According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses, and according to a 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll, 45 percent believe in ghosts. These are surprising numbers, but the next time you hear a spooky sound, don’t call the Ghostbusters—get a scientist instead. Behind every shadow, poltergeist, and disembodied voice, there’s a perfectly rational explanation.
10 • Electric Stimulation Of The Brain
Frightened witnesses all over the world have seen the shadow people. These dark beings are glimpsed out of the corner of the eye only to vanish when confronted. Many believe them to be demons, some think they’re astral bodies, and some say they’re time travelers, here for a second and gone. However, some researchers have a more shocking theory.
When Swiss scientists electrically stimulated an epileptic patient’s brain, things got really spooky. The patient reported a shadow person sitting behind her, copying her every move. When she sat up, it also sat up. When she bent forward and grabbed her knees, it reached around her body and held her. The doctors then told her to read a card, but the shadow person tried to take it out of her hand.
What happened was the scientists had stimulated the left temporoparietal junction, the part of the brain that defines the idea of self. By interfering with the area that helps us tell the difference between ourselves and others, the doctors screwed up the brain’s ability to understand its own body, thus leading to the creation of a copycat shadow person. Researchers are hoping this is the key to understanding why so many people, both schizophrenic and healthy, encounter shadow beings and other creatures like aliens.
9 • Ideomotor Effect
The Spiritualist movement was pretty big in the 1840s and 1850s. It provided a way for people to talk to their dead loved ones. One method of communication was the Ouija board. Still popular today, the board was covered in letters, numbers, and simple words (like “yes” or “no”). People would then place their hands on a wooden piece called a planchette and ask the spirits a question. A ghost would respond by moving the planchette from letter to letter, spelling out a response (or unleashing Captain Howdy).
Another creepy method for interacting with spirits was table tilting. During a séance, people would gather round a table and place their hands on the tabletop. To everyone’s surprise, the table would start moving by itself. It might tilt up on one leg, levitate off the ground or scoot around the room.
Con men were definitely involved in some of these incidents, but were all these encounters frauds? Renowned physicist Michael Faraday wanted to find out. Through clever experimentation, Faraday discovered that the tables were often moving thanks to the ideomotor effect. This is when the power of suggestion causes our muscles to move unconsciously. People expected a table to move so they unintentionally moved it. A similar event took place in 1853 when four doctors held an experimental séance. When they secretly told half the participants the table would move to the right and half it would move left, the table didn’t budge. But when they told everyone it would move in one direction, the ideomotor effect struck again! This same principle applies to the Ouija board. It’s our own muscles that are doing the spelling, not the spirits.
8 • Infrasound
After seeing a gray ghost near his desk, researcher Vic Tandy was worried his laboratory might be haunted. But the next day, Tandy made an interesting discovery. While preparing for a fencing match, Tandy placed his sword in a vise. He then noticed the blade was vibrating on its own. All of a sudden, everything clicked. He realized the force causing his sword to shake was the same force haunting his lab. Vic Tandy was dealing with infrasound.
Humans can hear sounds up to 20,000 Hertz, but we’re unable to detect anything lower than 20 Hz. These “silent” noises are called infrasound, and while we can’t hear them, we can feel them in the form of vibrations. Dr. Richard Wiseman says we can feel these waves, especially in our stomachs, and this can create either a positive feeling (such as awe) or a negative feeling (such as unease). In the right surroundings (see “creepy house”), this might create a sense of panic.
Infrasound can be produced by storms, wind, weather patterns, and even everyday appliances. Returning to Vic Tandy, after witnessing his wobbling sword, he learned that a new fan had been installed in his laboratory, and sure enough, it was issuing vibrations of about 19 Hz. Since our eyeballs have a resonant frequency around 20 Hz, the infrasound was vibrating Tandy’s eyeballs and creating images that weren’t really there. When Tandy turned off the fan, presto: no more ghost.
Similarly, Dr. Wiseman believes these vibrations are responsible for paranormal activity in “haunted” locations. For example, when investigating two underground sites, he discovered evidence of infrasound coming from the traffic overhead. Wiseman thinks this explains the ghostly figures and creepy footsteps in these areas, proving there’s nothing good about these vibrations.
7 • Automatism
What do witch doctors and Shirley MacLaine have in common? They’re all big into channeling! Channeling is one of mankind’s oldest attempts to reach the spirit world. The idea is to clear the mind, connect with some sort of cosmic consciousness and let a centuries-old spirit possess your body, which doesn’t sound creepy at all. The shamans of ancient religions were believed to channel the dead, TV psychic John Edward says he can speak to those who’ve crossed over, and medium J.Z. Knight claims she channels a spirit named Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old spirit from Atlantis. Obviously, there are quite a few frauds in the channeling community, but what about the people who sincerely believe in what they’re doing?
The answer is automatism, an “altered state of consciousness” where people say things and think things they’re not aware of. So when a psychic clears his mind, he starts searching for a friendly spirit guide. The spirit guide is supposed to enter his body and then provide secret knowledge about the universe. When the psychic clears his mind, random ideas and images start popping up in his head, and the medium assumes these thoughts are coming from another entity. However, these ideas are just coming from his mind. Our brains are capable of coming up with all kinds of crazy stuff without any conscious effort on our part. How many times has something inspired you out of the blue? How many times have you had totally bizarre nightmares or daydreams? That’s not the work of an otherworldly guide. That’s your brain, working overtime all the time.
6 • Drafts
You’re exploring a creepy, run-down mansion in the middle of the night when suddenly the air grows cold. However, if you take a few steps to the left or right, the temperature returns to normal. This is what parapsychologists call a cold spot. According to ghost hunters, a cold spot is a sign of paranormal activity. When a ghost has nothing better to do than appear out of thin air and scare people to death, it needs energy. So the ghost draws heat from its surroundings (including people) in order to manifest.
However, scientists have a much simpler (and much more boring) explanation. When skeptics investigate “haunted” houses, they usually find cool air entering the house through a chimney or window. But even if the room is sealed off, there’s still a perfectly rational explanation. Every object has its own temperature, and some surfaces are hotter than others. In an attempt to equalize the room temperature, the objects try to lose heat in a process called convection. This is where hot air rises, and cool air drops. Similarly, when dry air enters a humid room, the dry air sinks to the floor and the humid air rises to the ceiling. This swirling air will feel cool against a person’s skin, giving the impression of a cold spot. Next time you feel a ghostly presence, turn on the heater.
- 10 Scientific Explanations For Ghostly Phenomena (listverse.com)
- 10 Famous Seances (listverse.com)
- Glass Ouija Board (gnostalgia.wordpress.com)
- Ghostly Pics: San Antonio Railroad Ghosts (newsfromthespiritworld.com)
- Ally’s Take On A Ouija Board (ouijatales.wordpress.com)
- DIY Ouija Board Coffee Table (dangerousminds.net)
- It’s That Time of Year… (blogmecolorful.wordpress.com)