Paranormal Phenomena: March 2006

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

More paranormal experimentation please!

A lot of people do paranormal research these days. However, the vast majority simply do 'investigations' at haunted houses. The trouble is, all this effort is really getting the subject nowhere fast. Too many people just want to 'see' something or 'prove' to themselves that ghosts exist (or don't!). None of this contributes to our understanding of the paranormal. In order to do that we need to go beyond the data collection phase (which is a kind way of putting what some people do) to the experimental phase.

I'm not talking about card guessing in labs, useful though that is. Indeed, lab research has shown that, overall, there might be a slight extra-sensory perception effect. If it exists, which is disputed, it is tiny and cannot possibly account for the far more obvious paranormal events reported 'in the wild'.

The time is surely here to move experiments out of the lab and into haunted houses. Though this has happened already, it is only to a very limited extent. These early experiments have shown, for instance, that people tend to report more strange experiences in places that 'feel spooky' eg. cold, dark, damp etc. There has also been some limited work showing that some haunted places may have unusual magnetic fields associated with them. But there is a lot more work to be done.

A very limited amount of experimentation occurs during existing vigils. This consists of testing to see if reported effects (such as strange noises) could have been caused naturally. Usually, though, these are perfunctory and inconclusive. They barely qualify as experiments at all.

The increased use of instrumentation on vigils could, potentially, bring about more experimentation. However, usually it is intended to 'record' ghosts and any associated effects they may bring. This has led to claims that ghosts are associated with changes in magnetic fields and increases in negative ion concentrations. I have never been able to track down the evidence to back these claims. These would be excellent claims to investigate with proper experiments!

I think the problem many researchers have with doing experiments is that they feel that such work is aimed at explaining 'away' ghosts as natural phenomena. I've never understood this attitude. If ghosts can be explained as magnetically-induced hallucinations, for instance, it is not explaining them 'away' at all. Indeed, it would validate ghosts as being real experiences!

I think it really is time to get away from ghost 'hunting' to move towards ghost experimentation. Only through this approach can we hope to understand the paranormal.

Monday, March 27, 2006


When digital cameras became popular a new phenomenon appeared in haunted houses - the orb! It consisted of a circular blob, usually white and featureless but not always. It appeared in photos but was never seen at the time of the exposure. It was interpreted by some as a manifestation of spirits or even a new type of ghost. The truth was more prosaic.

One point about orbs that a lot of people seemed to miss was that they appeared in other places apart from haunted houses. Indeed, they can appear anywhere where a flash is used with a compact digital camera (they are very rare with DSLR and super-zooms). Away from haunted houses they are just seen as a nuisance. They are probably more common in old dusty houses and castles where a lot of people hunt for ghosts.

Many people now attribute orbs to dust floating close to the camera lens reflecting the flash. It is often said that the reason it affects digital cameras particularly (orbs have been observed with film cameras) is that the flash is so close to the lens. This is only part of the reason. The flash is just as close to the lens on compact 35mm cameras (explaining the tiny number of orbs obtained with those). The important change with digital cameras that caused orbs was, in fact, the big increase in the depth of field of the camera lens.

The depth of field is the distance (in front of the lens) between the nearest point where an object is in focus and the furthest distance. With the increased depth of field, the nearest point in focus was closer to the lens. This also brought the area where objects are just out of focus nearer to the lens too - close enough for the flash to illuminate tiny objects like dust.

Orbs are, indeed, out-of-focus dust. When objects go out of focus (viewed through a lens) they break up into diffuse circular shapes. You can see these sometimes in the out-of-focus bits of photos. The colours and details in some orbs (some people claim to see faces!) are due to aberrations in the lenses of some cameras.

Some people still maintain that at least SOME orbs are paranormal. Some have 'tails', for instance (this is usually falling rain or snow and sometimes another form of aberration). I've yet to see any photos of orbs (and there are a lot on the web) that aren't obviously a tiny object out-of-focus. The funny thing is that, if orbs had been recognised for what they were early on, I doubt very much anyone would be claiming that any were paranormal now.

If you want to avoid getting orbs, use a DSLR or super-zoom digital camera. Both of these have their flash positioned further away from the lens and they usually have reduced depth of field too.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Media bias when covering the paranormal

Does any other subject get so misrepresented in the media as the paranormal, I wonder?

