THE PSYCHOLOGY OF HAUNTINGS – THE ROLE OF BELIEF, MEMORY AND NEUROSCIENCE IN THE PARANORMAL
by Allen White
The complexities and fallibility of the human mind make most reports of ghosts and hauntings highly suspect. This article examines ghosts and hauntings in terms of belief, memory, our senses, and neuroscience.
The human mind is incredibly complex. Its functioning and operation is influenced by many types of factors. In spite of extensive research, there is much that is still not known about our brains. Serious researchers who investigate ghosts and hauntings need to have a basic understanding of the factors that can influence someone who reports that a location is haunted. More importantly, they need to understand how their own mind could be impacted. A serious researcher wouldn’t use a camera or tape recorder without understanding its operation. Our brains are our most important tool while conducting an investigation. While they don’t come with an operating manual, there is some basic information that all investigators should know in order to increase their competence and improve the quality of their work.
CHARACTERISTICS OF “BELIEVERS”
Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ASK. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds.
–Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat
According to the most recent Gallup poll, 37% of Americans believe in haunted houses. Belief is a very powerful construct, with complex underlying psychological processes. In order to be able to present data that skeptics and the scientific community will find worthwhile, it is imperative that one understands how belief influences our perceptions.
“…Reasoning objectively about data and arguments that contradict prior beliefs is often seen as the quintessence of critical thought” (Stanovich & West, 1997, p. 342). Likewise, understanding the relationship between belief and the reporting of paranormal experiences is important when investigating claims of the paranormal. Paranormal researchers should have a basic knowledge about factors that correlate with belief in the paranormal.
There has been a great deal of research regarding traits that correlate with belief in the paranormal. People who have such beliefs are more likely to attribute life outcomes to things out of their control (Adams & Shea, 1979). For example, such a person would say that they don’t have enough money because their electric bill was more than usual due to a harsh winter. They might not attribute their lack of funds to the new computer they chose to purchase. One researcher suggests that belief in the paranormal may support individuals in satisfying their need to understand life events and to give them a sense of control over the world (Irwin 1992).
People who have a high need for affiliation with others, and those who report lower levels of self-esteem are more likely to be believers in paranormal phenomena (Adams & Shea, 1979; Tobacyk et al, 1984; Tabacyk & Milford, 1983; Killen et al, 1974). In addition, research indicates that lower scores on tests of intelligence correspond with a greater likelihood of belief in the paranormal (Smith et al, 1998).
There are a variety of other personal characteristics that correlate with belief in the paranormal. There is a positive correlation between creativity, sensation seeking, and belief in the paranormal (Davis et al, 1974). Fantasy proneness is also a factor that influences the likelihood of labeling events as supernatural (Irwin, 1991). Psychopathology has been linked to paranormal belief; individuals with psychiatric diagnoses are more likely to believe in paranormal events (Thalbourne, 1998; Jackson, 1997). Psychological profiles of those who have experienced paranormal phenomena in a location should be a part of the documentation and report from any haunted location. It would be irresponsible to not include this information, or at least make note of its absence.
The emotional state of an individual can also be an indicator of their propensity to believe in the supernatural. An increase in paranormal belief is linked to negative emotional states (Dudley, 1999). When in such a state, our ability to think critically and process information declines (MacLeod & Mathews, 1991). It is possible that working memory overload is responsible, at least in part, for this (MacLeod & Donnellan, 1993). There is a relationship between working memory capacity and problem solving (Kreiner, 1995). Therefore, when we are in a negative emotional state, it is more likely that we will not think critically. Since the absence of critical thought is linked to labeling events as paranormal, it follows that a negative emotional state could lead to a greater likelihood that we will think we are experiencing something that is supernatural, or to an increased willingness to accept claims of the paranormal (Dudley, 1999). One example of this could be the large number of people who experience grief apparitions, or apparitions of someone in their life who recently passed away. Those people are typically in a negative emotional state, and therefore more likely to label an event as paranormal. Their judgment has been impaired by the strain placed upon their working memory. While it is possible that they have experienced something paranormal, their emotional state at the time lessens that possibility and should be noted in an investigative report.
