ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
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ASSAP bloggerWelcome to the ASSAP paranormal blog! Though this blog is aimed at anyone interested in the paranormal, it will be of particular interest to the paranormal research community. Updated frequently, but not regularly (don't expect something new every day!), it covers any paranormal topic, as well as highlighting recent changes to the ASSAP website. You may not notice it but this site changes on an almost daily basis.

Whenever new information becomes available on a subject ASSAP covers, it is added to the relevant pages of the website straight away. So, just because you've read a page, don't assume it will still be exactly the same when you next look. That way the ASSAP website remains an up to date research resource.

The photo (to the right) is the ASSAP blogger himself, out looking for anomalies wherever they are to be found, so that you can read about them here.

Previous blog pages ...

29 Dec 2008: The rise of unsupported ideas

Yellow orbIn another interesting article in the Christmas issue of New Scientist (20 Dec 2008), the effect of the internet on culture is examined. It had been expected that easy availability of less popular books and music on the web would dilute the concentration of sales in just a few titles. As it turns out, if anything, sales have concentrated even more on just a few items. However, the items that become popular are not as predictable (eg. those heavily promoted by publishers) as before the internet. This is because people are influenced by trends and social networks on the internet as well as the conventional media.

What has this to do with the paranormal? Well, it isn't much of an extrapolation to imagine there is a similar effect in ideas. The rise of forums, blogs and websites promoting particular ideas is probably having a similar effect. We now have access to a wider spectrum of ideas, many of which arise at 'grass roots' level, but only a few become truly widespread and popular.

In the area of the paranormal this can have the unfortunate effect that certain ideas, not obviously supported by any strong evidence, can become popular and widely accepted. Examples include such memes as orbs are paranormal or EMF meters detect ghosts. Such ideas might have arisen through the conventional media but their spread and persistence would probably not have been as wide or deep. Such cultural memes affect how witnesses interpret xenonormal incidents.

The photo above is a daylight yellow 'orb' (just above centre). In fact, if you look closely it is not truly circular, though it is clearly out of focus, so it is not a true orb. It is caused by a single yellow leaf on an otherwise thin bare branch (invisible in the photo) in front of the trees behind.

28 Dec 2008: Could brain scans reveal a ghost?

TreeIn the Christmas issue of New Scientist (20 Dec 2008), there is an article about how brain scanning can show a picture of what people are seeing on a computer screen. The technology is still in its infancy but one day we might be able to get a clear picture of what someone can see or imagine.

Could this finally answer major questions about ghosts? Could we view what someone actually sees when they see a ghost?

The problem is that such scanning software could see what people were imagining as well as what they were actually seeing. We already know that perception takes place largely in our brains and that things in the real world can readily be misinterpreted. So, scanning might show us the ghost that someone is watching but it could still be a product of misperception or even a hallucination.

Tree birdAnd what has all this to do with the photos? Not much really. I took the shots recently. The big one above looked, both at the time of the exposure and in the subsequent photo (to me anyway), like a large grey bird perched in a distant tree. The 'bird' appears to be looking right.

Now look at the photo below right for comparison. This second, more detailed shot, cropped to 'zoom in' on the 'bird' image shows what it really is. It is the top part of a reed! Technically, it is the plume-like inflorescence of the plant.

It looks less bird-like in the second photo, not only because it is bigger, but also because the wind has blown it around into a different shape since the first shot. It now more closely resembles the plant it actually is.

It is clearly an example of misperception which, unusually, looked reasonably convincing when photographed. Of course, some people will not have seen the 'bird' at all. That's the thing about misperceptions - they can be an individual experience. One person sees an oddly shaped tree at twilight as a ghost, another doesn't. This could explain why, when there are multiple witnesses to an apparition, some see it and some do not.

26 Dec 2008: Tell us about 'odd things that change'

Have you ever seen something odd, perhaps briefly or out of the 'corner of your eye', only for it to apparently change quickly on closer inspection (maybe to vanish or alter shape)? Perhaps you thought it was a ghost, an alien or maybe just a trick of the light?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I regularly see, and admit to, such things. Now, having heard about my weird experiences, it's your turn. Just fill in the new research survey to contribute to ASSAP's research programme. The time has come to see just how common these weird experiences really are. I know I'm not the only one who sees them so let's hear other people's stories.

