I Have Seen The Future Of Science And It’s Spin All The Way: Some Thoughts On Daryl Bem’s Habituative Precognition Experiments, and Science by Media
Firstly, a warning. This is not an article on Daryl Bem’s experiments, and if they suggest precognition exists or not. I have no idea. This is an article on hype, spin, the media and lousy science reporting, and how some people base their conclusions on what they see on Twitter more than any consideration of the evidence. It’s long, but it has full links, and at the end there is a twist worth waiting for I promise, one you won’t see coming.
OK, so let’s start with what to some may be a shocking admission. I don’t really believe in psi, that is the parapsychological notion of a sort of ESP effect that we may all have. That is not to say that I don’t believe in some “paranormal” claims – I just find the whole notion of psi philosophically difficult, and am not convinced the psi hypothesis actually works: in fact I have at times stated that invisible goblins may be just as useful a hypothesis. If I was to write about my issues with psi, that would mean no one would ever read any further, so I’ll leave that for now — but I thought best to get that out of the way.
Secondly, and to be frank, since I was a young child psi research has bored me to tears. I am primarily interested in apparitions and poltergeists, and hanging around at night in dark spooky places with pretty young girls. OK, that’s a joke, but I am a ghost/poltergeist researcher, and if you talk to me about Ganzfeld or PEAR random number generator experiments for more than a few minutes my eyes glaze over and I try to shift the topic to Eastenders, which I last watched when Dirty Den threw Angie out in the snow.
Flippancy aside, I still find myself drawn in to discussions from time to time on ESP and psi. OBE, NDE and Remote Viewing I can (and largely do) completely ignore, but research in to ESP and Mediumship has a pretty direct bearing on my specialist area, and PK too, so I suppose I read as much as I find time for, in the peer reviewed literature. (This certainly makes me a freak as far as “ghosthunters” go: despite twenty years of personal effort, the gap between the ghosthunting community and the academic parapsychologists seems to me to grow wider each year.)
Now I appreciate most people don’t have time for this stuff, so I’ll summarize a rather complex story, and in doing so mangle it. I’ll link to relevant pages for those interested in reading deeper though, so if you want to you can be fully informed. I am in now position to judge the science behind these experiments — well I am, but life is short and I have not eaten yet, and I don’t know that I can do them justice, so instead here is the VERY QUICK version…
A famous American psychologist Daryl Bem, conducted a series of clever experiments based on a well known psychological effect (called “habituation”) to see if people could predict the immediate future. Some involved looking at erotic images, but rather boringly the one everyone is interested by was one of those experiments which seemed to show that if you had to recall a list of words, you recalled more of specific words if you actually were then subsequently shown the same words, than you did of the ones you don’t recall.
To be fair my immediate thought was “well maybe some words are just more memorable than others”; but the randomization should take care of that. Statistically there should be no difference between the two sets of words, those shown after the experiment, and those not shown. After I had dismissed this thought, my second thought was “this is chronically dull, I wonder if any exciting cat videos are on YouTube”?
Of course it is not dull: if Bem is right, it challenges almost everything we take for granted about causality, the nature of consciousness, and how the world works. Precognition, sensing the future, even by a few seconds, would have profound implications. And what is more, Bem published his research not in one of the peer reviewed parapsychological journals, but in a (peer reviewed) mainstream psychology journal, for maximum effect one assumes. Now I think if you really want to get a grip on all this, you will want to read the paper itself — and let’s face it, I don’t think many of those who have weighed in on Twitter today have, so here it is for you.
And the news media lapped it up, and it was hailed as a breakthrough piece of psi research, with everyone from New Scientist to pretty much every major newspaper running a piece on it. Parapsychology hit the news, and hit it hard. Yet I fear this just tells us something about the way science is reported, because I subscribe to LEXSCIEN, a journal database that specializes in psychical research.
Now as it happens I had previously reviewed for the JSPR (a peer reviewed parapsychological journal) a book of papers (ANOMALOUS EXPERIENCES: ESSAYS FROM PARAPSYCHOLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES edited by Matthew D. Smith. MacFarlane & co Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina and London, 2010. 220 pp.) presented at a conference on Liverpool Hope which contained some earlier experiments (or possibly the same experiments later updated) by Bem on exactly this effect. This is what I wrote in that review –
The first essay, by Darryl J. Bem, outlines a series of experiments in presentiment, using the hypothesis of Precognitive Habituation. Habituation is the psychological process by which there is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated exposure over time; if we are shown a violent or unpleasant image, our response to it lessens with repeated exposure, and similarly with arousing or positive images. Therefore one might assume, if precognition was possible, that given two similar stimuli images, the one that was subsequently displayed (randomly selected) would be rated as less arousing than the other. The ‘habituation’, by which the photograph would be considered less horrific than the other, would take effect before the process of viewing that photograph repeatedly. So for example, given two photographs of murder victims, the subject would rate as less disturbing the photograph that they would subsequently be shown many times, if habituation can occur ‘backwards’ in time. The experiments reported a significant effect on negative images; further research is clearly called for. The experimental set up is relatively simple, and one wonders if the software is available, and if large scale trials might be conducted over the internet?
And of course, all this has come to pass. Still, the cynic in me noted that the experiments were reported completely devoid of context, and the earlier papers on the effect. So sensing this was nothing new, even if it was new to the news media, I searched LEXSCIEN for earlier papers. I have put the abstracts below, but that does not mean I expect you to read them all – the point is that this stuff, whether real or just down to methodological errors has a history, and has been part of an ongoing research programme…
JSPR January 2007.
CAN A SLIDE-SHOW PRESENTIMENT EFFECT BE DISCOVERED IN BRAIN ELECTRICAL ACTIVITY ?
by Thilo Hinterberger, Petra Studer, Marco Jager, Colette Haverty-Stacke and Harald Walach
The presentation of pictures evokes clearly detectable responses in the electroencephalogram (EEG). Here, the question is addressed whether people show an anomalous pre-stimulus response prior to a sudden appearance of pictures. Therefore, twenty participants were exposed at randomised times to affective and non-affective pictures, and to checkerboard stimuli. In a non-parametric statistical analysis the one-second pre-stimulus epochs were compared with arbitrarily chosen non-exposed pre-stimulus epochs. In a second step, the contrasts between the pre-stimulus responses of different conditions were tested for significance. Checkerboard stimulation revealed no effect, whereas the picture stimuli resulted in a significant increase of the EEG activity. For affective pictures as well as for the difference between affective and neutral pictures, significant z-scores greater than z = 2.0 were found. A control condition with a covered monitor did not show such an effect. The delta band power was only decreased before presentation of pictures. The results support the possible existence of an abnormal presentiment effect. As it is not visible in the averaged EEG curves, this effect may not be time-locked to the stimulus and may be different for each participant. The non – significant results for neutral pictures and checkerboard stimuli suggest that emotional affectivity is important for a pre-stimulus effect in the EEG.
JSPR April 2009
Moderating Factors in Precognitive Habituation: The Roles of Situational Vigilance, Emotional Reactivity and Affect Regulation
In this experiment moderating factors of the so-called precognitive habituation effect were studied. The precognitive habituation effect refers to the apparent influence of later shown pictures or words on participants’ choice and preference ratings, which seem to be biased by habituation effects due to repeated display in the future, and so might be interpreted as an instance of precognition. In this study a number of modifications were introduced in the classic precognitive habituation protocol: (a) words and pictures were used as stimulus material, (b) a new individual difference was measured as a potential factor (affect regulation), and (c) subjects were primed into a reactive mindset in order to highlight the affective nature of the choice task. Only low-arousal positive and high-arousal negative stimuli were used. There was no significant main effect, but in accordance with previous results, subjects who scored high on emotional reactivity displayed a significant precognitive habituation effect, but only with high-arousal negative stimuli. Subjects high on affect regulation also showed a significant precognitive habituation effect for negative stimuli. The strongest effect was displayed by subjects who were high both on emotional reactivity and affect regulation.
The Journal of Parapsychology, April 2010
DO SOME OF US HABITUATE TO FUTURE EMOTIONAL EVENTS?
From an evolutionary perspective, it may be advantageous not only to unconsciously react to emotionally threatening stimuli but also to habituate to these if they should prove harmless. A major purpose of the study was to test for the occurrence of this precognitive affective habituation at a subliminal level using emotionally loaded pictures. The design chosen here enabled us to evaluate whether or not participants habituated to emotionally loaded pictures and to see if they reacted selectively to just those target pictures that would later be repeatedly exposed, thus becoming potentially less threatening. It was further hypothesized that both the subliminal and the precognitive effects would relate to individual measures of emotional reactivity and transliminality. Fifty participants took part in the two successive computer steered procedures in order to respectively evaluate these aspects. A significant habituation effect was found for the negatively loaded targets. The overall findings failed to show a significant discrimination between those pictures than would be re-presented and those that were not. However, by selecting out the 34 individuals who showed affective habituation, a post hoc significant effect of precognitive habitation was found. Keywords: precognition, psi, subliminal, affective habituation, emotional reactivity.
OK, so here is point one. The publication of a paper on this in a mainstream journal provoked a flurry of media interest, but a quick check revealed something no one saw fit to comment upon — that the research was based on a lot more than one set of experiments, performed by just Bem. Now Bem had properly referenced with a full bibliography, but in all the hype it went pretty much unreported? So the research appeared divorced of context, and presented as if a something new and unique. Now yes I think Daryl Bem pioneered and created these experiments, and deserves the glory and the Nobel if it turns out to be good science, but the science reporting left a helluva lot to be desired, even in the science magazines.
