The paranormal has been studied seriously for well over a century, and yet we seem no nearer discovering its causes now than then. Indeed, the very existence of phenomena like ghosts and telepathy is still routinely challenged. Various suggestions for this lack of progress have been put forward, including the rarity and obscure character of the phenomena, the conflict between believers and skeptics and even that it is simply not possible to explain them.
NB: Fuller explanations of important points will be found by following the links in this article.
The wrong evidence
Now, here is a suggestion: maybe we are looking at the 'wrong' evidence!
Recent advances in neuroscience suggest that many apparently dramatic paranormal cases may, in fact, have natural causes. So, by studying such apparently 'good' cases for clues to the nature of the paranormal, we may be going down a blind alley. We may be looking at the wrong evidence.
It is clear, therefore, that in order to examine the paranormal we first need to understand the 'normal' much better. Because many people 'know' what is 'supposed' to happen in paranormal cases it affects their reports of strange, but normal, phenomena. By an unkind quirk of fate, the paranormal is often invoked as an explanation for many unfamiliar but natural phenomena. It makes things very difficult for paranormal researchers.
New science that you need to know
In many paranormal reports, all we have is a report by a witness. There are usually no physical remains or instrumental recordings to check. Further, a lot of reports involve just a single witness. It is therefore vital that we understand the factors affecting such witness reports, particularly perception, memory and reporting.
Until recently, perception and memory were little understood, being more the province of philosophical speculation that hard science. With the arrival of neuroscience, which studies the nervous system and brain, and new imaging tools, it is finally possible to start to understand how the brain works. In particular our understanding of perception and memory is expanding rapidly. Therefore, it is vital for all paranormal researchers to understand these developments if they want to avoid wasting their time.
The 'common sense' view of perception is that your sense organs produce nerve impulses that go to your brain for (perfectly accurate) 'viewing'. In fact, neuroscience has shown that it isn't that simple at all (see misperception). Perception actually takes place in your brain, with sensory input just one of several contributors. In particular, it appears that when your brain cannot 'see' an object well (eg. poor viewing conditions, too short a glance, unfamiliar object, etc.) it can substitute something else, from your memory, for the thing it can't see properly! Something similar happens when listening to human speech, allowing us to 'hear' words that were drowned out by noise. It could explain why voice-like sounds are often interpreted as words (see formant noise) in EVP. This could explain how vague human shapes can sometimes be seen by witnesses as apparitions, fully detailed human forms with clothes.
This doesn't mean we go round seeing and hearing things that aren't really there all the time. However, there ARE times when such 'substitutions' happen, when sensory input is poor. Once you become aware of this possibility, you start to notice it! Objects seen in the 'corner of your eye' will often either change or 'vanish' altogether when you turn to look at them properly. This is because your peripheral vision is nothing like as good as your central vision and it makes more mistakes (particularly with moving objects). Once you can see the area properly, the 'substitute' object you 'saw' vanishes and you observe what's really there! Some people, naturally, interpret this experience as seeing a ghost! Other conditions, which might produce substitutions, include seeing things in the distance, in poor light or when glimpsed briefly. In all these cases, your eyes may not send enough information to your brain to see the object properly, so it may choose to 'substitute' it.
We all know that memories fade with time (or more accurately, with neglect). However, in addition, sometimes memories may be wrong right from the start! As well as misperception (see above), people will sometimes 'confabulate'. This means they will alter their memory to fit in with what they expect to experience, rather than what they actually experienced (see memory). The role of psychological suggestion or expectation can be strong, eg. expecting ghostly activity in spooky settings.
Witnesses questioned just after seeing an incident frequently make mistakes in their accounts, even 'inventing' things that weren't there! Confabulation takes place unconsciously so people are convinced their memory is right, sometimes even when it can be proved to them that they are wrong!
Once paranormal reports are passed to other people, whether orally or in writing, they will inevitably contain some inaccuracies. Whenever such accounts are used as sources for new accounts, more inaccuracies will creep in. This distorting process of 'Chinese whispers' explains why ghost stories from previous centuries are so much more dramatic than contemporary cases. Many such old ghost reports are more like legends, with the narrative structure of a story, rather than real contemporary cases which tend to appear essentially meaningless. Indeed, in some old stories, the incident that started the legend in the first place may no longer even feature in the current story.
In old haunting reports, ghosts are more like characters in a story. They are often named, have motives (usually 'unfinished business'), can talk and interact freely with people. In contrast, most modern hauntings don't even involve sightings of ghosts. When they ARE seen, apparitions don't interact with witnesses and are generally not readily identifiable. This contrast, between 'traditional' ghosts of tradition and the real thing is striking. Not only does evidence for spirits fade away in modern, well investigated cases but even the 'stone tape theory' looks less likely.
Many paranormal reports are caused by people encountering something they are unfamiliar with. This explains why people sometimes report Venus as a UFO. Many people are unfamiliar with most of the objects commonly seen in the sky. Seeing something unfamiliar might cause 'substitutions' in the visual field through misperception (see above). Such paranormal reports of unfamiliar experiences are called xenonormal.
