Welcome 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.
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27 Nov 2008: How do you know if you've seen a ghost?
Have you ever seen a ghost? If so, how did you know it was a ghost? It's a more complicated question than you might think. Would you say a figure seen in period costume was highly likely to be a ghost? What if they looked completely normal, apart from their clothes? If there was a ghost in a crowd of people in a street, could you tell which one it was? Could you have you seen a ghost and not even realised?
From the evidence from ghost cases, the best way of telling a ghost is if there is some reason why it cannot physically be present. If a witness has good reason to think that they should be alone, for instance, then seeing a human figure might well make them think it is a ghost. Seeing a particular individual, who could not possibly be present, would be another good example. If the figure did something 'impossible', like walking through a wall, then that would tend to support the idea that it could not be physically present either. More stuff on this topic here.
New page added: Have you seen a ghost?
26 Nov 2008: Fighting memes
One of the big problems with paranormal research is having to fight memes! There are so many widespread preconceived ideas about our subject that it is difficult to persuade people to look at the evidence in a completely neutral way. When someone says they've seen a ghost it could mean anything from seeing a figure in old fashioned clothes to feeling a sense of presence. The important thing is to strip away the witness's interpretation and find out what they actually experienced. From there, you can start to investigate what really happened.
Many ideas, like 'ghosts are spirits', self-replicate within our culture. Such ideas are called memes. Memes are, like genes, subject to a form of natural selection. However, memes only compete with other memes, irrespective of any benefit or otherwise, to their 'hosts', human beings.
The meme of 'ghosts as spirits' survives despite the lack of any obvious supporting evidence. For many people this is because their only experience of ghosts is second-hand. Even those who do see ghosts themselves are influenced unconsciously in the way they interpret their experiences. Clearly, as a meme, the idea has defeated alternative versions like, 'ghosts are mainly misperceptions' or 'ghosts are recordings' or similar ideas. Memes are not subject to evidence in a scientific way. They are only subject to competition from other memes and the 'ghosts are spirit' version is currently the easy winner.
PS: Latest website hits average 6800 per day so far this month. It's down a bit on last month, as you'd expect given that Halloween is gone.
21 Nov 2008: Paranormal at the edge of consciousness
There is a mismatch between what the unconscious parts of our brains know and what the conscious bit thinks. Essentially, the unconscious bit receives all the input from our senses and only passes on the edited highlights to our consciousness. There is, therefore, always a mismatch which is sometimes large, sometimes small.
We know that the mismatch gives rise to things like misperception. But what if it produces other apparent paranormal phenomena too, like a sense of presence. Sometimes we become convinced that someone is with us in a room, even though we cannot see them. Could this sense of presence be caused by an unusually large mismatch between consciousness and the unconscious? It is just speculation at present but there is clearly a lot of research required in this area.
New page added: Paranormal at the edge of consciousness
19 Nov 2008: ALPs and ASPs - snakes on a haunted mountain?
Thanks are due to Steve D. of Ghost Hunters of Southern Tioga - PA for the some good suggestions for light phenomena reported at haunted locations. I mentioned a few days ago that we paranormal researchers are currently suffering from 'orb creep'. This is the phenomenon whereby light phenomena are being classified by some people as orbs. We know that orbs are photographic artifacts. The danger of 'orb creep' is that a genuinely interesting, and far older and rarer, phenomenon may be swamped by reports of mundane orbs. So I asked for suggestions for a new, snappy title for light phenomena, to differentiate them from orbs.
Steve D has suggested: 1. Lumes (looms) or Lumers - short, snappy and still derived from science. 2. ALPs - Short for "Anomalous Light Phenomenon" of course.
Searching the web, the words 'lume' and 'lumer' have both been used for commercial purposes. While this is not a fatal flaw, it would put such terms at a disadvantage in web searches. You could say the same thing about ALP but it has the advantage of being simpler to explain as the name says it all. So, for the time-being, until there is a better suggestion, I'm going with ALPs.
