EVP is the 'electronic voice phenomena'. It consists of apparent voices discovered on sound recordings when none was noticed at the time of the recording. For this reason is commonly considered to be paranormal in origin. However, there are aspects of EVP, to do with how humans understand speech, that are not well-known and raise significant doubts about the existing evidence. This article is a brief introduction to these concerns. The popular idea is that EVP represents voices from spirits, or some other unknown entities. Hence EVP's other name - ITC: Instrumental TransCommunication. However, before the idea of communication can be accepted, it must first be established that what is being heard is really voices. Despite the wealth of evidence available, on the web for instance, the matter is by no means finalized.
Voices from nowhereEVP researchers use various different methods to obtain their recordings. Some dedicated researchers, many of whom have been around for decades, don't use a microphone for their recordings. They may, however, use a white noise generating circuit to obtain source sounds. Other EVP enthusiasts use a microphone in addition to a white noise generator (like tuning a radio between stations). Yet others set up sound recorders in quiet locations to see what they can pick up. In many cases the locations selected are allegedly haunted. Some people have claimed to hear the voices at the time of the recording. The reason these voices are considered paranormal is that the voice did not come from anyone present (though, of course, this doesn't exclude a voice from somewhere outside the building). There are many natural reasons why a noise may appear on a sound recording even though it wasn't heard at the time. Sound recorders with a microphone fitted can easily pick up sounds that humans can't hear if their sensitivity is set high. This can happen without operator intervention, or even knowledge, due to auto gain circuits fitted to most recorders that increase sensitivity automatically when ambient sound levels are low. Directional microphones may also pick up sounds that humans don't hear if they happened to be pointing towards a faint sound source (equally some sounds may be obvious to the operator but not picked up by the recorder for similar reasons). Even recorders with no microphone fitted may be subject to electromagnetic interference or internal electronic noise. In addition some sounds, though perfectly audible (and picked up by multiple recorders in the area at once) at the time of recording, may not noticed by operators simply because they didn't appear to be voices. Such 'noise' may only sound more 'voice-like' when subject to intense scrutiny later, when the recording is reviewed. Faint sounds, even real voices, may also be missed, at the time of recording, because people get used to background noise levels after a few minutes of exposure and subsequently only hear loud things. Sound recorders can also pick up mechanical sounds that are not heard at the time of recording. These could include tape movements (in analogue recorders), objects brushing against the recorder (or something it is attached to) or the wind or draughts blowing across the microphone. For this reason, people should avoid holding recorders while they are working. Some EVP researchers argue that if voices are below the frequency range that people can speak, it must indicate a paranormal origin. While it certainly demonstrates that our brains are flexible enough interpret sound as speech sounds outside the normal spoken frequency range, it doesn't prove a paranormal origin (or even that the sound is speech). How do we know a noise is human speech?When you listen to a sound recording, all you hear is the amplitude and frequency of the sound. Unless you recognise what is causing the sound its origin will remain unknown. Given the number of possible natural causes for sounds (not noticed at the time of recording), it is not a reasonable basis on which to call the noises paranormal. Even if such noises sound like voices it might simply be that someone spoke and no one remembered it. No matter how the apparent voices arrive, we end up with a recording. To find out if it is paranormal, we need to determine if that recording really is speech.EVP recordings are often labeled or introduced, so that listeners know in advance their generally accepted interpretation. Unfortunately, this widely used practice introduces a strong element of psychological suggestion which virtually forces the mind of the listener to 'hear' it. When recordings are given to listeners without knowing what to expect, interpretations often vary widely. This is because, in many cases, it is difficult to make out what is being said, if anything. It might be best to play people fairly lengthy recordings, with some EVP in them somewhere, and merely ask people what they think they can hear! They may decide that a section of EVP is just noise. Then the central question becomes this - how do we humans decide that a particular sound is human speech? How do we differentiate between the sound of a gate slamming, a piece of music, a static hum and a human voice? Most people would say that it is obvious - we recognise words! Unfortunately, it is all too easy into fooling human brains into hearing 'voices' when it is just noise. Telling someone they are about to hear a voice does this rather well! How we understand speech The human brain is hard-wired to find combinations of integer harmonic frequencies pleasing (which may explain why we enjoy music). Combined integer harmonic sounds are two or more separate tones, heard at the same time, where their frequencies are related by a simple integer ratio. For instance, the two frequencies 1000 Hz and 2000 Hz heard together would be an combined integer harmonic because 2000 Hz is exactly twice 1000 Hz. Human speech uses such simple harmonic tones to construct the sounds in words. In speech the harmonic ratios are typically numbers like 2/5 , 1/2, 1/3 etc. These tones heard together are called formants. Formants are discrete sounds within a word, equating to phonemes in phonetics. Instead of hearing the two tones combined a single musical note, our brain interprets the sound as a discrete sound within a word instead. So, for instance, the 'O' sound might typically consist of a 500 Hz and 1000 Hz frequency combination. The only information we get from our ears is the amplitude, frequency and time of arrival of sounds. It is left entirely to our brains to interpret what the sounds are, relying mainly on experience, context and expectation. The brain generally interprets sounds in one of three 'modes'. In one mode it interprets a sound as random noise. In another mode the same sound appears to be music. In the third mode, the same sound becomes speech. Some people, 'amusical' individuals, do not enjoy music. They just hear noise. They are, effectively, missing the 'music mode'. How does the brain decide how to interpret a sound? It is largely a matter of expectation. If we hear tones from a musical scale, particularly set to a fixed rhythm, we are likely to hear it is as music. If we hear sounds with the typical frequency range and rhythms of speech we will probably try to interpret the sound as words. If we do not hear a sound as music or speech, we will hear it in its raw state, as a mixture of frequencies. Hearing is not always believingIf we are listening to someone in a noisy situation we may not hear all the words. Our brains will 'fill in' the gaps with likely words, sometimes wrong, based on expectation. We will actually hear and remember 'filled in' words even if they are wrong. The words we hear are produced in our brains, not our ears. In the phoneme restoration effect, someone is played a recording of a spoken sentence where one word is replaced by white noise of the same duration. And yet, people still 'hear' the missing word. Their brain has inserted it using context and expectation. In the verbal transformation effect, someone is played a word repeatedly. After many repeats, the word turns into another with a similar sound structure ('truce' may transform to 'truth', for instance). These effects, together with other scientific evidence, demonstrate that the brain decides what it hears based on experience, context and expectation. This explains why EVP recordings, which are often very noisy, can be interpreted differently by different individuals. Your ear hears sounds but only your brain hears words.
