Monday, 30 March 2015

A ghost retreats

 ShadowI don't currently pay any attention to the door ghost (background here) as I am looking into other stuff right now. Indeed, to avoid seeing it I try to remember to keep my hands out of sight when at the relevant location! But, every now and again, I forget about the ghost and it duly appears, usually catching me by surprise. Which is exactly what happened recently.

I saw the shadowy presence behind me and, without thinking about it, moved my hand out of sight to get rid of the figure. But it didn't simply obligingly vanish. Instead, I saw the feet of the dark ghostly figure retreating backwards away from me. It was so realistic that I turned round to make sure there wasn't a real person behind me. There wasn't.

I've never seen this particular phenomenon before - the door ghost walking away from me. Although it felt real at the time, I wondered why, on reflection. That's because the feet were tiny. They appeared too small for the figure. I have only ever seen the legs and feet but I hadn't noticed that the feet are disproportionately small. This is no doubt a result of the fact that the effect is caused by my own hand. Oddities like this, in ghostly figures, are a good pointer towards misperception as a likely cause of the apparition. That's because a ghostly misperceived figure is shaped., to a large extent, by the real object causing the effect. I think I found the feet realistic, despite their diminutive appearance, because the idea of an unknown shadowy figure standing behind me was disturbing. I think there are strong human instincts to treat apparent threats as real until they can be shown to be harmless.

It was also interesting that the ghost 'walked away' rather than simply vanish. I think that's because my hand couldn't simply vanish, so neither could the ghost. And to make sense of the situation my brain showed me the figure walking away - as real human figures do!

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Can you see the impossible?

Crows in a treeIt is rare to get a misperception that can be readily reproduced. So when an example comes along, like the door ghost, it is ideal for testing theories. The latest instance is the 'motionless escalator handrails' discussed in the last two blog posts. Briefly, I can sometimes see the black handrails of escalators appear perfectly motionless, even though there is plenty of evidence that they are moving normally. It gave me the idea that I might be able to see something impossible.

I realised that there was a statement I made in the last blog post that was not quite accurate. I said, of misperception, that you either get one interpretation (of a misperceived scene) or another, never both and you do not see them change. To clarify, what I usually see is one object change instantly into another. What I DON'T see is a gradual transformation, which is what I should have said. I have discussed how misperceptions can be seen to 'break' here.

the point is this - my brain appears to stop me seeing something 'impossible', like a misperceived human figure slowly rearranging itself into the tree it actually is. I see only credible object or the other. It occurred to me that the handrail misperception gave me the chance to test this idea to destruction. Could I persuade my brain to actually see the 'impossible'?

So I went and watched some escalators again. I found a section of the handrail that appeared totally motionless from my viewpoint and waited. I was waiting for someone to use the escalator with their hand on the handrail. Would I see a hand being carried along by a motionless handrail which is, of course, impossible? Or would the handrail suddenly decide it was moving after all? I really had no idea which I would see. I saw several examples, all with same result.

One problem I should have anticipated, but didn't, was that people on the escalator would cause a change in lighting on the handrail. This messed up the misperception, invalidating the experiment. I adjusted my viewpoint to get an angle where there was no lighting change as a person went by. Finally, I managed to see what I was looking for. The handrail remained motionless! So I saw someone's hand being pulled along by a seemingly motionless handrail. It was like spotting a poorly executed special effect in a movie. Except this was real life!

So there you have it. Our brains can, in the right circumstances, show us something which is plainly impossible. So how do we distinguish such bizarre 'impossible' misperceptions from something truly paranormal?

Monday, 23 March 2015

A solid object moving only in parts

Crows in a treeAs promised in the last post, I've been out studying escalators. To recap, I previously noticed that the black moving handrails of an escalator could sometimes appear motionless when it couldn't be. It was an unusual example of a striking misperception. But I only saw it on one escalator, so I went to look at others, to see if it was a once off. Happliy, it wasn't!