Regardless of evidence to the contrary, people continue to hold onto what they have always held to be true. “Studies have found that people adhere to their beliefs when the original evidential basis of the beliefs is shown to be flimsy, false, or nonexistent” (Davies, 1997, 562). People tend to retrieve or attend to evidence that confirms their beliefs (Ross & Anderson, 1982). This then helps to maintain beliefs even after evidence has been discredited. Once relationships have been established and causal connections established, they become independent of the evidence itself. When this evidence is discredited, the “explanation nevertheless remains intact and available to sustain the belief” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973).
An example of the continuation of belief in spite of discredited evidence is the belief that photographs of orbs are evidence for ghosts. As discussed in other sections of this book, the appearance of orbs in photographs coincides with the advent of cameras that have the lens and flash in close proximity. The angle of reflection increases the chance that dust particles will be illuminated close to the lens of the camera. When this occurs, white spots can appear in photographs. I have met paranormal investigators who are aware of this, but still post orb photos on their websites as evidence for ghosts. Their belief is independent of the evidence.
One of the more striking examples of this occurrence happened while I was filming a documentary with Exspiro Productions on the topic of “ghost culture.” We were filming an investigation, which was being conducted by several obviously intelligent people who had carefully planned their investigation. The researchers had developed a script in an attempt to elicit activity, and used language typical of the time period in which the alleged ghost would have lived. During a portion of this investigation, one researcher placed some candy in an area of the building and told the ghost, “Jeremy,” to run and get the candy. A video camera was used to document the results. When the video tape was reviewed later in the evening, an orb was observed moving across the camera lens after the researcher told “Jeremy” to go get the candy. These researchers ignored the likelihood that the orb was merely a dust particle floating in front of the lens simply because it occurred right after they attempted to elicit a response. Coincidence does not magically transform bad evidence into credible support for the existence of ghosts.
It is critical that researchers remain aware of the perseveration of belief—not only in themselves, but also when investigating the claims that others have made. Belief can cloud the perception of events and the reporting of those events. Prior belief biases human reasoning (Baron, 1995; Broniarczyk & Alba, 1994; Evans et al, 1993; Markovits & Nantel, 1989; Oakhill et al, 1989).
Belief is so much a part of the personality of individuals, so much a part of their entire experience as a human being, that it is easy to be unaware of its impact upon our perceptions. A good researcher who wants to conduct responsible, scientific investigations of reportedly haunted locations needs to be aware of the power of belief to cloud judgment. She needs to be aware of belief’s power to change perceptions. Most importantly, she needs to understand that belief does not necessarily change when evidence that is contrary to that belief is presented.
THE NATURE OF BELIEF AND EXPERIENCES
The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen.
–Frank Lloyd Wright
Belief in ghosts has been shown to lead to an increase in experiences. In addition, it is more likely that those people will attribute those experiences to ghosts. Prior belief could increase the likelihood that people report unusual experiences (Wiseman et al, 1997) or believe the experiences that others have reported, regardless of the logical explanations that might very well exist. A glaring example is the popularity of the paranormal on television today. There are several programs in which people purportedly are investigating haunted locations in a scientific manner. People who believe in ghosts are more likely to believe that what they are seeing on television is actually occurring as they see it. As a film editor, I can tell you that it is very easy to manipulate video, sometimes in very subtle ways, to influence the experience of the viewer.
Lange et al (1996) analyzed over 900 reports of ghostly experiences. About 60% of those reports overtly stated there was some form of suggestion prior to the report of the experience. These suggestions included advertising, rumors, and knowledge of reports of previous experiences. Would you be more likely to attend a ghost investigation at a popular, well-publicized location that had been featured on documentaries and television shows, or an investigation at the local trailer park? Not only does suggestion play a role in reports of hauntings, but it also plays a role in locations that are being investigated. Not only is it more likely that investigators will report experiences as paranormal, but it is also more likely that more investigations will occur there, adding to the stories and popularity, and therefore the likelihood of additional suggestibility.
This has been a tremendous phenomenon in the past few years. Locations have been known to contact paranormal investigators in order to receive their “stamp of approval” so they can add themselves to the hundreds of “hauntrepreneurs” popping up all over the internet and chambers of commerce in small towns and large cities across the country. The number of locations that profit from charging paranormal researchers and amateur ghost hunters to spend time in or on their property is growing exponentially. This then adds to the likelihood that those investigators will document “paranormal” activity in their location. Who wants to spend $100 or more and then walk away with no evidence? This phenomenon, while it assists in the preservation efforts of historic locations, decreases the overall credibility of all paranormal researchers and the evidence they collect everywhere. Under no circumstances should a serious researcher provide certificates of haunting to a location. It may put a few dollars in your pocket, but the damage that is being done to the community as a whole is not worth it. Period.