With the related EVP creep, I think we could go for 'anomalous sound phenomena' (ASP), a term which has already been suggested elsewhere. It neatly twins with ALPs. Such a term is needed to differentiate various sounds recorded at haunted locations from voices which are, of course, EVP by the strictest definition. That gives us ASP which, like ALP, manages to double as a real word, so it's snappy. So, next time you go on a vigil don't forget to look out for ALPs, ASPs and EVPs. I wouldn't bother with ORBs, though, if I were you.
18 Nov 2008: New UFO photo!
While reviewing some photos taken recently, I found this UFO (right). It has a classic 'saucer' shape. Unfortunately, it was very distant which is why I can't make it any bigger (it just pixelates). Also, the weather was overcast which is why it is all rather dark. We can't plan when we see UFOs so we have to put up with whatever conditions we get.
The object was certainly distant, this being a telephoto shot. It was taken over the sea in the general direction of the sun, which was obscured by clouds. Had this been the only photo I'd taken at the time, the UFO might have remained a mystery. Luckily, I tend to go a bit mad when out taking photos so I have a few of the same area at the same time.
The next shot, right, shows the same object taken less than a second before the first photo. I am showing them in reverse order because this photo is a bit of a giveaway. The 'saucer' is now revealed as the body of a gull. We can now clearly see the wings above the bird. It is now obvious that, in the shot above, the wings were at the same level as the body, and so not visible.
Various factors came together to make the top photo appear mysterious. Specifically, the bird was (a) distant, (b) in silhouette and (c) poorly lit. If it had been closer and lighter, it would have been easy to identify as a white gull. There is a similar photo, here, of a kestrel. I've taken several of these 'sideways on' bird shots now. It makes you wonder how many similar UFO photos are, in fact, birds. See the UFO Gallery for other UFOs.
Many anomalous photos, like this one, show objects at the edge of resolution and / or in poor lighting conditions. Also, many combine various factors, coincidentally, that add to their apparent mystery. Unfortunately, most anomalous photos are not taken in pairs like these. If they were, it might save a lot of time when analysing them. The lesson is, don't just take one photo at a time, take several. With digital photography, you are only limited by the size of your memory chip.
17 Nov 2008: And stop EVP creep too!
Last week I mentioned the phenomenon of 'orb creep', where the definition of orbs has been widened by some people to include light phenomena seen by the naked eye at haunted locations. There is a similar problem with EVP. Some researchers are now including sounds that are clearly nothing to do with voices, like ghostly footsteps. Since EVP stands for Electronic Voice Phenomena this is surely a stretch too far.
Does it matter if non-voice sounds are included as EVP? Hauntings have always involved various unexplained noises though, perhaps oddly, voices are rarely reported (though noises resembling whispering are fairly common).
It has always been the aim of serious researchers on vigils to record previously reported sounds and eliminate their possible natural sources. Now people are deliberately looking for EVP on vigils. This is, of course, based on an assumption (that ghosts are associated with voices) that is not supported by the evidence from original haunting witnesses. Much of what is recorded as EVP on vigils is probably formant noise, from low level ambient sounds. The problem is that, by mixing EVP and paranormal noises, it encourages an assumption-led approach to investigation, rather than a scientific one.
EVP is much better researched in more controlled situations, at home for instance, than on vigils. Footsteps, and other unexplained noises, are not EVP but they ARE a traditional sign of a haunting. If voices are recorded on a vigil then, obviously they should be investigated. But lumping them together with non-voice noises serves only to increase muddle, promote unjustified assumptions and obscure possible explanations, which is the opposite of what paranormal research is about.
14 Nov 2008: The media creates ghosts!
We know that most reports of ghost sightings, when properly investigated, turn out to be misperception or hallucination. Would people still see ghosts if they weren't surrounded by images, movies and books about them (see here)? I recently came across some anecdotal evidence that they wouldn't!
It turns out that there are still a few people in Western culture brought up without access to TV, movies, video games and so on. And, when asked, some report never having seen ghosts. Of course, many people have never seen ghosts but it does point to some useful future research. Maybe a proper survey could be done of people who were, for whatever reason, brought up isolated from the usual cultural influences to see how many ghosts or UFOs they reported compared to a control group. Since everyone misperceives from time to time, it would interesting to know how they would interpret, say, a pollarded tree seen in their peripheral vision, for instance.