Now Bem called for replications, and bent over backwards to make that possible, allowing the original software to be downloaded and anyone who wanted to to run a replication. So I did just that, and had a look at the software, and tried to find flaws in how the experiment was conducted. Of course I was way behind, and Richard Wiseman beat me to it, and Bem responded to Wiseman. At this point I pretty much completely lost interest, because as I keep saying psi is not my field. I’m by nature sceptical,and it is the only the fact that so many of my fellow sceptics jump on bandwagons and uncritically accept any criticism of parapsychology, no matter how flawed, that makes me pay attention at all to stuff like this.
I did consider running a trial: I was delighted when Richard Wiseman produced a registry for replications, where you could register your experiment beforehand to prevent filedrawer errors. I could not get enough people in to my basement to do it: I ran the software with myself and a housemate to test it, and we both scored negatively, against Bem’s hypothesis, and i wrote a few criticisms of the experimental design on forums, but I never actually ran an experiment. I knew plenty of others would – one major online replication is linked above.
Besides, I had by this time found two replications, published before all the media hoo-hah, but largely ignored in that. Alexander Batthyany had done a study at Vienna, which you can read here Retrocausal Habituation and Induction of Boredom: A Successful Replication of Bem (2010; Studies 5 and 7) and Galak & Nelson had failed to replicate experiment 8 A Replication of the Procedures from Bem (2010, Study 8) and a Failure to Replicate the Same Results Different experiments from the sequence, different results.
So I sat back and waited to hear more, if I had to, about the latest case for psi. Now so far I have been fairly scathing about the way this was all reported, but some good articles on how we handle stats etc did come out of it , though that was actually really partially redundant following a careful examination of a classical probability and Bayesian approach to experimental stats published in one of the last issues of the European Journal of Parapsychology. Bem himself has now responded to the linked article.
All went quiet, until a few months back when I had the great pleasure of hearing Prof Chris French speak at a Sceptics in the Pub event, and he mentioned that the original journal that had published Bem’s study had refused to carry an article by him Wiseman and Stuart J Ritchie with failed replications. My first thought on hearing of their trials was the population was small – fifty each I believe – but I looked forward to reading the paper. I could not really see what the issue was, as in parapsychology since 1981 there has been what some call the Honorton-Hyman concordat: an agreement to publish any failed experiment, to reduce the risk of file drawer effect (roughly what you get when people only bother to write up successful replications). Now a failure to replicate should be big news – it should be shouted from the rooftops, because after all the whole Popperian notion of Science methodology is based on falsification, for perfectly good philosophical reasons.
So while technically the failure to publish in the original journal was not a huge issue, because several peer-reviewed parapsychological journals would carry the article, there remains a huge issue. Peer Review is the reason we trust our science – but in fact referees do not replicate the papers experiments, they just read through them and concern themselves with any obvious flaws in presentation, analysis or methodology. Bad papers are picked up when other scientists try to repeat the experiments – replication. HOWEVER, and it is a huge HOWEVER, most papers probably never get tested this way. Replication means doing all the work done by the original researchers all over again, and if the results are not that interesting, or controversial, no one cares enough, can afford to, or wants to waste research time in these things, as it would be career suicide. If you do replicate at all, you are usually trying to build on the original findings, which means you tweak the experiment in some ways, adjusting the variables. So very few true replications occur, and journals don’t normally like to carry them, as they are just repeats of earlier work. Now one would have thought a falsification was of interest — but actually many journals appear to have “no replication” policies. As academic and science are publish or die environments, there is a HUGE disincentive to bother at all. I have written about this before, and I was gladdened when the excellent Ben Goldacre dedicated one of his The Guardian columns to the failure of the journal to carry Wiseman, French and Ritchie’s paper. This is not just a failure in this case: this is a huge problem in the way we do science.
Still, French et al had every chance to publish their findings in a parapsychological journal. Now many of the sceptical readers of my blog will think “why on earth would they do that?”. After all, parapsychology is bunk, right? Nope. I have in front of me Anomalistic Psychology, a book by the same Chris French himself, and David Luke, Nicola Holt, and Christine Simmonds-Moore. In the concluding chapter of this 2012 book we read the following
In the chapter on pseudoscience it was identified that parapsychology has all the hallmarks of a science, falling a little short on some of the benchmarks of good science, but performing better than mainstream science on others. (p.193)
Wiseman and French have both published extensively in the parapsychological journals. Nope, something far bigger was at stake here.
If Bem had not published in a mainstream journal this time, with all the ensuing media hoo-hah, this would have remained part of the ongoing parapsychological discourse. Previous articles had reached an audience of hardcore parapsychologists, book reviewers in that vague area like me and a psychic dog. (OK, I made up the psychic dog.)He didn’t. Bem’s article had reached half the world through the media: so to correct the assumption the research was unchallenged, French Wiseman and Richie wanted mainstream exposure, and failed to get it through any well known print journal. They have acted honourably enough, and academically soundly, but the failed replications are not as exciting as “Can We See The Future?” headlines. They wanted to reach the same audience Bem did. I fear by this point the people interested in science had long since lost interest – now we are seeing the beginning of a war of hype and spin, where parapsychological true believers and entrenched sceptics post tweets with details of the latest revelation, and any analysis of the paper flies out the window.
I’m not going to analyze the paper either – it was posted here, and you can read it yourself. They have got the coverage – Daily Mail, and @StuartJRitchie has just posted on Twitter they have made the front cover of Die Spiegel! Again, I’m not accusing the chaps of being shallow publicity whores — what they have done is respond in equal measure to the sensation that was provoked by Bem’s original paper. I doubt however they will welcome my comments and what I have to say, despite the fact I have tremendous admiration for them as hard working intelligent critics and parapsychologists. Anyway you probably want to read it now!
What concerns me is that throughout the UK, hundreds of well meaning sceptics, without the slightest knowledge fo any of the experiments, the papers, or the background will tweet this with an “ESP is Dead!” subtext (or overt sneer) and science culture will become even more hostile to this kind of research in the future. That’s not a rational considered opinion – well it might be, if there was no discussion, and Bem immediately conceded defeat.
Of course no such thing has occurred. Bem went immediately to work defending his research. The key bit is here…
Nevertheless I consider it premature to conclude anything about the replicability of my experiments on the basis of this article. First, in mainstream psychology it usually takes several years before enough attempted replications of a reported effect have accumulated to permit an overall analysis (often called a “meta-analysis”) of the evidence—20 years in the example described below. It usually takes busy researchers several months to find the time to design and run an experiment outside their primary research area, and my article was published only a year ago.
In their article, Ritchie et al. mention that their experiments were “pre-registered.” They are referring to an online registry set up by Wiseman himself, asking anyone planning a replication to pre-register it and then to provide him with the data when the study is completed. As he noted on the registration website: “We will carry out a meta-analysis of all registered studies…that have been completed by 1 December 2011.”
By the deadline, six studies attempting to replicate the Retroactive Recall effect had been completed, including the three failed replications reported by Ritchie et al. and two other replications, both of which successfully reproduced my original findings at statistically significant levels. (One of them was conducted in Italy using Italian words as stimuli.) Even though both successful studies were pre-registered on Wiseman’s registry and their results presumably known to Ritchie et al., they fail to mention them in this article. I consider this an important omission. (I also note that Ritchie et al., describe their replication attempt as three independent studies, but the total number of sessions they ran was the same as the number I ran in my own original experiment and its successful replication.)
Second, it takes several years and many experiments to figure out exactly which variables in an experiment affect the results. Consider, for example, an attempt to assess the replicability of a well-known effect in mainstream psychology known as the “Mere Exposure Effect,” first brought to the attention of psychologists in 1969: Across a wide range of contexts, the more frequently humans or other animals are exposed to a particular stimulus, the more they come to like it. Twenty years later, a meta-analysis of over 200 mere exposure experiments was published, showing a significant overall effect; it is now widely accepted as a “real” and replicable phenomenon. But the same meta-analysis reveals that the effect fails to replicate on simple stimuli if other, more complex stimuli are presented in the same session. It fails to replicate if too many exposures are used, if the exposure duration is too long, if the interval between exposure and the assessment of liking is too short, or if participants are prone to boredom. As a result, the meta-analysis included many failures to replicate the effect; several of them actually produced results in the direction opposite to prediction. In short, it many more than three replication failures to conclude anything about an alleged effect.”
You can read the rest of Bem’s reply here.
Now Bem’s langauge is measured here. You can read the rest of the statement at the link above, but he makes what appears to be a bizarre claim – that Wiseman French and Ritchie have failed to mention at least three studies they were aware and which were registered with Wiseman’s anti-filedrawer Registry. This sounds like heinous wrongdoing, especially as two of the experiments according to Bem actually were successful replications at statistically significant levels. So is Richard Wiseman really the pantomime villain some psi enthusiasts seek to portray him as, suppressing this research?
Nah. French Ritchie and Wiseman reported on their own experiments, nothing more, nothing less. Bem can post links to these successful replications – after all I have already mentioned one, and one failure to replicate (which admittedly slightly altered the methodology as I recall by omitting the relaxation sequence pre-trial, though that may have been yet another one in a recent JSPR, I’d have to check.) Bem begins by conceding that they seem to have made a good faith effort to replicate: but the omission of other studies, if they really were registered and they were aware of them can be seen as part of a a war of spin, or just the fact it is not usual to preempt others work by publishing their findings before they do: sheer academic politeness. Psi-advocates will believe the worst, sceptics who have read this far the best (as I do) but either way as the press go made for the story all sense of proportion, Truth and Science will probably get lost.
UPDATE: A few hours after I posted this Richard Wiseman replied on Twitter
Hi -re blog, we were just reporting our studies. The pre-registry meta-analysis is different and has been submitted for publication.
From reading Stuart Ritchie’s comments it is clear the studies Bem referred to our are not yet published, so they were not referred to out of academic courtesy as i opined above. The meta-analysis will (as I actually said in this pieces conclusion) follow in due course.
