Thursday, 28 May 2015

Why are so few ghosts seen on vigils?

VigilThere have never been many ghosts seen on vigils. The traditional reason for this is simple. Ghosts are not that commonly seen, even at haunted locations. So the odds of one turning up on the particular single night when a vigil is taking place, are rather small. But a large proportion of ghost sightings are actually caused by misperception. And misperception occurs when objects are seen in poor viewing conditions. And many vigils are held in the low light which clearly constitutes poor viewing conditions. So, there ought to be a fair number of misperception-induced apparitions seen on dark ghost vigils. So why aren't there?

Regular readers will know that I have a tendency to notice misperceptions more than I once did. As a result I've seen a number of ghosts in recent years. But, interestingly, virtually all my misperceptions, of ghosts and other things, have come in good lighting conditions. This appears counter-intuitive. Most of my misperceptions are caused by seeing something for a very short period (glance misperception) or in peripheral vision. Walking around in low light conditions I rarely notice anything odd. So why is this?

I have two theories. The first revolves around the fact that misperception involves individual objects. A misperceived object is visually substituted for another. This process obviously involves some brain processing power. If every object in a scene is poorly-seen, it would require massive processing power to do substitutions for all the objects in view, so the brain may simply not bother at all. My second theory is that, in low light, our brains simply accept that everything we see will be viewed poorly so we never notice any misperception that is going on. I've no idea which, if either, idea might be correct.

Whatever the reason, it appears to me that misperception is only ever noticed in one or two objects in a scene at any one time. I don't think you can notice misperception for lots of objects at once, far less an entire scene. So there will only ever be one or two things that are noticeably 'wrong' in any given scene. I'm going to try to see if this is true by attempting to see multiple simultaneous misperceptions in a single scene.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Movie scene becomes strange experience!

Crows in a treeI recently wrote about how my acquittance (MA) who experiences microsleep with REM (MWR) can have several entirely different such episodes in a matter of minutes. One such recent experience offered a important clue about the source of the content of these MWRs.

MWR episodes happen to a tiny percentage of the population and are generally associated with certain sleep disorders. Someone enters a microsleep and straight away starts to dream. The MWR may take the form of voices, complete dream scenes or a mixture of the real scene with some dream elements. Whatever form it takes, anyone who experiences such an episode, who is unaware of its cause, might understandably interpret it as a paranormal event (see the train ghost incident, for instance).

MA reports that most such MWRs are pretty random in their content. However, there was one recently that appeared to be taken directly from the film trailer of a science fiction film first viewed just the day before. That such dream content is derived from personal experience, even with fictional sources, is unsurprising.

Back in the nineteenth century, the Marquis d'Hervey de Saint Denys made an intensive study of the origin of dream content using lucid dreaming techniques. After many experiments, he concluded that dream content comes solely from our actual memories. In dreams, our own recollections appear to be rearranged and presented back to us in an unfamiliar and often bizarre way. I don't think it would be speculating too far to say that MWR experiences, which feature dream content, are also drawn from the witness's own memories.

In MA's latest MWR the scene was clearly directly inspired by the film trailer but with a few differences, one very significant. Unlike in the film, the scene appeared from MA's own viewpoint. This is important. It demonstrates how a purely fictional scene can be directly transformed into an apparently real personal experience. It has long been suspected by anomaly researchers that fictional content feeds into the content of reported real strange experiences. This example shows this feedback actually working, all due to the way our brains produce dreams.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Mystery flash

VigilThe results of ghost vigils often rest on a small number of unexplained incidents recorded during the session. It is generally understood that 'unexplained' implies possibly, or even probably, paranormal. But could more of these intriguing incidents actually be explained?

This question was not on my mind when I was leaning over to pick something up and saw an orange flash. I was puzzled because I could think of no reason for such a flash. A close examination of the area where the flash came from, a bookcase, revealed nothing that might account for it. The scene was well-lit so I examined every object n the area closely but there was nothing that could conceivably flash, orange or any other colour. It was distinctly odd.

So I tried leaning over again - several times. Nothing happened, at first, but then finally I got the flash again. It was only then that I noticed a steady orange light, a neon power indicator light, in the opposite direction to the flash (from my position). It was clearly the source of the flash. Experiments revealed that the neon was reflecting in the plastic cover of a clock on a bookshelf. Due to the relative positions of objects in the room, the reflection only occurred when my head was in one specific tiny area of space. And moving my head through that precise position made the light appear as a single flash. Mysterious flashes are sometimes reported in ghost vigils.