New page added: Seeing odd things that change - a survey

25 Dec 2008: Yule panic!

Yule RobinLooking in my fridge this Yule morning, I realised I didn't have enough milk for the festive period! Having spent the last few days making sure I had everything I needed to survive for the entire one day of the year when all the supermarkets are shut, I was devastated! Then a thought struck me - I had bought plenty of milk. I checked again and, sure enough, the 'gap' I'd seen before was no longer there.

I 'know what I saw' originally- a gap where the milk should have been. I even 'saw' the bit of the fridge behind, that should have been obscured by the milk bottle. Even now, after the event, I can still visualise the partly empty fridge in my head and it feels like a true memory.

It was, of course, a classic case of misperception. The picture we see in our heads is made up only partly of what our eyes see. The rest is contributed by our memory, both recent and old. In this case, I glanced in the fridge so quickly that there was not enough time for my eye to scan everything. So my brain showed me how the fridge often looks, from memory, when there is not so much festive milk.

Once you start to notice misperceptions, you realise they happen all the time. Next time, you glance briefly and see something 'impossible' - look back. There is a high chance the scene will now make perfect sense. It is not a hallucination, nor a ghost. The power of misperceptions is awe inspiring. What is surprising is that we do not see even more anomalies.

Hope you like the Yule Robin.

23 Dec 2008: Scrooge is my hero!

Have you noticed that whenever someone talks about Scrooge, it is always the miserly misanthropic character they are talking about. It is never the warm-hearted generous man he became after his visitations by ghosts. My theory for this is that the miser was a much more interesting and memorable character.

While I was queuing at the checkout of a crowded supermarket at nine o'clock this morning (!) I felt like saying 'bah humbug'. As I looked at the people in front of me, I couldn't help thinking, just how much food can people consume in two days? What's that strange noise I hear behind me? Like someone pulling metal chains. Must be my imagination! Merry Yuletide!

21 Dec 2008: Disappearing before my eyes

Water RailBirdwatchers will tell you that Water Rails (photo right) are difficult birds to see. They lurk in reedbeds, and like to stay out of sight. So, it is always interesting to see one, as I did the other day at a nature reserve. The reserve was unusually quiet, probably because everyone was out Christmas shopping, so the birds were a little bolder than usual.

I saw one by a tree stump a little way off and wanted to try to get its photo. It is never easy getting photos of birds unless you can get close. So, keeping the bird in full view, I walked slowly towards it. I could clearly see it moving around as I approached. As I reached a spot close enough to take a photo I realised the bird had vanished!

Despite having watched the spot where the bird was all the time as I approached, it had disappeared before my eyes. It didn't vanish dramatically, like a ghost in a movie, but simply faded into the background and somehow slipped out of view.

These sort of experiences make you realise that we are not as great as witnesses as we might think. People say 'seeing is believing' and I think that is true, though in an ironic way. People believe what they see, even when it is not what actually happened. Otherwise I'd have to believe a bird could vanish before my eyes. It might explain why people who think they've seen a ghost can rarely be persuaded it might actually have been misperception.

19 Dec 2008: Measuring the paranormal

Zener card testFor many decades, parapsychologists have tried to demonstrate and measure psi (extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis - PK). It has proved a lot harder than anyone suspected, given the dramatic paranormal cases that gave rise to the subject. Experiments have ranged from card guessing to psi-based computer games.

Unfortunately, there are intrinsic problems in measuring the paranormal that make it particularly difficult. Spontaneous cases of telepathy, PK and ghosts contain a large subjective element. For instance, in a group of witnesses, only one may see a ghost. Psychic readings may be accepted as stunningly accurate by some people and completely wrong by others. It often comes down to a matter of your attitude to the subject - whether you are a believer or skeptic.

Another problem is coincidence. Just what are the odds against meeting someone you know in a town hundreds of kilometres from where either of you live? It depends on many things, like whether there is something bringing both of you to the same place at the same time, such as a meeting. Such factors are difficult or impossible to quantify. But without exact odds, it is impossible to say just how likely that an event might happen by sheer random chance. You can easily calculate the odds of getting a Zener card right but what about guessing the contents of a picture?

