Thursday, 27 November 2014

Doors that open by themselves

WindowDoors that close (or open) by themselves are a feature of some haunting cases. So when, recently, I found a door closed that I knew I'd left open, it felt like something strange was going on. Particularly as there was no one there but me. And when I pushed at the door my efforts were resisted, which was also very weird.

Once I'd forced the door open wide enough, I could see there was a box behind. Experiments soon revealed how the door had closed. I had previously put a heavy object on a shelf. The shelf bent slightly under the weight, enough to tip the box onto the floor, but only after I'd left the room. In falling, the box pushed the adjacent open door closed.

I tried repeating the experiment with a tennis ball but it didn't work. I think the ball lacked the weight and size to push the door open (I was an enthusiastic, but inept, tennis player when I was young). If I'd had a football, I think it would have succeeded in opening the door (I was an unenthusiastic, and equally inept, football player when young).

The point of trying a ball is this - it might roll away after closing the door. So, if a football had opened the door, while I was not around, I might not have so easily discovered what had happened. The football could have ended up on the opposite side of the room, apparently unconnected with the incident. It would not be too difficult to attribute such a seemingly inexplicable event to a ghost.

Whenever I read about an anomalous incident, like a door being closed mysteriously, I wish I'd been there at the time of the incident to investigate it. I'm sure many such incidents have natural causes that are, perfectly understandably, missed by the original witness. And even subsequent visits by investigators might fail to find the true cause. In the theoretical 'football case' I've described above, it would be difficult to know whether the ball had been on the shelf to start with. And it might well have been removed from the scene entirely by the time of the investigator's visit! For more on door opening by themselves, see here.

PS: The picture? It's a window (not a door) but which way is it facing?

Monday, 24 November 2014

Sound may be key to some anomalous experiences

Nothing spectrogramIn this week's New Scientist there is an account of some research where sound has been used to give participants an illusion that their arms were longer than really were! This, and other, experiments show that sound can affect the mental image we have of our own bodies, in terms of size, weight and shape.

Previous experiments, aimed at altering a person's perception of their extent and position in space, have involved vision and touch. They have led to people experiencing OBEs! Participants were given conflicting sensory information that led to them feeling that there body was a different size, or even in a different position in space, compared to reality. See here for a discussion on how the temporoparietal junction, in the brain, determines our sense of our shape and position in space, and how it can be fooled.

So, the question now arises, can someone be made to have an OBE, purely with appropriate sounds? I don't know but it might well be possible. Other recently reported experiments have demonstrated how conflicting sensory information can lead to a sense of presence, where someone thinks there is an invisible person nearby. These experiments (see here) also primarily involved the sense of touch. But, as I pointed out at the time, my own 'sense of presence' experiences appeared to strongly implicate conflicting sound and vision as an important factor.

All of this tends to suggest that research using sound may be a way forward in producing anomalous experiences. It is certainly beginning to look as though conflicting sensory information may be an important source of apparent paranormal experiences. And while laboratory experiments have tended to concentrate on touch, it may be far more likely that sound is the key to spontaneous experiences outside the lab.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Is the nighttime best for ghosts?

Parrot low lightIt's the unmistakable squawk of the Parakeet roosting flight that first alerts me to the oncoming twilight. With night arriving so early at this time of year I'm spending more time than usual wandering around in twilight and the dark. Given that low lighting is an important trigger of misperception, I'm seeing lots more ghosts right now. Except I'm not! If anything, I'd say I see more during daylight that at night or dusk. Why would that be?

We all misperceive, all the time. However, most people never notice it, unless it is deliberately brought to their attention. I have, for several years now, spontaneously noticed some of my own misperceptions, seeing various ghostly figures in the process (see the door ghost, for instance). So what's going on?

I think it's reasonable to assume that in low light conditions there is a lot of misperception going on. There are certainly plenty of shadows being cast that could easily be interpreted as shadow ghosts or even human figures. I think that, at night and in other poor viewing conditions (like fog), the unconscious threshold for noticing misperception is raised. If this threshold was not raised, we would all see so many weird things in the dark we might be too scared to go out after nightfall. I think the threshold is set individually by experience.

