Are Ghosts Hallucinations?
Over at http://www.rationalskepticism.org I’m debating the poster known as Campermon, an excellent chap. So far we are just really getting started, but I thought I’d share one of my posts, just in case anyone interested…
“My sincere thanks to Campermon for his excellent response, which clear took a great deal of work, and has done much to move the debate forward. What strikes me immediately is how much we agree on. I will take a temporary halt from my catalogue of marvels – or “ghost stories” as many have termed them – to discuss what we have so far established. Firstly Campermon stakes out his position on ghosts clearly; “that they are purely manifestations of the brain that do not represent objects in objective reality.” He writes with considerable accuracy and verve on hallucinations, and hypnagogia: fields I have written extensively upon in the past, and where I feel well qualified to comment. And I will comment – I agree absolutely with Campermon here. As I wrote in my opening post
CJ wrote: I would imagine every reader of this debate has hallucinated – if not through drugs, fever or exhaustion, then in that most wonderful yet familiar of things, our nightly dreams. That our brains can conjure up convincing people, exotic landscapes, or whole dramas as if we are really there I think anyone who has ever had a dream will admit.
If ghosts were confined to sightings by a single individual at a time, then I would be forced to immediately concede the debate. That complicated multi-sensory hallucinations that can draw us in and seem utterly real, along with simple misperceptions and errors of memory, and still rather mysterious sleep phenomena – sleep paralysis, night terrors, ‘old hag’, hypnogogia and lucid dreams – can occur, that I accept without question. Yet I still hold to the argument I am debating for: and here is why…
Let us assume for a moment a universe where “ghosts” are hallucinatory experiences, generated entirely within the brain. This is a simple and entirely sensible position – in fact I think it’s pretty much what the 18th and 19th century consensus of scholars was – ghosts are just imagination, or mental aberrations, or straight misperception of normal (or unusual) events or objects. All of this is perfectly reasonable and doubtless accounts for a very large number of “ghost” experiences. As I have stated from the beginning, we all know we can hallucinate, even if our only experience of hallucination is the weird and wonderful world of dreams. Such “ghosts” will share certain properties, being the product of a “disordered” brain.
The theoretical properties of these hallucinations are –
i) They will only appear to one witness at a time – though a misperception (where there is something there, it just fools the senses, as in an optical illusion – misperceptions are not hallucination technically) could theoretically be shared by many. If a stick in the water looks like Nessie, it is possible that hundreds of observers could simultaneously see it and reach the erroneous conclusion it is a lake monster. ( I don’t think Campermon has invoked misperceptions yet, but it seems a fair extension of his position, and a sensible one, to allow for it?)
ii) They will convey no information to the percipient not known to them at the time. Again a caveat – if a ghostly monk now appears tonight to Campermon, and tells him the winner of the Grand National, we would all be impressed, not least Campermon I suspect. If it subsequently turns out to be incorrect, we might wonder if Campermon dreamt the whole affair. Yet even if Campermon was right, that could still be the explanation. The conveying of veridical information adds weight to the apparition being an external “thing”, not a hallucination, but does not alone substantiate it.
iii) They will not objectively cause physical ‘real world’ effects – no opening doors, moving objects, or otherwise impinging upon physical reality. Being mental constructs they can’t – if physical effects are ascribed to a ghost, then they must be misattributed.
iv) They will not reappear in the same place over time to different witnesses This requires a little explanation – if it is known that an Oxford courtyard is purportedly haunted by a shot Civil War general, we should not be surprised if others purport to see “the ghost”. If however over a period of many years many people witness an apparition, and agree on certain characteristics, independently and without foreknowledge of the purported haunt – then we may be justified in doubting the hallucination explanation.
So how well do ghost accounts meet these criteria? On point i) seen by a single witness, we know this is commonly not the case. About 10% of SPR cases were seen simultaneously by multiple percipients – the experience which got me interested in all this was of that type, shared with four other witnesses. We can invoke misperception as I have already stated – human perception is notoriously fallible, and a whole theatre of people can be wowed by a magicians trick.