I managed to misperceive some text today! I had an email and, on glancing at it, thought I was being accused of something. On anxious closer inspection there was no accusation and I could find no trace of the words I thought I'd seen. Of course, I could just be going nuts!
12 Nov 2008: Become immortal - stop orb creep!
Orbs, it seems, despite all the evidence that they are photographic artifacts, refuse to go away. Indeed, though most serious paranormal researchers shudder at the very mention of the word, the general public clearly remains fascinated by them. Some people are even claiming their houses are haunted purely on the strength of seeing orbs in photos, reportedly.
And then there is 'orb creep'! Orb 'creep' is where people start to call other phenomena orbs. For instance, rare light phenomena, sometimes in the form of floating lights, have been reported for a very long time in hauntings. They are seen by witnesses (unlike orbs) and hardly ever photographed (unlike orbs). There is no obvious link between these two phenomena at all but some people claim to see orbs with their naked eye. If you can see an orb, it isn't an orb! It could be something much rarer and much more interesting. It could be ball lightning or something paranormal.
Even orbs are not really orbs! They are circular but not spherical, as the term orb implies. They neither look spherical nor are they, in reality, three dimensional. The use of the term 'orb' (implying sphere) has just added to the speculation that they are some kind of 'energy' (though what kind is rarely specified).
What we need is a snappy new term for light phenomena seen in hauntings, so that they can be readily differentiated from orbs. If we don't do this, there is a danger that reports of potentially interesting haunting phenomenon might be submerged by mundane orbs. The most common existing name is 'light phenomenon' but it's hardly snappy. If someone can come up with something better, please email me. If it's good, we'll try to get it into common usage. Here's your chance to achieve immortality!
So what's with the photo of a tree? There are no orbs in that photo, it is something far worse. Last month I reported 'I saw a hunched old man on a river bank. Except, it quickly turned into a recently pollarded tree when I looked more carefully.' Well, this is the actual tree I misperceived - the one on the right, to be exact! OK, when you've stopped laughing, you have to remember it was seen briefly in peripheral vision (which is why I turned the photo into monochrome). And the conditions weren't so sunny! At least I didn't see a face in the tree on the left!
11 Nov 2008: Coloured orbs - a new clue
Some people regard coloured orbs as different to 'ordinary' ones - maybe even paranormal. Most orbs are white or grey. That's because they are out of focus highlights on the object producing the orb (such as a bit of dust, insect or rain drop) - see here. Highlights tend to reflect all the light from the source illuminating them. Since, for most orbs, this is a camera flash unit, that explains why they are white.
But what causes coloured orbs? Various different phenomena were already known to colour orbs, like Moire patterns or lens aberrations. Now, thanks to some photos sent in to ASSAP's Research Department recently, a new cause has emerged - white balance drift!
In order to render colours correctly, digital cameras use something called 'white balance'. It's necessary because, unlike our eyes which adapt to different types of illumination, digital sensors need to correct for different lighting conditions (technically, it's to do with colour temperature). This is usually done automatically in most cameras (auto white balance) but can be set manually in some models. Auto white balance works in some camera models by looking for something white (or assumed to be white) in the photo and adjusting to make it look truly white in the resulting photo. Other models try to make sense of the colours of the overall picture.
As you can imagine, this process can go wrong sometimes, particularly if one colour predominates in the frame. This means that colours can be rendered wrongly, though you may not notice in most photos. Many orb photos are taken outside at night and often feature just one or two colours and a lot of black. This can certainly cause white balance problems. You won't notice the change in colour of trees, houses or 'darkness' but you WILL notice the resultant coloured orbs!
So, we now have another likely cause of coloured orbs. Certainly, if there are multiple orbs in one photo and they are all the same colour, this is the likeliest explanation. In fact, white balance drift may explain most coloured orbs!
11 Nov 2008: Psychic Challenge Results
As promised, if somewhat delayed, here are the results of the Psychic Challenge run by ASSAP at this year's Fortean Times Unconvention, held just over a week ago.
