Do You Believe in Ghosts?

Science itself can be spooky enough, yet millions of people
believe in ghosts: a 2005 Gallup poll found that over a third of Americans reckon houses
can be haunted, while some 32 per cent believed specifically in ghosts. More
recently, a 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll indicated that 45 per cent thought
ghosts exist.

According to some, a ghost is the spirit of a dead person that
either has not moved on to the ‘afterlife’ or has returned from it. The
definition of ‘spirit’ can also vary: some describe it as a person’s soul,
while others believe it is an energetic imprint that a person leaves on the

Although many people genuinely believe they have experienced a
ghostly encounter, scientists argue that there is usually a more prosaic
explanation. So what’s really going on?

Do you believe in ghosts

all in the mind

Certain sleep states and altered states of
consciousness can lead people to believe that they have experienced something paranormal.
For example, hypnogogic hallucinations
may explain reports where people see spirits while in bed. Most people
experience a hypnogogic trance once or twice in their lives, although it’s far
more common in people with epilepsy or certain sleep disorders.

C18_03_Classic-Brain-5-partIndeed, experiments
amongst epileptics in which scientists stimulated the left temporoparietal
junction – the part of the brain that defines the idea of self – prevented
subjects from differentiating between themselves and ‘others’, and created a
copycat shadow person in the subjects. Researchers speculate that this may be
the reason why some people encounter ‘shadow beings’ and ‘aliens’ or have
out-of-body experiences. Equally, electrical stimulation of the angular gyrus can cause the sensation of someone behind you
mimicking your movements.

research has found that when we gaze around in a poorly lit environment, our
brains may see things that are not really there. “Everything we see is an
hallucination generated by the virtual reality machine inside our head,” argues
Prof Mike Morgan of The City University, London. “Normally these hallucinations
are vetoed by the information coming through our senses, so we can call
perception ‘controlled hallucination’.” However, if the input is ambiguous our
brains can ‘fill in the blanks’ and fool us into ‘seeing’ things that are not
really there.

Researchers have also found that people report more strange
experiences in areas where others have ‘experienced’ unusual phenomena in the

power of suggestion

boards have been popular with those trying to interact with spirits for a
couple of centuries. Similarly, table tilting is a phenomenon that was often
encountered during séances. People
gathered around a table for a séance found to their consternation that
sometimes it would start to ‘move by itself’. Although confidence tricksters
were involved on occasions, scientists have also detected another phenomenon at

Experiments by the renowned physicist Michael Faraday indicated that the tables
often moved because of the so-called ‘ideomotor effect’: under certain
circumstances the power of suggestion causes our muscles to work unconsciously;
thus, when people expected a table to move, they unknowingly moved it.

Spooky science

often refer to ‘vibrations’. It turns out that vibrations may indeed be
involved in some paranormal activity – but not in the way spiritualists

can hear sounds up to 20,000 Hertz, but we’re unable to detect
anything lower than 20 Hz. We can’t hear sounds beyond these frequencies
but we can detect them in other ways. For instance, we can feel them resonating
in our stomachs, and this can influence our mood significantly. Infrasound can
also cause resonance effects in our eyeballs, which may spark hallucinations. Infrasound
can be produced by wind and weather patterns or everyday phenomena like traffic
movement or household appliances such as electric fans.


represents a state of ‘altered consciousness’ where people say things and think
things they’re not aware of. When a psychic clears her mind, a spirit guide is
supposed to enter her body and communicate with her. However, scientists argue
that, when the random ideas and images start popping into her head, they stem
from her mind rather than another entity.


hunters often consider a cold spot in a house to be an indicator of paranormal
activity. Scientists argue there’s usually a more down-to-earth explanation,
such as cold drafts entering through a chimney or window, or convection
currents. Turning up the heating is one way of exorcising this type of ghost!


with UFOs, ghosts recorded on camera tend to have a rational explanation. For
instance, ‘orbs’ may be caused by a speck of dust that show up as a blurry circle
in a photo, and can be enhanced through interaction with flash and other
lighting. Photographers have long been aware of lens and diffraction effects. Other
photos, of course, turn out to be out-and-out fakes.

Carbon MonoxideCarbon

As an
odourless, colourless gas, carbon monoxide is hard to detect. When taken up by
our red blood cells (erythrocytes) it prevents them from absorbing oxygen. The
resulting victims of oxygen deprivation often experience symptoms ranging from
weakness and nausea to confusion and, eventually, death. They may also
experience hallucinations: there are numerous incidents of people reporting
strange happenings, which when investigated, have turned out to be carbon
monoxide-induced hallucinations, caused by a faulty furnace or water heater.


psychological phenomenon known as mass hysteria has been responsible for some reported
instances of hauntings. Collective delusions sometimes occur amongst people in stressed
school or workplace environments. The pent-up stress may manifest itself in
physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, or violent spasms. If strong
religious or cultural beliefs are involved, along with a relatively isolated
environment, rumours can spread rapidly along with the physical symptoms.


favourite bit of kit for a ghost hunter is something called an ion counter: it
measures the level of charged particles in the atmosphere. A high concentration
of ions is often seen as an indicator of something unusual by enthusiasts of
the paranormal. However, ion counters pick up all kinds of natural
phenomena like weather, effects caused by the solar wind, and naturally
occurring radiation, for instance from radon gas. Interestingly, concentrations
of both positive and negative ions can affect our moods, but in different ways:
negative ions can make us feel calm and relaxed while positive ions may give us
a headache and make us feel poorly.

‘strange’ magnetic fields – another ghost-hunter staple – may be attributed to localised phenomena that
stem from electronic equipment or geological formations. Some research indicates
that such fields can interact with the brain to cause hallucinations, dizziness and other neurological symptoms.
One theory suggests this explains why people report more ghostly activity at
night: the solar wind causes Earth’s magnetic field to extend on the side that’s
in darkness; it’s this expanded field that interacts more strongly with our

Quantum ProcessingQuantum

already discussed ‘spooky action at a distance’ in another blog, but quantum
effects have been postulated by some scientists as forming the basis of
people’s concept of a soul. Dr Stuart Hameroff and physicist Roger Penrose hypothesised in 1996 that
human consciousness stems from the presence of microtubules inside our brain
cells that are responsible for quantum processing. The pair believe that, when
people have a near-death experience, all the quantum information leaves the
brain, yet continues to exist and can be subsequently recalled, which is why
some people report out-of-body experiences and ‘light at the end of a tunnel’.
Many scientists are sceptical of this idea but Dr Henry Stapp, a colleague
of Heisenberg’s, suggested that a person’s personality might be able to
transcend death to exist as a ‘mental entity’.

What are your thoughts about Ghosts & Paranormal Activity?

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