Charting the Unknown: Ghosts, Memory & the Progress of Time

OK something mildly interesting tonight – very much a preliminary set of thoughts on something Becky and I are still working on. Before she started her PhD we undertook some simple research on reports of “paranormal experiences” together, using a novel new methodology which is actually quite close to that used by the SPR in the 1894 Census of Hallucinations. And something has already come up that I find fascinating!

I don’t know yet if Becky is going to develop said methodology for her PhD, so I won’t talk about it here, but the important thing is with the help of a number of friends, including but not limited to Yvette Nicole-Hall, Axel Johnston, Rupert Scott-Ward, Miranda Cardew, Lynn Cinderey, Emma and Paul Tudor, Thomas Nowell and others (the full list will appear in the final paper if we ever finish writing this up: please drop me a line if you took part and I  have missed you off the list!) we collected sixty “paranormal” type experiences. We then coded them, using a Grounded Theory approach, and I’m still looking at the data.

Scooby Doo

And I would have gotten away with it but for you pesky parapsychologists!

The question that was posed in our “accidental census” (Becky developed the methodology quite by chance) was

“Have you ever – when believing yourself to be fully awake and unaffected by illness, drink or drugs — had a vivid experience of seeing something or someone, or of hearing a voice, when there is nothing there and no ordinary cause you can find?”

or one of three other minor variations of the same, as we were playing around with the wording, experimenting with the original SPR form, DJ West’s, the MAss Observation Survey question and finally Becky’s own version (above). The only difference noted was in number of responses,

So what did we find? Well one thing I mentioned the other day leapt out at me immediately. Remember I said in the piece on Thetford Priory and my own ghost experience that I thought experiences diminished rather the grew in the telling, and that many events that seemed quite “paranormal” at the time are quickly forgotten?  Well sixty cases is not a lot to base anything on, but here is a quick chart I just knocked up in Open Office Calc.

Chart of time elapsed between event and report on paranormal events

Bit blurry as I’m not good with the Export function. Anyway at first glance, it seems to show pretty much what we might expect in terms of a fairly even distribution of our experiences. Ah I hear you cry – there are only 49 percipients (people who experienced the event)  listed here. Yep, in some cases it was impossible to work out exactly WHEN the event occurred from the narratives we received, and we also omitted repeated phenomena (as in “this happens to me every day” and continuing phenomena, as in “and it’s still happening…”) from this chart.  If they were included the effect would be stronger I think…

So what is puzzling me? The garishly (and with no regard to red/green colour blindness: I should have checked how to change the colours) bars do not represent equal periods of time.  Two people reported their event the day it happened, the first bar.  The second bar is those who told us of something in the last week, the third the last month.  The first 5 bars represent events that were experienced in the last year…  But as we get further down the chart, well the fifth bar is four years (from 12 months to 5 years), then we go up in 5 year blocks, then ten years.

Here is the important bit: in the last twelve months, twelve people claim to have had an experience of the type we are interested in – including witnessing an apparition, seeing an object move in what appears to be a “paranormal” fashion, hearing voices, being touched by invisible presences, etc,  while well and not under the influence of drugs or drink.  So lets assume that people are more likely to recall and report accurately events in the last twelve months. Using that 12 months as a baseline; if that rate was the average (assuming that Dave Williams was wrong earlier tonight when he joked “it looks like Zuul is coming to the West Midlands!) then we would expect sixty reports in each of the 5 year blocks; the mean is actually 4.6 reports per five years. So where are the missing 275+ reports?

Well the age of the population reporting is obviously crucial. We only asked by decade of age, and though I have some precise ages, for most people I only know if they were say in their thirties or forties. I created  a chart to show the distribution here. With the limited data I have I would estimate the average age is somewhere around 33.  It is hardly surprising then that many people do not report events forty years ago — they were not born.

This leave three main hypotheses to consider to account for the issue

1. The one the SPR Report On the Census of Hallucinations put forward in 1894, and I mentioned to Wiseman & Watt at the Science of Ghosts event in Edinburgh last April, which seemed to surprise them —  – people rapidly forget anomalous experiences in the main.

2.  People are reporting the most spectacular events they can think of they have experienced, and ignoring minor recent experiences that would meet the Census question.