These two factors - subjectivity and the lack of precise odds against chance - affect not only case work but some lab experiments too. It is difficult to completely eliminate them. It makes designing experiments to measure psi very difficult. A test for a good design is this - if the result of an experiment changes, depending on who designs or conducts it, then how can it be measuring psi precisely?

New page added: Evaluating the paranormal

17 Dec 2008: When do you see a ghost?

OK, the headline should really have read 'when do you get misperception' but that wouldn't have been as eye catching. Recent research, mentioned in this week's New Scientist, shows that when you are bored, or not paying attention, parts of your brain may disconnect. Specifically, the areas controlling self-control, vision and language processing show much less activity than usual.

It occurred to me that this might be precisely the sort of brain state which might make people particularly susceptible to misperception. After all, we don't misperceive all the time, only on occasion. Boredom, or inattention, seem a likely possibility since witnesses often only realise they are seeing a ghost some time into the sighting or even after the event. Though we may not consciously perceive something, our unconscious brains still see it. The difference between the conscious and unconscious perception may lead to misperception.

Thinking back to my own cases of misperception, I don't think boredom was involved much. However, the misperception usually caught me by surprise (as it does with ghost witnesses), so I probably wasn't paying attention.

I have previously speculated that misperception may occur when our brains are in 'default network state' or daydreaming. Boredom may be another state where it may happen as might being distracted, Misperceptions certainly seem to 'creep up on you' - you are never expecting them. So any of these states, either of attention elsewhere or simple inattention, may be conducive to seeing ghosts.

15 Dec 2008: Cryptomnesia - I think I have it!

I have a dreadful memory but do I have cryptomnesia (or latent memory)? I suspect we all do, to some extent. cryptomnesia is a difficult word to write and pronounce! It is often mentioned as a possible 'normal' source of information revealed by psychics and in past life hypnotic regression. It is certainly true that we have much more in our memories than we are ever consciously aware of. Obviously, we don't need to know everything we remember at any one time. Nevertheless, we usually have an idea of what things are in our memories to be recalled, more or less, at will.

Cryptomnesia feels different to 'normal' memory recall. You can recall easily, for instance, if you once went on holiday to Rhyl and can, with a little effort, no doubt bring to mind details of it. But what if you'd never been to Rhyl and had only seen photographs of it, taken by a friend who'd been there? Suppose you then completely forgot about your friend's trip to Rhyl (we don't remember everything incident in our lives). If you go to Rhyl, you might look around and find that it feels strangely familiar. You might know where the life boat station is, despite having never been there before! It's easy to see how such an experience would feel psychic or possibly reliving a past life.

I sometimes watch TV quizzes and surprise myself by knowing some of the more obscure answers. I am surprised because I was not aware I even knew the answer! This is a form of cryptomnesia. It can feel like being psychic though I have no doubt I picked up the information somewhere, sometime in my life. The information was just waiting to be picked up through the right association. Like misperception, cryptomnesia is a lot more common, once you look out for it.

12 Dec 2008: Ouija test

I read about an intriguing ouija board test the other day on a web forum. Being on a forum, I can't personally verify what happened but it, nevertheless, suggested some interesting future research.

There was an initial ouija session, very much following the usual routine. Some words were spelled out, as is normal, nothing unknown to the sitters. Then the participants were blindfolded while someone else watched what happened. This time there were no words spelled out at all - just nonsense!

This raises some interesting questions. Certainly, blindfolding would disrupt proceedings in the way described if people were deliberately pushing the glass. But would it also disrupt things if messages actually originated elsewhere, as is often claimed? This sounds like an experiment well worth repeating. Some further variations might include, re-arranging the letters in case someone memorised them before being blindfolded.

11 Dec 2008: Fear on vigils!

One common question people ask when you reluctantly admit you're a paranormal researcher is 'isn't it scary?'. They are puzzled when you say 'not really'. They've probably seen a ghost hunting TV programme! The point is, of course, that we paranormal researchers spend our lives TRYING to see ghosts. We're hardly going to run away when we actually see one!

On a well organised vigil the biggest problem isn't fear but inattention. There is always the possibility that you will be distracted at the vital moment when something finally happens.