I have seen the phenomenon on several different escalators now. I have even seen one section of a single handrail appear motionless when another part was visibly moving. Significantly, I could not see the two sections in one single view but only by shifting my gaze. If one part of a solid object was apparently moving while another was not, it could well give rise to reports of paranormal phenomena.

Anyway, here is what I've discovered from my initial research. Perhaps not surprisingly, the effect is heavily dependent on lighting conditions. The motionless appearance occurs where the black moving handrail is either strongly reflecting light, appearing shiny white, or very weakly doing so, appearing wholly dark. Both of these conditions mean you cannot see slight marks on the handrail that allow you to easily detect it moving. The effect occurred in good lighting conditions. The best distance for seeing the effect appeared to be from around 2 to 5 metres away. I was unable to see the handrail change state, from motionless to moving, or vice versa. This is typical of misperception. You either get one interpretation or another, never both and you do not see them change. It seems that our brains only allow is to see things that 'make sense'.

I was intrigued by why my brain should ever think that seeing a motionless handrail was a 'best guess' at what it was seeing, given that most escalators I see are working normally. Then I recalled that we actually see the handrail as motionless, even though it is actually moving, when riding the escalator. So the motionless state would actually be a common view of handrails. This provides a plausible explanation of why this bizarre misperception appears to be easily seen on escalators but not on other objects. I am now trying to think of other objects where this might also be true to see if the effect occurs elsewhere. Suggestions welcome!

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Moving object appears motionless

Crows in a treeI was in a shop the other day when I noticed something rather odd. I was approaching an escalator I wanted to use but was stopped in my tracks. I could see the handrail and it was clearly motionless. I was annoyed as this meant I'd have to walk up the clearly non-functioning escalator. As I got closer I could see that the escalator WAS actually working, even though the handrail still appeared to be not moving.

Nonplussed, I looked back at the handrail again. This time it WAS moving. I looked away and back again. It was stopped again, even though the escalator was working normally. I looked away and back again and the handrail was moving once more. While I was doing this, I was aware that several people were using the escalator, most holding onto the handrail. It was clear that the handrail must have been moving all the time. After that I only ever saw the handrail moving normally.

It was clearly a misperception. The black handrail, clearly well maintained, had so few marks on it that it appeared motionless sometimes, even from just a couple of metres away. I looked at another escalator nearby but it was obvious that the handrail was moving, even from a distance. That handrail had more markings on it, making it easier to see the motion.

It is interesting that I never saw the handrail start or stop moving. I either saw it moving or motionless and it only changed state when I looked away and looked back. This is typical of misperception.

On the second occasion that I saw the handrail motionless I knew what I was seeing could not not be right. This gave me an odd feeling - cognitive dissonance, I guess. It must be similar to what people feel when they realise they are seeing something paranormal. It occurs to me that there must be other occasions where a witness sees something that is moving without realizing it. This could obviously cause some paranormal-like effects to be reported. I'm going to examine all escalator handrails from now on, to see if I can catch the effect again.

PS: More on ASSAP's recent Seriously Possessed conference here.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

A fox's tale

Ghostly cylinderAlways interested to see wildlife, I noted a fox nearby while waiting at a railway station recently. It vanished into nearby bushes. But then I noticed its tail was still protruding out of the bushes. With my train not due for a while, I decided to take a closer look. I went onto a bridge over the track which gave a better view of the area. But when I looked, there was no fox.

At first I thought the animal must have departed while I was walking onto the bridge. But then I noticed a line of dark purple flowers, crocuses I believe. I wondered, given their position and shape, if they might be the 'fox tail'? I returned to the platform and, yes, the 'tail' was still there. It didn't look very purple in the dull late afternoon light and was still a 'fox's tail' to me. It was clearly a misperception.

Usually, once you see a misperceived object for what it really is, the misperception no longer works. This was a rare exception. I checked again the next day and the flowers still looked like a fox's tail from the platform. Their colour was dark reddish brown though they looked purple from a nearer vantage point or when the sun shone directly on them.

Even though consciously I knew what the object was - namely crocuses - my unconsciously controlled visual perception was still being fooled! This is similar to optical illusions where we know we are seeing something unreal but can't stop seeing it.