3.  People are making up their experiences, and claiming these false experiences  happened recently. I rather doubt this one for various reasons, not least the mode of collection for the data, and the fact the same pattern is found in Sidgwick (1894) – and I suspect in Donald West’s three studies.

I will return to this issue tomorrow, and talk more about the preliminary findings. For the moment I welcome any comment, in particular suggestion of appropriate statistical measures to employ on the quantitative data as Becky has returned to Derby to work, and I’m fairly rubbish at this sort of thing. 🙂

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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8 Responses to Charting the Unknown: Ghosts, Memory & the Progress of Time

  1. “People are making up their experiences … I rather doubt this one”

    Never dismiss the human appetite for attention-seeking. People want to appear interesting. Minor, easily rationally explained events are embellished with each retelling.

  2. Chris Jensen Romer says:

    Um, so Watt argues – the confabulation hypothesis. However, I have actually been testing this, and I think the general trend is completely the reverse in this kind of narrative. I have not read the relevant section of Prof Robin Wooffitt’s Telling Tales of the Unexpected yet – ( ihave the book if you are interested) but from what I can see so far from my own work on narratives, they lose more and more information content with the passing of years, and become boiled down to almost a bare skeleton of events. The web allows us to find acconuts written over ten years ago, then look at more recent accounts of the same events, and compare and contrast easily. As Wooffitt would point out though it is far more complex than that: the anecdotes re situated in a social context.

    WHat I am finding though bears out pretty normal human experience – things that seem important and memorable today are quickly forgotten, and put to one side…

    cj x

  3. Pingback: Age and Anomalous Experience « "And sometimes he's so nameless"

  4. Ed says:

    Have you considered doing a chart to show how well they remember the events and to what extent the passage of time has changed their impressions of it?

  5. Chris Jensen Romer says:

    No, because I don’t have the data to do it. 🙂

    cj x

  6. Pingback: GSUK update « "And sometimes he's so nameless"

  7. David Chart says:

    A little late, but this is interesting.

    I’m currently working through the EU-MIDIS general report (European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey), and they have statistics for experiences of discrimination in the last twelve months, and in the preceding four years (i.e. from two years ago to five years ago), but not the last year.

    There’s a similar result. The numbers for the four year period are never significantly higher than the numbers for the one year period. In the cases where 20% or more of the group had suffered discrimination in the last year, they obviously couldn’t be four times higher, but they probably shouldn’t be significantly lower. (One possible confounding factor: if there is a subgroup particularly prone to the experiences, they might report the most recent ones; in the EU-MIDIS case, they are specifically asked to.)

    Now, obviously, suffering discrimination is rather different from seeing a ghost, but both are events that might be expected to have a significant personal impact. They do, however, seem to be forgotten quite quickly. Is this another case of our memories being a lot less reliable than we might like to think?

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Yes, exactly what I would expect. After all we all know that we forget detail and events over time, but the notion of “flashbulb memories” that was proposed by psychologists a way back suggested that certain experiences became somehow forever vivid. I don’t think there is much evidence for this at all: however certain types of direct neurological stimulation of the brain apparently allowed experimental subjects to vividly recall memories exactly as there. Um, I wonder — this sounds a lot like the influence of Freud, the notion that even if unconscious nothing is ever forgotten (actually that sounds more like the influence of “Robin of Sherwood”…)

      In the EU-MIDIS study it strikes me that if certain individuals were as you say susceptible to discrimination, and only reporting the most recent experience, then it might well explain a lot of it. That might possibly imply that discrimination is related to some factor other than membership of said minority group: after all discrimination from someone on disability, gender, ethnicity, class and religion is incredibly difficult to unravel, because all we have to go on really is self-report – the victim’s perception of the cause of the discrimination (I’m guessing – I have never seen the Report).If more than one variable comes in to play, or someone’s identity construct favours a certain cause for the discrimination, then it may be that the discrimination in any given minority is unevenly weighted and not related to membership of that minority — dunno, I have just woken up!

      I have done some work in the past in how certain American Christian groups actually use incidents of discrimination in delineation of and construction of their group identity. Ultimately I wonder if as in paranormal experiences we simply forget those which are at variance with or not useful in the narratives we use to construct our self identity – but hey I have just woken up, and not even had my first coffee yet!
      Good to hear from you David
      cj x –

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