Don’t believe me? Have a look at The Daily Grail sites article on Live Sciences reporting of Bem’s statement. This is little short of scandalous, and LiveScience should be ashamed of itself. It’s nothing new though — I recall the nonsense New Scientist site posted on the reissue of a Sheldrake book, which was amusingly torn in to by commentators on their own site who saw it as the misrepresentation it was. I’m not a big fan of Sheldrake, but this was disingenuous at best, and New Scientist (one of the best science magazines) should be embarrassed they hosted it.
So what do I think of Bem’s response? I have written on Experimenter Effects before, and Bem invoked them in his original paper by referencing a famous paper by Wiseman, in fact two. I’ll post the abstract.
Journal of Parapsychology, Vol.63, 1999, p. 236
EXPERIMENTER EFFECTS AND THE REMOTE DETECTION OF STARING: A REPLICATION
RICHARD WISEMAN AND MARILYN SCHLITZ
ABSTRACT: Both authors recently ran experiments to discover whether people can psychically detect when another person is staring at them. R. W. is a skeptic regarding claims of parapsychology and M. S. is a psi proponent. R. W.’s studies obtained chance results while M. S.’s study obtained statistical significance.
The authors then carried out a joint study to help determine why their experiments had obtained different results. M. S. and R. W. acted as separate experimenters for two different sets of trials. These trials were carried out at the same time, in the same location, used the same equipment, drew participants from the same pool, and employed the same procedures. The data from M. S.’s participants were statistically significant while the data from R. W.’s participants were not. This paper describes an attempted replication of this initial joint study.
Participants were hooked up to a computer that recorded their electrodermal activity (EDA). A videocamera was placed in front of the participant and it fed an image of them to a monitor located in a separate room. Each experimental session consisted of thirty-two thirty-second periods. Half of these periods were randomly allocated to a “stare” condition and half to a “non-stare” condition. During the stare condition, the experimenter looked at the monitor and attempted to remotely influence the participant’s EDA. During the non-stare condition, the experimenter looked away from the monitor. The EDA of R. W.’s participants was not significantly different between the two conditions. In contrast, the EDA of M. S.’s participants was significantly lower during the stare than non-stare periods. The paper discusses competing interpretations of these results and possible future research in this area.
Perrott Warrick Research Unit
Now my understanding is that subsequent experiments have knocked the experimenter effect, and I may well write on this at some point soon, but really, Bem’s comments are hardly unfair. If psi exists, and is a by product of the human brain or consciousness in some way, we might expect exactly this kind of thing I guess — the experimenter as a variable.
For now, I’m going to avoid getting involved. I doubt, very much, that the habituative precognition effect is real: but it will take time, more studies, and Wiseman’s forthcoming meta-analysis of all studies to demonstrate it one way or the other. I’m going to end with a sobering thought though: I don’t think we can trust the science press, let alone the popular press, to give you a reasoned understanding of ANY scientific research, not just parapsychological stuff. Secondly, we live in a culture here in the UK where “sceptical” responses are met with huge enthusiasm, just as in the Mid-West of the USA “Jesus did it” type articles get huge applause and re-tweets, because our culture is defined increasingly by gut instinct sceptical denialism which can be every bit as dogmatic – not informed commentators like French, Wiseman and Ritchie, who I have every respect for doing all this work, but those who have abdicated their responsibility to critical thought and informed rational commentary by simply accepting media spin as truth.
But I would say that. I had to bore myself to death reading a whole load of psi articles: you should all suffer with me.
UPDATE 2: Last night Stuart J Ritchie kindly tweeted to draw attention to the authors reply to Bem’s reply which was just published. This has been the first opportunity I have had to update since, but please do read it. It clarifies and answers some of Bem’s criticisms. I was slightly confused as to why (psychology) Experimenter Effect was mentioned at all – it is the (parapsychological) Experimenter Effect that is relevant, though given how wrongly spelt words are handled by the researcher I guess there could be scope for both.
What was of interest was
However, even if the Wiseman-Schlitz experiments were conclusive evidence of experimenter effects, there is still no analogy from them to Bem’s experiments. This is because, in the Wiseman-Schlitz experiments – which investigated ‘the sense of being stared at’ – the experimenter was heavily involved in the procedure, being the ‘starer’ who directed their gaze at participants, who were to report if/when they sensed that gaze. Bem’s experiments, on the other hand, are run and scored entirely by the computer program, with experimenters only greeting and debriefing participants. In addition, the staring experiments measured an emotional/perceptual outcome, which is quite different from the basic word memory test involved in Bem’s experiment.
Finally, it is worth pointing out, as we do in our paper, that only one of us (SJR) personally ran their replication attempt; two of our replication attempts were run by research assistants. Thus, the participants in those samples did not encounter either of the two of us who are, to quote Bem, ‘well known as psi skeptics’ (RW and CCF).
Yep, so Wiseman and French’s personal involvement was limited: we might wonder if their research assistants are similarly sceptical, but from what I know of Wiseman’s PhD students (I only know one former student) they are an open minded bunch. I was rather disappointed in one thing – the Daily Mail misattributed Stuart Ritchie’s words to Wiseman, perhaps because the public know Wiseman, and fail to mention Ritchie at all. I have never met Stuart, but he is clearly an able intelligent and good bloke based on his twitter feed, and deserves full ecognition especially as he was apparently lead researcher on much of this. I did find his blog listing publications here. Given we have similar interest sin religion and psychical research I will watch his work in future with interest.
A few months ago I was, as a former member of ASSAP who had left more than a decade before, asked to speak at the ASSAP 30th anniversary conference. A brave move on the conference organizers part I thought, given the way I present and the fact I think the only time they had ever seen me speak was on theories of apparitions which I gave with glove puppets in a badly made Punch and Judy style booth that collapsed as part of my “act”! Still I was asked for a title I would talk on, and the above was the first thing that came to my mind; and so I wrote a conference presentation, which people were nice about.
I rejoined ASSAP and was surprised how cheap it was, and today through the post came a VERY heavy issue of ANOMALY with a page count of 250. I regret all the years I missed the ASSAP Journal, especially as it is currently not available on LEXSCIEN, but this one contains almost all the conference presentations as well as several other articles. If you are interested in ghosts you may want to take a look. By kind permission of the editor, Dave Wood, my paper, with only the graph missing, follows.
Why Everything We Think We Know About Ghosts Is (Probably!) Wrong
It is easy to be controversial, and makes for a good title. So I must begin with an admission; I have no idea what the reader believes about ghosts, and so can’t tell if you are wrong or not, and secondly I’m probably wrong myself.
Furthermore,when I talk about ghosts I mean “the experience of an apparition”; I’m not going to define apparition, except loosely as an “appearance of a person or object not physically present”. I don’t mean necessarily “spirits”. “Spirits of the dead” may or may not be the same as ghosts, but the case for each stands quite independently. You can have life after death without ghosts, and ghosts without life after death. They may well be, but need not be, related.
I have also committed the sin of using the terms “ghosts”, “apparitions” and even “haunting” as synonyms in this article, simply to make it a little more readable and avoid repetition. All those terms have technical uses in parapsychology; but on the few occasions where I have employed them in a technical sense I have endeavoured to make this clear.
Some years back I was reading a popular book that described a number of purported cases of ghost experiences, when something struck me forcibly. Almost all the accounts were closer to the kind of phenomena featured on the ghosthunting popular TV show Most Haunted than the kind of things my years of careful reading in parapsychology would have led me to expect.
That popular ghosthunting T.V. could be closer to the actual recorded ghost narratives than say Tyrrell’s or Hornell Hart’s magisterial studies of the ghost experience struck me as absurd. Could quite frankly dubious cable T.V. be a step ahead of parapsychology here?
How do we research the ghost experience? There are several methods. The first is simple – we go and try to see them ourselves, by hanging around purportedly haunted locations. This approach is the “vigil” approach. In fact, it is almost synonymous with ghost-hunting in the public mind. And it’s nothing new – long before Most Haunted and the explosion of paranormal television shows, Elliot O’ Donnell was writing books about his adventures with spooks doing just this sort of thing.
Give the horrendous ethical minefield that is investigating cases in private homes, many ghost groups stick to public houses, castles and stately homes. These ghosthunters are primarily concerned with trying to experience the haunting and record evidence of it, usually directly by sound, photographic, or video recordings, or instrumental readings.
Despite the popularity of this approach, there are other methods of investigating apparitions. It is theoretically possible to “experiment” with creating ‘apparitions’ in the lab – for example by psychomanteum studies, where the percipient is placed in a dark chamber gazing at a mirror and where some report startling experiences. Another form of research that attempts to employ quantitative methods, albeit in the field was pioneered by Gertrude Schmeidler, and involves mapping of the subjective experiences of a large number of people (or a small number of self-professed “psychics”) on a map where information on earlier “spontaneous” experiences are recorded. Some valuable work has been done by Wiseman et al. at Edinburgh Vaults and Hampton Court Palace looking for environmental variables that tally with areas where members of the public report unusual sensations while walking around under controlled conditions.
Alternatively one can do what I tend to do, and just interview witnesses and try to visit the locations and make sense of what happened, taking what one might call a “detective” approach to the case, tracking down testimony and considering its plausibility and possible factors influencing the “sighting”. Many of the cases written up in the journal literature are of this type. Some are extraordinarily well conducted studies of a specific set of environmental variables in a place with a long history of purported “hauntings”, such as for example the work done by Braithwaite and Townsend at Muncaster Castle (Braithwaite & Townsend 2005).
The Survey Tradition
However there is another method used to research the ghost experience, which dates back to closing years of the nineteenth century – the Survey tradition. In fact possibly the most exhaustive piece of parapsychological research ever undertaken was of this type: the Society for Psychical Research’s (henceforth ‘SPR’) Census of Hallucinations. 17,000 people were approached and asked ‘Had they ever, when awake, had the impression of seeing or hearing or of being touched by anything which, so far as they could discover, was not due to any external cause?’ .9.8% of those surveyed responded positively. When you hear the pub quiz factoid that “one in ten people experience a ghost”, that probably comes from the Census Report, that was published in 1894.
