Thursday, 22 May 2014

Do different witnesses see the same ghost differently?

LizardI should have been surprised, shocked even. The sight of a lizard in a suburban street is rare indeed. I've certainly never seen it before though I've no doubt it happens occasionally. They are certainly found in gardens from time to time. It's one of the strange things about seeing something unusual or weird. At the time it often feels quite normal while you're watching, at first, anyway.

Anyway, the 'lizard' quickly disappeared. It was yet another misperception, albeit an unlikely one. Close inspection revealed a small circular plastic object. I'm not sure what it was - it may have been a discarded component of something more familiar. Next to it there was a loose length of tape from an audio cassette. The tape was twisting in the wind, its shiny surface occasionally catching the sun and flashing. It was this flashing effect that was key to the misperception. The tape was held down buy the plastic object and as it flashed it gave the impression of something long and thin darting in and out of the circular plastic thing. I saw it as a lizard flicking its tongue, as they do! The circular plastic object resembled a coiled lizard, like the one in the photo (above right). Two things struck me immediately about this bizarre sighting.

Firstly, misperceptions are drawn from the witness's visual memory. So had someone else, who had never seen a lizard flicking its tongue (even on TV), been present they might have seen the object as something quite different. The wider point is that, what we each misperceive objects to be, depends on our own visual experience. So, when misperception is the cause, different people will see different ghosts. In a group of witnesses, each may see the same ghost differently and some may not see it at all. This is precisely what is frequently recorded with multiple witness ghost sightings.

Secondly, when misperceiving there is, in my experience, usually no feeling of surprise, no matter how bizarre the sighting. At least at first. I think it's because our brain's make a 'best guess' when misperceiving, so whatever is seen appears reasonable. It is generally only after the witness has had time to consider the situation that it starts to feel strange. And that might not happen until after the sighting has finished. It is worth asking witnesses if they felt what they were seeing was strange at the time. If they did not, it might be an indicator of misperception.

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