Noise that sounds like speechAlmost any simple noise, like white noise, can sound like speech if the person listening to it is in 'speech mode'. The more voice-like features in the noise (such as frequencies and rhythm), the more people will interpret it as words. If there are peaks in the frequency spectrum of the noise that happen, by chance, to form a harmonic ratio, as in formants, there is a much higher chance it will sound like speech. If there are variations in the overall amplitude of the sound giving a rhythm, similar to words in human speech, that will also greatly increase the chances of its being interpreted as a voice. Also, if the spectrum envelope of the sound (the overall frequency range) is restricted to that typical of a human voice, the illusion of speech is increased. The actual frequencies of the harmonics and the spectrum envelope don't have to be identical to normal human speech. Research has shown that people still understand speech even when it has been frequency shifted. Noise with these sort of characteristics is called 'formant noise' and it can sound uncannily like real speech. It can be good enough to trip the brain into 'speech mode'. Though the apparent formants may make no sense (as they are noise, not words), our brains will work hard to turn the result into recognisable words. That's because they use a 'top-down' process to processing speech, trying to fit likely words to the apparent formants present. It explains why, with formant noise, you never 'hear' partial words. The words come from your brain, not the sound, and are made to fit the noise. In the same way, whole phrases can emerge. You may need to listen to formant noise several times to fix the phrase as your brain tries various likely alternatives. If someone tells you beforehand what the 'words' are meant to be, you will often hear it straight away. Here is a spectrogram of some formant noise. Is EVP paranormal?The existence of formant noise does not mean EVP is not paranormal. However, it does mean that precautions need to be observed when recording, processing and listening to EVP to avoid formant noise. For instance: Recording EVP
- use a good sound recorder in high quality mode - some EVP recordings have a restricted frequency range due to equipment limitations or using low quality or economy modes
- put the recorder down and don't touch it or anything in contact with it during recordings - to avoid accidental mechanical noises
- avoid file compressing sound files - compression and use of lossy formats can alter noise
- use two different model recorders together - to avoid internal noise or susceptibilities peculiar to a particular model of recorder
- Don't edit or process EVP sound files - noise reduction software accentuates frequency peaks making apparent formants, if present, more prominent and reducing frequency range affects the spectrum envelope Listening to EVP
- Get a third party to judge recordings without telling them it contains apparent voices
*Some researchers claim that their EVP must be paranormal because the 'voice' answers their questions. However, such 'answers' often have multiple possible interpretations. Like many EVP messages, such answers tend towards the tangential or even cryptic. This seems odd if they are real communications.The techniques outlined here should minimise the problems of formant noise though they may not eliminate it entirely. Any apparent voices should also be analysed using techniques like spectrum analysis. This is just a brief introduction to the topic of formant noise. Hearing formant noise directlyAs formant noise comes from ambient noise sources, it may not always require a sound recorder to hear it. Some rotary electrical equipment, like fans, can produce voice-like sounds on occasion. This is particularly noticeable if the fan does not run smoothly or if there is a second (non-voice) noise in addition. This could explain some ghostly voices or whispering heard in haunting cases.
- Play only 'answers' to judges from 'question and answer' sessions* to avoid suggestion effects
This is for those investigators who are serious about maintaining true scientific documentation of their investigations and research. Scientific research involves designing a study, collecting samples, measuring variables, analyzing data, and presenting the results in a formal report. The writing process makes the author think more deeply about the study. Accurate, clear, and concise writing is essential to effective communication among researchers. A scientific report provides a writing experience different from a library term paper because it is based on your own data and personal involvement in the investigation.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN: HINTS ON SCIENTIFIC WRITING:
The following general guidelines should be used:
I. Wherever possible, use the first person ("I" or "we") instead of awkward indirect statements ("this author...
2. Avoid long, involved sentences and overuse of polysyllabic words. Long, run-on sentences often obscure
your meaning. Check for excessive use of commas and conjunctions ("and," "but," "or"). These often
connect clauses that can be more clearly separated into two or more sentences.
3. Use the active voice instead of the passive voice. For example, "I measured the room's temperature" is
preferable to "The room temperature was measured by the author," as it uses fewer words and is unambiguous
(i.e., it is clear who measured the temperature). And "I measured EMF levels" is better than "EMF levels
were measured," because the latter statement does not tell us who performed the measurement.
4. Avoid excessive use of nouns as adjectives. "Temperature stratification" or "ceiling height" is acceptable, but
the trend can be over-used.
5. Be positive in your writing. Don't hide your findings in noncommittal statements. For example, "the data
could possibly suggest" implies that the data actually may show nothing; simply say "the data show."
6. Avoid noninformative abbreviations such as "etc." and phrases such as "and so on" or "and the like.”
7. Keep specialized jargon to a minimum. If (but only if) vernacular terminology is just as accurate, use it.
8. Keep technical abbreviations and acronyms to a minimum. A statement like this may be difficult for the
non-expert to comprehend: "The results of the ASTM procedure for BOD were correlated with measurements
of DO and JTU and compared to EPA standards." Define abbreviations and acronyms the first time they
appear in the paper.
9. Avoid repeating facts and thoughts. Decide in which portion of the report different statements are best
placed, and do not repeat them elsewhere.
10. Be concise and succinct. Avoid verbosity in writing. For example, say "many people" rather than
"a large number of people," and say "because" rather than "due to the fact that." Include all that is necessary,
but don't pad the report with data irrelevant to the purpose or conclusions of the study.
WRITING THE REPORT
GENERAL PRESENTATION & FORMAT
1. ALL reports should be typed or computer-generated.
2. ALL reports should have a neat, clean cover.
3. The main report should be double-spaced but graphs and tables may be single-spaced for easier reading.
4. Mixing pen and typing within a report is unacceptable.
5. Page numbers should be centered at the BOTTOM of each page, beginning with "Introduction."
6. BE CAREFUL in following the format - make sure ALL sections are included, in order and properly labeled.
MAJOR SECTIONS OF THE REPORT, IN ORDER
I. TITLE PAGE
II. ABSTRACT (ONLY ONE PAGE)
A. The abstract should give the reader an idea of what your report contains and gives them a picture of what
will follow. A good introduction to the whole body of work. Writing a clear, concise abstract is an art!
B. A BRIEF summary of your report, including the nutshell of your results and conclusions. This is not an ad
to explain why you did your research!
C. Make sure to include the dates and location of your project data collection.
D. Write the abstract last, after all your results and analysis are finished. (The abstract does not get a page
III. TABLE OF CONTENTS
A. In the introduction of the paper, state the nature of the problem to be addressed, the objectives of the
study, and any hypotheses to be tested. Also, give a brief background for the study, which would typically
include a brief review of the literature. Relate the problem and its significance to the general discipline of
study. This part of the paper presents the background, justification, and relevance of your study.
B. At least 4 different sources should be used.
C. All the information you learned from someone else needs to be "cited" in the Introduction - like writing
footnotes. Citations are mandatory in a research report.
V. MATERIALS AND METHODS: (third person, impersonal form - past tense)
Materials (subheading) - Describe EXACTLY what you used to do your research (Magnetometer, Thermometer, ION Counter,.) "Eyes," "pencils" are unnecessary.
Methods (subheading) - Procedures in research reports generally should be detailed enough for the reader to
have an accurate idea of what was done in the study. Give a good enough description of materials, sampling
dates, locations and methods used so that a reader could duplicate your investigation. Including a simple
diagram or photographs of the setup, properly labeled. The details of standard and generally known
procedures (such as how a device is operated) should be kept to a minimum. In a field study, a general
description of the study site is required, complete with site maps. If commercial computer software is used,
cite its full name and indicate the version used. The type of statistics used to analyze your data should be
included and cited.
The results section is not just a data summarization or a collection of tables and figures; it should contain an
explanation and description of the data, including any qualitative observations you made during the study. Tell
the reader exactly what you found, what patterns, trends, or relationships were observed. Illustrations in the
results section may consist of graphs, photographs, or diagrams that visually depict your results.
