Have you ever seen a ghost? It may not have been a ghost at all, you know. There may be medical reasons behind ghostly sightings. Diane Mapes writes: “Spooky footsteps, faint figures, the feeling of being watched—these unsettling signs of a ghost are as familiar to us as the goose bumps on the back of our arm But are there physiological explanations for those things that go bump in the night?”

For an answer she quotes Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, an organisation that promotes scientific inquiry and critical investigation of paranormal and other extraordinary claims. Nickell, who’s researched psychic and other unusual phenomenon for several decades says, “I’ve investigated haunted houses, inns, theatres, graveyards, lighthouses, castles, old jails, and even office buildings, and I’ve never found a paranormal explanation.” Instead, he avers that “ghosts” are often the result of pranks, environmental phenomenon, or physiological conditions such as sleep paralysis and the hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations that accompany it.

Curiously, belief in the supernatural seems to strengthen as one grows older.  According to a study carried out some years ago by the University of Texas people are actually more likely to see the  supernatural at work as they get older. Researchers reviewed data from more than 30 studies exploring how people relate to the supernatural, and also conducted their own study of adults in South Africa. They that age does not have a dimming effect on supernatural beliefs. Ian Chant comments that the team’s findings seem to hold true across cultures and religious beliefs, demonstrating what researchers call “co-existence thinking,” a merging of scientific and supernatural thinking that offers comforting explanations for life’s big questions.

Leave studies on one side. What about ghost photographs? Don’t they count as proof? Howard Timberlake, writing for the BBC has pointed out that as camera tech has evolved, so too has the photography of puzzling “spirits” and they now appear even in smartphone shots. Often, it has actually turned out to be an oddity from an iPhone’s imaging capture. Ever since the camera was invented, writes Timberlake, spooks have appeared in photos or been deliberately conjured. But “despite our knowledge of computer-generated trickery in photos, it seems some are still willing to believe that spirits can be captured on camera…Like the ghostly apparitions themselves, our thirst to see life beyond this mortal coil may itself be immortal…”

Nickell too lists other reasons for ghostly sightings: a psychotic state, drug use, sleep deprivation or temporal lobe epilepsy, carbon monoxide poisoning that induces hallucinations, an illusion, low-frequency sound waves  or infrasound, fluctuations in the electromagnetic field, a range of  neurological symptoms, inconsistent lighting and temperature which can “spook” human beings, and of course, a common explanation for ghostly experiences: “suggestibility.” “It’s a body thing, not a disembodied thing,” he says.

How does that square up with the findings of psychical research? Established in 1862, the Ghost Club, for instance, is the world’s oldest organisation associated with psychical research and has had luminaries like Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle , Arthur Koestler amongst its members. In 2009 it carried out a comprehensive, four group ghost investigation at the Glasgow Royal  Concert Hall or GRCH in Scotland. Fully equipped with thermal imagers, temperature recorders, a dowsing pendulum and dowsing rods used for question-answer sessions with spirits, video cameras, nightshot cameras, digital sound recorders, the groups set up EVP experiments in different areas of the GRCH.  Electronic voice phenomena or EVP are “sounds found on electronic recordings that are interpreted as spirit voices that have been either unintentionally recorded or intentionally requested and recorded”.

The GRCH has long been believed to be haunted. The Ghost Club was told that “staff have experienced a number of strange occurrences… feelings that someone else is standing beside or behind them when no one is clearly visible. Shadows moving around the building. A lot of Auditory Phenomena has been reported. There are at least four suspected ghosts in the building.”

The investigators found several interesting paranormal connections which they recorded in their detailed notes extending over eight night time Vigils. A number of photographs taken revealed orbs. A group reported strange breezes. Other groups heard strange sounds, a door closing, someone whistling, footsteps, shuffling noises, human sised shadowy figures, an extended humming sound—“hmmmmmmmmmm”,  a heavy feeling in the atmosphere that made them feel dizzy, a heavy object being moved, feelings of disorientation, hairs on an investigator’s left arm being tugged, a male presence who offered all the group a drink !!!!!!, a luminous image, singing, distant chatter, a cough, a cat meowing, a white mist, spirit communications were received from several spirits.

The summary in the Ghost Club’s official report highlighted that all four groups “do appear to have had repeated sightings of a black human shaped shadow…  The Kitchen seems to have produced similar occurrences for most of the groups. Bangs/bell ringing, sighing and general sound of movement.

“One other point of interest was during Vigil one. During this time Chris had become aware of a child who appeared to make herself known to him. There was not a communication as such and at one point the child appeared to have vanished, but later on, in the same vigil the child appeared to Chris again. In the vanishing period, it would appear from Group Two’s notes, who incidentally were in the Island Bar, that a child’s presence was perceived as a possible sighting by Marco Piva at the foot of the stairs just along from the Group One’s location at the Cafe Bar.

“The GRCH could be prone to bursts of sporadic activity, if this is the case, I would suggest”, concludes Derek Green, Ghost Club Area Investigation Co-ordinator for Scotland, “that it may be attributable to the stone tape theory. That is, a simple playing back of time. I do not feel that the GRCH is haunted as such, but could be the home of spirits in visitation for periods of time.” Whether you’re a believer or a disbeliever, educated or uneducated, young or old, you can’t escape from ghosts. As researcher Cristine Legare said, “Supernatural reasoning is not necessarily replaced with scientific explanations following gains in knowledge, education or technology.”

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