When you do this sort of qualitative research, what you do is amass a vast number of cases, and try to find commonalities, themes and motifs in the ghost experiences reported. A number of researchers have used a similar approach, allowing us to look at how the “apparition” experience varies over the years. A brief non-inclusive list focussing on the major British studies might include
1894 The SPR’s Census of Hallucinations
1948 D.J West’s Mass Observation Survey
1974 McCreeley & Green
1990’s D.J. West’s Pilot Survey
2002 Dr Hilary Evans Seeing Ghosts
2008 Wiseman and Watt Online study
2008 Dave Wood (ASSAP Chair)
2009 Romer & Smith: The Accidental Census
2010 -2012 Strange Survey, Rebecca Smith’s Ph.D. study
In fact other collections of spontaneous cases like those of Louisa Rhine and the early SPR collection Phantasms of the Living, as well as the dozens of collections of “true life ghost stories” published over the years are effectively part of this survey tradition. All that distinguishes the SPR Census from most books of local ghost stories is the methodological rigour and formality of the way the cases are written up, and of course the scale.
Clearly in a short article I lack the space to properly explain the methodology employed in each of these studies. (I am also sure many readers will choose to skip even this brief overview of some of the key themes, put off by the word “methodology”.)
Surveys are a phenomenological (in the sense the term is employed by David Hufford) approach; they do not allow us to study the apparitional experience directly, but they do allow us to study the percipients report of the experience. This is the case in many studies however: I might choose to study genius, while not being a genius, or depression, yet have never experienced many of the emotions and symptoms experienced by some depressive patients. The unimportant thing to grasp is that it is the report of the experience that is being studied, and that no human experience is entirely un-mediated by cultural and contextual factors. So is the Victorian experience of apparitions reported in the Census of 1894 similar to that of the present day, those cases from the studies of the 21st century? There are minor differences, which I do not have space to properly explore here; but on the whole the overwhelming feeling one has is that the experiences reported are essentially similar, and I would find it hard to be able to place a date on many of the apparitional reports, so independent of they seem of time, place and culture.
An obvious question that arises is “how do we know the survey respondents are not lying?”. The answer is simple – “we don’t”. Complex exclusion criteria have been a factor of many studies, and questionnaire research always faces this issue, and some methods have been evolved to reduce the number of false reports accepted. Ultimately however, someone who wishes to hoax the researcher by making spurious claims can always do so, and that case may well enter the database of “classic cases”. However cases which feature a strong set of literary conventions or folklore motifs are obviously suspect, and others may be questioned. The value of the survey approach is that the case for understanding the apparitional experience it makes is based on a large body of cases: while any given ghost narrative may be questioned, and scepticism is the proper approach to take, the overall picture that develops is the important thing.
Given that this “phenomenological” approach is employed that deals with ghost accounts, not the apparition itself, can we really learn anything from it? To explain how the Survey approach works requires a very brief diversion in to some key concepts in research methodology. There are several crucial divisions in research; between laboratory research, and fieldwork, between deliberately produced ostensible psychical phenomena and “spontaneous cases” which just happen unexpectedly, and between qualitative and quantitative research approaches.
Quantitative research has been jokingly categorized as “bean counting”; it is concerned with numbers, and statistical analysis of material. Most census data of the type gathered by the UK Government in the National Censuses which occur each decade is tabulated and presented in this form – such and such a percentage of the populace are employed in manual trades, or state their religion as “Hindu”, or live in households with 2 children for example.. A great deal of the early survey material was concerned with such numerical data: how many people had the experience, what were their ages, genders, education level, social class, etc. All remain valid questions, though today professional survey organisations which conduct large scale polling are perhaps better suited for gathering this kind of information than the independent researcher, simply because they have the reach, facilities and methodological knowledge to deliver high quality data.
Qualitative research is a little different. It deals not with numbers, but with understanding how and why things are and answering non-numerical questions. It is used in a number of academic disciplines but especially in the Social Sciences, and in marketing research and focus groups. Data is collected in the form of interviews, recordings, written statements or survey responses and is then analysed using one of a number of theoretical approaches, often today Grounded Theory or Thematic Analysis.
To help understand how such analysis is performed, let us consider a short narrative from the Accidental Census (2009). In this study the responses were extremely short, collected by use of the Facebook social media type, and were then explored by email with the percipient by the collector.
English female, 30′s
When at university, I saw my boyfriend’s housemate standing in the kitchen doorway. Said housemate was taking part in a rowing contest on the other side of the country at the time.
The house was a 3 story terrace with only one entrance – through the kitchen. Beyond the kitchen was a small hall with doors to the downstairs loo, one bedroom and the staircase up to other bedrooms. John and I were eating at the kitchen table when I became vaguely aware of someone standing in the hallway. Richard (let’s call him that, I can’t actually remember the lad’s name) was tall, blond and sporty, and lived in the ground floor room, so when I saw a tall figure in a tracksuit I didn’t really think much of it, as it was prob. just Richard going to the loo.
Shortly after that – during the same meal – John said that we could do …something…(prob to do with hogging the bathroom) …since we were the only people in the house that weekend. That was when I said “but Richard’s in, I saw him” to be told that no he wasn’t, he was rowing for college over at Lancaster.
Folklore suggests that this must be a sign of imminent doom, but all was well. I really can’t remember if I told Richard about it. Prob. not, as it would have made me sound a bit weird.
This case is of the “phantasm of the living type”, and while brief it provides a wealth of material for analysis. The method employed in the study was to create two columns, with the account on the left side of the page, and the right hand side was then used to write notes on what was going on line by line in the narrative.
So for example
John and I were eating at the kitchen table
Notes: sitting (percipient), eating (percipient), with others, kitchen (percipient)
when I became vaguely aware of someone standing in the hallway
Notes: “became vaguely aware”, vague sense of person present, not seen directly?, hall (apparition), standing (apparition), different room.
While this process is labour intensive, exploring the material in this way leads to the development of a real feel for what is going on. The authors both independently produced notes on each case, and from these developed codes, such as in this case the direct quote “became vaguely aware” which is an interesting phrase because it suggests that the sighting was not as simple as just seeing Richard walk in. We were able to explore questions arising from matters like this through correspondence. Some codes such as the position of the apparition and the percipient are obvious, others such as the ones handling the witnesses response less so, but over a large number of cases the codes begin to coalesce in to categories, such as for example “apparitions of the living” or “apparitions seen while eating”or “witness does not realise anything unusual about figure seen at time” or “apparition and percipient of different gender”. It is important to write brief memos, as you go, exploring your ideas on how the categories and data relate, and eventually you start to build theoretical models – but everything derives not from the existing literature on apparitions, but from what is actually reported in the cases. It is obviously not possible to do justice to qualitative research methods here, and this short explanation is meant to simply act as a brief guide to one possible approach, in the hope that a few readers will be interested enough to explore the topic further.
To understand the value of Qualitative Research methods in the study of apparitions it is important to understand another key division in research methods, between “Top Down Models” and “Bottom Up Models”, which are not as salacious as they sound! A “Top Down” approach is where one starts out with a theory, for example, “ghosts are produced by telepathy”, and then examines how the data collected fits this model. A “Bottom Up” approach collects a number of accounts from people who claim to have seen apparitions (percipients) and then rather than test them against existing theories, the researcher instead looks carefully at what the accounts contain, and attempts to build hypotheses that are drawn directly from the data, remaining “naive” as to existing theories. (In fact if you think you would like to try this approach, you may wish to skip the section on “Theories of Apparitions” below!). Grounded Theory, one popular qualitative approach is so named because the theories are “grounded in the data” – the research questions arise from what is there in the accounts, rather than the hypotheses being dictated by existing theoretical frameworks.
Many readers of Anomaly have probably noticed that in technical discussion of apparitions a number of classic cases crop up time after time. Many of these cases were first published in the Journal of the SPR, in SPR collections such as Phantasms of the Living or are from the spontaneous case collection of Dr Louisa Rhine (J.B.Rhine’s wife). Yet the majority of “canonical” apparitional cases we read are probably still today taken from the 1894 Census of Hallucinations, and at least five books and articles exist analysing material from that collection. Perhaps the two most important are Tyrrell’s book Apparitions (Tyrrell, 1943), a classic, if somewhat hard read, and the equally dense article Six Theories on Apparitions (1956)by Prof. Hornell Hart. What these two works attempt, with some success, is to critically examine then current theories of apparitions in the light of the cases presented in the Census and Phantasms of the Living. While DJ West has performed invaluable work in keeping the Census tradition alive and has carried out several major research projects, and presented valuable data for comparison with the earlier studies, he did not choose to publish the extensive “raw data” of the witness statements and supporting testimony gathered by follow up enquiries that the Census authors did. (Sadly the SPR never dedicated an issue of Proceedings to any of West’s studies, which would have provided the space for a detailed examination of his cases. West, one of the great figures in psychical research, has in my opinion been done a grave disservice by the lack of recognition afforded to his studies for this reason). It was not until the 1970′s that a major new collection of cases that were published along with an accompanying analysis, by Charles McCreery & Celia Green in their Apparitions (1974). This remains an excellent (and by the standards of most books on this topic highly readable) exposition on the ghost experience, and Green & McCreery identified a number of interesting aspects of the subject. It was not until 2002 that a new book on theories of apparitions, Dr. Hilary Evan’s superb Seeing Ghosts (Evans, 2002)performed more detailed analytic work, though Evans did not conduct a large scale case collection of his own.
