Sunday, 1 March 2009

Things that don’t go bump in the night…

Ghosts are weird.  The number of otherwise rational people who believe in ghosts is astounding.  But several things trouble me about ghosts, and lead me to conclude that they don’t exist.

Firstly, nobody has ever captured a ghost on film, or on tape, or provided any evidence of ghostly activity which isn’t explained in some other way.  Of course, photos have appeared on the internet (and long before the internet) purporting to show ghosts captured on film (or on CCD these days, I guess).

Time was that double exposure of the film was the main cause – that is to say that the shutter is opened twice to put two images into one space on the film – so when the film is developed, you get a ghostly second image appearing.  But that doesn’t happen with digital cameras, of course.  What has happened with digital cameras is that so-called “orbs” are now much more common.

Orbs are believed to be the first stage of manifestations of spirits – by some people. The rest of us know that it’s just a minute dust particle reflecting some of the light from the flash back at the lens of the camera.

Of course, the biggest cause of paranormal sightings is the human mind.  I’ve mentioned in here before the way in which the human brain (and indeed the brains of other animals) like to spot patterns everywhere.  That also means spotting patterns where in reality no such pattern exists – the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast or Elvis Presley appearing in the clouds for instance.   It’s a shame that flock wallpaper isn’t in fashion anymore because it’s a great way to see this for yourself.  If you stare at a wallpaper with a regular and not-too-big pattern for a while, you’ll start to see patterns, maybe even faces, staring back at you. 

Ghostly activity is reputedly most common between 12am and 3am.  This is also the time that most people are half-asleep and that the house is pretty quiet except for the noise of creaking floorboards and ticking clocks.  Strange that.

Try lying in bed at night and listening to the noises in your home.  There will be some.  You may tell yourself that it’s quiet, but you will hear clocks ticking in the distance, you will hear things creaking as they shrink back slightly as the whole place cools down.  From outside you’ll hear gusts of wind and the distant noise of traffic.  The human head is not set up for determining the distance away from you of sounds.  The rustle of a duvet against the end of the bed from your moving around in bed may sound like it’s actually a louder rustling noise coming from outside the bedroom door.  The ticking of a clock may start to sound like distant footsteps up the stairs.

Of course, once you’ve heard/seen something you perceive to be spooky, and if you’re a believer in such things, you’ll start to subconsciously look for things to back that up.  And so begins a spiral into a world where a cool breeze blowing through the crack in an ill-fitted door becomes the manifestation of a long-dead relative.

It’s a shame that ghosts don’t exist though.  A true ability to connect to the spirit world would be an astonishingly useful historical tool and would be invaluable to the police.  But, I hear you say, the police already use psychics to successfully solve mysteries.

All of the evidence suggests that psychics have no ability to read minds or talk to the dead.  It’s perfectly possible to recreate some astonishingly convincing effects which may convince you that they do have real abilities without any recourse to the supernatural.  You can, with enough time and patience, learn to read people’s feelings and even make concrete predictions about their life.  And whilst some psychics are simply failed conjurors (Uri Gellar, for instance) some others were no doubt able to do the same tricks without consciously trying.  It means they are gifted in some way – but are they able to talk to the dead – No!

The answer to the above arguments from those who do believe are usually of the “I have a friend who” or even “I once saw” followed by a mocking of your arguments for any way to explain exactly what they saw.  Of course, even human vision and memory are subjective.  I may remember  something completely differently to how you remember it, even though we witnessed exactly the same thing.  Memory is not a record of images, it is a record of feelings and interpretations of images.  When I have more inclination in that direction, there are some good experiments you can do to show this is the case.

So, when you are told that someone “saw their dead relative standing over the bed” there’s no doubt in my mind that such an event is in their memory – but that doesn’t mean that’s how it happened at all.  And once the idea is in someone’s mind that they are being haunted, it’s very hard to convince them otherwise.

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