Prior belief increases suggestibility (Wiseman et al, 1997). Suggestion can also lead to reports of experiences. When given a suggestion that paranormal activity has occurred in a location, there is an increase in the number of reports of physical, emotional, psychic, and mystical experiences (Lange & Houran, 1997). While giving ghost tours at Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia, members of the Philadelphia Ghost Hunters Alliance typically related a story to tourists during the tour. This story centered around a man kept prisoner in that location, and included reports that women frequently felt as if they were being choked. Without exception, on each tour at least one woman reported to the tour guides that she had felt as if she could not breathe while in that location. The power of suggestion, coupled with their belief in ghosts, and topped off with the physiological changes in the body that fear can cause, all contributed to this choking sensation. If this had occurred on an actual investigation, any mention of these phenomena in a report would need to include the information that individuals had been told a story mentioning the same phenomena. It cannot be considered good evidence.
THE FALLIBILITY OF THE SENSES
All this disquisition upon superstition leads me up the fact that Mr. Manson, our second mate, saw a ghost last night—or, at least, says he did, which of course is the same thing.
–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Captain of the Polestar
The process of sensing and perceiving the world through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin, involves a series of complex processes. First, we have to sense a stimulus. For example, we might be driving down the road and sense an odor. First, our nose has to detect that odor. Then, information is sent to the brain where it is processed and decisions are made. As with any complex process, there are a number of things that can go wrong along the way, and lead us to make errors in judgment.
Vision is one of those complex processes that frequently goes awry. Our eye is a complicated organ, and the steps that the brain goes through in order to process the information the eyes transmit are not even fully understood today, after many decades of comprehensive research.
It is important that researchers who investigate reports of hauntings understand at least some of the basic information about the anatomy of the eye and how it works. There are two main types of “detectors” in the eye. These “detectors” are responsible for obtaining the information from the outside world. The rods are more adept at detecting black and white, and do a great job of detecting motion. They have less ability to see with acuity than do the other main type of detector. They are more concentrated in the part of the eye that allows us to see in our peripheral vision. Therefore, most of what we see in our peripheral vision is in blurry shades of gray. The cones are the other main type of detector in the eye. They are best at sensing colors and things that are not in motion, and have better acuity than the rods. They are concentrated in the area of the eye that allows us to sense things directly in front of us.
Many reports of hauntings include some variant of the following sentence: “I saw a dark figure out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to look, there was nothing there.” The anatomy of the eye can explain this phenomenon in most, if not all, cases. When we see something out of the corner of our eye, it is typically in motion. This motion, incidentally, can originate from either the object being viewed or from the motion of our head. It is going to appear to be in shades of grey due to the concentration of rods in that part of the eye. It is going to be less identifiable because of the lack of visual acuity. When we turn our heads and don’t see a dark figure, it is because we are then looking at the stimulus directly and are not seeing it in the same way.
Our brains do an amazing job of interpreting stimuli that we receive. They try to make sense out of the world around us. When those things around us are concrete and unambiguous, this process works quite well. However, if a stimulus is vague, our minds will often try to make sense out of it. The best example of this is when one looks at clouds in the sky and notices that the shapes of the clouds form familiar objects. This process is referred to as “pareidolia.” We are constantly trying to make sense out of what we experience, and this can cause us to interpret our experiences inaccurately.
I lived in a house in Gettysburg, PA, for two years. For the first year in the house, we had a cat. After the cat no longer lived with us, I would occasionally think she was there. If I saw a shadow out of the corner of my eye low to the ground, I would instantly step aside to avoid stepping on the “cat.” Upon closer inspection, I would realize that there was no cat near my feet, or anywhere else in the room for that matter. Was a “ghost cat” haunting my house? No; I was seeing a shadow of a car going by and my mind was merely making the connection that caused me to interpret the stimulus as a cat…something familiar to me.
Infrasound, or low frequency sound waves that influence our bodies but cannot be heard by our ears, can impact what and how we see. Infrasound can cause our eyes to resonate differently, varying the frequency of resonation. It can impact what we see, particularly in our peripheral vision, where we best sense motion.