In the results section of the paper, the results are summarized and described. In the discussion section, they
should be interpreted, critically evaluated, and compared to other reports. Whereas the results section
presents the "news," the discussion section contains the "editorial." In the discussion, examine the amount
and possible sources of variability in your data, including experimental error. Examine your results for bias and
evaluate its effect in data interpretation. Develop arguments for and against your hypotheses and
interpretations. Do not make generalized statements that are not based on your data, known facts, or reason.
Be sure to relate your findings to other studies and cite those studies. Draw positive conclusions from your
study whenever possible.
VIII. Conclusion (third person, impersonal OR personal form - present tense)
The end of your paper should contain a brief summary of your basic findings, followed by a set of clear
statements that you believe explain your results.
IX. Appendices (any additional pictures and/or material you wish to include)
A. Make sure any appendices are listed in the table of contents (with page numbers).
B. DON'T stuff this section unnecessarily -
I’ve seen it all before, the never ending struggle for credibility in the world of paranormal research and the recurring battle of criticism between the skeptics and believers, each with their own definition of reality and logic. Faith against science, heart against mind, probability against impossibility, pitting one group’s methods against the next, each convinced they are among a new generation of logical thinkers. Yea, yea, yea I know, nothing new here, but you know, when you take away the all the printed t-shirts, cookie cutter websites, business cards, radio shows, TV shows and (believe it or not) military titles (eek) that many of the investigation teams use and take a good “scientific” look at their methods rather than their evidence, it’s easy to find areas for improvement. The following are five such areas that I have seen throughout my years of working with paranormal groups across the country. Of course this list is not for everyone (but you know who you are) and obviously there are more than five steps to scientific efficiency, but hopefully this will encourage investigation teams to take a closer and more critical look at their own methods, rather than everyone else’s.
1.) Double Check Your Experiences.
I’ve seen videos of paranormal investigators claiming to encounter what feels like a static electricity field at an investigation site, but yet they never attempt to measure the field with a static meter or electric field meter. I’ve seen investigators claim to feel a cold patch of air in the center of a room, but never attempt to measure temperature in that particular spot and compare it with the rest of the room. I’ve seen investigators walk in to a room and claim to get very light headed and nauseated, but never attempt to measure the room for excessive electro-magnetic fields, excessive positive ION levels, radon, carbon monoxide, chemicals or any other source that may be causing the issue. I could go on and on here, but the point is folks, that if you are not there to measure and research the unusual experiences you have, why are you there at all? There has been very little advancement in the paranormal field in terms of atmospheric and environmental data captured during a paranormal event, and having seen what I have just mentioned, I can understand why. Lack of equipment is really no excuse. There is a host of inexpensive atmospheric sensing equipment on the market and much of it can be bought at the major discount department stores or home improvement stores, not to mention the internet. So my point here is, if you’re not willing to back up your experiences with data (or at least attempt to) your claims of paranormal interaction are really nothing more than a story of “the fish that got away” and no better than the original claims that brought you there.
2.) Double Check Your Equipment.
I’ve seen it dozens of times in the field and unfortunately on TV. The investigators come across an area that makes their KII meters go wild, but never even attempt to put a value to that reaction or double check it’s validity by using other equipment to back it up. What could it hurt to use an “EMF” meter along side your KII? What if the KII was malfunctioning? How powerful of a field are you dealing with? What’s the frequency of the field? What is the origin of the field? All questions that never seem to get answered. Since electro-magnetic fields contain electric fields, an electric field meter might be a good idea to use alongside your “EMF” meter. The idea is that the more samples we collect, and the more we are certain of the function of our equipment, the better chance we have of debunking or confirming claims and experiences.
3.) Turn off Your Radios and Phones
So many groups love the idea that a set of wireless radios will give them a higher level of organization and coordination in the field, and during the set-up and initial walk though of a location that could be true, however, once the investigation begins, radios and cell phones should be shut off (and I mean completely). The key pieces of equipment used in paranormal research involve the measurement of electromagnetic fields in the radio frequency range. The same fields used by those fancy little wireless radios most groups like to carry, and just pushing the talk button, without saying a word can give you some interesting, and false positive, electro-magnetic field readings. Although cell phones generally utilize a higher frequency band when in use, they can and do transmit lower frequency radio signals when communicating with the cell tower and that will give false readings on your equipment as well. It doesn’t matter if you have the ringer off, or the radio off since some phones will still continue to transmit. Your best bet is to shut it completely off. I know what you’re thinking, what about group communication? Well the answer to that involves time synchronization. Pick a time to switch coverage, meet in a particular location or even turn the radios and cells back on for a quick check in.
4. Shut off your flash!
I can’t even begin to tell you how many photos I’ve seen over the past year alone that were simply the result of a camera flash reflection. The biggest offender would be orbs (don’t even get me started on those) and the next would be mists, lens flares, and general reflections off of shiny objects in the room. All of which are very often the simple result of using a camera flash. The problem is you can’t see what the flash is hitting in that split second it’s on, and that leads to many misidentifications. It’s also important to note that flashes were designed to illuminate physical objects such as people and things in the room, they weren’t designed to take photo’s of light anomalies, shadows, or very faint apparitions, all of which would be obliterated by a flash. So how do you take a picture in a dark room with out a flash? Well the first step is to understand the functions of your camera. Most cameras will allow you to change the shutter speed. (check the manual if your unsure how) A slower shutter speed will allow the digital sensor (or film) in the camera to expose for a longer period of time; therefore lower light levels will look brighter in the picture without any flash at all. In some cases the photo will appear better than your own vision allows. The only requirement of this is that the camera has to remain perfectly still, so be sure to use a tri-pod and make sure no one moving in your shot. With this method the common dust and moisture orbs are gone and you can be sure that any unusual activity you pick up is not from a flash. Note: If the area you’re shooting is in total darkness, you can point your flashlight at the ceiling to create an indirect lighting effect while the picture is being taken. This will help the camera expose the picture and not cause any unwanted reflections. Also since you will be controlling the light source, there will be no question of where it comes from.
5.) Take Multiple Photographs
When someone shows me a picture of an “alleged” apparition, one of my first questions to them is “how many photos from this angle did you take?” Sadly the answer is usually just one. When analyzing a photo of something unusual like an apparition, it’s important to have a reference to base it upon, and that reference should be from the exact same angle and position with the same camera and settings. What we hope to see is one or two photos in a series with the apparition and the rest without. This way we can compare the normal photos with the subject photos and identify the areas that have changed. We can also read the “Exif” information (Exchangeable Image File Format) of the photographs to see if the camera had to make any adjustments when the anomaly was in view as compared to when it wasn’t. The lesson here kids is that while multiple photos of the same thing may seem boring and a waste of memory space, you can never have too much information when investigating the paranormal.
Here’s to science!
Much of the research work I do involves the study and analysis of electronic voice phenomena (EVP). Mainly because I feel that this evidence presents the strongest case for the existence of paranormal activity. During my years of research, there has been a recurring discussion among the members of my field and that discussion deals with the process in which an “EVP” is created. In other words, what is actually happening in the environment to get that mysterious voice into the recorder, unheard?