Of course, people DO see some ghosts at night, even me. But I think an object probably needs to look a lot more like a human figure at night, compared to daylight, for it to be misperceived as a ghost. Interestingly, this might imply that ghosts are more likely to be seen in daylight than at night.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Haunting flashes

HighlightsLooking out of a window one night recently, I was puzzled by some mysterious small circular flashing lights in a bush in the street. There were three or four of them and I could see no obvious explanation. At first, anyway. As I watched, fascinated, it became apparent that the effect was a reflection, by wet leaves, of the light from a street lamp opposite. The lights were flashing on and off because the wind was blowing the leaves around so that they only reflected in my direction part of the time. Had it not been wet, windy and dark, the effect would not have occurred.

It reminded me that I've heard of flashes reported many times in dark ghost vigils. Oddly, though, flashes do not feature anything like as frequently in original witness reports of hauntings. I think there's a good reason for the difference. I suspect people who actually live in haunted houses don't sit around in the dark waiting for strange things to happen, unlike in many ghost vigils.

So are the flashes reported in ghost vigils really part of the haunting phenomenon? It's difficult to say without doing some kind of formal study. The flashes reported in vigils that I've be on appeared to have xenonormal explanations. Mostly they came from outside the building being investigated. They were caused by things like passing car headlights or even fireworks. The flashes were seen inside the building because curtains were not completely drawn. Flashes were also generated inside the building by various bits of electrical equipment, including stuff owned by investigators.

As the lights in the bush show, mysterious flashes can be caused by quite unusual coincidences. I'm not convinced, from the evidence that I've seen so far, that flashes should be necessarily be regarded as a feature of haunting activity. But if there is evidence out there that shows otherwise, let's hope it emerges.

Friday, 14 November 2014

New ghost, familiar location

TreeIt was an extremely familiar location. I was looking for wildlife, as I often do. To someone not familiar with such a pastime, it might have appeared as if I was behaving oddly. So I was wary of being seen by passers-by. Luckily there was no one, it being a quiet time of day and not a busy road. But then a dark figure appeared in my peripheral vision. I tried to look 'normal', which turns out to be surprisingly difficult. I slowly turned round, as though I'd always intended to do so at that precise second. There was no one there!

I quickly realised that the 'figure' I'd seen was actually a tree. The 'dark' colour came from its brownish-grey trunk. So, not a real person but a ghost caused by misperception. Which was all very odd because the location was very familiar to me and that tree has been there for many years. So why had I seen it as a human figure (or ghost) for the first time ever in all those years?

I think it may be because I was feeling particularly uncomfortable about the idea of being seen by a passer-by. Sometimes, when looking for wildlife, I'm so caught up in what I'm doing, I don't even think about what other people might think. But on this occasion, for some reason, I did. I've noted before how potential embarrassment was probably an important factor in my experiencing a sense of presence (see here). However, of the ghosts I've seen, I do not recall any other instances of embarrassment during the sighting. A feeling of being watched, yes. Embarrassment, no. So clearly such a feeling is no prerequisite to seeing a ghost. However, it could be a contributing factor sometimes.

So what does it all mean? Firstly, I think we should definitely being trying to determine the state of mind of ghost witnesses just prior to their sighting. I think I've said this many times before. Secondly, the 'embarrassment' factor certainly fits into my observation that ghosts tend to appear when you least want them to. Thirdly, it might be that those who fear seeing a human figure are more likely to misperceive one than those who don't.

I know of no evidence that psychological factors can, on their own, make someone see a ghost. But they can, from the incidents I've been involved in, bias a witness towards misperceiving a ghost.

PS The photo is NOT the tree concerned here!

Monday, 10 November 2014

Disappearing in plain sight

FoxAlways on the lookout for wildlife, I noted a reddish-brown object in the distance. Could it be a fox? I looked at it for a while and decided it was not. There is a lot of reddish-brown vegetation around this time of year. My mind drifted off onto something else.

But then I happened to look back, just in time to see the reddish-brown object stand up and walk away! It was a fox after all. Most misperceptions are of inanimate objects being taking for moving ones, like a tree stump being seen as a human figure. But sometimes it works the other way round. This time I saw an animal as a plant! I suppose expectation played a part with so many red and brown leaves around at the moment.

