Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Can really wanting to see a ghost allow you to see one?

VigilI've really wanted to see a ghost ever since I was a kid. I utterly failed in that ambition for many years, despite many long nights spent in haunted buildings. Then, a few years ago I saw my first. Since then I've seen a number and can't even remember much about the first one any more. The thing about these ghost sightings is that they were a lot less dramatic than the portrayal of such events in the movies. In most cases, I was unaware I was even seeing a ghost until it vanished! This experience tallies with many other ghost sightings I've looked into that have happened to other witnesses. My own sightings were, in most cases, caused by misperception.

As well as ghosts I also started to notice other misperceptions a few years ago. We all misperceive all the time but almost everybody fails to notice it almost all of the time. Our brains 'fill in' details of the parts of our visual field that are poorly seen with a best guess from visual memory (visual substitution). Most of my misperceptions could not be interpreted as paranormal which is why I don't mention them here.

These 'normal' misperceptions fall into two broad types. Firstly, there are visual substitutions that look 'right'. In other words, they are objects that might well be found in a particular situation but just don't happen to be physically present. Secondly, there are objects that look out of place, things that are unlikely to be present and, of course, are not. The one I see most of is the second type - 'wrong' out of place stuff. I guess this makes sense as I have a marked tendency to notice things that appear 'wrong' in some way.

But here's an odd thing - why should my brain's 'best guess' be something unlikely to be seen in a particular situation? Firstly, I suspect these 'wrong' guesses are vastly outnumbered by the 'right' ones. It's just I don't notice all the 'right' ones because they don't stand out. Secondly, misperceptions are not pure guesses - they are based on the actual visual shapes and colours visible. If these strongly suggest a 'wrong' object then that becomes the 'best guess'.

I am still not sure why I suddenly started to notice misperceptions. I have speculated that it might be that, after reading about research into perception, I gave myself unconscious 'permission' to see them. Or, more recently, I wondered if my birding made me more sensitive to anomalies in my visual environment that others might miss. I am still not convinced either way.

Given that noticing misperception shows no sign of going away, I can only assume that my brain is permanently working differently to the way it used to. Such neuroplasticity is, of course, a well known phenomenon. But why did it happen in my case? My latest idea is this. Having always yearned to see a ghost, perhaps, having seen my first I unconsciously 'remembered' my brain state at the time and managed to reproduce it. Yes, it could be that I see ghosts now because I've always really wanted to in the past! But I'm still not totally convinced.

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