Thursday, 22 January 2015

Ghost from a train

Crows in a treeI was casually looking out of a train window recently, as you do, when something caught my attention. The train was approaching my stop so the scenes outside were familiar. I saw someone standing in a garden, close to the railway track. For some reason it struck me as odd though I wasn't sure why. I wondered if the person was standing in a strange way, perhaps, or was of an odd appearance. I didn't see them long enough to tell. I even speculated that they might be a ghost.

I travelled on the same train again a few days later and noticed a person standing in exactly the same place as before. I had forgotten about my previous sighting and only remembered when I saw the new figure. Once again, something struck me as odd about the figure but I couldn't say what. The fact that someone, maybe the same person, was in precisely the same place on two separate occasions struck me as unusual. Once again I wondered about ghosts.

On a third train trip I remembered about the figures just before we reached the spot. This time I looked very carefully. I was expecting to see no one there. So I was surprised to see a human figure in exactly the same position once again. Except that, as I watched the figure for a prolonged duration I could see it wasn't a person at all. It was a garden chair! So this was an example of a glance misperception. I could only see the true nature of the object when I got a reasonably prolonged view of it, though still only a few seconds.

Three things struck me from this experience. Firstly, there was the fact that the chair caught me out twice. I think this happened because I forgot about it before the second sighting. This seems to be a crucial factor in repeat misperceptions. Secondly, on the two occasions I misperceived I literally saw a human figure but, nevertheless, had a feeling there was something odd about it. This was, no doubt, due to the fact that the chair did not look quite the right shape as a typical human figure. Thirdly, I'm surprised I thought I saw a standing human figure, albeit a strange diminutive one, when someone sitting might have made more sense. You cannot, it seems, expect too much sense with misperceptions.

This most interesting, and novel, observation was that a misperceived figure could appear odd though definitely a person. This 'oddness' could easily contribute to the impression that a figure being observed is really a ghost. It means that misperception not only lets us see human figures that are not really present, but can even add to the impression that we're seeing a ghost.

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