I have come across one or two other cases of misperception persisting, despite my being consciously aware of what I was really seeing. The photo (above) is an example of this. The picture is described here. Essentially, I see a magazine with a page being turned. Even though I know this is untrue, I still see it that way. It is possible that witnesses to anomalous experiences may see a misperception repeatedly, even if they know the first occurrence was not what it appeared to be.

Sometimes witnesses to strange experiences will say things like 'I would have seen it if was there ...'. The implication is that they could not have missed an obvious natural source for what they saw. But I didn't notice the crocuses before the fox went by. Indeed, typically we don't notice much about a scene unless we study it deliberately. So statements about what a witness 'would have seen' should be treated with caution.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Horror movie moment

Crows in a treeFictional accounts of anomalous phenomena are, in my experience, consistently different to real reported cases. One key difference, for instance, is that fictional accounts often involve events that appear to have an apparent meaning. In real life cases, by contrast, the incidents involved usually appear to be fairly meaningless.

Another key difference is that real cases usually lack those horror movie moments where something truly shocking happens. Recently I came across an account which blurred this latter distinction. An acquaintance (AQ) of mine was sitting in a theatre when something startling and completely unexpected happened. AQ had a companion sitting in an adjacent seat. Suddenly the companion's face was right in front of AQ, staring in a bizarre and disturbing way. AQ, shocked, looked round straight away to see their companion sitting in a perfectly normal position looking at the stage with an expression of concentration. It was clear that the companion had not moved at all.

Regular readers may have have guessed that the acquittance is actually the one who experiences MWR - microsleep with REM. In other words, AQ (usually known as MA - my acquaintance - in this blog) goes straight into a dream state during microsleep episodes. The 'face' episode was such an experience. It was unusual in that it resembled the horror movie trick where something shocking suddenly appears dominating the field of vision - in this case someone's face suddenly very close up. Of course, MWR is not anomalous as such. However, it can easily explain many apparent anomalous experiences. MA reports that most such MWR experiences are more like normal dreams. So this particular MWR experience would be more like a nightmare than a typical dream.

This latest MWR shows how fictional influences can get into accounts of apparently real anomalous phenomena. So why don't we see such obvious influences in many reports of anomalous phenomena? Well, firstly, MWRs are short - usually just a second or two. And, secondly, even when MA gets several of them in succession, their content is usually different on each occasion, even when only separated by minutes or even seconds. So, it is unlikely that MWRs can introduce many typical fictional elements beyond the occasional sudden shock, like the face incident. Any case involving such incidents might be worth checking out to see if MWRs might be involved.

PS: Review of ASSAP's Seriously Possessed conference held last Saturday here.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

IFO becomes UFO

AircraftMy first thought was that it was an aircraft. The object was flashing intermittently in the sky, near the horizon, one early sunny morning recently. I have often seen planes glint as they turn, reflecting the sun. Due to the angles involved, I think it can only happen when the plane is near the horizon around sunrise or sunset. Such flashing could certainly give rise to UFO reports as the plane is often at a long distance so that it can't be heard.

I expected the flashing object, as a plane, to move but it remained stationary in the sky. I was puzzled and the object changed, in my mind, from IFO to UFO! It was not easy to see what exactly was going on because that area of the sky was partly obscured by the branches of a tree. Nevertheless, lengthy examination eventually revealed that the flashing light was stationary just below a very tall crane! It was evidently some kind of shiny, probably metallic, object suspended from the crane, rotating slowly and reflecting the sun. I couldn't see any more detail, such as what the object was exactly, because I did not have any binoculars with me. Had it been a little misty I might not have seen the crane at all, only the flash, and not found out what the UFO was at all.

I have come across many cases where investigators have correctly concluded that an anomalous report has a xenonormal explanation. However, as in this case, their proposed natural explanation was actually wrong. I think it is important that we do not stop investigating a case simply because we've concluded it is not anomalous. It is crucial to understand the real cause of the observed phenomenon because the same explanation may apply to other cases. And, as in this case, it might something rather unusual that would not normally occur to an investigator.