Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Why so few animal ghosts?

Misp birdThere are many more human ghosts reported than animal ones. A recent experience got me wondering about why this should be.

Regular readers will know that I am a birder, so I'm always on the look out for birds. However, I'll be honest, at the time, I didn't know what species this was (pic right). Looking at the photo, I would guess it might be a dove, perhaps, given the light colour and overall shape. The 'dove' is just above, and to the left of, the centre of the photo, with its head facing the big tree.

After a few seconds of close examination it became clear that the object was not a bird at all. It was two large leaves, propped upwards in the grass and strongly illuminated in a patch of sunlight. It was, of course, a misperception. I was genuinely surprised, at the time, because it definitely looked like a bird for several seconds. Its movement in the wind just added to the impression of an animal rather than something inanimate.

Among birders, it's not that unusual to see an inanimate object as a bird. When you are really keen to see a bird, particularly a rare one, you tend to look for anything vaguely bird-shaped and then get your binoculars on it for a better view. Obviously, the binocular view usually resolves misperceived 'birds' into what they really are. In contrast, I strongly suspect that non-birders hardly ever misperceive inanimate objects as birds.

This may offer a clue to why the number of reported human ghosts outnumbers those of animals. To most people, other humans are both far more important and more regularly seen than animals. Misperception, which is a major cause of ghost sightings, appears to be based on visual experience. If humans are much commoner in your visual experience than animals then you are more likely to misperceive a ghostly human figure. Another factor I've noted is that what you misperceive is also affected by what you want most, or least, to see. Birders want to see birds so they see them, sometimes when they're not there. Someone seeing an unknown human figure while walking alone at night might not find it a comforting sight at all. They may well misperceive a tree as a ghost in such circumstances.

Well, it's an idea, anyway. I wonder if pet lovers see more animal ghosts than the general population?

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