During my filming of “14 Degrees” I interviewed many people on the subject and it seemed everyone had a different theory. Some believe the sound is imprinted directly on the media, some believe they are subconscious telepathic communications either created by the people in the room or the “spirits” themselves. Others believe it’s simply stray commercial or private radio waves affecting the recorder, or even hallucinations caused by Pareidolia or apophenia. Being a man of reason and science I couldn't freely accept any of those responses for use in my research. There were too many flaws in each claim and it seemed each needed to be accepted with a certain amount of faith …and that’s not how I work.
I needed something repeatable that affected just about any recorder used, something that created a recording with perfect fidelity, but couldn’t be heard by anyone in the room. So I went through the process of elimination. EVP’s have been recorded for decades. They have been captured on multiple recording formats, reel to reel, cassette, and now digital. Having worked with electronics (and sound) for years, I knew that the process of recording sound on a digital recorder was much different than the oxide coated magnetic tape. So therefore it was very unlikely the phenomena would be affecting both types of media.
Then it occurred to me that the only part of a recorder that has changed little over the years (at least in principle) is the microphone. That is where I needed to look. There are three types of microphones used in recorders, dynamic microphones which use magnets and induction, Condenser microphones which use electrical charges and electret condenser microphones which use power, but react to changes in electric fields in the element.
I then needed to find some form of natural energy that would affect all three microphone types and still travel in complex waves like audio. The answer was simple… electro-magnetic energy. Electro-magnetic waves can travel in the exact same frequency ranges as our voice, but yet remain unheard by the human ear. It sounded perfect. All I needed to do now was see if they could affect the microphones in the way I wanted.
Having built guitars for many years I had a bunch of magnetic guitar pickups in my basement. I figured I would pump a sound source through it and see if I could pick up the sound on the microphones. It worked slightly, but only on the dynamic microphone. I noticed the sound wasn’t very loud so I figured I needed more power. I hooked up the pick up to a louder amplifier and tried again. This time I heard a louder sound on the dynamic microphone and a very slight sound on the electret microphone. I knew I was on the right track.
So now I examined the problem from an electronic engineer’s point of view. I knew that maximum power transfer occurs when input and output impedance match. The guitar pickup I was using was 7500 ohms and the output of the amp was only 8 ohms…quite a discrepancy. Therefore, I needed a wire coil that was 8ohms. Immediately the word “speaker” popped in my head, but I couldn’t use a full speaker since those were designed for “audio” and an audio response wasn’t what I needed. I needed just an electro-magnetic response. So I built two speaker voice coils. (Those are essentially the speaker without the paper cone and magnet.) It’s a specific amount of windings of coated copper wire around a cardboard tube. These windings will give the coil an 8 ohm impedance and a perfect power match for my amplifier.
When the coils were done I built a housing chassis and PVC tubing to hold the coils and run the wire to the amplifier. When all that was done it was time see if it would work. I plugged everything in and presto! Perfect fidelity of sound transfer though the air, unheard by the people in the room….just like an EVP. The device affected all three types of microphones. It was loudest on the dynamic mic, lower on the electret mic and lowest on the condenser. A scenario which matches the claims of EVP investigators in the field.
I now knew how these phenomena reached the recorder and could repeat it on demand. However, I also realized how much power was needed to accomplish this. I could only move the sound 5 or 6 inches with a 150 Watt amplifier. A 400 Watt Amp gave me a distance of about a foot to the mic.
Although I knew the physical method of these mysterious recordings, I still didn’t know the natural source of them in the field. It seems impossible for any man made source to be responsible for the thousands of recordings each year. The power consumption would be far too great. It is my hypothesis that the source of these voices are local and in the room with the recorder at the time of capture. This hypothesis agrees with my observations in the field, where one recorder would capture a fairly loud EVP and another recorder just several feet away, at the same time would not. This behavior to me is indeed paranormal and requires further research to better understand it.
I'm also inclined to think that this discovery may in some way tie into the many unexplainable electromagnetic field spikes that occur during an investigation. Since the waves produced by the coils trigger an EMF spike as high at 20mg and last only the length of the word or sound, my hypothesis is that perhaps unusual EMF spikes are simply uncaptured EVP communications. Of course further research is needed to better understand or verify this possibility.
The device I’ve created now plays a part in my field work where I conduct experiments using it as a communication device rather than a demonstration of principle. The idea here is simple. If alleged beings speak using complex waves of electro-magnetic frequencies, perhaps they can hear that way as well. Therefore I bring this device to the subject locations and attempt to communicate by speaking through it. Research is ongoing.
Michael J. Baker
Recent revolutionary advances in science, particularly neuroscience, have profound implications for paranormal research. It is obvious that many apparently paranormal experiences can be explained by the way our brains work. Clearly, the current model of paranormal research, almost unchanged for over a century, having delivered very little, is overdue for its own revolution. This page is an index into more detailed discussions of what is wrong with current research methods and the way forward - please follow the links for details.
It is ironic that, over the last decade or so, much paranormal research has reverted to old fashioned, assumption-led methods, no doubt inspired by the media. These could be described as Victorian techniques with better cameras! They have failed to deliver a testable theory of the paranormal or reproducible paranormal effects.
Here are some examples of the current research methodology problems (read the links for full description):
THE CHALLENGE OF A NEW SCIENCE
- Assumption-led research methods that tend to 'confirm' initial assumption
- Formal paranormal tests that do not reveal clear obvious, unambiguous effects
- Use of psychics who may not be psychic at all
- Orbs and flying rods and similar technical artifacts distracting researchers from serious work
- EMF meters and other instruments having their readings misinterpreted
- Collecting information primarily from vigils instead of from primary witnesses to events*
- WYSIWYG thinking - the tendency to trust what we experience too much
Neuroscience, the study of how the brain and nervous system works, is currently a fast moving field driven forward by technical advances like fMRI scanning and TMS. These allow researchers to watch the brain performing tasks in real time and even temporarily manipulate the way it works. These, coupled with other methods, have revealed astonishing things about perception that profoundly affect how paranormal experiences are interpreted.
For instance, we know that the 'picture in our heads' is not simply the raw output from our eyes. It can also include objects from our visual memory. Paranormal researchers have always accepted that a tree might be misinterpreted as a human figure (ghost) in poor viewing conditions. Now we know that our brains can actually substitute such a tree with a human figure from our memory, with details including limbs, head, clothes, etc. Because this is done before it enters our consciousness, we literally 'see' the human figure instead of the tree! It is little wonder that witnesses insist they really saw a ghost and not a tree!
Here are some examples of scientific advances that affect paranormal research:
- Visual substitutions - seeing one thing which is really something else
- Formant noise - how we hear 'human speech' in certain ambient sounds
- Misperception - how all our senses regularly deceive us
- Magnetic ghosts - how certain magnetic fields cause ghost-like hallucinations
- Mind tricks - how certain normal 'brain states' can make us experience things that aren't real
- Corner of the eye phenomena - peripheral and night vision that deceive us
- Confabulation - how memories are altered and exaggerated with re-telling
A NEW WAY
It is clear that science has 'raised the bar' for the standard of evidence required to demonstrate the paranormal. Paranormal research needs to rise to that challenge and abandon the old fashioned methods that have failed us for decades.
The way to demonstrate the paranormal remains the same as it always has - you first need to eliminate all natural causes. It is clear that assumption-led techniques fail to do that. Many paranormal investigations fall short because the researchers present are not aware of all the possible mundane causes for any particular incident. Thus, many incidents labeled as 'paranormal' are later challenged because possible prosaic explanations were not explored at the time of the investigation. By that time it is usually too late to go back and do more tests.