For those interested in the study of apparitions these four books are essential reading. There are many other fine books on the subject, but Tyrrell, Hart, McCreery & Green and Evans remain the authorities that every student of the subject should (in this author’s opinion) consult. Yet all of these books careful analysis of the ghost experience are based firmly upon cases and data that were garnered from the survey tradition, not from individual case investigations. So such work is clearly important, and has shaped our modern understanding of apparitions, and our theories about ghosts. It was while conducting a small census of this type that the author first came to seriously question the classic theories of apparitions from the parapsychological community, as not fitting the evidence provided by the narratives, particularly the evidence of physical effects – objects moving, doors opening and closing, and so forth – that seemed to crop up frequently in what were otherwise classic apparitonal accounts.
Telepathic Theories of Apparitions
There are of course dozens of competing theories about ghosts and hauntings. The most popular even today are probably the Spirit Hypothesis (that ghosts are “dead guys”), Recording Hypotheses (ghosts are “recordings trapped in an environment and replayed when the conditions are right”), the Sceptical Hypothesis (ghosts are “mis-perceptions, hallucinations, misinterpretation or downright hoaxes”) and perhaps surprisingly the Daimonic Hypothesis (ghosts are non-coporeal yet non-human intelligences, such as faeries, angels, djinn, extra-dimensional entities or demons). In the USA in particular demonic theories of hauntings are proving surprisingly popular at the present time, with the ghost-hunting community there having a large number of self professed “demonologists” active, following in the footsteps of perhaps the most famous of all, Ed and Lorraine Warren. For a detailed recent study of competing theories I would recommend a paper by Peter MacCue (2002).
To do justice to the many hypotheses offered over the years to explain the ghost experience would take a paper many times longer than this; so I will restrict my comments to the tentative theories produced by the early SPR group who undertook the Census of Hallucinations and to Tyrrell who analysed the findings of that great project later. I therefore will restrict myself to outlining very briefly outline the theories of Frederic Myers, Edmund Gurney and G.N.M.Tyrrell here, as representing one major strand of thought in apparitional research, indeed arguably the dominant position in parapsychology to this day. Their theories have much in common, and some major differences, but are all “grounded” in the Census of Hallucinations cases.
The Census of Hallucinations contains an important clue as to the theoretical structures that underlie the research in its title. A hallucination is defined as “perceptions in a conscious and awake state in the absence of external stimuli which have qualities of real perception, in that they are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space.” Many hallucinations occur in persons who are suffering from stress, fatigue or certain illnesses, both physical and mental. However hallucinations are also prevalent in persons who are seemingly well, and not suffering from any kind of disorder (Bell et al. 2011) Some of the most common of such experiences are the sense of being touched when no one is present, the sensation of hearing one’s name called, and seeing motion out of the “corner of the eye” which if often mistaken for a cat or small dog or similar.
Many hallucinatory experiences in normal healthy life are associated with the edge of sleep, and the hypnagogic and hypnapompic states are well known to many with an interest in this area; vivid visual imagery seen on falling asleep, or waking. The author once had a hypnapompic image, essentially a carry over from a dream, of a stocky blonde man who he believed was an intruder in his bedroom. He threw a bedside light at the figure, only to discover he had actually been awakened by his then partner as the cat was being sick on the bed! Most hypnapompic imagery is less realistic than this persistence of a dream in to the waking state, but it is well known and doubtless accounts for many apparitional reports. The Census and later studies have removed cases where there is some doubt as to whether the percipient was actually fully awake, and we must recall that dreams, themselves a hallucinatory episode, show the incredible power of the mind to hallucinate vividly and often convincingly.
It is not therefore particularly surprising that people see “ghosts”, given the well known capacity of the human brain to hallucinate. A second, perhaps better known explanation for many ghosts sightings is simple mis-perception – when we mistake something for something else. I am sure many readers are aware of how the shadow cast by a coat on the back of the door can take on ominous outlines and appear as a menacing phantom in the early hours of the morning, and again to draw upon my personal experience I once saw a figure rush out on a rainy night and attack a friend of mine walking home. The “ghostly assailant” was as we subsequently discovered nothing more than a shadow cast by a street lamp on a wall, but my cry of horror was real enough!
So given how easily our senses can be deceived, are we correct to take on a resolutely sceptical approach and assume that ghosts are nothing more than “phantasies of a disordered brain” as the 18th century Rationalists believed, brought on by tiredness, indigestion or ill health? Certainly the medicalization of the ghost experience became a dominant trend in 18th and 19th century thinking on these matters, with even theologians decrying ghost stories as nothing more than “mere” hallucinations.
This consensus (still popular among academics today) was to be ferociously challenged by the 1894 Report on the Census of Hallucinations. Of course, the majority of cases were of the type one would expect, and entirely consistent with the mis-perception and hallucination hypotheses. There remained however a small number of what the SPR termed veridical cases. A veridical case is not easily explicable by the hallucination hypothesis, because in it some information was transferred to the percipient by the apparition that could not have been known at that time by any normal sensory apparatus. The classic examples are the appearance of a deceased person to a relative or friend at some distance, before news of the death or illness had arrived. (It may surprise some readers that the exact time and condition that constitutes death is still debated today in the medical establishment, though of course a consensus exists that “brain death” is the best measurement. For this reason twelve hours before and after death were treated as death coincidences by the Census).
Other crisis apparitions were of the living; some event or danger seemed to have occurred that caused them to appear at their moment of need to a distant person,and in some cases this may have saved them, Other apparitions provided information that was unknown to the recipient, and subsequently confirmed (one of the most famous cases of which dating some thirty years from after the Census, The Chaffin Will Case, has recently been severely critiqued by new research by Mary Roach (Anon, 1928; Roach, 2007).
That many apparitional sightings were of persons alive and in good health, and not undergoing physical or emotional crisis was already known to the SPR from Phantasms of the Living (Gurney 1886), and the Census bore this finding out. Of the apparitions where the identity of the “ghost” was known to the percipient, half were of living persons in good health. This seemed to raise severe difficulties to the idea that apparitions were the discarnate spirits of the dead, and the hypothesis of an ‘astral body’ that could leave the body at will was challenged by the fact that in some cases the “ghost” was not aware they had appeared elsewhere.
It was not the appearance of the spook that caused the threat to the hallucination hypothesis with the veridical cases, but rather the transfer of information. But what if the information was transferred by something that we would today call telepathy? F.W.H.Myers, wrestling with the problem posed by apparitions, was fully aware of the apparent success of what today would be called ESP tests performed by other SPR members, and was equally aware that one counter tot he idea of human survival suggested by the alleged evidence of mediums was that they had read the minds of the sitters. He coined the phrase telepathy for this mind-mind contact, and in fact it was widely held by many in the SPR circle that telepathy had been demonstrated by various experiments written up in the Proceedings and Journal.
It was with this exciting prospect of an experimentally demonstrable telepathy that the Report on the Census (Sidgwick et al 1894) authors analysed their case materials. (There was much more going on, as we shall see later, but this is perhaps the key influence upon their thinking.) A number of telepathic theories to explain veridical apparitions arose, with the first and simplest being that proposed by FWH Myers (1903) himself. In his model the “ghost” is a living person, who through some conscious or unconscious need sends a telepathic message to the percipient. The percipients brain receives the message, which then manifests as a hallucination: they then “see” the ghost.
Edmund Gurney developed a slightly more complex version of this – in his model, it is not that the “ghost” (a living person) initiates the apparition, but the percipient. According to Gurney we all constantly scan by telepathy the world around us for information of use to us, and we may well pick up information about a distant party, such as their sad death. Again, the brain then tricks us in to “seeing” an apparition to explain how the information came to us. This model can explain cases where the apparition appeared some hours after the death of the “ghost”, as other people who knew of the tragedy could be the source of the “signal”.
Tyrrell’s (1943) theory is close to Gurney’s: it is the percipient who initiates a “scan”, receives the information, and then hallucinates it, using the well known capacity of the brain to dream to generate a hallucination where the apparition makes sense in its environment. Like Myers and Gurney’s theories however, additional models had to be devised to explain certain types of case, such as collective cases (see below) and hauntings, where a number of people over many years see a ghost that appears to be connected to a place, rather than a specific witness.
Nonetheless, rather than postulate spirits or invisible entities that permanently exist and move around us, or the “residual energy” of the Recording hypothesis, the idea that apparitions are hallucinatory, but in some cases are associated with real information transferred from a living (or in some of their theoretical speculations dead) agent is a very attractive one, that does seem to make sense of a large number of the features reported in the Census cases. It is probably fair to say that for the twentieth century parapsychological work on apparitions has been dominated by these telepathic/hallucinatory models of the experience. The question is, are they correct?
Are Ghosts Hallucinations?
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 what the 18th and 19th century consensus of scholars was – ghosts are just imagination, or mental aberrations, or straight mis-perception of normal (or unusual) events or objects. All of this is perfectly reasonable and doubtless accounts for a very large number of “ghost” experiences. 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 mis-perception (where there is something there, it just fools the senses, as in an optical illusion – mis-perceptions are not hallucination technically) could theoretically be shared by many. If a stick in the water looks like the Loch Ness Monster, it is possible that hundreds of observers could simultaneously see it and reach the erroneous conclusion it is a lake monster.
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 to you tonight, and tells you the winner of the Grand National, we would all be impressed. If it subsequently turns out to be incorrect, we might wonder if you simply dreamed the whole affair. Yet even if you were right, that could still be the explanation. Some horse has to win after all? 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 mis-attributed. So this model can not be invoked to explain poltergeist effects, and there has been a sharp tendency therefore in parapsychology to differentiate between apparitional cases and poltergeists, as being completely different types of phenomena. We shall return to this later.
iv) They will not reappear in the same place over time to different witnesses, as in a “haunting”. This requires a little explanation – if it is well known that an Oxford courtyard is purportedly haunted by a Civil War general who was executed by firing squad there, 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 apparent foreknowledge of the purported haunt or the history of the place – then surely 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 Census 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 mis-perception 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 Tyrrell 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 ghost, I would see his face – if you were behind, his tailcoats. Yet Tyrrell saw this as perhaps evidence of telepathic refinement; to make the apparition convincing to the primary percipient, others present must be drawn in to the apparitional drama. And of course this does not always happen – the Census contains several cases where others present did not see the “ghost”, even though they should have if it was physically occupying space in the way a normal mundane object does.