So is this relevant to anomaly reports? Yes, it is. A person, or animal, could be seen to 'appear' out of thin air when, in fact they were in plain sight (being misperceived as something else) all the time. Someone could also seem to disappear. The most likely scenario for this latter possibility is if a moving person was casually noticed by a witness, who then lost sight of them for a short period. The figure might then blend in with their background and so no longer be visible, despite still being in plain sight. I've had a few experiences of figures 'disappearing' in circumstances where it appeared impossible. There was one where a woman disappeared in plain sight, described here. It has parallels with the scenario I just outlined.

I also had another, more typical, anomalous sighting recently. Looking out of a window I became aware of a strange figure, dressed in blue, in my peripheral vision. Staring at it directly, the 'figure' turned out to be a large blue bag with a large white flower just behind and above it. The latter gave an impression of a face. Just for a second or so, while still in peripheral vision, I actually saw the 'figure' as a real person, albeit a startling one. Indeed, its bizarre appearance was what attracted my attention. I saw the same scene more recently but there was no 'figure' to be seen, even in peripheral vision. That's because, although the blue bag was still present, the flower had wilted, breaking the misperception.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Sense of presence

CobwebIn New Scientist there is an account of an experiment that has reliably induced a sense of presence. The sense of presence is where someone is convinced that there is someone nearby who cannot be seen. It obviously gives rise to reports of ghosts. You see a video of the experiment here.

Like OBEs, the experience appears to be produced by conflicting sensory information. In the recent research, the sense of touch is used. Participants control a robot that rubs their back but when there is a delay added into the system, they feel someone else is behind them. I wonder if touch is the only sense which can produce this phenomenon. My own experiences of a sense of presence did not involve any tactile sensations. Instead, sound was strongly implicated (see here).

Was there a sensory conflict involved in my experiences? Unexplained sounds were the most obvious explanation. If you hear a sound that you attribute to a human being walking, in a position where they should be plainly visible, but they are not, that is certainly a sensory conflict (between vision and hearing). But in my experiences I think my state of mind was a contributing factor. I was doing something that might have appeared 'odd' to a passer-by so it probably heightened my sensitivity to the possibility of being watched. Such a mental state may amplify any conflict in sensory information.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Producing formant noise words to order

Nothing spectrogramFollowing on from my last post, I had a thought about formant noise, a phenomenon which must be eliminated as a possible cause when analyzing EVP recordings. My own experiments suggest that rhythm is more important than formant-like frequency peaks in producing words. I don't think formant noise works exactly like ordinary human speech. With formant noise, I think the brain hears an apparent bit of speech and tries to fit a word onto it from memory. This has parallels with visual substitution and explains why interpretations can drift - sometimes you hear one phrase, at other times another, from the same sound.

In formant noise, I think the frequency peaks are primarily important in switching the brain into speech mode. I don't think it matters too much which peaks are present, so long as there are some. I believe it is the rhythm that produces the actual words. So, I think it should be possible to produce specific words or phrases to order, by using just the right rhythm. I decide to try this idea.

My aim was to produce a formant noise clip that said the word 'nothing'. It's a simple word with an easily identifiable rhythm to it. I used various mechanical methods for producing sounds with no real voices involved. I have identified, in the past, certain mechanical sounds (that occur normally widely) that tend to produce better formant noise than others, so naturally I used those.

I recorded lots of attempts to produce the word 'nothing' but only found a couple which, at first hearing, sounded promising. Here is the first one : sample 1. Now here's the strange thing. It sounded like the word 'nothing' when played on the original recording with all the other samples. But when I isolated it sounded quite different. My interpretation is at the end of this post, so try listening to the sample first, to see what you think, before seeing what I heard. The spectrogram (above right) shows frequency versus amplitude for sample 1. You can see quite clear multiple frequency peaks occurring simultaneously, typical of both real speech formants and formant noise.

The same thing happened with the second promising attempt: sample 2. It only sounded like 'nothing' before it was isolated from the other attempts. On its own, it sounded quite different (see below for my interpretation). But then something even weirder happened. On listening this sample again, an hour or so later, I could no longer hear at as my original interpretation, even that one sounded perfectly stable and strong earlier. Instead it sounded like another word entirely (see below). But now, later again, it has reverted to my first - non-nothing - interpretation.

The change from the word 'nothing' to something quite different, when isolated, shows the importance of context. Clearly the sounds preceding the samples modified how they were heard. The drift in interpretation of sample 2 is typical of formant noise.