Even with existing methods, we have found that most paranormal reports are either definitely, or probably, explainable by natural causes. If you add in those that cannot be demonstrated to be paranormal because not all natural causes were explored, few if any old cases remain unambiguously paranormal.
The way forward is obvious - we need to know much more about possible 'mundane explanations' that cause so many apparently paranormal reports. The advantages of this approach are huge. For a start, unlike conventional paranormal research, progress is guaranteed because we know the things we are studying are definitely real!
An important concept in this approach is the xenonormal - the unfamiliar masquerading as the paranormal. When paranormal reports are found to have mundane explanations, it is almost always a case of the witness experiencing something they did not recognise - either entirely new to them or something known in an unfamiliar guise. An example might be people, who've never noticed a planet before, mistaking Venus for a UFO.
Here are some examples of how this new approach to paranormal research works:
The aim of the new approach is to produce tests for the xenonormal and/or to reproduce its effects using only what was around when someone had their paranormal experience. Only by eliminating the xenonormal can we detect the truly paranormal.
- Xenonormal - how experiencing the unfamiliar generates apparent paranormal experiences
- New house effect - how an unfamiliar environment is a predictable source of xenonormal experiences
- EVP analysis and gallery - a scientific approach to electronic voice phenomena
- Culture - how it affects the way we interpret unfamiliar experiences
* There is an over-emphasis on vigils in current research which generates a lot of 'phenomena' reports, most of which are probably the result of psychological suggestion or misperception.
© Maurice Townsend 2009 - ASSAP
Some people believe ghosts are spirits. Others dismiss them as hallucination or delusion. But what if they are none of these. What if we take witness statements of ghost sightings at face value - they literally do see the figure of someone who is not physically present. How is that possible without spirits being involved? And can anyone who wants to, see ghosts?
“... when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sign of Four. Misperception and hallucinationsThere are no official statistics but it is clear that most ghost cases, when properly investigated, turn out to be caused by misperception. It is obviously something that must be eliminated first, before anything can be claimed as paranormal. It is therefore important to understand it.
Misperception is misinterpreting something seen, heard, felt or otherwise sensed. It is likely, taking into account the results of many investigations, that misperception alone accounts for the most reported paranormal experiences. Hallucinations, by contrast, originate inside your brain, so they don't require any 'something' in the real world (a sensory stimulus). Between them, misperceptions and hallucinations probably account for a great many reports of apparent paranormal phenomena.
For a quick quide to misperception (as well as 'frequently put objections', see here).
Hallucination Misperception do not require any external object Require object external to witness Can generally not be shared with other witnesses Can be seen by multiple witnesses at once Originates in brain without sensory input Originates in brain from sensory inputLooking for misperception and hallucination
Hallucination is more difficult than misperception to detect. With no 'sensory stimulus' to look for, detecting hallucination requires examining what was happening to the witness when they experienced the apparent paranormal phenomenon. If they were on the verge of sleep at the time, for instance, you might suspect a near sleep experience. If they felt paralysed then it might be sleep paralysis. Many people experience one or two episodes of sleep paralysis in their lives. Other causes of hallucination include sensory deprivation and absorption. Some other types of hallucination may be caused by medical conditions (like epilepsy) or by taking certain drugs, so you could check witnesses's medical history (see also mindsight). A small number of hallucinations may be induced by such things as certain magnetic fields.
With misperception there is something outside the witness to look for - the sensory stimulus! It would be worth trying to recreate the situation of the original experience, at precisely the same location, to see if the object is obvious. It would be very useful if you could reproduce the lighting conditions too, if relevant, as many misperceptions occur in poor light. If you're lucky, you too may experience the same misperception. Sometimes, though, the cause of a misperception may have gone by the time of the investigation.
MisperceptionAs optical illusions illustrate, our brains can easily be fooled. Misperceptions are caused by ambiguous, insufficient or conflicting sensory information reaching our brains.
- Ambiguous sensory stimuli may present aspects of different objects, forcing our brains to decide which is really present
- When our brains get insufficient sensory information they may 'edit in' likely objects from memory to make sense of an experience
- Sensory conflicts may arise between different senses which our brains have somehow to resolve
In all such cases, it seems our brains 'resolve' such problems BEFORE presenting sensory information to our consciousness. Thus we are presented with a seamless experience which may, sometimes, not reflect the real world.
In order to understand misperceptions, we must first understand normal perception. Details of the process are still being unraveled by science but we know some relevant things already.
The picture in your head - visual misperception
The most 'acute' of your senses is vision. It is 'acute' because it is the one we rely on the most to form our picture of reality. When our senses receive conflicting information, vision is the one that wins the tussle. Vision also provides more information than any of the other senses, measuring not only the wavelength and amplitude of light (equating to colour and brightness) but also the spatial layout of light sources in three dimensions. By comparison, only frequency and amplitude are measured in hearing.
Consider the 'picture in your head' - that crisp, colourful movie of the world behind your eyes that most people assume is reality. In fact, it is a moving image stored and played in your brain. The whole image is not fed continuously by your eyes but instead it receives brief detailed updates of small parts of the view in front of you. The bits of the image not currently being updated are slightly out of date, being the result of previous updates. The reason is that detailed views can only be obtained from a small bit of your retina, called the fovea. Your eye performs constant jerky movements, called saccades, to point the fovea at the most interesting parts of a scene. The fovea then 'fixates' on a small area while passing information to the brain. During the actual eye movements, little or no information goes to the brain. We generally perform about three saccades a second, each lasting 20 to 200 microseconds. For the remaining time we are fixating on a relatively small area of the scene ahead.
So how is the 'picture in your head' maintained? Recent scientific research suggests that it is partly from updates, partly from short term memory (what was there at the last fixation) and partly from visual long term visual memories. This last bit is particularly interesting from the point of view of misperception. If you see something that your brain does not immediately recognise from memory (or where there are conflicting signals from other senses), it needs to make a quick decision. It tries to maintain a picture that 'makes sense', so sometimes it may substitute the ambiguous visual information with something from its long term memory. This happens before the 'picture in your head' is updated, so the substitution is not noticed and feels perfectly real to you, the witness.
In order to give us a real time view of the world, our brains do not have time to examine everything in a scene in detail. Instead, our brains take short cuts, to speed processing. We examine the edges and corners of an object, for instance, rather than the whole thing, to decide what it is. The rest is frequently filled in from our visual memory. The more vague an object looks, the more memory is used to 'fill in the gaps'.
Consider, for instance, if you saw a shadow in a dark room, your brain might not have sufficient information to work out what it is. So it might decide it is a human figure. Your long term memory may then add 'details' to the sighting that you can't really see, like limbs or clothes, because of expectation. Your brain knows, from experience, that humans generally have limbs and clothes, so it inserts such 'details', even though your eyes can't see them. Because seeing a strange figure in a dark place can be a disturbing experience, psychological suggestion may come into play making you think it might be a ghost. If the figure doesn't move, as it might not if it is a shadow with a mundane cause, this strange 'behaviour' may reinforce the idea that it is not an ordinary human at all but a ghost. And even people who don't consciously know much about ghosts will have absorbed enough from the culture to inform such a perception.
