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The Top Three Scientific Explanations for Ghost Sightings


From ghosts to ghouls, witches to wizards, Halloween is the one time of the year when people come together to celebrate everything supernatural. But beyond the fancy dress and trick or treating, belief in ghosts is actually relatively common – with 38% of people classifying themselves as believers and a similar number having actually reported seeing one.

The term “ghost” refers to the idea that the spirits of the dead – human and animal – influence the physical world. And the idea of a haunting can often include anything from a sensed presence, or objects moving, to spirit activity.

But in a world filled with science and reason, these “hauntings” can often boil down to a very simple explanation. So, with Halloween just around the corner, here are the top three scientific and psychological explanations for hauntings, spirits, spookiness and all things supernatural – although it should be noted that many important questions have yet to be resolved …

1. Because I told you so

Attempts to explain hauntings often draw upon psychological factors – such as suggestion – so being told a place is haunted is more likely to lead to ghostly goings-on.

One classic study saw participants visiting five main areas of a theatre before completing a questionnaire to assess their feelings and perceptions. Prior to the tour, one group was told the location was haunted, while the other group was informed that the building was under renovation. Unsurprisingly, participants that were told the place was haunted experienced more intense experiences – similar to those of paranormal happenings.

The Ghost of New Amsterdam Theatre. ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Verbal suggestion has also been shown to increase paranormal perceptions – as shown in research on seance phenomena, paranormal key bending and psychic reading – especially when the suggestion is consistent with existing paranormal beliefs.

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But research in real-world settings has produced inconsistent results. A study in the supposedly haunted Hampton Court found that suggestion had no effect on participants’ expectations of experiencing unusual phenomena, or their tendency to attribute unusual phenomena to ghosts.

So, it is fair to say that the effects of suggestion vary depending upon a person’s beliefs. And of course, paranormal believers are prone to endorsing alleged paranormal phenomena – while sceptics will deny the existence of the paranormal.

2. Electromagnetic fields and spooky sounds

Other explanations draw on environmental factors, such as electromagnetic fields and infrasound. Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger demonstrated that the application of varying electromagnetic fields to the temporal lobes of the brain could produce haunting experiences – such as perception of a presence, a feeling of God or sensations of being touched. And it has been noted that areas most associated with hauntings – such as Hampton Court – do possess erratic magnetic fields.

Similarly, infrasound – audio frequency below the range of human hearing – is also thought to be able to explain such phenomena. Several studies have linked infrasound and bizarre sensations.

Recording an audio frequency. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

In one example, contemporary pieces of live music were laced with infrasound and the audience were then asked to describe their reactions to the music. More unusual experiences were reported when infrasound was present – chills down the spine, feeling nervous, waves of fear and uneasy or sorrowful emotions.

3. Toxic hallucinations

“Supernatural” perceptions can also arise from reactions to toxic substances – such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and pesticide. It also been suggested that fungal hallucinations – caused by toxic mould – could stimulate haunting-related perceptions.

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Shane Rogers and his team from Clarkson University in the US observed similarities between paranormal experiences and the hallucinogenic effects of fungal spores. This may explain why ghost sightings often occur in older buildings with inadequate ventilation and poor air quality.

Are ghosts really just a toxic hallucination? ( public domain )

The notion is not new and experts have previously reported a similar effect associated with old books . They claim that mere exposure to toxic moulds can trigger significant mental or neurological symptoms, which create perceptions similar to those reported during haunting experiences.


Ghost stories: The science behind ghost sightings

"The Brown Lady," one of the most famous photos ever taken, is often cited as photographic evidence of ghosts. But is it real?

Ghost stories have been around as long as there have been stories themselves. The idea of apparitions from the spirit world goes back to the very beginnings of written history, and probably even farther back in oral traditions. A recent CBS News poll concluded that nearly half of all Americans believe in ghosts, and 22 percent say they have seen or felt the presence of a ghost.

And yet mainstream science has long been clear and unequivocal: There is no scientific evidence of a supernatural explanation for ghost sightings. So how do we explain those incidents when rational people sincerely believe they have seen or felt a ghost? What are some of the scientific, non-paranormal explanations for the phenomenon of ghost sightings?

As it turns out, there are quite a lot of real-world explanations for ghost sightings. Researcher Loyd Auerbach, author of several books on the subject of hauntings, is a believer in ghosts and has been investigating reported sightings for 30 years. Yet even he concedes that the vast majority of alleged hauntings can be explained away by natural phenomena. Chief among them is the psychological state of the person who experienced the haunting.