But what causes people to 'see' Venus as a UFO instead of something else? This appears to be a cultural influence. Who hasn't seen a film or a picture involving a flying saucer in the night sky? Certainly, before 1947 few people reported 'flying saucers' until Kenneth Arnold's sighting. In earlier centuries, the same unidentified objects in the sky would probably have been reported as fairies or angels.
Fiction and tradition appear to have a profound influence on the content of anomalous reports. Witnesses often not only assume that haunting phenomena are caused by ghosts but regularly try to identify them with former occupants of a building and may even suggest a 'motive' for their apparent 'returning'. Since most hauntings consist only of strange noises, apparent object movement and perhaps some odd smells or lights (and no apparition), it is a considerable stretch to assign these phenomena to a specific personality. But people do, nevertheless. The desire to place experiences within a 'narrative' structure, a desire commonly shared by the media, thus feeds back into paranormal report content, confusing the evidence for investigators. Paranormal researchers should always concentrate on what precisely was seen, rather than what the witness thought it was.
What causes paranormal reports?
Most paranormal or anomalous reports are shown, when properly investigated, to have natural causes. Jenny Randles, who has investigated thousands of UFO cases, says that 95% had mundane causes. A similar figure applies to paranormal reports.
So, what specifically, causes people to report unusual experiences as apparent paranormal phenomena? The answer is, probably, coincidence! It is usually a combination of unlikely factors coming together that prompts someone who has seen a shadow to report as a ghost or a balloon as a UFO. Both are, of course, examples of misperception. However, the misperceptions took place in specific circumstances that suggested a paranormal explanation. In other circumstances there might have been a different interpretation.
Indeed, the circumstances may decide the precise character of what is 'substituted' in the visual field of a witness. In less spooky surroundings, a shadow may not 'become' a ghostly figure. It has been demonstrated in research that certain types of building produce more reports of ghosts than others. Such buildings are generally older, damper, cooler and more poorly lit than average, factors often associated with ghosts in fiction and tradition.
Where does this leave paranormal research?
All of the above brings both witness testimony and, in particular, second-hand reports into question. While it is safe to dismiss most second-hand reports as generally useless for serious research, witness testimony forms our most important access to paranormal experience. It is people who experience the paranormal so we cannot ignore them.
Instead of dismissing witness testimony, it is suggested it should be weighted when used in research. Specifically, the following should be more highly weighted (in no special order):
- interviews made soon after the event (over late reports)
- multiple witness events (over single witness episodes)
- independent witness reports (including single witnesses) that agree with others
- events supported by relevant contemporary instrumental recordings
- observers familiar with objects that could be misperceived (eg. astronomer seeing a UFO) over others
- reports with good viewing conditions
The 'witness' here is not simply someone who reports a spontaneous paranormal event but also people used in ghost vigils and similar research. Note, in particular, that good viewing conditions are highly preferred. Many paranormal reports relate to poor viewing conditions, implying that misperception is highly likely. There is a similar trend in anomalous photos were many are of low resolution or taken in poor lighting conditions with the 'anomaly' often poorly defined (at the limit of resolution).
Of course, many of the points above are already well-known to paranormal researchers. However, it is surprisingly rare for evidence to be sifted and the 'wrong kind' removed from consideration. The theory is probably that there will be enough 'good' evidence available to counteract any effect of the 'wrong' stuff. However, given the poor record so far in producing useful testable theories based on such evidence, this argument does not seem to hold water. It appears that there is too much 'wrong evidence' currently being used.
Thus, one of the big problems of paranormal research is that theories are often produced using poor quality evidence, like second-hand ghost reports or information gathered from assumption-led methods. This 'wrong evidence' means that theories have to explain lots of things for which there is little real evidence! Inevitably this weakens theories. They should only need to take into account the phenomena for which we have the strongest evidence. Theories concerning ghosts, for instance, don't need to take orbs, a photographic artifact, into account!
Instruments play a big part to play in verifying witness reports on vigils. However, it is necessary that the instruments be fully understood by their operators, particularly their range, accuracy and limitations. It is crucial that operators fully understand all possible natural causes for unusual readings on such instruments. Inappropriately used instruments just contribute more of the 'wrong kind of evidence'.
The use of paranormal methods in investigation (mediums, dowsing, seances, etc) is inappropriate because we don't know how these work. Using such methods simply introduces new unknowns when we are trying to exclude as many as possible!
Understanding the xenonormal
There may also be other xenonormal causes of paranormal reports apart from misperception, like psychological and medical conditions and induced hallucinations. It is clear that, in order to recognise the paranormal, we must first eliminate the xenonormal. And to do that we must first understand it!
Currently, much paranormal research is failing because it does not successfully eliminate the xenonormal. By the time this is pointed out, it is generally too late to go back and redo the research. Much research is being done in outside parapsychology that is relevant. The results of such non-paranormal research may directly impact on the xenonormal, as in perception (above). There are also currently conventional science being done with results relevant to OOBEs and NDEs, for instance. Paranormal researchers need to follow developments in such related scientific fields as well as their own. This is important if the paranormal wheat is to be separated from xenonormal chaff.
© Maurice Townsend 2008