Friday, 17 July 2015

Just imagination?

Rock faceOne of the popular ideas among the general population (as opposed to paranormal researchers) is that many reports of anomalous phenomena are the result of imagination. I can't quite see how this would work in practice. Like most people, I sometimes fall into daydreaming episodes during the quiet moments of life. But they never lead me to actually see things that are not physically there. The scenes in my daydream remain firmly in my head while I continue to see the real world around me. So I'm not sure how imagination can, on its own, make you see stuff that isn't really there. In all the many paranormal cases I've examined in detail, imagination has never emerged as a likely, or even unlikely, explanation.

Another popular explanation for reports of anomalous phenomena is people seeing patterns in images or sounds when they are not really there. An example would be seeing a 'face' in a rock formation. Well I have often seen such things but I never once thought they were actual faces. Take the photo (right) as an example. I see a prominent nose, a quite convincing eye and a bizarrely small mouth. What I don't see is an actual human face and nor, I suspect, will anyone else.

Contrast that with the second photo (below right). I see a magazine held open to reveal an inside page, which is blank. Even though I know that is not what the photo really shows it is still what I see. it is a form of permanent misperception, for me at least. For an explanation of this image see here. In all the many paranormal cases I've examined in detail, seeing illusory patterns has never emerged as an even remotely possible explanation.

Ghostly cylinderThus, these 'popular explanations' do not, in my view, stand up to much scrutiny. Based on my own experience I'd say they seldom, if ever, explain any paranormal reports. However, they do affect how witnesses to strange phenomena are viewed by the public. It is little wonder that some witnesses are reluctant to share their experiences.

The reality of what witnesses perceive in actual cases is quite different to these popular ideas. When someone misperceives a tree as a human figure they don't see a tree vaguely resembling a person. Instead, they see an actual human figure, taken from their own visual memory (see example here) and the tree isn't visible at all. When someone hears an EVP caused by formant noise they don't hear a vague noise that could be language. They hear actual distinct words produced within their brain in response to the formant noise (see here for examples). When someone sees a ghost, or an alien, in a near sleep experience, the scene appears exactly as if it was produced by real external objects.

I suspect that, in all these cases, the experience would use the same bits of the brain as one caused a real external equivalent if viewed in a fMRI scan. So, experiences caused by these mechanisms are completely authentic in the brain of the witness. They simply don't happen to correspond with the physical reality around the witness. When paranormal investigators talk to witnesses it is important they understand that, however fantastic the accounts may appear, it is highly likely that they were experienced pretty much precisely as described. Finding out whether these experiences corresponded to any physically real external event, and what that was, is the job of the paranormal investigator.

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