"It's often because people are predisposed -- they've been watching too many TV shows, or something bad is going on in their lives," Auerbach said. "Sometimes people are psychologically disturbed, but most of the time I find it's people making mistakes because they're already in a sensitized state due to something else entirely. It's people who are suggestible, and when that nail in the wall finally pops out, they ascribe significance to a mundane event."


Five Scientific Explanations for Spooky Sensations

​ ‘Tis the season to celebrate the supernatural, whether that means visiting a haunted house or donning a spooky costume. But while some might scare themselves silly in the name of Halloween fun, 42 percent of Americans believe ghosts are for real, according to a 2013 Harris Poll . The belief in ghosts dates back to at least ancient Mesopotamian times, and it seems to have lodged itself in the collective psyche. But in many cases, science can explain what might seem like a message from beyond. Here are five scientific explanations for encounters with the supernatural.

The “Fear Frequency”

Just below the range of human hearing, infrasound can cause some strange sensations. Humans can’t hear sound below 20 hertz, but some people subconsciously respond to lower frequencies with feelings of fear or dread, reports Jennifer Ouellette for Gizmodo. In one account from 1998, engineer Vic Tandy of Coventry University spent a night in a lab believed to be haunted. He and his colleagues experienced anxiety and distress, felt cold shivers down their spines, and Tandy even reported seeing a dark blob out of the corner of his eye. It turned out that there was a silent fan creating sound waves at around 19 hertz, the exact frequency that can cause the human eyeball to vibrate and “see” optical illusions. “When we finally switched it off, it was as if a huge weight was lifted,” Tandy told Chris Arnot for the Guardian.

Unusual Electromagnetic Fields

Electromagnetic field (EMF) meters are commonly used to identify electrical problems. They’re also a staple of the ghost-hunter’s toolbox, reports Erika W. Smith for Refinery29. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger thinks normal variation in electromagnetic fields could be a possible explanation for supposed hauntings. He tested this theory in the 1980s by having people wear helmets that delivered weak magnetic stimulation. Eighty percent of his test subjects said they felt “an unexplained presence in the room” when they wore the helmets. What’s more, famous spooky spots like Hampton Court Palace have been found to have unusual electromagnetic fields, reports Neil Dagnall for the Conversation.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

On a Halloween episode of This American Life, host Ira Glass and toxicologist Albert Donnay unearth an old ghost story published in the American Journal of Ophthalmology in 1921. As recounted by “Mrs. H,” her family moved into an old house and began experiencing what seemed like paranormal activity—the sound of footsteps, strange voices and even feeling like they were held down in their beds by an unseen person. Meanwhile, the houseplants were dying, and Mrs. H’s children felt weak and suffered from headaches. A quick investigation revealed that a faulty furnace was filling the house with carbon monoxide fumes. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause hallucinations and sickness, explaining all of their symptoms. After the furnace was repaired, the “hauntings” stopped.

Sleep Paralysis

The most common explanation for a ghost sighting is sleep paralysis, sleep specialist Priyanka Yadav tells NBC News’s Diane Mapes. The body is naturally paralyzed during REM sleep, but the feeling of paralysis can cause terror if experienced while awake. Sometimes, the body and brain get their wires crossed, and a person can experience a few seconds to a couple minutes of waking paralysis, which is often accompanied by hallucinations. Yadav says the hallucinations can involve anything from spiders to ghosts and are usually characterized by a feeling of dread. When someone reports a “haunting” that happened right around bedtime or after waking in the middle of the night—and that they were so scared, they couldn’t move—it’s enough for Yadav to diagnose a case of sleep paralysis.

The Power of Suggestion

Social psychology might have an explanation for reported hauntings that the natural sciences can’t resolve. Refinery29 reports that one study found the power of suggestion to be strong enough to make people believe they witnessed a supernatural event. Participants watched a video of a purported psychic supposedly bending a key with his mind. The people who were exposed to positive social influence—meaning that an actor in the group said they saw the key bend—were more likely to report they saw the key bend, too. Participants who were in a room with naysayers and skeptics were more likely to doubt the validity of the trick, but just one person’s confident assertion that they believed the psychokinesis was enough to make others believe it as well.

About Andrea Michelson

Andrea Michelson is a digital intern with Smithsonian magazine. She is currently a senior at Northwestern University, where she studies journalism and global health.


2. Electromagnetic fields and spooky sounds

Other explanations draw on environmental factors, such as electromagnetic fields and infrasound. Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger demonstrated that the application of varying electromagnetic fields to the temporal lobes of the brain could produce haunting experiences – such as perception of a presence, a feeling of God or sensations of being touched. And it has been noted that areas most associated with hauntings – such as Hampton Court – do possess erratic magnetic fields.

Similarly, infrasound – audio frequency below the range of human hearing – is also thought to be able to explain such phenomena. Several studies have linked infrasound and bizarre sensations.