Yet I would not want to make too much of this (certainly less than Tyrrell 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, in 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 down which the apparition descended and then exited (and which subsequently proved to no longer exist) 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 point one 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 ghost tells us something we did not know”. The problem with veridical cases, assuming they hold up to thorough investigation and we are convinced by the contemporary evidence or the percipients honesty, is that it could simply be coincidence. Sidgwick et al calculated that there were four hundred and forty times more death coincidences than would be expected by chance in the Census cases, but there mathematics was somewhat questionable. Unlikely coincidences do occur after all, and one might think of something, and then it occur, simply by random chance. One might even hallucinate quite normally information that one has subconsciously pieced together, in an act of intuition manifesting as a waking dream, at least in theory.
It is iii. – physical effects, that would be most fatal to the hallucination theory. Before we consider the SPR groups findings, let us look again at the Census question.
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)
So 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. Rebecca Smith is currently writing her PhD on a pseudo-replication of the Census of Hallucinations, and has shown me many occasions where the census cases do appear to contain physical aspects; these have in most cases passed without comment in the analysis or have been explained away as part of the hallucinatory tableau. Sadly it seems to her that the SPR group were in fact engaging in “top down” analysis, being so convinced of the evidence for the telepathic/hallucinatory model that they overlooked testimony in their sources that was damaging to that case. In the next section I will attempt an explanation as to why in terms of what was going on in the Society for Psychical Research at the time, and subsequently, and why I feel this may have had grave implications for 150 years worth of parapsychological research on ghosts.
We may know turn to point iv., “hauntings” (in the technical sense). In fact Myers theories included an explanation for hauntings, that is “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 the reader has just expired laughing at my poor arguments, your ghost may be seen in the future by later generations – but it is just a recording of the past events, your amused demise! In fact this “recording hypothesis” is one of the most popular lay theories of ghosts today – but it too rules out any kind of iii) physical phenomena. In fact at the time of writing a major cross-cultural study of popular beliefs in emotions remaining and effecting the physical environment has just been published. (Savani et al 2011).
The Problem of the Poltergeist
And yet – in a large number of cases, apparitions appear to correspond with actual physical effects. Objects move, doors open and close, and stuff gets thrown about, etc. 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 ghosts are effecting physical objects, they are clearly not hallucinations, which are purely mental phenomena, unless something else si involved, a point I shall return to in my speculative conclusion.
Now it could be that these physical effects are in fact hallucinations, or mis-perception in themselves. Film exists from the Rosenheim poltergeist case where the lights swing, and there are a few other pieces of alleged poltergeist footage – but the evidence is hardly overwhelming. However smashed items, weird electrical disturbances, peculiar flight and impact characteristics 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. Yet in the 1890′s the poltergeist was a highly disreputable creature, with SPR member Frank Podmore ascribing the poltergeist to nothing more than naughty children playing tricks, an analysis that many modern readers may be sympathetic to.
Yet the poltergeist cases are really just as acceptable, if in some cases not better attested, than the apparitional cases. So why were they ignored in the Census? Well partly the clue is in the name: the Census of Hallucinations was just that, and it is clear from the early Proceedings that the SPR group who analysed the cases were deeply committed to a telepathic/hallucinatory model. Physical phenomena were, as Rebecca Smith has pointed out, an embarrassment, and were therefore outside the scope of the research project.
Yet something even deeper was at work. The founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882 had attracted a number of leading scientists and thinkers, and the American Society for Psychical Research did the same when it was founded a few years later. The early SPR did a great deal of work investigating purported mediums, against a background of popular enthusiasm for Spiritualism, and earned a strong reputation, despite its lack of “corporate opinions”, for what today would be called debunking of ostensible psychic phenomena. Controversy over the sceptical tone of SPR publications and investigations led to a crisis in 1888, when a large number of members who were disposed towards spiritualism and belief in in in particular physical mediumship left the SPR, to form their own organisation (Grattan-Guinness, 1982)
The remaining “rump” of SPR members were certainly no friends to the “lower” or “physical phenomena” of the séance room, and a series of critical reports on mediums such as Eusapia Palladino (balanced by the more positive Fielding report of 1908) led to an atmosphere where claims of physical effects were regarded with grave suspicion. Then the telepathic hypothesis, which was entirely compatible with the mental phenomena of the more “respectable” mediums yet could not be implicated in the suspected conjuring tricks of the physical mediums emerged, and the Census of Hallucinations was conducted with this prevailing attitude of latent hostility among (some but not all) SPR members to alleged physical phenomena. Stephen E. Braude has thrown much light on this period in his excellent work The Limits of Influence: Psychokinesis & and the Philosophy of Science (1996). Braude, Smith and myself have all independently reached a broadly similar position; namely that the early SPR was in effect hostile to certain types of “embarrassing” testimony, and may have downplayed them unconsciously in their analysis.
Furthermore, a strong party in British intellectual life was hostile to the SPR as investigating nonsense (others, including of course Disraeli and Balfour, strongly favoured it: Balfour served as Secretary and his brother as President of the SPR, and Gladstone described its research as “the most important work being done in the world today”.) The SPR had to deal with a dual attack, from both extreme proponents of the spiritualist party who saw the Society as debunkers, and from hostile materialists who saw it as simply studying popular superstition and outside of the scientific method. It would be unsurprising if some SPR members were hostile to any “spiritualist” interpretation of the evidence from apparitions, and the constant attempt to find scientifically respectable explanations for phenomena must have made the telepathic/hallucinatory models of apparitonal experience seem extremely attractive.
Of course later generations of researchers were to rehabilitate physical phenomena, and the SPR has been at the forefront of poltergeist research, but I believe it is from this moment in 1894 that the split between the “poltergeist” and the “ghost” dates. It has been accepted with occasional queries right through to the present day, though some writers have bravely opted for a discarnate intelligence or spirit based model at least some poltergeist experiences, including some of the major theorists in the area. (For example Playfair 1980, Wilson, 1981, Stevenson 1972, Spencer, 1997).
The orthodox position in mainstream parapsychology, if such a thing can be said to exist, appears to be that poltergeists are best understood as generated by a living agent unconsciously generating psi in what I have in the past described as a “nervous breakdown taking place outside the head” – the theory of recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, or RSPK for short. A considerable body of theoretical work exists in support of this hypothesis (for example Roll 1980, Rogo 1979). Any attempt to claim that physical phenomena have been unfairly removed from the discussion of apparitonal cases must however contend with the authority on these matters, Gauld & Cornell’s magisterial study Poltergeists (1979), which is likely to be cited by any parapsychologist challenged on the idea that poltergeist and apparitional cases may actually be little more than an accidental classification dating from the 19th century, descriptive but not necessarily reflecting different causalities.
Gauld himself questions strongly whether poltergeists and hauntings are separate types of phenomena, or a continuum of one phenomena classified by their ‘symptoms’. Central to the book is Chapter 12: The Poltergeist and the Computer, where he performs a cluster analysis on 5000 cases drawn from the Literature and covering several continents and much of recorded history. At the end of ten iterations the clusters are reduced to two groups, Group 1, broadly representing what parapsychologists would recognise as poltergeist cases, and Group 2, traditional hauntings. It seems the traditional divide between apparitional cases and poltergeist cases may hold true.
Yet Gauld notes with apparent satisfaction that many of the Group 2 “hauntings” still contain significant physical effects, and that the Group 1 “poltergeists” contain cases where apparitions were seen. Alan Gauld dismisses (to my mind quite correctly) the tendencies of the telepathic theorists of ghosts to claim any reported physical effects were hallucinatory in a passage so vivid it deserves to be cited in full:-
“ostensibly physical phenomena have taken place that have in fact left a clear physical trace behind them: objects have in reality been displaced, bolts drawn, doors opened, objects smashed, etc. …if normal human beings together or in succession see door-handles turn, feel beds rise under them or bedclothes pulled off them, hear bell jangle…. then we have evidence that certain types of physical events occurred: and if one dismisses this evidence for reasons of theoretical tidiness related to ones views about certain types of visual hallucinations (recurrent apparitions) one is in danger of isolating one’s theoretical position from any modification by the facts – a tendency which, carried to extremes, lands people in lunatic asylums.”
Despite these strong words, physical effects in hauntings are still largely ignored, for just such theoretical reasons; yet one can not help feeling that in parapsychology the “lower” (physical) phenomena remain as disreputable as in 1894.
So if the evidence from actual reports of apparitional experiences does not seem to support the telepathic/hallucinatory model of ghosts, then how do “recording models” fare? Space will not permit a detailed discussion here, but a brief overview of the evidence seems in order. The earliest “recording hypothesis” I am aware of is that of FWH Myers, where he postulates a psychic ether which permeates buildings or the environment, on which certain events may be recorded, and later replayed to one suitably sensitive if the conditions are right. Myers did not live to fully develop the idea, which he used to explain hauntings (in the technical sense) and collective cases where his telepathic model appeared flawed. However his ideas were taken up and developed by H.H.Price, and are discussed in Hart’s essay Six Theories in some detail. It was not until however Nigel Kneales radio play of 1972 The Stone Tape that the idea really entered popular consciousness, and became one of the most widely held popular theories of apparitions. The play coincided with a new technology reaching the mass market, the tape recorder, and many homes would have these, so the idea of a recording was timely. Wood (2007) provides an excellent discussion of recording hypotheses.
In essence recording hypotheses are just as incompatible with physical effects as telepathic/hallucinatory models. Indeed the actual mode in which the ‘recording’ is played back may well be considered to be telepathic/hallucinatory, but perhaps the central feature of recording theories is that there is no self-aware entity present, merely a recording, what Derek Acorah calls “residual energy”. In recording theories there is no one there to communicate or interact with; it is akin to watching an old episode of The Muppet Show repeated on TV – Kermit is not going to suddenly turn and hold a discussion with you, or move your tea cup.