So the effect was a coincidence, relying on the exact position of the neon, the clock and my head. If any of these things changed, even slightly, the flash effect would never have occurred. In my experience, coincidences are behind many reports of anomalous phenomena. It can be difficult to reproduce exactly the conditions of such events. Not only may it rely on exact positioning but, even worse, on factors that are temporary which may no longer be present when you attempt to reproduce the effect. Suppose, for instance, that the power indicator was on an automated piece of equipment which turned off just after my initial observation. It would then have been very difficult to work out where the light had come from.

So what can be done to improve the chances of explaining strange incidents? In the case of ghost vigils, I think you need to have continuous high quality video recording, ideally from multiple angles, of everything going on. If my 'neon' incident had been recorded, a video might have caught the indicator light even if it turned off before I had a chance to reproduce the incident. Video cameras can also, of course, pick up odd sounds. And if someone reported seeing something that should have been visible to the video camera but was not, it might indicate that the experience was subjective.

Of course, continuous video recording is not an option for the strange incidents we come across in every day life. But maybe it will be in future (see here). In the meantime, it might still be possible to explain strange incidents, even without video cameras, by guessing at, and then testing for, missing temporary factors. In the current example, if the light had gone off I would not have noticed it. But I might, on a careful examination of the area, have deduced that reflection was a possibility and shone a light at the clock, in the dark, to see what it illuminated. I tried this and, yes, when the torch was where my head had been the reflected light picked out the neon indicator!

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Unlike a rhinoceros ...

Swan"Unlike a rhinoceros ..." Just about everything is unlike a rhinoceros so it's difficult to predict how that sentence will end. Frustratingly, we will never know. The sentence was heard by my acquaintance (MA) who gets MWR (microsleep with REM - see here), a condition usually associated with certain sleep disorders. It was the only thing MA can remember of the MWR. It was uttered by an unknown authoritative-sounding voice just as the MWR ended. Such MWRs could, to those who don't know what they are experiencing, be interpreted as paranormal incidents.

One of the most extraordinary things about MWRs happens when several occur in quick succession, just minutes or even seconds apart. MA reports that the content of each MWR in the series has a completely different (dream) content. So, sitting in a chair reading, perhaps, MA may hear a voice saying something, followed by a completely different voice, in a subsequent MWR just seconds later, talking about another topic entirely. Or MA might be briefly 'transported' to somewhere else, 'return' briefly and then 'go' to a completely different place. In reality, MA goes nowhere physically, of course, they are just micro-dreams.

Successive MWRs in any one sequence seem always to be of the same type. The main types are voices or being transported elsewhere. A rarer type is hypnagogic where real scenery, present in front of MA, has dream elements, like ghostly figures, added into it (for example a ghost on train).

When most people dream, they do so only after being asleep for some time. They may typically experience 3 to 5 dreams in a night. With MWRs there appear to be no limit to the number of dreams that can occur in rapid succession. And, astonishingly, each such dream has completely different content. This means that our brains are apparently capable of producing entirely different dreams in seconds. MA says it's like switching channels on a TV. It implies that our brains have a whole series fully 'scripted' dreams ready to go, instantly. It makes you wonder where all these dream scenarios are stored. And why.

I've not come across anyone reporting a series of bizarre, and different, experiences in short succession. But if someone were to experience this phenomenon how might they interpret it, assuming they weren't familiar with MWRs? The 'voices' type MWRs could be interpreted as 'spirit messages', perhaps. It wouldn't be possible to talk to such 'voices' because, in doing so, the person would come out of the MWR state. Anyone experiencing the 'transported elsewhere' MWRs might think they were being repeatedly teleported, possibly by aliens. I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who has come across any anomalous accounts that sound similar to this.

PS: And the photo? Well, it's unlike a rhinoceros.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Sense of presence - another perspective

Sound graphSome people occasionally report feeling a sense of presence. It is a strong feeling that there is a person present nearby but invisible. It can clearly give rise to ghost reports. I've only ever experienced it myself a few times. On two occasions I felt it was triggered by sounds. My best bet, at the time, was that ambient sounds happened to resemble a person moving around, so generating the sense of presence (see here). This could be the explanation but it may be more subtle than that.

I was prompted to consider another explanation by an article in last week's New Scientist about how some blind people click their fingers to echolocate objects around them. They can even use ambient sounds, rather than producing their own, sometimes. I was struck by the description one person gave of being able hear nearby trees. It got me wondering. Could there be sighted people who unconsciously develop this same echolocation ability without even realizing it. They might unintentionally develop the skill through their lifestyle or work. They wouldn't normally notice it because their visual and sonic pictures of their surroundings would generally coincide. But what would happen if they conflicted? Could it produce a sense of presence?