So, I still haven't produced the word 'nothing' yet. I suspect I am not getting the rhythm quite right. I still think it's possible though.

My interpretations: Sample 1 has always sounded like 'natural rhythm' to me. This might be because the word rhythm was floating around my head during this experiment! Sample 2 originally sounded like 'I'm fine' but then changed to 'reverie'. One interpretation or the other persists until I try again later.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Big clue to how formant noise works

SoundAn article in this week's New Scientist offers a clue to how exactly humans detect and decode speech, a subject relevant to EVP. It seems that our brains contain certain specific neurons that are solely concerned with processing heard sound of one particular frequency. There are many such neurons, handling many different specific sound frequencies. It explains how formants are used to decode speech.

The human brain is hard-wired to find combinations of integer harmonic frequencies pleasing (which may explain why we enjoy music). Combined integer harmonic sounds are two or more separate tones, heard at the same time, where their frequencies are related by a simple integer ratio. For instance, the two frequencies 1000 Hz and 2000 Hz heard together would be an combined integer harmonic because 2000 Hz is exactly twice 1000 Hz. Human speech uses such simple harmonic tones to construct the sound components of words. In human speech the harmonic ratios are typically numbers like 2/5 , 1/2, 1/3 etc. These tones, when heard together, are called formants. Formants are discrete sounds within a word, equating to phonemes in phonetics. Instead of hearing the two tones combined as a single musical note, our brain interprets the sound as a discrete sound within a word instead. So, for instance, the 'O' sound might typically consist of a 500 Hz and 1000 Hz frequency combination. Without this decoding human speech would just be a complex, but meaningless, noise.

The neurons that process sounds of a specific frequency are presumably where the formants get decoded. So, the 'O' example would trigger only the 500 Hz and 1000 Hz neurons and no others. Such a specific combination would differentiate the sound from non-speech noise. More than that, it would get converted to the specific 'O' sound as part of a word.

But what happens if you get frequency peaks typical of formants in non-speech sounds? They may produce formant noise, which gets interpreted by our brains as human speech even though it isn't. It might get reported as EVP. Many ambient sounds contain harmonic frequency peaks but few become formant noise. To become interpreted as human speech the sounds also need to have a rhythm and duration typical of spoken words. There are more details on formant noise here. You can hear some examples in the EVP gallery here.

So, in the brain, I assume if a sound has frequency peak combinations, that exceed a certain threshold, they will turn on 'speech mode' so that the brain interprets such sounds as speech, even if they are actually formant noise. Such a threshold system will inevitably make mistakes in certain situations. Formant noise must be eliminated as a possible source of apparent speech when examining EVP recordings.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The bird vanishes

RobinThe recent unseasonably warm weather is finally over. So when I was out the other day it was cold, wet and windy. I noticed, up ahead of me, a small bird fluttering down in the stiff breeze. It landed on a path and briefly pecked at something on the ground. Though the bird looked dark in the grey light and rain it resembled a Robin (right). But then it did something extraordinary. It simply collapsed out of existence - it crumpled downwards from a solid object to nothing.

I kept the spot where the bird had vanished in constant sight as I moved closer. Finally, I was just a metre or so away and could see clearly that it was actually a wet leaf. It certainly had me convinced for a few seconds as there was no real reason to think it wasn't a bird. It 'behaved' just like one. So, how had a leaf appeared as a bird?

Firstly, the low lighting and rain made for poor viewing conditions. Many objects looked dark, like the leaf, and a real bird would have looked much the same in those conditions. Secondly, I think the rain caused part of the senescent leaf to stick to the wet ground while the rest was held vertical, temporarily, by the stiff breeze. Thirdly, I think the 'pecking' motion reflected the wind as it rose and fell. Once the wind dropped, so did the leaf and it subsequently remained stuck to the ground. Fourthly, as mentioned recently, as a birder, I am always alert to birds and more likely to misperceive inanimate objects as them. This means that I tend to see most birds in any given location while occasionally noticing one or two that are not real. Non-birders, by contrast, will probably notice few, if any, of the birds in any given location but are also probably less likely to misperceive an inanimate object as one.

On another subject, we recorded our over half a million hits on the ASSAP website, for the first time, in each of the last three months. The highest number was in October with a total of 594103. I think interest in the Seriously Spooked ghost conference was partly responsible.