there are no bits that suggest facial features. In such cases, our brains insert an archetypal face, in the appropriate position, instead. The 'facial features' may be influenced by any specific details of the misperceived object, so not all the ghosts an individual witness may see will look the same. But none of these 'faces' are likely to resemble anyone they know! Of course, none of this applies to ghost sightings caused by hallucination. These may well be recognized by the witness!

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