The attitude of the media to the paranormal is either to be sceptical, take it at face value or simply use it as a source of entertainment. The one thing it never does is take the subject seriously.

We have a number of TV programmes currently running that apparently show investigations of haunted houses. Any viewer would quickly form the opinion from these (despite the presence of the token sceptics) that hauntings are all about spirits of the dead. And yet, when serious investigations are undertaken (without mediums!) the results are quite different. It may surprise you to know that experienced researchers have come across little or no evidence of any link between hauntings and 'spirits of the dead'!

A typical haunting consists of someone reporting odd occurences in a building. These may be odd noises, apparent object movement ('apparent' because it only noticed afterwards, not seen in motion), strange lights and smells and, rarely, apparitions. Properly conducted research vigils frequently produce no additional evidence of anything paranormal. However, investigators often find natural explanations for some of the reported effects. There is usually a residue of unexplained effects after a full investigation but this rarely, if ever, points to any 'spirit' explanation!

As you can see, this is nothing remotely like what you see reported in the media where the evidence is either sensationalised or ridiculed. I can't think of any other subject which is so distorted by the media.

There is great public interest in the paranormal, which the media feed, but it is not at all helpful to any serious understanding of the subject. Instead, the subject is portrayed more like its fictional representation in novels or Hollywood.

I doubt there is much we can do about this as I doubt the media see it as their job to portray our subject seriously. I just hope this blog can help make people see there is another, serious, side to the subject.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

When does a coincidence become paranormal?

If you predict the right score to a football match, is that a coincidence or did you know it through paranormal means (precognition)?

If a psychic tells you that "you know your own mind and aren't easily influenced by others", are you impressed? It could apply to most people so probably not. Suppose they go on to tell you that your favourite colour is green (assume it is, for the sake of argument). Are you now impressed? There are not that many colours so it isn't that amazing.

However, put the two correct facts together and the odds against it being a guess lengthen. Suppose the psychic continues to tell you more facts about yourself, none particularly remarkable in themselves but all true. At what stage do you think the psychic really has some paranormal ability? At what level of odds are you impressed?

To 'believers', there will definitely come a point when they are impressed and probably convinced. To sceptics, that point may never arrive.

Odds are calculated against chance. So there is a one in six chance of getting any particular face on a die. But while odds of, say, 1000 to 1 against something being mere coincidence sound impressive, it could STILL be chance! The odds against winning the jackpot in the UK Lotto are nearly 14 million to 1 against but there are still winners most weeks and I doubt they claim paranormal abilities! Luck CAN operate against huge odds.

Generally, when the same person can repeatedly get positive guesses against great odds it is seen as paranormal. Though it could still just be luck!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Paranormal mysteries

Why does everyone like mysteries so much? So much fiction is based around mystery. And in real life, people often prefer to sustain a mystery even after a plausible explanation has been found.

For instance, the well-known Rennes le Chateau mystery surrounds the sudden appearance of great wealth to a rural parish priest, Sauniere. Historical records show that he 'sold' masses to wealthy clients who wanted to 'buy' their way into heaven. It is a simple, plausible solution to the mystery based on documentation. However, many people dismiss this solution and seem keen to maintain the mystery, hinting darkly at more fantastic explanations (buried treasure, Templars, etc.).

It's certainly true that when you get to the end of a mystery novel, the final solution is almost always a let down but you have to accept it because that is what the author wrote. In real life we don't have to accept the 'official solution', however plausible, and can continue to muse. But why do we prefer a mystery to a solution?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

More on geomagnetism and the paranormal

I ought to clarify a few things about the geomagnetic - paranormal connection (about which I remain sceptical!).

A geomagnetic storm produces a DROP in the geomagnetic field. A drop of 0.5% in the overall geomagnetic field would be considered an EXTREME magnetic storm, occuring perhaps once a year. Typically there would 10 lesser storms per year which would see a drop of only around 0.1% in the overall field. It seems highly unlikely that humans would sense such a tiny change.

By contrast, field variations in the ambient magnetic field caused by human activity have been measured at higher than solar storms! This human activity is, of course, the widespread use of electrical appliances. Indeed the variations in magnetic field walking through a typical house would typically be higher than those found in a solar storm.