While the theory is attractive for cases where the same figure is seen repeatedly replaying exactly the same action, it is not the behaviour of many of the apparitions detailed in the literature, or collected in surveys. One example would be the Cheltenham Ghost (Morton 1892) where the apparition appeared to be aware of and indeed actively avoided engaging with the witnesses, but dozens of cases could be cited where this difficulty arises. It is also of course extremely difficult to find a way in which the recording hypothesis can be brought to bear on the physical phenomena commonly reported alongside apparitions.
The Accidental Census
To examine closely the findings of each of the surveys conducted over the years is far beyond the scope of this article, but in 2009, quite by accident, the author became involved in a small scale census that is of interest simply because of the similarities in the way it was conducted and the original SPR census, though they may not be immediately obvious.
Briefly, Rebecca Smith was writing a proposal for a pseudo-replication of the Census of Hallucinations using the internet, and owing to generous research funding from the SPR she has undertaken the research as part of her Ph.D. studies at Coventry University. (It is worth noting that I have not yet seen Smith’s data, as her research is being conducted completely independently of the research I am discussing here, and for ethical reasons and to maintain the independence of her analysis she has not revealed any of her findings to me to date. This means that I am fully aware that everything I say in this article may prove completely nullified in just under a year when Smith publishes her findings. Nonetheless as they employ a different methodology, different type of analysis and are of a much larger sample it still seems pertinent to discuss the Accidental Census now.)
The author jokingly posted the Census of Hallucinations question on Smith’s Facebook wall, where her friends could read it. To my amusement several responded with different accounts of personal appearances. Interested, I then posted the question on my own “wall”: more accounts were forthcoming. Realising we had the opportunity to collect some first hand narratives from people we knew, and easily conduct follow up research, we both refined the question and over a period of several months posted it again and again, and then developed a set of notes for interested friends to act as “collectors”, and to post the account on their “walls” and collect cases for us. This was done fairly informally, but by the time we ceased the project (as Smith was about to register for her Ph.D. and begin her own very different collection of narratives, which is conducted via the website www.strangesurvey.com) we had collected 62 accounts which met the criteria of the original SPR census. (Cases were excluded for a large number of reasons from the Census of Hallucinations, for example because the percipient was in bed and may have been asleep.). While the sample is clearly too small to allow for generalisations to be made, the cases covered North America, Continental Europe and the British Isles, and a wide range of experiences.
While this is hardly a sensible way to go about any kind of research, the serendipitous opportunity was in fact very close to the original SPR method. The SPR administered a questionnaire via “Collectors”, who generally asked the questions of people who were known to them. This was believed to reduce the possibility of deliberate hoaxing, and allow for the avoidance of informants known to be untruthful in such matters. In the Accidental Census the use of the social media site Facebook meant there was usually at least some relationship between the informant and the collector. Smith concluded, probably wisely, that this methodology was too innovative for her own research, and has instead used a more traditional web based questionnaire based upon the Census of Hallucinations to allow for a direct comparison.
What was striking about this small scale “accidental census” was how much it caused Smith and myself to question both popular beliefs concerning the ghost experience, and the theories in the parapsychological literature. Whereas I had formerly questioned telepathic models of the apparitional experience on the common sense objection that it was using one paranormal claim (ESP) to explain another (apparitions), after we completed the project the author came to question a large number of what I have termed “myths” regarding the apparitonal experience. However an obvious objection, beyond the very small size of the sample, arises – what if the ghost experience itself, or what is considered part of that experience has somehow changed in recent decades?
The Changing Face of the Ghost Experience
What was most striking was how similar many of the accounts were to classic apparitional accounts from the 1894 census. The wording of the question undoubtedly led to many of these similarities, but it seemed to us that apparitions still behaved much as they always had. However Wood (2008) has shown that the number of classic visual apparitions appears to be declining compared with earlier surveys in his census (with Nicky Sewell) of Swindon, Wiltshire. Drawing upon earlier work by Sewell and Gould on trends in the depiction of hauntings in popular television Wood argues compellingly that popular television depictions in reality T.V. ghosthunting shows (like the aforementioned Most Haunted) have influenced public perceptions of what constitutes a ghost experience. Researcher Trystan Swale has also identified what he perceives as a change in the phenomena reported in the last ten years, and again ascribes it to the influence of reality television shows concerning apparitions.
This may go some way towards explaining the press releases that accompanied the release of Dr. Richard Wiseman’s 2010 book Paranormality, where he reveals survey results that show much higher figures for the number of people claiming to have witnesses a “ghost” than earlier studies suggested. Today a photograph with an “orb” (an easily explained photographic anomaly that occurs on digital camera shots) or even a rustling of a plastic bag can often be interpreted as a ghost by those inclined to believe in them, and all the more so given the explosion of public interest in participating in “ghost hunts”, whether commercial such as those offered by several companies, or arranged by an enthusiastic “local group”. For the Accidental Census we excluded any report where the percipient was actively ghosthunting at the time of the experience, or which were based entirely on photographic anomalies, no matter how striking. Such social and cultural factors may be the cause of the decline of the reported apparition rather than any actual absence of traditional “ghosts”.
Still we must not take this too far just yet. A further possibility is reflected in the age of percipients at the time of the experience. Many experiences are reported from early childhood, and we chose to discard those where the percipient was aged ten or under at the time of the experience. Given a large number of these experiences were of visual apparitions, and that the average age of the census respondents is much older, this would if not taken in to account lead to a situation where it may appear that visual apparitions were more common in the past than in the most recent decade, if the average informant was over twenty. A second “spike” in the number of visual apparitions reported occurs around the ages of 17-21, so again, if the average informant was as in our study in their thirties, then it would again appear that visual apparitions were forming a smaller part of the reported experiences than they had in previous decades. It should be possible to check this hypothesis from the Haunted Swindon dataset.
A third possibility arose from the Accidental Census. It has long been suggested by researchers that genuine apparitonal experiences are what [psychologists term ‘flashbulb memories’. Wikipedia defines the term as “highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshots’ of the moment and circumstances in which surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.” I have heard both Caroline Watt and Patricia Robertson refer to how these events are supposedly never forgotten, and Jeff Belanger in his book Our Haunted Lives (2006) where he writes “…these are profound events, and they’ve been burned in to your long-term memory… Whether 5 or 50 years have gone by, the experience is still vivid.”
This has always puzzled me. I have had a few personal experiences that appeared to me to be paranormal, but as the years pass, I have clearly forgotten more and more about them, and when I come to write about them now I have to check back to my earlier writings. This is equally true for me of matters as diverse as when I first met people, what I was doing on 9/11, my first day at school, etc. Many seemingly important and dramatic events in my life, such as a car crash, I struggle to know recall at all, and I even forget who I was with in the car, let alone what the car looked like and how I felt during and after the crash as I lay trapped in the wreckage. I can imagine it, but I can’t actually remember much, beyond a friends joke as we were finally all pulled free, which just came to my mind as I typed these words. I suspect, but have no way to demonstrate, that the act of re-telling an event helps one recall it.
Perhaps some people do have “flashbulb memories”; the notion has been critiqued by psychologists, and I certainly do not seem to. Even in the original SPR Census it was noted that the longer the interviewer spoke to the informant, the more chance they would remember some incident that met the survey question. (Sidgwick, 1894). In fact the SPR Census found something odd; the number of recent reports, within the last year for example, was many times higher than the number of older reports. This effect was very evident in the Accidental Census, and during the conference presentation I showed a number of charts based upon the data to show how memories of paranormal experiences seem to fade over time, and/or people are far more likely to report recent phenomena. I tested this hypothesis by collecting 100 cases at random maintaining the gender bias of the three surveys (see below) I used from recent studies and then looking at time elapsed since the experience.
The ages of the informants provide a cap for the time that could have elapsed since the experience, which is obvious and means we can disregard the right hand part of the chart past age 30. There does however appear to be a clear relationship between gender and the time elapsed since the experience, perhaps suggesting that women are more likely to report recent experiences than men, who are more likely to recall events further back in time, perhaps in childhood. Given the very small size of the sample I have resisted the urge to draw further conclusions from this, and await with interest Smith’s data to see if the pattern is there demonstrated at a statistically significant level.
Two years ago I collected a small amount of survey data on somatosensory hallucinations – the sense of being touched when no one was present. 40% of respondents felt that had been “touched” in the last month, putting it sown to muscle twinges or mis-perception in the majority of cases. Yet few could remember having had the experience before (7%). This suggest strongly that minor experiences like this, or believing one hears one’s name named called, are very quickly forgotten. However such experiences are often considered “ghostly” in the correct context, as can be demonstrated by Smith (2008) where she studied 172 narratives of ghostly experiences of people in a hotel that had featured on the TV show Most Haunted, many of whom were there specifically to “ghost-hunt”, that were collected over a three year period.
My working hypothesis is that therefore visual hallucinations are more commonly remembered with the passing of time, and will therefore if the questionnaire used for the survey is open to physical effects and these more often forgotten phenomena, and if the context is correct (that is that a reputation for haunting is in place) already, then visual apparitions will crop up less as a percentage than in former decades. Looking at the Accidental Census data it does appear that visual apparitions are far more likely to be recalled after twenty years than any other category. Further research is of course needed, but I have come to severely question the “flashbulb memory” hypothesis when applied to paranormal experiences.
Are Ghosts Historic?