This process of 'editing' the 'picture in your head' is entirely unconscious. Therefore the image will feel totally real to you and will be remembered as such. The process is probably easier if, whether consciously or otherwise, you accept the idea that ghosts, as well as real people, are possible. This unconscious 'acceptance' may come through cultural memory.
Research has shown that each object in the 'picture in your head' is dealt with separately by your brain. This applies even when two objects overlap. Thus, an object from your visual memory can be 'inserted' into a real scene completely naturally. It might even be partially obscured by another real object. This is one reason why misperceived objects can appear completely convincing and normal!
Different people will be subject to differing misperceptions because each has their disparate life experiences and memories. That's because misperceptions originate in people's long term visual memory. So if three people see an ambiguous stimulus, one may see one ghost, another a different ghost and the third just a shadow! Misperceptions can also vary according to the viewing conditions. Just as with an optical illusion, they may look completely different from a slightly different viewing angle or may disappear altogether. Thus misperceptions are sensitive to (a) who the viewer is and (b) the viewing conditions. This can make them difficult to reproduce.
There are further visual misperception problems related to peripheral vision ('corner of the eye') and low light but they are dealt with elsewhere. For practical advice on detecting misperception in witness testimony, see visual substitutions.
It takes around 100ms for the signals from our retinas to reach our brains. To compensate for this delay, our brains 'predict' any motion we are seeing. Thus our minds will show us where a ball that is flying though the air actually is, rather than where we can really 'see' it. If this didn't happen we couldn't play games like tennis (as we'd try to hit the ball after it had gone). So what we see in 'picture in our heads' is not what is going on right now but a 'future projection' 1/10s ahead, produced by the unconscious parts of our brains! This delay is thought to be the mechanism behind optical illusions, where the brain's projection about where things will be is sometimes wrong.
To produce this 'future projection', our brains have a 'functional model' of how objects, like tennis balls, behave when moving. However, when we see something we have never seen before, or something we mistake for another object, our brains may use the wrong 'functional model' for the object. If we see a tree in bad light, the unconscious parts of our brains may think it is really a ghost. So, we may see it 'move', even when it doesn't, because that's what our brains expect a ghost to do! Our 'functional models' of things like UFOs, which most people have never seen before, may be derived from the movies!
Shadow ghost misperception
Look at the photo, right. It shows a shadow on a stair. The whole photo looks dark. The shadow on the stair bears a passing resemblance to a human figure in its shape and with a 'hand' on the right banister and 'legs' stretching down several steps. If it were a person it would be rather short, a child perhaps. However, if you saw this shadow briefly, without having a photo to study at your leisure, you might think it was a shadow ghost.
There is no shadow ghost in the photo, just the chance way the shadow fell vaguely suggesting the human form. We humans are particularly prone to seeing figures and faces in random patterns, probably from ancient survival skills. Had the shadow fallen in a different way, the effect probably wouldn't have worked. Indeed, for some readers it probably doesn't work now!
The photo was just a normal one of the interior of a building. Nothing has been electronically added to the photo. Instead the whole picture has been simply been darkened and the contrast increased, until the shadow obscures the background, in a photo software package.
The final effect is an ambiguous stimulus - is it just a shadow (as the colour and lack of detail suggest) or a shadowy figure (as the shape suggests)? Your brain has conflicting visual cues to resolve - shadow or figure? If you were to approach such a shadow, it would probably change shape or even vanish (as the angles of the light throwing the shadow changed). Since your brain knows that humans can't do things like change shape or vanish, it might conclude the shadow was a ghost!
Optical illusions (like these) are a common form of misperception. They usually work by providing conflicting, or ambiguous, visual information. The brain has to make a choice which, with optical illusions, is usually wrong. Again, the brain likes to present a 'reasonable' version of the world (based on experience), rather than a totally realistic one, so it is fooled into making mistakes.
A briefly-seen dark shape can also resemble a shadow ghost. See this video, for instance. A brief glance is just one kind of 'misperception trigger' (see section below).
This same kind of process that occur in vision perception happen with sound. If you listen to speech in a noisy environment, your brain will 'fill in' likely sounding words that it didn't actually hear. And with ambiguous sounds, you can hear different things, often determined by expectation and suggestion. Flowing water (a kind of near white noise) can sound like whispering or music in certain circumstances. Once again your brain is faced with conflicting or ambiguous cues and has to make a choice.
These kind of misperceptions occur in formant noise. You can hear illustrations of these sort of aural misperceptions here.
We have a mental map of our body based on vision and touch. However, vision is more important than touch and conflicts between the senses can lead to misperceptions like the 'rubber hand illusion'. You take a model of a hand and put it on a table in front of you while hiding one of your real hands where you can't see it (behind a screen, perhaps) and holding it in the same pose. Then you get someone to gently stroke both the model and your real hidden hand with the same movements. You will get a strange feeling that the rubber hand in front of you is your own! You can see a demo here. It is possible that the Christos method of inducing out of the body experiences may deliberately induce a conflict between vision and touch to manipulate your 'body map'.
Now imagine you are sitting in the dark reaching out and you can feel something. Without vision, are you sure you know where your hand is in space? It certainly brings into question spatial awareness and apparent touching incidents in dark vigils. Could it also explain the mystery of the 'hand in the dark' experience at a physical mediumship seance?
Another problem that our brain has in constructing the 'picture in your head' is in paying attention. Change blindness is a hot topic in neuroscience at the moment. We seem to only have a limited amount of 'attention' and we only notice so much change, missing any more that happens. For instance, people do not usually notice gradual changes in scenes, even if they are big alterations. We also frequently miss changes if we are distracted while the change is happening.
Unfortunately, change blindness can leave us open to not noticing vital clues to natural causes for apparent paranormal phenomena. If an unstable stack of objects was gradually slipping, over several seconds or minutes, we might not notice the change until it finally falls over. We might conclude that the stack had looked perfectly stable until it fell over, because we didn't notice it shifting to an unstable position. We might conclude that the 'object movement' was paranormal when it is not.
There is anecdotal evidence that people particularly interested in the paranormal, who are also frequently paranormal witnesses, may be particularly focused when watching a scene and prone to missing clues to natural causes. For instance, such people seem particularly likely not to notice the gorilla in the ball game!
Paradoxically, we can often have a 'gut feeling' that something has changed in a scene we are observing, even though we can't say what it is. This is mindsight. The interesting point is that, according to research, this can happen both if there is a genuine change in the scene and also if there is not! This could give someone experiencing it the impression that they have perceived something when they have not - a brief sight of a ghost perhaps! This may explain ghost sightings where only one person in a group 'sees' the ghost while others don't, even when they are looking in the same direction.
Misperception is probably behind many xenonormal experiences. When faced with something unfamiliar or novel, our brains have to decide what it is before passing it to the 'picture in our head'. An unfamiliar object is an ambiguous stimulus by definition since we have no memory of it. This is when our brains may plunder our long term memory to find ANY match, whether fact or fiction. A mysterious light in the sky may match something seen in a film about UFOs. Though the light is actually just Venus, our brains may add 'details', like a saucer shape, to make it appear more like an alien space craft. By putting images of imaginary alien craft into the public domain, we are encouraging people, very occasionally to actually 'see' them when faced with the unfamiliar, the xenonormal.
Misperceptions like those outlined above, coupled with memory limitations, may account for some of the problems we see with witness testimony.