Last year I mentioned an experiment where scientists had induced a sense of presence in the laboratory using conflicting sensory information (see here). A disagreement between someone's unconscious sonic picture of a scene and their conscious visual version might well constitute just such a sensory conflict. The difference might simply arise because the sonic version, produced by ambient sound and echolocation, was not as accurate as the visual version. The sonic version of a scene could, of course, only appear when there was a suitable sound, required for echolocation to work. So the feeling of presence would only appear when an unexpected sound occurred. The sound would not have to resemble anything an actual person might produce.

I have also come across a sense of presence produced by a visual stimulus (see here). It appears to me that a sense of presence can, like an apparition, be generated by any one of several different mechanisms.

Generally, science goes for the simplest explanations. But if strange phenomena had simple explanations they would probably have all been discovered long ago. So, just because the echolocation theory appears complicated, it doesn't necessarily mean it isn't true.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Brilliant daytime UFO

Venus in treesIt was star-like but very bright. Although it was broad daylight, the object in the sky was brilliant. It was stationary, and below the level of the clouds. Though mostly constantly bright, it occasionally flashed. At first I had no idea what this brilliant daytime UFO might be.

I was sitting in a train, gazing idly out of the window waiting for departure, when I noticed the UFO. It was the same station and situation as when I saw the ghost in the white hat (see here). And this UFO, it turned out, had the same cause as that apparition. It was actually a reflection in the window through which I was looking.

Though I'd worked out quite quickly the cause of the UFO, I couldn't find the object being reflected for quite a while. Simply looking behind me didn't help! I needed to trace through the angles. The object had to be high up to appear to be in the sky from where I was sitting. Maybe it was a real UFO after all! Finally, I found it. It was the sun being reflected in the windscreen of a car high up in a multi-storey car park. And the flashing effect was caused by a tree between me and the car. Its leaves were blowing in the wind, sometimes obscuring the bright light briefly.

Could someone else really have thought this object was a UFO? Well, when I first saw it, I genuinely thought it was something in the sky. If the train had moved off straight away, I might still be left with that impression

Friday, 8 May 2015

Ghosts: why do fiction and real life remain consistently different?

VigilWhen I started doing investigations into the paranormal, mainly ghosts, I noticed that real cases are radically different to their fictional counterparts in the movies and in books. Others have found the same - a consistent and persistent radical difference between real paranormal cases and the 'movie version'. It's fairly obvious that the 'movie version' derives from long held cultural beliefs. But why is it not influenced by the real thing? And why are reports of real cases not obviously influenced by the movies?

In the movie version of ghost cases we see unambiguously paranormal events, like talking transparent apparitions or people clearly levitating in front of multiple witnesses. In real cases such things seldom, if ever, occur. So why the difference? I once heard an author say in an interview that the events of real ghost cases just aren't interesting enough to use in fiction. That explains part of it but there is something specific to visual presentations, like movies or TV, that I think contributes a lot. It is point of view.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to produce a video recreation of a real case. If you video a scene where we see a witness looking at a very obvious ghost, transparent perhaps, the audience will inevitably think that the film maker intends them to believe the ghost is paranormal. That's because they are effectively acting as a second witness. And because they see the same thing as the first witness, possible explanations like hallucinations can be ruled out straight away. Misperception is still possible a possible xenonormal explanation but most of the audience are unlikely to be aware of it. Without even considering various likely explanations they will tend to think that something unambiguously paranormal is being portrayed, even if the facts of the real case are more open to question. You could video the ghost from the point of view of the witness, and this is done sometimes. But, I suspect it is less dramatically satisfying to film makers and would get tedious for the audience, if done repeatedly. So, whether intentionally or otherwise, something as simple as the point of view chosen by a film maker can have a big effect on how an audience interprets whether a scene shows the paranormal or not.

These sort of factors may explain why fictional portrayals of the paranormal are not easily affected by real cases. But why movie versions of the paranormal appear to have much effect on real cases? The sort of things reported in hauntings and ghost sightings have remained the same for centuries, before and during the era of mass media. It implies that we must be dealing with a real phenomenon. Since we know that most phenomena in haunting cases turn out, on investigation, to be xenonormal in origin, this makes sense. There will always be plenty of natural sources of odd sounds heard in buildings, for instance. If people were imagining such sounds then they might well be influenced by what they'd seen in the movies. But the sounds are real, and recordable. It's just that, in most cases, they are not actually paranormal in origin. Anyway, just my thoughts on why ghosts remain so different in fact and fiction.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Transparent figure, moving fast!