In one example, contemporary pieces of live music were laced with infrasound and the audience were then asked to describe their reactions to the music. More unusual experiences were reported when infrasound was present – chills down the spine, feeling nervous, waves of fear and uneasy or sorrowful emotions.


How Ghosts Work

­Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire has researched the phenomenon of haunting in Great Britain. He has studied locations considered to be haunted, like the Haunted Gallery at Hampton Court Palace, the Edinburgh Vaults and Mary King's Close. First, he has consulted written records and interviewed employees to determine exactly where in each location people have reported ghostly activity. Then, he has asked visitors to document their experiences and report anything out of the ordinary.

His results have been pretty consistent -- people report more strange experiences in the areas where others have experienced unusual phenomena in the past. In other words, people have more ghostly experiences in the places that seem to be the most haunted. This is true regardless of whether people have any prior knowledge of the area or its ghostly history. However, people who say they believe in ghosts or who already know about supernatural activity in a particular area report strange events more often.

These findings can seem to support the idea that a building can be haunted. But Weisman's projects have also involved looking for the source of the apparently paranormal phenomena. In addition to gathering reports of strange occurrences, he has evaluated physical conditions in each haunted area. He and his research team have used instruments to measure light, humidity, sound and magnetic fields. His measurements suggest that the signs that a building is haunted often have a rational, physical cause. The Ghost Experiment site includes synopses of several of Weisman's experiments.

Other researchers have used similar methods to try to determine the causes of ghostly activity. While no one has conclusively proven that ghosts do not exist, researchers have proposed a number of alternate explanations about physical or psychological causes for strange experiences. Some are simple - people can hallucinate or mistake reflections, shadows and unidentifiable noises for ghosts. Other theories are more complex. We'll look at some examples in the next section.

Sleep states and altered states of consciousness can lead people to believe that they have experienced something supernatural. For example, skeptics have used sleep paralysis or a hypnogogic trance to explain encounters in which people see spirits while in bed and are unable to move or escape. Most people experience a hypnogogic trance once or twice in their lives, although it is far more common in people with epilepsy or certain sleep disorders.


1. Because I told you so.

Attempts to explain hauntings often draw upon psychological factors – such as suggestion – so being told a place is haunted is more likely to lead to ghostly goings-on.

One classic study saw participants visiting five main areas of a theatre before completing a questionnaire to assess their feelings and perceptions. Prior to the tour, one group was told the location was haunted, while the other group was informed that the building was under renovation. Unsurprisingly, participants that were told the place was haunted experienced more intense experiences – similar to those of paranormal happenings.

Verbal suggestion has also been shown to increase paranormal perceptions – as shown in research on seance phenomena, paranormal key bending and psychic reading – especially when the suggestion is consistent with existing paranormal beliefs.

But research in real-world settings has produced inconsistent results. A study in the supposedly haunted Hampton Court found that suggestion had no effect on participants’ expectations of experiencing unusual phenomena, or their tendency to attribute unusual phenomena to ghosts.

So it is fair to say that the effects of suggestion vary depending upon a person’s beliefs. And of course, paranormal believers are prone to endorsing alleged paranormal phenomena – while sceptics will deny the existence of the paranormal.


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By Beth Greenfield

“Ghosts are real” is an extremely common belief – for example, one 45 percent of Americans have, according to a recent YouGov poll.

But what about everyone else? That would be the skeptics, in varying degrees. Yahoo Lifestyle turned to several, with backgrounds in psychology and an interest in the paranormal, to find some reasonable explanations for when people say they see, hear, feel or otherwise experience hauntings.

We’re far from the first to look for answers.

“For over 200 years, many people, even scientists, have sought evidence for ghosts and life after death,” writes Sherry A. Hill, a paranormal researcher and author of Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers, in a recent blog. “There are millions of pages of previous research and experimentation into paranormal ideas. Definite proof has never been found.”

But according to Benjamin Radford, author of Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, logical explanations are abundant. “There are various reasons why people experience ghosts — or, more correctly, experience what they interpreted as ghosts.”


Pupil size surprisingly linked to differences in intelligence

A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.

The Triumph of Death. 1562.

  • Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
  • The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
  • 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.

The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.

But was it the worst year ever?

Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.

Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.

It all began with an eruption.

According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.

The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.

Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."

. that led to famine.

The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.

. and the fall of an empire

In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.

Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.

Was that the worst time in history?

Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.

Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.

Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.


4 possible scientific explanations for ghosts

The first ghost story dates back to Pliny the Younger in the first century A.D., who wrote of an old man with a long beard and rattle haunting his home in Athens. Spooky stuff. But it's odd to think that ghosts, or at least the idea of them, have endured for two millennia. A considerable slice of humanity still believes that the tortured souls of the departed walk among us: A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll showed that a startling 45 percent of all Americans consider ghosts to be real.