I've never been on a vigil where anyone got scared but I have heard about them from other researchers. It usually seems to involve first timers who aren't really sure what to expect.

There was an article in last week's New Scientist (6 Dec 2008) that suggested fear could be contagious in a group of people in a room. Apparently, research shows that the sweat taken from people who have been afraid (samples from skydivers' armpits) has an affect on the 'fear centres' of the brains of people exposed to it in the air. So, if you are sitting happily in a vigil and a ghost appears you might feel scared, not because of your own anxieties but because someone sitting next to you is terrified. There is little evidence that ghosts can harm anyone. Any fear some people might feel is probably generated by exposure to all those ghost stories and horror films we've all seen over the years.

PS: People report finding our 'ghosts', on the 'spot the ghost' page, quickly. This agrees with the idea that our brains are programmed to recognise 'figures' in scenes even when none are present.

9 Dec 2008: Spot the ghost!

Spot the ghostI often see photos that are said to contain ghosts that were not seen when the shot was taken. I'm afraid I'm not very good at seeing such ghosts, even when they are helpfully circled! The 'ghosts' often turn out to be a random shape in the detail of the photo that happens to resemble a human figure. It might be a pixelated bush, tree or something else.

As an experiment, I've put together a 'spot the ghost' page. It contains a photo which has had a 'ghost' artificially added to it. See if you can spot the ghost! It's just an experiment so there are no prizes!

Some people may wonder why, last week, I was so sure my 'shadow ghost' was actually a case of misperception. It's mainly because I've experienced a lot of misperceptions recently (you start to notice them once you're aware of the effect) and I've got to know what they're like. It had the same feel as the trees and bushes I've turned into human figures (see previous blog entries).

New page added: Spot the ghost

5 Dec 2008: New theory about the shadow ghost

Yesterday I described how I saw a shadow ghost the night before. Last night, I tried to reproduce the moving shadow effect from the same position and in similar lighting conditions. In doing so, I became less convinced that it was a peripheral drift illusion, though I've no doubt that may cause ghost reports sometimes. The position of the banister looked wrong to me. So I tried out other theories.

What DID appear to work was a slight illusion of movement when I turned my head suddenly to view the area where the shadow ghost had appeared. If I turned my head slowly there was no such effect. Possibly in certain conditions, maybe related to lighting, the effect could be more pronounced. It is only speculation but I think this effect may be related to saccades.

Saccades are rapid eye movements that scan the scene in front of our eyes to build up the detailed picture we see in our heads (see here). It is a bit like the way a photocopier builds up an image of a document by scanning across it. Saccades are required because there is only one area of our retina, the fovea, which can produce highly detailed views. Those parts of the 'picture in our heads' not recently scanned are built up from the memory of earlier scans and 'objects' inserted from long term visual memory. These visual insertions, which usually happen in poor viewing conditions, may be responsible for many ghost sightings.

There is another kind of saccade caused by head movement ('head saccade'). When you turn your head you don't see blur, as you might get with a camera, but a smooth transition. This is because your head and eye work together to freeze the old scene while the new one is scanned ('saccadic masking'). You only see blur in very fast moving objects, like watching the track opposite from a fast moving train where the individual sleepers can't be seen. Interestingly, if turn your head while watching the blurred track, you will get a brief glimpse of the sleepers frozen.

When you move your head quickly to view a new scene, your brain must build a new picture in your head very quickly. I think that in certain low light, high contrast situations, when you move your head quickly, the usually tightly coupled eye-head saccade co-ordination breaks down to produce temporary blurring. As the blurring resolves to focused objects, it appears as a moving object.

So I think this is another type of misperception to add to the list from personal experience. There may be apparent movement, where none is physically present, when you turn to view a new scene quickly and in low light.

4 Dec 2008: I saw a shadow ghost last night!

Shadow ghostLast night I saw a shadow ghost! I noticed a shadow quickly move across a wall despite the fact that (a) I was alone in the house and (b) there was nothing moving. Just to be absolutely sure, I checked the whole house immediately and found nothing moving at all (or anything that might cause a moving shadow). I freely admit that I was startled by the sighting. When you know you're alone in a building, any unexpected movement can be unsettling!