It can take up to twenty minutes for our eyes to adjust to dark conditions. While investigating haunted locations, it is important to avoid switching from light to dark conditions frequently. If you do so, you should document it. The use of night vision equipment can also influence our eyes, and cause us to see a persistence of light, much like when you stare at a light or other object for more than several seconds and then look away to see a negative image of that object. It is critical that one remain aware of the fallibility of our eyes when conducting an investigation. It is easy to think that you’ve seen something paranormal, when it can be easily explained by the functioning of the human eye.
All of our means of sensing and perceiving the world around us are subject to suggestibility. My husband and I, while living in New Jersey, frequently drove through a section of Route 1. There were old tires visible from a bridge over another road, and a consistent odor. The smell reminded both of us of noxious chemicals, and we would invariably roll up the windows and turn off the outside vents to avoid inhaling the fumes. After several months of driving through this area, we saw a series of trucks carrying cedar logs entering the road from the exit ramp. It was only then that we realized that what we had smelled all of those months was merely cedar. Our entire sensory experience, and subsequently, our behavior, had been influenced by the piles of old tires on the side of the road. From that day on, we smelled cedar, not noxious chemical fumes, when we drove through that area.
One of the main types of evidence that paranormal researchers collect is electronic voice phenomena, or EVP. While analyzing this documentation, researchers need to be aware of the nature of suggestibility and bias. Much of the evidence that investigators have collected is ambiguous in terms of content., and can cause us to be influenced by pareidolia. It is often difficult to discern what the alleged voices are saying. Even if the recording is merely digital static or a natural noise, if one tries hard enough to make sense of what the “EVP” says, words will often be interpreted. The opportunity of suggestibility is also problematic. Once an evidence reviewer states that she thinks she knows what she hears, and shares this with other reviewers, it is likely that they will begin to hear the same thing. EVP should be reviewed individually. It should be reviewed without knowing what the question preceding the recording was. It should be reviewed without the location known to the reviewer. It should be reviewed by multiple people. Then, if a response matches up to a question, if it has been interpreted the same way by multiple people, and if it matches the history of the location, it is better evidence.
THE FALLIBILITY OF MEMORY
Our perceptions are fallible. What we think we see or hear is not always accurate. When it is accurate, our memory of the event often cannot be trusted.
False memories have been documented consistently in research literature, typically as related to false memories of sexual abuse in childhood. It is likely that such false memories could also be created in terms of paranormal experiences as well. A single exposure to a suggestion can result in the creation of false memories. Repeated exposure can increase this effect (Mitchell & Zaroguza, 1996).
It is easy to imagine how easily our memories could be distorted by repeatedly hearing the suggestion that ghosts exist. Suddenly, the noise we think we remember hearing two weeks ago becomes evidence for a ghost. Subsequently, the noise we hear two nights from now becomes even more evidence for our house being haunted.
We tend to attend to those events and bits of information that support our beliefs, and tend to either not perceive or forget those events and bits of information that do not support our beliefs. As researchers, it is important to document all events during an investigation. Do not assume that you will “remember” everything. If it is not written down, if it is not documented when it occurred, we must assume that it didn’t happen. There is no evidence. The more time that passes between a perceived event and the documentation of that event, the more likely it is that pieces of information will be lost and/or distorted. Document, document, document!!! Even if you do not think it is important, document it. The noise you just heard after knocking a book off of a table by accident should be documented. Someone in the next room may have documented the noise as unexplained, and you may very well forget that you knocked the book off of the table. It wasn’t important to you at the time, and you thought you’d remember it.
NEUROPSYCHOLOGY AND PARANORMAL EXPERIENCES
There has been a great deal of research in the past several years regarding the relationship of the brain’s temporal lobe and paranormal experiences. This research has included the influence of electromagnetic fields and the relationship of temporal lobe epilepsy to supernatural experiences.
Some research suggests that electromagnetic waves produce “microseizures” in the brain’s temporal lobe. The result of this brain activity has been described as equivalent to what is frequently reported to occur when having a paranormal experience, including sensing a presence in the room (Persinger et al, 2000). An increase in geomagnetic activity has been associated with the onset of historical and contemporary reports of poltergeist activity (Gearhart & Persinger, 1986). According to Persinger (2001), “…fields generated by less than optimal grounding in dwellings and telluric currents may be sufficient to evoke experiences in the brains of sensitive individuals.” It is imperative while investigating reports of ghosts and hauntings that geomagnetic activity and electromagnetic fields in the location be documented as part of the investigation.