Furthermore, in many cases there is communication between the parties – “do you see the monk?” etc, and even where there is no verbal communication there is the possibility of non-verbal prompting. In his classic analysis of the SPR Census cases Tyrell noted that in many multi-percipient cases witnesses saw the apparition from their perspective – a very clever trick for a hallucination. So if I was in front of the ghostly Dawkins, I would see his face – if you were behind, his tailcoats.
Yet I would not want to make too much of this (certainly less than Tyrell et al did) – for we have the problem that by the time testimony is recorded there has often been conferring among witnesses, which I suspect does much to shape the memory of the experience. In my own experience (at Thetford Priory, Norfolk, 1987) one of the other percipients (David Aukett) forbade us to discus the experience till we had committed it to paper – and on comparing we found that our descriptions of the apparitional figure were sharply divergent. (We did however all agree on the movements and the staircase which we saw, which did not exist in reality). I am fairly certain (given that none of us can now recall what happened that night with any degree of confidence at all) that the staircase was mentioned in the verbal exchange during the sighting – presumably why we agree on this detail – once someone mentioned it, we all “saw” it.
So i) is in fact, I freely admit, questionable evidence against the hallucination theory, but clearly it must be taken in to account.
Let’s move on to ii) where the ghosty tells us something we did not know. A quick anecdote here – because I am feeling self indulgent, at this late hour! Many years ago a group of munchkins, er sorry students, came to my room in college halls and announced they intended to do a Ouija board. I was amused and a bit concerned – I had seen people scare themselves silly by such things, but they wanted me to play as I had a reputation as knowing about such things. I refused, but said they could do it in my room if they wished, and I would observe and banish any horrors they called up from beyond the grave
They messed about for a while, the Ouija giving seemingly (seemingly?!!!) nonsensical answers. Finally I was bored, and said I would join in after all. And I cheated – I pushed the glass, and we soon had a message from a chap who was terribly burned, needed help, and I even made up a street address. They freaked out, someone fetched a map, and yes the street existed – well I may have seen it, I had been in to town, and dredged it out of my unconscious. I’d certainly seen maps of Cheltenham. And then to my amusement, they insisted on going and tracking down the house address, expecting to find the chap perished in the flames. I barely dissuaded them from calling the fire brigade! But hey, it was near the Kentucky Fried Chicken, so I tagged along. (I was a vegetarian in theory at the time, prone to late night lapses).
We went to the street, and there was no house at the address – perhaps luckily – but a gap in to a small row called Jenner Walk. “Perhaps it’s down there” someone said – and we walked down to find ourselves in a small burial ground. The name on a tombstone corresponded to the name I had invented for my “ghost” – it was a common name I think – but from that moment on they were convinced. I told them I had pushed the glass, and the whole message was made up by me, and it was just coincidence – but they did not believe me. I was a bit puzzled, but more amused than anything. Then one of them said “of course you were pushing the glass how else could it have moved? The message came from the spirit though.” Er, actually in poltergeist cases “spirits” seem to move things quite well on there own, but yes he had a point – the medium is not the message after all. Had I telepathically received a message? Actually I don’t think so – I think it was just an amusing and slightly freaky coincidence – but there is a theory that ghosts may represent an externalisation (or hallucination) of an ESP (telepathic or clairvoyant) impulse. Campermon has given an excellent explanation of the problems of the “mental radio” model of telepathy – I will address it in my next post in detail, as I think that will take us forward, but the purpose of my anecdote is to illustrate that simply because information is seemingly conveyed there is no need to invoke dead souls or telepathy – it could all be chance.
Now a little on the history of psychical research. The SPR back in the 1890′s was pretty much a mixed bag of believers and sceptics as today, but the people who worked on theories of apparitions – Myers and Gurney in particular – were I suspect strongly opposed to a “spiritualist” explanation of spooks.
They believed, from what today appear rather simple experiments, that they had found evidence of telepathy – mind to mind contact. (And again I must say I will return to Campermon’s objections to this concept in a future post, as they have considerable weight and good scientific sense behind them). These SPR theorists instead were of the opinion that spooks WERE hallucinations – but hallucinations that were “seeded” by an ESP message. (Well Myers thought this of some cases, but not all). And unsurprisingly their findings seemed to bear out this hypothesis – in the great Census of Hallucinations, they found many examples of what they termed Crisis Apparitions – where the hallucinated ghosty represented a person who at that time (with 12 hours either side allowable) was having a dramatic crisis or dying. I forget the exact number of such cases – one in 48 I think – but it was sufficient for them to decide that there telepathic theories were on the right lines.