So what was it? Let's look at the clues. It was getting dark and I had a light on. It was throwing strong shadows onto the wall where I saw the apparent movement. I was moving, turning to look at the area when I saw the ghost. The moving ghost was part of a shadow cast by banister spindles (the vertical posts - see pic right).

There is something called the peripheral drift illusion where apparent motion can appear in similar situations to the one I was in. The illusion occurs when you observe an object, which consists of alternating black and white rectangles, or something resembling that situation. When such objects are seen in your peripheral vision, anomalous motion may appear. In 'real life' cases this might occur in a semi-dark situation with fence posts, railings, stair banister spindles or wheels, particularly if they are painted white. The illusion is thought to be caused by the way our brains detect motion in our visual fields.

In my case, I believe it was the shadow of the banister spindles, forming a strong black and white rectangular pattern, that was responsible for the 'ghost'. Since the shape was formed by a shadow, the movement appeared as a moving shadow. I had the impression that it was a human shadow. However, thinking back, it was a pretty amorphous shape. My impression, which was instantaneous (before I had time to consider the situation properly) was probably culturally prompted. It is interesting how one's instant gut reactions in such situations tend towards the paranormal.

It is ironic that I always use a photo of a 'shadow ghost' (right) to illustrate misperception. The photo started as a simple one of a staircase in low light which was then darkened in software (no other modifications were made). The result is a spooky shadow 'figure' on the stairs (there was no actual ghost visible in the original photo). It turns out that this is exactly the sort of situation that might, in suitable lighting conditions, produce an apparently moving shadow, as I discovered.

So when you hear a report of a shadow ghost, it would be worth finding out what the lighting conditions were and whether there were any banisters, railings, etc involved. It might be possible to reproduce the effect in identical lighting conditions.

3 Dec 2008: Exorcisms

The BBC is currently showing a TV drama series called Apparitions, about an exorcist. I have to say that it contains rather too much Roman Catholic politics for my taste but it also has entertaining moments.

ASSAP does not do (nor recommends) exorcisms or anything similar, like 'sending spirits to the light'. All of these things presuppose that a haunting is actually caused by a 'spirit' and that said 'spirits' can be sent away by humans simply telling them to go! In reality, most hauntings don't even involve an apparition. Even when they do, the apparition is never seen undertaking any haunting activity, like moving objects or producing odd noises. Indeed, little of the evidence surrounding hauntings suggests that 'spirits' are responsible at all. Indeed, in most cases, xenonormal explanations are found for the various haunting phenomena reported.

All of this may explain an oddity. Despite the occasional exorcism, and more common 'sending into the light', the same places seem to remain haunted year after year. Even when 'spirits' have been 'sent into the light' on TV, groups of paranormal researchers still go to the same place and have weird experiences. So, either exorcisms and the like don't actually work or hauntings are not caused by 'spirits' at all.

1 Dec 2008: Recordings aren't like the original sound

UFOIn this week's New Scientist (29 Nov), there is an interesting piece on why sound recordings often sound quite different to what we heard at the time of the recording. The difference is because sound recorders are neutral passive devices while people actively 'hear', using their brains as well as their ears. It may explain some apparent sound oddities reported on ghost vigils.

When we listen to a sound in a room, our brains use various different auditory cues to make sense of it. There is, for instance, the frequency of the sound, the time difference between its arrival at each ear and the sound's phase. In addition, there are the reverberations of the same sound (echoes going back and forth between walls) whose characteristics depend on the size and shape of the room. Our brains use these cues to decide which sounds, in a mixture, are the most 'important', so that they occupy our attention.

When we listen to a recording, much of that original information is not present, even with stereo. Thus, our brains may place different priorities on which sounds we pay most attention to. The result is that ambient noise we didn't notice at the time of the recording may now seem much louder. This may account for apparent 'voices', not heard at the time of recording but seemingly obvious at the playback of the recording. Similarly, what appeared loud ('important') sounds at the time of the recording may now seem insignificant or even absent on the playback.

So, in summary it is perfectly possible for:

  • Some people in an area, and not others, to hear a sound
  • Sounds to be heard by investigators but not recorded
  • Sounds to be recorded but not heard by investigators

Any of these situations can arise from the way we humans actively hear (compared to the passive way sound is recorded by machines).


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© Maurice Townsend 2008