Links have been established between temporal lobe instability and subjective paranormal experiences, including reports of apparitions (Neppe, 1982; Neppe, 1983; Palmer & Neppe, 2003). In addition, people with temporal lobe instability are also more prone to suggestibility (Ross & Persinger, 1987) and the creation of false memories (Persinger, 1992).
Epilepsy has also been associated with ghosts and hauntings. Research conducted in 1976 by Solfrin and Roll examined grand mal epilepsy and found a link between epilepsy and reported poltergeist activity. Roll (1997) examined this link further. He studied individuals who were regarded as the focus of poltergeist activity. Of the 92 subjects in his study, 22 of them were “prone to seizures or dissociative states” (p. 400).
I have read many ghost stories during my lifetime. Countless numbers of them have included reports of smelling unexplainable pleasant and perfumy odors in reportedly haunted locations. This same type of experience has been documented as coexisting with temporal lobe hallucinations (Neppe, 1983A, 1983B). It is more likely that reports of this nature are evidence for temporal lobe instability than evidence for an odor from beyond the grave.
As noted earlier in this section of the book, postmortem, or grief, apparitions do have some possible natural explanations. The chemistry in the brain also offers some explanations that are alternative to the paranormal ones. Persinger (1993) studied brain functioning and its link to postmortem apparitions. When we grieve, there is an increase in corticotrophin in the brain. There is also a suppression of nocturnal melatonin levels, typically occurring between midnight and 6 am. There is also a normal decrease in melatonin before normal dreams. When combined with the suppressed melatonin, and an additional geomagnetic “trigger,” the likelihood of experiencing an apparition increases. When you combine this increased likelihood with the decreased judgment described earlier, it is easy to understand why this phenomenon is reported with such frequency! A responsibly written report of an investigation into such reported phenomena would include this information.
People frequently report paranormal experiences that have occurred either in the moments prior to falling asleep or the moments just after waking. These times are referred to by scientists as hypnagogic and hypnopompic sleep states. One commonly reported phenomenon includes some or all of these characteristics: sensing a presence, hallucinations, being unable to move, and having difficulty breathing. This phenomenon is completely natural, and is commonly referred to as “sleep paralysis.” It can be quite alarming, even to someone who is aware of this naturally occurring event, and can make a great ghost story when experienced and reported by someone who is not aware of it. A good investigator will be wary of any experience that is reported in those moments right before dozing off or immediately after awakening.
BED AND BREAKFAST SYNDROME
It is a silent, shady place, with a paved courtyard so full of echoes, that sometimes I am tempted to believe that faint responses to the noises of old times linger there yet, and that these ghosts of sound haunt my footsteps as I pace it up and down.
–Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock
Why are so many small inns and bed and breakfasts reported to be haunted? There are a number of contributing factors to this epidemic, which has soared in recent years.
Many small inns are old buildings. Old buildings have a lot of creaks and groans that are completely natural. In addition, many of these properties are in quiet locations, making all of these strange sounds that much more prominent as you lie in your bed late at night unable to sleep in a strange place. Many people have difficulty sleeping in unfamiliar places. It is easy to allow one’s mind to wander through the darkness, imagining what those noises are.
The popularity of the paranormal, exacerbated by continually increasing media exploitation, makes it easy to imagine that those noises are not natural. It makes it easier and more convenient to imagine that those noises are being caused by the ghost of the man who built the structure, who hid during a Civil War battle in its basement, and who raised his family there while making shoes for a living. The history of old inns is frequently well-known.
The popularity of ghosts and hauntings makes staying in a reportedly haunted location desirable to many. Innkeepers covet their haunted reputations, and some have been known to attempt to gain such a reputation through contact with paranormal researchers with less than scientific methodology. Some innkeepers may even offer to pay for certification as a haunted location. And that is how many bed and breakfast establishments become haunted.
People are looking for a thrill….to see a ghost….to be able to return from their vacation to tell their friends about what strange things happened to them. Their desire to experience the paranormal often leads to their perception of such an experience.
Many bed and breakfast businesses put journals in their rooms for guests to record details of their stay. Guests in reportedly haunted inns are often encouraged to document their ghostly experiences as well. Many people who stay in these locations read the journals, subjecting themselves to the power of suggestion. The advent of thousands of books written about haunted locations adds additional opportunities for suggestibility. Bed and breakfast proprietors are often eager to capitalize upon the haunted reputation of their property, and may publicize the stories they have been told over the years.
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