There IS a connection between geomagnetic storms and weather. This is more likely to have a noticeable effect on people than tiny geomagnetic variations that are, in most cases, completely drowned out by local magnetic noise.

If there is a case for a geomagnetic link to paranormal phenomena, I think it has not been put convincingly yet.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Geomagnetism and the paranormal

I've noticed a number of paranormal web sites have a geomagnetic indicator on them. This shows things like 'active' and 'quiet'. Is there any special reason for this? Has someone come up with convincing evidence to show a link between geomagnetic variations and paranormal phenomena?

I know there have been studies showing apparent (though not highly significant) links between geomagnetic variation and the reports of paranormal phenomena, however I don't find them convincing. I suspect readers of such reports compare them with epidemiological studies used to pinpoint environmental causes of disease. However, there are major differences.

In an epidemiological study, diseases are diagnosed by professionals using fairly strict symptoms and confirmatory lab tests. The main causes of such diseases are often well-known. These can measured on site and then allowed for in the study so that other, novel, causes of disease can show up in the remaining data.

Compare this with the data used in studies of the distribution of paranormal reports. The quality of reports is highly variable. It ranges from full in-depth investigations by academics up to vague unchecked newspaper reports. Many of the people who investigate cases are not trained and some have distinct biasses towards belief or scepticism. It is highly likely that a significant proportion of the reports are either incorrect in detail or entirely spurious. In other cases, some otherwise good data may be rejected for spurious reasons.

Then there is the question of possible causes of reports. The fact is, we simply don't know many of these. There may be many as yet undiscovered causes which we obviously cannot eliminate. It is obviously not known how these unknown factors may affect each other. In addition, even known factors may not be measured or may be measured inaccurately during many investigations. For these reasons I think such surveys are premature and probably unhelpful.

With regard to geomagnetic variation, a single variable such as a planetary index is often used in a study to decide geomagnetic variability at any instant. However, these are overall average indicators (as the name implies) for the whole planet. The geomagnetic field shows regional variations as the effect of solar disturbances propagates along magnetic field lines in the magnetosphere. So, really, you need magnetic readings to be taken ON SITE where the paranormal report originated at the time it occured.

I am also sceptical about of any plausible mechanism for paranormal reports to be linked to geomagnetic activity. We are talking about a variation of up 0.5% (and usually VERY much less) in the overall geomagnetic field spread over a period of many hours! It is difficult to see how such a slight, slow variation could have any significant effect on people.

Don't believe or disbelieve when investigating

Everyone has an attitude to the paranormal. These range from complete belief to utter scepticism. While everyone is welcome to their opinions, these should be left behind when investigating the paranormal.

It is easy to say but hard to do. Believers will inevitably see a seemingly good case as the proof they want. Hardened sceptics, meanwhile, may make only a superficial investigation because they already 'know' it can't be paranormal as it doesn't exist! Neither approach is at all helpful.

The best way to approach any paranormal investigation is to simply see what is there and what is not. The main method of investigation is to try to eliminate natural causes for the reported phenomena. The idea is that whatever is left (as Sherlock Holmes didn't quite say), however improbable, must be the paranormal.

One problem, though, is how do you decide that you've eliminated ALL possible natural causes? There may be some that you haven't considered or that are actually unknown to current science! This is a way of seeing where you are on the belief / sceptic scale. A believer may eliminate a few obvious natural causes for a phenomenon and announce in triumph it is proof of the paranormal. A sceptics may exhaust all possible natural explanations but still 'know' there's something he's missed!

One of the problems we have in the field of paranormal research is deciding how to make sense of all the evidence. A lot of it seems contradictory and some cases are suspiciously unique. I think the reason for that is that many cases are investigated in a biassed way producing results that support their investigator's prejudices.

If we remove such poorly investigated cases there is still a core of reasonably consistent evidence. For instance, most hauntings consist of a few odd noises, strange lights and smells and some object movement (I should explain that this object movement is not usually witnessed, it is merely noticed after the event!). This core certainly doesn't appear quite as inexplicable as the wilder stuff that passes for evidence in much ghost literature. There IS something there to be explained but not as much as you'd think!

Friday, March 17, 2006

First understand what's normal!

Before you can hope to discover anything paranormal, you must first find out what is normal. Unfortunately, this requires an extensive knowledge of the natural world.

