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Did you know that as many as 52% of Americans in 2017 said they believe in ghosts, and a further 18% believed they had had contact with a ghost? This goes beyond being spooked out when your dog keeps barking at an apparently empty area in the house – these are people who genuinely believe they have spoken with or otherwise encountered a supernatural being.
To the scientific mind this is incredulous. Surely there must be reasons out there for ‘ghost’ feelings – the tingling on the back of your neck, or sudden feeling of uneasiness, that you’re ‘not alone’. Let’s look at some possible explanations for paranormal feelings.
1 – Electromagnetic fields
For quite a long time now, a Canadian neuroscientist called Michael Persinger has been studying the effects of electromagnetic fields on people’s perceptions of ghosts. He hypothesizes that magnet fields that are imperceptible on a conscious level can make people feel there is a ‘presence’ in the room by causing weird activity in their brain’s temporal lobes. Persinger studied this with several experiments and found certain patterns of magnetic fields made subjects feel there was some kind of presence with them in the room.
2 – Low frequency sounds
You may have heard that the human ear can only pick up on certain frequencies, and as you get older, you can actually hear less ranges of frequencies. Well, low frequency sounds below 20 hertz are too low for any human to hear, but still produce an effect – in a 2003 study, subjects reported that sounds of 17 hertz produced feelings of unease, sorrow, or revulsion and fear.
These sounds can be found in many natural events like the weather, animals, and from human made machines like engines and wind turbines. Scientists studying the effects of these machines and other variables like traffic noise which produce low-frequency, infrasound, reported the sounds causing disorientation, feelings of panic, changes in heart rate and blood pressure – in short, what might happen if you are being visited by a ‘ghost’!
3 – Mould
This is one of my favourite scientific explanations for ghosts – mould growth. There are scientists out there who believe that all paranormal activity occurs in places with a lot of toxic mould, some of which can cause humans to hallucinate, become irrationally afraid and experience symptoms of delirium. The evidence is mostly anecdotal so far, but that people throughout history have actually just been high from toxic mould rather than seeing ghosts.
4 – Carbon Monoxide
Similarly, to mould, a carbon monoxide leak can poison the air, causing people who inhale it to have auditory and visual hallucinations.
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There is a famous story about a family from the 1920s, the ‘H Family’, in the American Journal of Ophthalmology. The family lived in a reportedly haunted residence, and heard furniture move and strange voices in the night, and also felt the presence of invisible spectres, and even reported ghosts held them down in bed at night. It turned out to be a faulty furnace filling their home with carbon monoxide, which explained the heavy feelings on their chests and the hallucinations.
5 – The Power of Suggestion
In one study, at Goldsmiths University in London, participants watched a video of a physic bending a metal key. Participants were paired with other ‘participants’ who were actually working with the researchers – these fake participants pretended they could see the key bending, and the real participants usually reported they had too. In essence, we are more likely to believe in things when people around us are believing in them too. In ghostly terms, this means that a belief in ghosts can be catching – we are deeply influenced by others around us, and how they interpret the reality we are sharing.
6 – We Want to Believe
Last, but certainly not least, some of us may simply want to believe in ghosts. It’s a pervasive desire to see that there is something after death, combined with a healthy fear of supernatural powers greater than our own, and a genuine enjoyment in being spooked. Our brains even release dopamine – the pleasure chemical – when we are afraid. For others, the existence of ghosts proves there is an afterlife – so it could be said that we find evidence for things we want to believe.
Ultimately, however, each experience is unique. And so while these explanations may help in some situations, they may not work for others. Sometimes, it seems that things simply are just mysterious and there is little that can be done to explain them.
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