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.
Please note all this is a work in progress: little more than a series of memo’s in which Becky and I are developing ideas we want to explore…
OK last night I posted on a topic that interested me, and seemed to suggest that we forget anomalous experiences quite quickly. Andrew has raised the possibility that the more recent experiences may simply be made up: I admit that is possible, but wonder why people would claim the fictional experience was situated in the last twelve months, rather than long ago, or just today?
This morning I am going to look at the data again, but this time look at age at time of the experience rather than time elapsed between the experience and the report. The first chart shows the ages of our respondents – by category, as we do not possess precise ages for most respondents, and many said things like “when I was living with my parents” or “twelve years ago”.
Table 1. Age of Persons Who Responded
As you can see, they cluster around the 30’s – unsurprising given the method of collection, as most of the people who viewed the question were in that age category! However the age of percipients does set an upper limit for both how long ago an experience can have occurred, obviously enough (people can not have anomalous experiences before they were born), so I have reproduced the data here. It is a shame we did not ask for more precise ages!
Perhaps more interesting is the following chart, which shows how old people were when the claimed anomalous experience took place.
Table 2. Number of INCIDENTS reported by age category
The sharp decline after 30’s is simply owing to the age of our respondents as shown in the first chart, os it is not safe to assume any falling off in experience as we grow older, and the data set is really too small to allow for any meaningful statistical analysis (which is why the study used Grounded Theory methodology). The 1894 Census saw a peak around the age of 21: however there were methodological problems in that Census which may account for this. The Census of Hallucinations (1894) discounted experiences below the age of ten years – we have reported on them and included them in our dataset.
Bear in mind these are experiences, not people. As we shall see in future reports, some people reported many incidents of allegedly anomalous experiences. Also note that continuing and ongoing experiences were not included in these figures. 42 incidents could be placed at a certain age in the percipient’s life from the accounts submitted.
However, some experiences (mainly those in childhood) were placed at a precise age: so here are the break downs for the under 20’s…
Table 3. Incidents in the Under-20’s
The number of experiences at age 18 to 19 appears comparatively high: not quite sure why that should be. Maybe moving away from home?
Anyway these figures are not as interesting as the last set to my mind, but if anyone has comment or thoughts on all this we would love to hear them!
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.
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.
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. :)