They performed some very dodgy statistical calculations on the number of persons dying at any time, and felt they could rule out chance, and got copies of death certificates, sworn testimony from others who were told of these apparitions before the bad news arrived, etc, etc. They ruled out any where the person was known to be ill, or one might reasonably anticipate the events. The “purpose” of these hallucinations was to their mind to give form to a telepathic impulse. Such crisis apparitions are still reported today – but recent studies (including my own 2009 one) have shown them to be nowhere near as prevalent as in 1894. One could argue that with improved communications the news of a death almost always arrives before the ghost – but I suspect there is something else going on. Somehow the phenomena seemed to meet the expectations of the researchers – yet the actual question asked by the Collectors (not the theorists) in the Census
Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice; which impression, so far as you could discover, was not due to any external physical cause? (Sidgwick et al, 1894)
In no way seems to me biased towards such results, and similar questions were used on later studies which provided fewer crisis reports. I would suspect folklore stories were providing the explanation – but the collection of independent corroborative testimony and death certificates suggest this was not so. The incidents were believed to have occurred. It is a minor mystery, but an intriguing one…
So why have I dwelt upon this issue? Because the Census question actually ruled out iii) – physical effects, barring the common and I suspect very normal somatosensory hallucination of being touched. The SPR theorists did not ask about objects moving, or ghosts physically effecting objects – because they had decided they were telepathically induced hallucinations, and such clearly ridiculous phenomena were quite evidently incompatible with this theory. In fact Myers theories included an explanation for iv) ghosts seen in a location independently by different witnesses over the decades – he thought a telepathic impulse could somehow be caught in the environment, and then be replayed years later to a suitably sensitive percipient. So if John has just expired laughing at my arguments, his ghost may be seen in the future by later generations – but it is just a recording of the past events. In fact this “recording hypothesis” is one of the most popular lay theories of ghosts today – but it rules out any kind of physical phenomena.
And yet – in a huge number of cases, apparitions appear to correspond with actual physical effects. Objects move, doors open and close, and stuff gets thrown about, etc, etc. Last post I dealt with poltergeists in depth, for this very reason. Parapsychologists usually differentiate between “haunts” (where an apparition is seen in a building many times by different witnesses) and “poltergeists” (where physical effects occur), but there is an overlap. And if ghosties are effecting physical objects, they are clearly not hallucinations, right? Hence my opening gambit – poltergeist cases.
Now it could be that these physical effects are in fact hallucinations, or misperception in themselves. Film exists of Rosenheim where the lights swing, and there are a few other pieces of alleged poltergeist footage – I was once part of a team who videod a toilet seat banging up and down – but the evidence is hardly overwhelming. However smashed items, weird electrical disturbances, peculiar flight and impact characteristics (and as Dr Barrie Colvin has recently discovered, highly unusual acoustic properties in percussive raps associated with poltergeist phenomena) seem to be consistent across many of these poltergeist cases. Why? Physical phenomena are an embarrassment to many psychical researchers – but we find them so often I have to concede they have some basis in fact. The same kind of things have been reported for 2,600 years, across many cultures. What the hell is going on here?
So I pose a challenge to the great people who read this debate, and comment in the peanut gallery. It’s in two parts. Firstly, I have no idea where any of you live, but find your local newspapers – a couple will suffice – and type “ghost” and “poltergeist” in to the search engine. Look at what turns up, and identify any purported cases of spooks, and link them in the discussion thread. Are there physical phenomena reported? Do they meet the kind of thing I discuss in my previous thread? I think it will prove interesting, and I can not be accused of selecting cases to meet my theories. You can choose a newspaper somewhere else in the world if you like.
Secondly, can each interested observer, regardless of your personal convictions, ask ten of your acquaintances, at random or selected for convenience, if they have ever experienced a ghost or other weird phenomena, and if so, if you might anonymously give their story? I will be genuinely interested in what comes up – because I predict that when you interview them these pesky physical effects will form part of the narrative. I have a few ideas which might explain why this is so in normal terms – but I am not convinced that hallucinations can explain it.