Perhaps they're right! Perhaps there's something more to specters than lazy Halloween costumes and Paranormal Activity. There are, however, at least a few perfectly logical explanations behind people's supposed run-ins with poltergeists. Here are a few of them:

1. Sleep paralysisHave you ever woken up in the middle of the night with a frightening inability to move, despite being fully aware of your surroundings? You can't shout for help. You can't wiggle your toes. All you can do is lie there frozen.

Oftentimes people report encountering all sorts of paranormal spookiness in this state — blurry figures, strange whispers, footsteps, etc. This feeling of being crushed by an invisible presence is referred to as a "ghost press" in Chinese culture.

But sleep experts have another, more rational term for it: Sleep paralysis.

Dr. Priyanka Yadav of the Somerset Medical Sleep for Life Center in New Jersey explains that the phenomenon occurs when there's a disconnect between the mind and body as people enter or exit REM sleep. "It seems like you're paralyzed, which naturally occurs when you're sleeping," Yadav explained to NBC News.

"But this somehow happens while you're awake. It can last from a few seconds to a minute or two and is often associated with hypnagogic hallucinations, things you might see when trying to fall asleep or hypnopompic hallucinations, things you see when you're trying to wake up." [NBC News]

It's akin to dreaming while awake, and explains why many ghost sightings are reported between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.

2. Brain glitchesPeople don't see ghosts, per se. More often they report catching something creepy — a Civil War soldier? a woman in a Victorian-era dress? — out of the corner of an eye. These glimpses usually occur when the mind is wandering or focused on something else, like when you're vacuuming.

Basically these images are illusions produced by the brain, according to Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. They can result from a number of factors, such as a brief psychotic state, sleep deprivation, or even temporal lobe epilepsy. (The part of the mind associated with visual memory.) It's your tired, distracted brain trying to fill in a blank. It's trying to make sense of your surroundings using incomplete sensory information.

"It's a trick of the eye," according to Nickell. "Your eyelid will twitch or an insect will fly by and this will trigger a momentary welling up of a mental image. It's like a camera's double exposure for just a brief moment."

3. Carbon monoxideIn 1912, the "H" family moved into a gloomy, large haunted house. Pots and pans crashed seemingly on their own. Strange voices called out the names of Mrs. H and her children. Footsteps clacked through the hallways. Dark figures (one of which was a long-haired woman dressed in black) were spotted in the dining room. Plants withered and died.

"The days went on, and the children grew paler and more listless," she wrote. "Some days, as their colds seemed worse, I kept them in bed. Then again, as there did not seem to be very much the matter with them and they appeared to be growing too fond of staying in bed, I made them get up and go for a walk in the sun."

Only it wasn't the spirits of a grisly past tormenting the Hs it was carbon monoxide poisoning. In a famous yet bizarre paper published by ophthalmologist William Wilmer in the American Journal of Ophthalmology about a decade later, a local physician confirmed that a leaky furnace was sending plumes of the odorless gas up through the chimney. Over the course of several months, oxygen deprivation was triggering listlessness and hallucinations in the H family and their servants. Not quite as creepy as real ghosts, but somehow more terrifying.

4. InfrasoundThe year was 1998. Strange things were happening to Coventry University lecturer Vic Tandy as he worked in his medical lab. Coworkers often complained of chills as if an unearthly presence had brushed past them. The cleaning lady said she saw weird figures at night. Tandy admitted that, working alone one night, a dark apparition appeared in the corner of his eye and suddenly vanished when he turned.

Odder still: A fencing foil he brought into the lab would start vibrating wildly in his hand, moving around on its own. And the foil vibrated most strongly at the center of the lab, but didn't move at all as he approached the room's edges.

Not one to be spooked out, Tandy set out to discover what was behind all the weirdness terrorizing his lab. In a paper published in the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research called "The Ghost in the Machine" [PDF], Tandy discovered a very low frequency standing wave (19Hz), or infrasound (which humans can't hear), in the center of the laboratory being reflected back from the walls.

"In effect," he wrote, "the wave was folded back on itself reinforcing the peak energy in the center of the room." He even calculated its frequency.

The culprit producing the infrasound, as it turned out, was a new ventilation fan that had been installed at the other end of the lab. When the fan was switched off, the standing wave — and all the spookiness accompanying it — went away. For it turned out that infrasound can mess with people's brains and even trigger madness.

Tandy would go on to conduct infrasound tests at other "haunted" destinations, including Edinburgh Castle and a basement near the Coventry Cathedral, and found infrasound there as well.

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