People report the paranormal! They are the ones who witness paranormal events (not animals or machines). But people can sometimes 'witness' what is, strictly speaking, not there! Many people assume that only those with mental illnesses suffer hallucinations but that is not true. For a start, there are many other conditions (not mental illnesses) that people may have that can produce hallucinations; everything from temporal lobe epilepsy to aura migraine. People with no 'conditions' at all can still go into altered states of consciousness or have their mind temporarily altered by neurolinguistic programming. And then there are optical illusions and simulacra (seeing patterns, such as faces, in random shapes), as well as a host of other possibilities, that affect everybody. People can often 'see' things when they are under stress or simply expecting something (such as listening intently for slight sounds when walking down a dark alley alone at night).

Then there are many natural phenomena which can appear to be paranormal. Most people are not familiar with fireflies (that glow at night) or the calls of owls, for instance.

It is unfortunate that the perfect paranormal investigator would probably need to be an expert in physiology, psychology, neuroscience, physics, chemistry, natural history, geology, meteorology, astronomony and whole lot of other things. In this way they could first satisfactorily eliminate the normal before considering the paranormal. Obviously, such a paragon does not exist. So, in practice, good paranormal researchers consult relevant experts or become knowledgeable themselves. You can learn a lot about the normal world by studying the paranormal.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Recording ghosts?

If two people, on separate occasions, mistake a shadow at the top of a flight of stairs for a ghost, is it a recording ghost?

The so-called recording ghost is one which seems to do the same thing each time it is witnessed. These ghosts tend to get reported in 'faction' books, ie. those that are 'fact' but which often rely on second or third-hand reports. In 'real' cases (ie. those carefully investigated and well-reported by experienced researchers), such 'recordings' are surprisingly rare. More often, a case just consists of a number of strange noises, odd sightings and other strange occurences. Though these things often happen in the same places within a house ('hot spots') they are rarely exactly the same each time they are witnessed. The case for recording ghosts is a lot weaker than casual readers of ghost books might think.

The 'hot spots' in haunted locations are often associated with unusual natural phenomena such as creaky floor boards or bizarre (but natural) shadows. They produce similar ghostly reports because they are produced by the same natural phenomena.

Consider the example at the start of this post. A strange shadow might be cast by headlights from a passing car outside. As the car moves so the shadow moves, perhaps resembling a moving figure. The 'ghost' would only appear when a witness was in the correct position at the bottom of the stairs as a car passed outside. It might only happen if the curtains were not closed. So the 'ghost' would only appear rarely and each time 'it' would appear to do the same thing. Investigators might never see the 'ghost' unless they stood in the correct spot with the curtains open and waited for long enough.

So, not only is the case evidence for recording ghosts weak, but those that do apparently occur can often be explained by completely natural events. So why are researchers so keen on the idea of recording ghosts?

If recording ghosts were real they would be amazing! They would be a recording made somehow (no one has yet come up with any plausible way for this to happen) of an historical event. Far better than a photo, they would allow us to see exactly what things looked like in the past. There might even be important historical events frozen in these recordings. However, this raises an interesting question. If they ARE recordings, why do we only see a figure? Why can't we see the background around the figure too? When you take a photo of a person you see the figure against a background. So where IS that background? It's a very odd type of recording!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ghostly cold spots

People often report 'cold spots' in haunted locations. These are small areas (or sometimes whole rooms) that feel significantly colder than the surrounding area. They are considered a sign of ghostly presence.

When thermometers are placed in rooms where cold spots are reported they generally fail to register any drop in temperature. What is more, only certain people seem to feel these cold spots and others can stand in the same place and feel nothing. Some people see this as a sign of a paranormal origin with some people more 'sensitive' than others. Others see it as a sign that cold spots are simply imagined.

However, there is another possibility! There are natural phenomena that have a real physiological effect on someone without a conventional thermometer registering any change. For instance, draughts cool people by increasing evaporation, which does not show up as a temperature change. And then there is radiant heat!

Radiant heat is produced by surfaces (such as walls, windows, furniture, etc.). The temperature of the heat given off is directly related to the temperature of the surface ('black body radiation') and NOT to the surrounding air. It is radiant heat that is measured by those infra-red ('laser') thermometers that you point and shoot. Radiant heat goes straight to other surfaces nearby, including people.