6 Nov 2008: Do we ever daydream ghosts?
In this week's New Scientist (2681, 5 Nov 2008), there is an article about a newly discovered major function of the brain - day dreaming! Actually, it's not quite as simple as that but when we are not concentrating on anything in particular it seems our brains are working furiously. But doing what? Reviewing our memories, to decide which to store and which to discard, seems to be the answer. Obviously, we experience a lot more than we could ever hope to remember in detail so it all needs to be sorted. This job uses parts of the brain called the 'default network'.
While in this 'default network' state, we may daydream, which could be a visual representation of the memory sorting process at work. Interestingly, our brains are in the same state during the early stages of sleep. Might this be the explanation for hynagogia, where people on the point of falling asleep can experience dream-like images while still awake? Hypnagogia is probably responsible for many of the ghost reports where witnesses are in bed, near to sleep. Indeed, hypnagogia may account for some reports of sightings on vigils where sleep-deprived paranormal researchers may drift into 'default network' state.
Speculating further, do people sometimes daydream ghosts? If someone sees a ghost just after a period of quietly thinking of nothing, it is tempting to think that the same process might be at work. I have noticed that misperceptions often occur when I'm not thinking of anything in particular. We may be more vulnerable to them when in the 'default network' state. This could possibly inform the imagery of misperceptions. During daydreams our minds not only consider the past but possible futures and even wild imaginings.
The more we learn about the brain, the more likely it appears that it is responsible for many apparently paranormal experiences.
PS: Finally I have full access to the website again after a lot of detective work. Now it should be a lot easier to do updates again.
5 Nov 2008: Last call for training weekend
If you want to become a paranormal investigator (and who doesn't?), there are only a few days left to book on this year's ASSAP Training Weekend. There are a small number of places still available. The course will take place on 22-23 November at Beverley Friary, East Yorkshire. If you are interested in booking please get in touch by emailing here as soon as possible.
4 Nov 2008: Unconvention Psychic Challenge
If you were at the Fortean Times Unconvention at the weekend, you may have seen ASSAP's stand with Nicky, Dave and Wendy in attendance. If you took part, we hope you enjoyed the Psychic Challenge. We will be publishing scores, here on the website, in the next few days.
With October out of the way and the website now bedded in at its new host, I had another look at the site 'hit' figures. They are currently averaging about 6000 a day which is probably more realistic as a long term figure than the high numbers we saw last month.
3 Nov 2008: Why people and animals?
Through my misperception research, something has struck me. In most cases, when I misperceived something, I turned it into a human figure or animal. Which is interesting!
Part of the reason may be that many of the misperceptions were of moving objects in my peripheral vision. The peripheral vision is particularly sensitive to movement. So, it makes sense that my brain would decide it was a human or animal, both of which move. However, other things move as well, like cars, trees blowing in the wind, dead leaves (a lot of those around this time of year) and so on. But there are plenty of stationary objects, like tree stumps, which I also turned into human figures.
So the question remains - why so many people and animals? This may be related to the question of why we tend to see faces in random patterns. It probably all stems from our evolution. In the past, and even today, it has always been important to our survival as individuals to be able to identify and recognise animals and humans. We need to know friend from foe, predator from prey and recognise threatening situations (like entering a dark alley with a menacing shadowy figure in it). Animals aren't the threat they were thousands of years ago and yet we still have an ancestral instinctive fear of snakes.
Here's a weird coincidence. While I was writing this blog entry, I had to go outside in the dark with a torch. As I played my torch over the ground I was shocked to see what appeared to be a small animal, the size of a mouse, apparently dash through the leaf litter towards me. I trained my torch on the whole area steadily for several seconds but saw no further signs of any animal or movement. It is unlikely it could have escaped detection and so was probably a misperception. I don't think it was moving leaves. Instead, I believe it was the motion of the torch, as I swept it around the scene, producing moving shadows giving a momentary impression of a small moving object.
PS: The lower photo? See October's blog ...
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© Maurice Townsend 2008