Though misperception has been studied quite extensively in the laboratory, it is not so well documented in the field. Perhaps this is a gap that paranormal researchers could fill! The following examples of visual misperception 'triggers' are anecdotal, so it should not be taken as a definitive or exhaustive list.
There are, no doubt, other conditions were when objects are misperceived and, sometimes, substituted. Paranormal investigators should try to assess if any of these conditions applied to reported anomalous phenomena sightings.
- quick glances - objects are often misinterpreted when only seen briefly**
- poor viewing conditions - dim light, bright light, highly coloured light, fog, bright light source from a low angle (eg. the sun in winter at high latitudes) etc can all produce misperception
- corner of the eye phenomena - poor resolution on the edge of the visual field produces misperception
- distant objects - these can be the subject of visual substitution
- ambiguous shapes - simulacra, optical illusions, etc.
- partial views of an object (eg shape obscured) - if the shape is partly obscured an object may be misinterpreted
- rapid head turning - may cause apparent movement in the new scene even when everything is stationary
- fast moving objects - may 'vanish' if they do not move as predicted
- unfamiliar object/situation - something completely unrecognised by the observer OR a familiar object in an unexpected situation
- familiar object - something has really changed in a familiar scene but you still 'see' what you expect to see
- line of sight - it is difficult to judge the distance between two objects in the same line of sight
- objects blending together - part of a foreground object appears to vanish because it 'blends in' visually with a background object (accidental camouflage)
Many of the conditions listed above are either temporary or rely on very specific viewing conditions that can change quickly (eg. after a quick glance you may stare at an object for longer). When the conditions for the misperception change, the illusion will generally disappear. Such 'disappearances' are, of course, a feature of many ghost sightings.
Attempts by the original witness to reproduce misperception at the same spot usually fail. This would tend to indicate that 'surprise' is also a factor in such experiences. If you are prepared to experience a particular misperception it probably won't happen! However, being aware that misperceptions can happen may make you more likely to experience them, in general.
Whenever our brains do not immediately recognise an object, they will take any clue to come to an answer, right or wrong, before we become conscious of the result. These 'clues' may be other things in the visual field or even what we happened to be thinking about at the time.
We might be more vulnerable to misperception if we are in 'default network' state. This is the state when we are not concentrating on anything in particular, perhaps daydreaming. The state is believed to be the brain's way of reviewing short term memories to decide which to keep and which to discard. This could possibly inform the imagery of misperceptions. During daydreams our minds not only consider the past but possible futures and even wild imaginings. Another possible state conducive to misperception might be boredom (where certain brain areas may become disconnected), due to repetitive tasks for instance. In any of these states, little attention is being paid to surroundings, increasing the possibility of misperception.
** There may be a very specific explanation for 'glance' type misperception (see here).
When do we misperceive?
The conditions for misperception are around us for much of the time. An object may be too distant to see well or it might be dark and difficult to recognise. And all the time things in our peripheral vision are never observed well. So misperception is probably going on most of the time for everyone. So why don't we notice it? Because our brains are the things producing the misperceptions and they are 'validating' them - ie. telling us what we are seeing is real nearly all the time ('seeing is believing').
So the real question is, why do we, very rarely, notice a misperception and interpret it as a strange experience (maybe paranormal)? Misperception hides from us because it usually takes the form of things that are expected. But occasionally our brains get it wrong! We may see a poorly-seen tree as a person but if that 'person' could not possibly have appeared in a particular location without being seen earlier, we notice it! It is like a continuity error in a movie. It seems that our brains can make any particular static scene make sense in itself but not necessarily maintain the illusion of reality correctly for an extended period of time. Quite simply, we can create a version of reality in our heads but sometimes we make mistakes and that's when we notice them.
This suggests a strong link with paranormal reports! If we notice a 'mistake in reality', that is practically a definition of paranormal! If you glance at a human figure in your peripheral vision and, when you turn to look straight at it, it vanishes, the first thing you think is - ghost! This would explain why many (most?) misperceptions that we notice are interpreted as paranormal.
Occasionally, we might notice a misperception that is NOT a continuity error. Our brains may substitute a poorly-seen object for something else which is perfectly reasonable in the context, like seeing a post as a tree in a forest! This would probably only be noticed if we had some particular reason to look at it closely. Since, unlike seeing a ghost, the incident has no great significance, we would probably forget it in minutes. Our memories tend to hang on to the unusual while dismissing the commonplace.
Duration of misperception experiences
In most cases of misperception, the effect is short-lived, generally measured in seconds. This is because the witness gets a better view of the object being misperceived and the illusion is broken. However, there are cases where the misperception can be prolonged because viewing conditions do not improve. It is just such cases that probably produce paranormal reports, as do 'glance' type experiences which rely on their short duration to work.
Multiple sense misperception
Sometimes two senses may interact to produce, or reinforce, a misperception in either, both (or even neither). So, if you see a vague shadow shape in your peripheral vision, while hearing a groaning noise (made by the wind in a tree, maybe), you may get a strong misperception of a hunan figure. The groaning noise, even though it is caused by the wind, may be misattributed to the shadow. This sort of experience may give rise to the idea of an 'interactive ghost' - it might appear to be talking to the witness. This is also based on anecdotal experience and needs formal research.
Forms that misperception takes
As with 'misperception triggers' above, this area has not been researched much. This is another gap that paranormal researchers could fill. The following is based primarily on anecdotal evidence. The following list is extremely unlikely to be exhaustive:
Notes on misperception forms :
- figures (sometimes only partial) and faces (eg. a 'ghost') (notes 1,5)
- things feared (eg. a watching 'person', a 'shadow ghost', unexplained movement)
- UFOs (note 2)
- things that used to be there (note 3)
- things hoped for (note 4)
- things expected (note 6)
1: There is a specific area of the brain (the right middle fusiform gyrus) apparently dedicated to facial recognition - other objects are recognised by other areas. It is, perhaps, unsurprising then that sometimes objects are misperceived as faces. People are also prone to 'over-recognising' human figures for social and survival purposes - you need to know if there is a person present and if they are a possible threat or maybe a friend. The ghost connection probably arises if the figure vanishes on closer inspection.
2: The word UFO is, of course, widely taken to mean 'alien spacecraft' in popular culture. This probably explains why unidentified flying objects are typically interpreted as 'flying saucers'.
3: When we misperceive, objects are substituted from visual memory. While these can be fictional objects (from films, TV programmes, etc) they can also be real. It is therefore not surprising if we 'see' things as present that were once there but have been removed. We might glimpse a once treasured possession in half light when it has been thrown away. This, also, feeds into the idea of ghosts as 'recordings'.
4: When naturalists particularly want to see a species they've never encountered before, they can sometimes 'turn' a similar but more common animal into it (when not seen well!). They are convinced they've seen what they desperately wanted to see even though it is not so. This no doubt happens in other circumstances when people particularly hope to see something (or even someone) not actually physically present!
5: Rarely, some people report ghosts as being only partially visible, eg. the top or bottom half of a human figure or just a limb. This could arise if the misperceived object most closely resembles only part of a body.
6: We may expect to see things in particular situations from similar experiences in the past. This could include fictional situations, so you might expect to see a ghost in a spooky house if you've seen something similar in a movie. If we see a 'figure' where we expect to see one, like at the wheel of a car, it can make a particularly powerful impression (sometimes repeatedly).