Something else of interest came up in the Accidental Census. Swale has suggested that in the past ghosts were often archetypal, of the brown monk, grey lady and phantom cavalier type. Such stories are certainly over represented in collections of British Folklore, but the author wondered if this might be because for an author writing a folklore collection these stories might be seen as reflecting genuine oral legends and historic material, and therefore be recorded while other apparitions, especially personal cases involving family members, were disregarded for genre reasons. I have closely examined the Census Report (1894) and find that perhaps the majority of apparitions appear in what was then modern dress, that is Victorian fashions, or those of the proceeding decades. Often even in the Census apparitonal clothing is noted as outdated such as the figure dressed in 1970′s Saturday Night Fever styles I researched in Suffolk following a sighting in the late 1980′s ; but this does not actually tell us much. A primary way in which the percipient becomes aware of the fact that the apparition is not of “this world” is the fact it is dressed in an archaic manner, so there may be a selection effect, in that apparitions dressed in contemporary manner may not be noted as apparitonal at all! Clothing of visual apparitions reported in the modern surveys was in most cases modern, with a small number of Victorian or “old fashioned” cases making up a minority. If my suggestion that it is the archaic nature of the dress that causes the apparition to draw attention and be noted as such, then I would speculate that such cases will be over represented in road ghosts cases and those reported in outside locations, as opposed to those in private homes, unless there is along history of haunting associated with the property.
Our census research seemed to show no particular association between the age of a property as far as known and the likelihood of a report, though Wood (2008) notes there may be such an effect in Swindon. I think the fairest conclusion would be that while old houses may well have more legends of haunting associated with them, spontaneous cases experiences can occur in buildings of any age, including in our sample several new builds. This again seems to testify against the Recording hypotheses as an explanation for apparitoonal experiences.
Where & When Can I See A Ghost?
The association of ghosts with stately homes, crumbling castles and lonely inns, while undoubtedly useful to the commercial; ghost night companies, does not appear to be borne out by the Accidental Census figures. One might expect “set and setting” to play a large part in producing expectation conducive to apparitonal experiences, yet in fact the locations where apparitions were reported were astonishingly mundane and prosaic. A detailed analysis must wait, but 70.5% of experiences reported when at home (including the garden). Of the remaining 29.5% when not at home almost a quarter happened while the percipient was in a car travelling. Only 16% of cases occurred outside. Other locations varied – a training course workshop, a park bench, two experiences in churches during services, a fashion show, and so forth. Only one – a burial mound overlooking Bristol – met the “spooky” criteria, and that was provided by the author himself.
Given you are much more likely it would appear to witness an apparition at home than anywhere else ( I am tempted to set up commercial ghost nights based on this premise, where interested parties can pay me to sleep in their beds with them to see if ghosts appear) it may be of interest to look at where the apparitions were seen.•53% occurred in the bedroom; 11% on the stairs, 8% in the kitchen, 6% in the Dining Room , and 5% in the Garden or Living Room. Other locations in the house get only one mention: curiously only two people reported an experience in the loo or bathroom.
As to when, in Wood (2008) Wood and Sewell discovered most visual apparitions occurred in the afternoon. In our sample 37% of sightings occurred during the day, but after removing cases associated with sleep paralysis and edge of sleep phenomena, we were left with 50% of cases occurring in daylight, and 50% in darkness. The sample was too small to be sure if this is significant, and there was no strong seasonal association, beyond a slight prevalence of cases in the summer months.
Three Theories of Apparitions
While it is tempting to continue to assail popular and academic theories of the apparitonal experience in the light of survey research, obviously much more work is needed. It seems fitting to instead offer a few highly speculative models of the apparitonal experience for future researchers to shoot down, based upon their own research. I will therefore offer three possible models that seem in keeping with the facts as I currently see them reported.
The first I shall call the Contextual Hypothesis. In a previous article (Romer 1996) I suggested that cases of haunting are often best considered as a series of potentially unrelated incidents, that become a “haunting” by being mis-associated with each other. It is as I noted earlier no great surprise that even healthy people hallucinate, and once someone in a property has seen a figure, then minor phenomena of the type frequently reported instead of being mildly puzzling and quickly forgotten are woven in to the narrative of a “ghost”, and a haunting story develops that is far greater than the sum of its parts. This sceptical and naturalistic hypothesis is supported by some modern research, where persons asked to keep a journal of unusual incidents reported a large array of minor phenomena. (Houran 1996)
A second model is similar, but is based on the idea that humans may possess psi abilities, ESP that includes the potential for psychokinesis. I have developed this at length in unpublished writings, and refer to it as the Psi-de Effect Hypothesis. If psi exists, then we might expect that normally there would be some resistance to manifesting effects that were visible and noticeable to the agent; after all we all “know” it is simply impossible. My psi-de effects ideas suggest that once a place has a reputation for haunting, people may actually haunt themselves, moving objects, picking up information by ESP and hallucinating figures, and manifesting the ghostly activity by their own psi powers. Of course this theory explain a miracle by invoking another miracle, but it does explain why different phenomena seem to be associated with different groups of investigators, even in the same location. The contextual hypothesis arguably does this just as well.
The third hypothesis I propose is nothing new at all: it is the Invisible Intelligences Hypothesis. Perhaps after all these years of research and theorising we are no closer to a scientific theory of ghosts than we were in 1882, and it really is just “dead guys”, daemonic entities or the similar. I am aware that hypotheses about spirits and discarnate entities are immensely unfashionable in parapsychology, and often how parapsychologist differentiate themselves from the popular ghosthunting mob is by their sophisticated and convoluted models. I can not help but feel however that Invisible Intelligences remains far more in keeping with the evidence we find in the accounts than many of the theories that academic parapsychologist have promulgated, no matter how disreputable they may be.
An End Note
It came as a great relief while writing this piece to discover that almost every one who has made a detailed study of apparitions actually agrees with me that they are associated with physical phenomena, though few have expressed it as strongly as Alan Gauld did. It was even more of a relief to find that ASSAP Chair David Wood (2008) found physical effects in 50% of his census cases. I would just like to take this chance to thank ASSAP for the opportunity to address the 30th anniversary conference and to publish this paper based upon that talk, and the marvellous audience who did not lynch me after my somewhat controversial statements on apparitonal research. If any reader is interested in conducting their own detailed analysis or case collections of this type, I would encourage them to write to me if they feel I could offer any support. Until Rebecca Smith’s Ph.D. research is published I can not say if my speculations in this paper will stand or not, but I also wish to thank her for her kind assistance over the years. I would like to thank Rebecca Smith, Rosie Freeman and Tom Ruffles for reading drafts of this paper, and my anonymous reviewer from ASSAP: all their feedback was invaluable.
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One of the biggest disappointments to me was when a few years back I had to turn down the option to do the MSc in Parapsychology at Coventry University, because I did not have the money for the course fees. It sent me in to a long depressive period, but at least Becky and my dear friend David Curtin got to do it, both completing the taught course (sadly the only other student passed away before the end of the course). Luckily Dr Tony Lawrence and Dr Ian Hume were extremely kind and got to chat to them after lectures, and even sat in on one or two sessions — but it was a real shame.
I was in Coventry recently and I had the chance to catch up with Dr Hume, and was saddened to hear the online version of the course has been put on hold as student numbers failed to make it viable — owing mainly to nothing more than a cock up that prevented many people registering and was discovered far too late I inferred from talking to others. I did not like to press Dr Hume on the subject, but it will be back that he did say. Anyway enough rambling about my life! A PhD or subject specific MSc is certainly not necessary to make a difference in psychical research, and maybe I would never have cut the mustard, and lack the talent and drive to succeed at PHD level — who knows?
If you are still with me after that mournful digression, have you ever considered studying parapsychology? Sceptic or believer, there is a vast literature and a huge host of technical issues in the field that make it hard to get to grips with, and it can be hard work — but I have always personally found it fascinating, not least for what it shows us about all kinds of other issues, from philosophy of science to human psychology and cognition.
And the good news is that you don’t have to commit to something as big as a PhD or MSc, and the course fees. The Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University are offering a short online course “An Introduction to Parapsychology” that while non-accredited really does look excellent. I would do it if I actually ever had the money, and really want to, but sadly even £200 is currently beyond my means
In fact, sceptic or believer, I would seriously suggest you consider taking the course. I just saw on Twitter that enrollment for the latest run has opened, so please do consider it. There is an excellent article by Sceptic Kylie Sturgess on her experiences with the course in a recent issue (and online) of the The Skeptical Inquirer you can read to see if it might be of interest.
Many years ago back in the mid-90′s in the early days of the web I ran a brief online course on parapsychology, and I did try again a while ago on my GSUK forum before we ran out of steam. This however is a professionally taught course by real experts in the field, so as Coventry’s MSc is no more, I hope some of you will enroll for this one. And maybe one day I will be able to afford it!
Hoping to meet many of you at the Seriously Strange conference at Bath Uni in just under two weeks time.
Long term readers of this blog will recall that I have mentioned a few times Becky Smith’s PhD research (based at Coventry Uni) in to anomalous experiences – ghosts, poltergeists, hallucinations, hauntings, call them what you will. Well she has started the main data collection phase now, and is trying to get as many accounts as possible from people who would answer positively to this main question
Have you ever (when fully awake and unaffected by illness, alcohol or drugs) had an experience of seeing something or someone, or of hearing a voice, when there was no ordinary cause for it that you could find?
If alternatively you would answer positively to
Have you ever witnessed unexplained movement of objects, or other disturbances in a house or building?
Then she would also like to hear from you! Even if you took part in a previous study, do go fill in the questionnaire, which can be found at www.strangesurvey.com
Also, if you can assist in publicizing the study, by passing on the details to friends who you know have had an experience of this type, or by sharing it with a random selection of acquaintances on Facebook or similar, please do. Don’t spam your mailing lists though, unless it’s directly on-topic!
Thanks for your assistance, and if you have any questions I’ll pass them on to Becky The important thing is to try and get as large a response as possible.
I’m sure many of you will recognise the question as a variant of that used in the 1894 SPR Census of Hallucinations, and DJ West’s classic studies.
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.