Ghost torchI was waiting for a train when I noticed the figure alongside the track, maybe 10m away. People near the railway track usually wear high visibility clothing so this dark figure attracted my attention. I suddenly realised, to my amazement, that the figure was transparent! It moved quickly, away from the track, and vanished! The figure wasn't projected onto the background like a shadow. It appeared to be a solid object, but transparent. The sighting was brief, lasting only a second or two. I think, as a transparent figure that vanished, it qualifies as a ghost!

Transfixed and a little shocked, I stared at the scene. Then the source of the ghost became obvious. There was a very young tree, consisting of a single thin trunk with large leaves coming from it, around 1.5 m tall, at the exact place I'd seen the ghost. The tree was blowing around in a stiff breeze. It moved far enough, occasionally, to come in front of an overhead electrification mast. As it did so, the tree became much less visible. I should say that, though it was daylight, the whole area of the sighting was in deep shadow. The position and motion of the tree in the wind exactly matched the fast moving shadowy figure I'd seen. I never saw the figure again, only the tree.

So, I have no doubt that it was a glance misperception. This is the first transparent misperception I've seen. I didn't even realize that they were possible. I'm assuming it's a function of the low lighting. I've misperceived several trees or plants as human figures or faces but they were always solid-looking. In all those cases the lighting was good. The transparent effect could also be to do with the leaves in the tree being in frenetic motion, due to the wind. Whatever the cause, it seems that misperception cannot be ruled out as a possible cause of, rather rare, transparent ghost sightings.

The vanishing act was also very interesting. Usually, with a misperception, the ghost doesn't vanish, like a movie special effect, it is simply no longer visible. That's because the misperception 'breaks' and only the misperceived object remains visible. In this case, however, the figure actually visibly disappeared. I'm assuming this is because I could not see the misperceived object, the young tree, as it blended in with the mast behind. So, it seems misperception can produce two effects I had not previously suspected - transparent objects and vanishing objects.

One question that remains is, how could I get a visual substitution of a transparent figure when I've never seen such a thing in real life? The answer is, of course, that I've seen transparent figures many time as special effects in movies. And, as I recently experienced personally (see here), fictional sources are not a problem with misperception.

Friday, 1 May 2015

The ghost at the bus stop

HobbyI was standing at a bus stop recently when I heard voices from a billboard behind me. Now there ARE new devices that allow a tiny number of billboards to play sounds, which could easily give rise to ghost reports, but this wasn't one of them. The voices I heard sounded odd, with a sort of echo to them that you wouldn't expect in the open street where the bus stop was located. It is why I noticed them in the first place. Intrigued, I looked behind the billboard but there was no one there! Nor was there any way someone could have walked off rapidly so that I wouldn't have seen them. I was left with the possibility of multiple unseen ghosts!

Continuing to I look around I looked at the disused office block a few metres behind the billboard. I regularly use this bus stop and have noticed that the building has been out of use and empty for many months. That's when I suddenly remembered that I'd seen people outside the building, near the front door, just the previous day. They were evidently involved in working in the building, possibly refurbishing it. There was a sign at the front door describing the building as a work site. It soon became obvious that the mystery voices were coming from inside the building where there were people working inside. Because of the height of the windows, which were open, it wasn't immediately obvious, to a passer-by, that there was anyone in there. The echo effect was, no doubt, due to the fact that the large open-plan offices were empty. So, mystery solved.

And the photo? Well there's a thought that has intrigued me for years. Sometimes certain birds species, that you would never normally see in an urban setting, turn up at nature reserves in the middle of cities. But in order to get to the welcoming reserve, the birds must have traversed many kilometres of less inviting suburbia. My thought was the incongruous sight these birds must make flying over suburbia.

So, when I recently saw a bird, that I couldn't immediately put a name to, flying low over suburban houses, it made me wonder. If I'd seen the bird in more appropriate habitat I'm certain I'd have recognized it quickly. A little research led me to identify the bird as a Hobby, more usually seen in heathland, woodland edges and marshes. It is migratory species which was probably on its way to its breeding grounds - the dates fit. And that's what the bird in the photo is. It's not a great photo but it was similar to the view I had, without binoculars.

And the point? Well, animals, and other things, can be more difficult to recognise when they are seen somewhere well away from a setting where you'd normally expect to see them. Indeed, they might be misidentified completely. I've done it myself, to my great embarrassment. It could be a contributory factor in witnesses misidentifying things as strange or paranormal when, in reality, they are just out of their normal place.