It turns out that people are particularly sensitive to radiant heat which is why radiators in a room 'feel' warmer than convection heaters. If a person is facing a cold surface, such as a single-glazed window on a cold night, they will 'feel' cooler because they are receiving less radiant heat from it than the surrounding warmer walls.

So here is another source of 'cold spots' that doesn't register with conventional thermometers (that measure air temperature). With so many normal possibilities to choose from, the paranormal cause looks distinctly low down the list!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Identity of ghosts

How are ghosts identified? This is important because a key plank of both the 'spirit' and 'recording' theory of ghosts is that they represent individual people (rather than, for instance, a series of different hallucinations). Try to find out how ghosts are identified and you will hit a brick wall (except for those 'identified' by mediums!). People are secretive about how they identify ghosts with individuals from the past.

The reason is, I suspect, that the methods used do not stand up to scrutiny. It is generally done through historical research. People will find out about previous occupants of a house and then, effectively, guess based on appearance. Things that may prompt the choice of one person over another might be any tragedy affecting a person.

In some cases, the 'identity' of a ghost may be 'well known' to people in an area eg. someone who committed suicide there. However, investigation may find no trace of any such person ever having been there or any suicide.

What OUGHT to be done is for witnesses to look at lots of pictures of similar 'suspects' and be allowed to chose like a police identity parade. Obviously, this may be impractical if pictures are not available, however this does not justify guessing on the flimsiest of evidence.

The very fact that investigators attempt to 'identify' a ghost shows that they accept before they start the theory of 'spirits' or 'recordings'. However, the whole point of paranormal investigation is to establish these points!

I believe most, if not all, identifications of ghosts are entirely spurious.

Monday, March 13, 2006

There are THREE types of ghost!

I have studied ghosts scientifically for about 30 years and have now formed a few conclusions, though they were not what I expected.

Firstly, to the age old question, do ghosts exist, I'd give a resounding yes! I firmly believe that sane, honest people quite correctly report ghostly experiences. It is the nature of those experiences that is at issue.

A more surprising conclusion is that there are THREE types of ghost. These are (a) fictional ghosts, (b) 'faction' ghosts and (c) 'real' ghosts.

Fictional ghosts are the familiar staple of ghost stories and Hollywood. They have characters, motivations and can communicate with the living. They are 'spirits', in other words. We all understand these are entirely fictional (or do we?).

Faction ghosts are those documented in popular 'real life' ghost story collections (eg 'Ghosts of Sometown'). They are usually written about by authors who have not personally investigated the cases involved though they may have talked to the odd witness. There is a sub-group of 'TV ghost' of the type of show featuring 'real ghost hunters' who usually take mediums into haunted properties. These shows appear to be documentary though they are frequently researched and scripted. The characteristics of 'faction' ghosts are that they are usually identifiable and can, usually through a medium, sometimes communicate with the living. They are, however, far more elusive than the freely interacting fictional ghosts.

Real ghosts are the ones that I, and other serious researchers, have investigated. They are quite different to the previous two types. Usually an investigation is prompted by reports of odd sounds (particularly), lights, smells and object movement. Investigation usually reveals that many of these phenomena could easily have natural causes though there are exceptions. Actual apparitions are surprisingly rare.

Until the TV Ghost era, most serious researchers could find no obvious connection between apparitions and 'spirits' (fore reasons obvious from the previous paragraph). Many, however, subscribed to the 'recording' theory. This said that ghosts tended to repeat their actions again and again, ignoring witnesses and even current room plans. The idea was that ghosts were, in fact, some kind of bizarre 'recording' of a former inhabitant which had somehow been made in the space where they used to live.

It doesn't take much imagination to see that 'fictional' ghosts have influenced the 'faction' type. Many investigators prompted by TV ghost shows have taken this influence into real investigations despite previous evidence.

The recording theory, while interesting, does have flaws as I will be discussing next time. Interestingly, the 'faction' type of ghost seems to influenced 'real' ghosts to produce this idea.

Does anyone take orbs seriously anymore?

Searching the web it is clear that many people see orbs as ghostly manifestations. Web sites making these claims also concede that 'some' orbs are caused by dust in front of the lens ('false' orbs). I have examined a great many orb photos and yet to see any that look anything other than out of focus dust very close to the camera lens. Has anyone ever seen a really convincing orb photo?

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