Anecdotally, misperception generally takes the form of 'generalised' objects rather than specific examples from memory. So, you may misperceive a human figure, even seeing their clothes, facial features, etc but without recognising them as anyone you've ever seen. This may the result of archetypes.
The reason why human and animal figures (often interpreted as ghosts) are seen more often than other misperceptions may be down to a bit of the brain called the amygdala. This area notices potential threats before we are even consciously aware of them (particularly blurred or fuzzy objects). Over the span of human evolution, it is likely that animals and other humans have been the most likely immediate threat to personal security. So though we misperceive all the time, we probably only notice those things tagged by the amygdala as a possible threat. It might also explain why we are afraid of ghosts!
An object can be misperceived as anything of similar dimensions, shape and colour. This generally puts a limit on what the misperception can be (a small rectangular box is never likely to be seen as a human figure but a tall bush might)*. The worse the viewing conditions, however, the looser such restrictions on size and colour and so on. There could be multiple objects involved as well. They may line up, from a particular angle, to give the impression of a completely different object.
Something that is misperceived doesn't even have to be a physical object. Anything that can create patterns of light will do, such as shadows or highly illuminated surfaces. A pattern of shadows on a wall could resemble a human figure, depending on its shape and size. You could even misperceive a shape caused by a gap between other objects (a hole, in effect)! Reflections can also cause misperceptions. Shadows can also act as 'extensions' to real objects to give the impression of something else.
In low light situations there are often fewer colours visible than normal. This is because there might not be enough light around for normal colour vision or, if using outdoors artificial lighting, the colour range may be restricted by the source. Similarly, if the lighting is from a low sun the range of colours may be limited to the colours of the sunrise or sunset.
This loss of colour vision means visible details of objects are lost. Different coloured areas of an object, that were clearly differentiated in good light, may merge to appear as one colour. The result is that objects can appear radically different, even seeming to change shape or apparently merge with adjacent objects. If there are long dark shadows about, as there will be with a low sun, this can add to an object's changed appearance by rendering some features invisible (in the shadow). Essentially, objects can look quite different in low light, perhaps even suggesting a human figure or face, in a way that would not happen in good lighting.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that such low light situations, with fewer colours than usual and long shadows, may be the cause of many misperception (and paranormal) reports.
Moving objects, when poorly seen, can sometimes give the impression of being alive. For instance, a tree branch blowing in the wind, seen in peripheral vision, might suggest an animal or even a moving human figure.
* New anecdotal evidence suggests misperceptions can sometimes extend considerably beyond the object causing them!
Archetypes and functional models
Our brains hold models of the objects in the world, derived from our experience. So we recognise a table, even if it is a design we've never seen before. We have an archetypical table in our brains - the essential 'tableness' quality of every table we've ever seen. We also know how tables behave - they are solid and generally they don't move! We have a 'functional model' of how such an object behaves and interacts with other objects. Recent research suggests we remember objects as a 'map' consisting of simpler shapes. This allows us to recognise different types of table, for instance, including from a variety of angles, even if we've never seen it from that direction before.
When we fail to recognise something, for whatever reason, our brains may substitute the real object in our vision with something from visual memory. Rather than something specific (eg. a particular table), experience suggests that it is a generalised form (any old table) - probably the archetype we hold in our brains! Thus misperceptions will typically features recognisable tables, people, clouds, etc but not specific ones we've seen before.* In addition, a 'functional model' will exist for that archetype.
Such 'archetypes' and 'functional models' need not be derived from real experience. We 'know' what a flying saucer looks like from the movies, even if we've never actually seen a 'real' one. So, if you've never seen Venus before and don't recognise it, your brain may add portholes and a saucer shape to make it look like a classic flying saucer. It may even appear to move, because that's what flying saucers do!
Alternatively, since the object we're seeing has not been recognised correctly, it may look and behave differently from the archetype and functional model that our brains have assigned to it. This may give us the impression of strange behaviour and appearance - a spooky appearance! This can lead to reports of objects 'defying the laws of physics'. For instance, we are not used to seeing ornaments flying through the air, so if such a thing happens in a poltergeist case, our brains may become confused, causing it to appear to hang in the air before falling. The apparent 'hovering' occurs while our brains realise that it really is a falling ornament! Many apparently paranormal experiences may be caused by a difference between what our brains expect an object to look and behave like and what it really does.
* Some ghosts ARE people we already know - crisis apparitions - but most are unknown 'people' and are rarely, if ever, positively identified with a particular person.
Effects of misperception
As a result of investigation, we know that most reported paranormal experiences have mundane causes. Further, it is generally thought that misperception is the biggest cause of such reports. Therefore, we should be able to see the effects of misperception (its 'signature') in many paranormal reports. Here are some examples of aspects of paranormal reports that may fall into this category:
Both of these effects are essentially anecdotal, and so would benefit from rigorous studies.
- the closer you look for the paranormal, the more elusive it becomes - this has been widely noted, particularly on vigils and among primary witnesses - it can be explained by the fact that the more attention you pay to a misperceived phenomenon, the less likely it is to be misperceived
- children are often said to report more paranormal phenomena than adults - this might be because they are less resistant to the idea of the existence of the paranormal as they are routinely, and uncritically, exposed to stories that include it (see culture) - also young children are unfamiliar with more things than adults and so may misperceive more
See a ghost for yourself!
Once you become aware of misperception, it is likely you will start to notice mysterious objects, glanced briefly or seen in the 'corner of your eye', that vanish when you look at them properly. You might one day be aware of a 'figure' in the distance or just glanced briefly. On closer examination it may turn into a tree, a plant or some other object that vaguely resembles a human. The 'figure' will appear to vanish, just as ghost frequently do. That's because your brain inserted the 'figure' into the 'picture in your head' instead of the tree which it couldn't see properly. This may well be precisely how many ghost sightings happen. Just keep a lookout in your peripheral vision and, from time to time, you will see ghosts! But don't go looking for specific misperceptions as this appears to inhibit the effect! Just expect to be surprised!
But why do misperceptions often feature human figures and ghosts, rather than more mundane objects? This probably arises from the way our brains work.
Despite probably being responsible for most paranormal reports, misperception is under-researched. You can help! Please send us your experiences by completing the misperception survey.
It is very difficult to reproduce misperception because of the many variables involved that need to be just right. Here is an attempt that might, or might not, work for you.
Since misperception is probably responsible for most paranormal reports, eliminating it during investigations is important. Some ideas for doing that are here.
There are several environmental factors which, though they don't cause misperception, may encourage witnesses to report such experiences as paranormal rather than something else. They are factors that contribute to the 'spooky' feeling of a place. These 'spookiness factors' include:
These are factors that have been found to contribute to the number of reports of apparent paranormal experiences. Not everyone will be affected by these factors and the degree of influence will vary between individuals. But, overall, they will contribute to the likelihood of misperception being reported as paranormal (rather than dismissed as a 'trick of the light', for instance).
- low lighting
- high humidity
- old buildings
- low temperature
- a reputation for being haunted
- elevated infrasound
Misperceptions about misperception
Sometimes misperception is dismissed as a possible cause of a reports of weird experiences because of wrong ideas about what it is and what it isn't. Here are a list of some of the common objections to misperception and answers to those points.
Misperception is still a new subject and requires a lot more research yet to answer all such questions properly.