Tuesday, March 4, 2008


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The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

H.P. Lovecraft

A belief in ghosts is as ancient as the campfire and the burial ground. Man’s fascination with death and the unknown fortunes beyond is matched only by his continuing quest to dispel the darkness with the clarifying light of knowledge.

Science plays the counterpoint to culture’s mythic, primitive instinct, which lingers still with the fear that things unseen yet go bump in the night.

But the old ways die slowly. Our scientific age refutes talk of spirits from beyond the grave, while polls suggest one in three Americans still cling to a belief that the dead sometimes return to haunt the living.

Now, a team from University College London has published findings which hope to demystify the legends. Ghosts, they claim, despite fervent eyewitness testimony, exist only in the observer’s head.

Publishing in the journal PLoS Computational Biology, Professor Li Zhaoping suggests that context is key in determining what we think we see. Our eyes deceive us, adding fanciful detail when conditions such as dim lighting provide insufficient material information.

It’s why indecisive brush strokes present as lucid details, says Zhaoping, referring to our innate ability to intuit minutiae from an Impressionist painting, noticing forms that the artist never put to canvas.

“The paintings are vague,” Zhaoping says. “But I speculate that perhaps because of the vagueness, viewers are free to use their vivid imaginations to fill in the details.”

It’s also why we perceive faces in marble tile, ships in clouds, even Jesus in potato chips.

“Everything we see is an hallucination generated by the virtual reality machine inside our head,” says Professor Mike Morgan of the City University London.

And when the right conditions present, the hallucination fools our senses into seeing phantoms.

The deliberate imprecision of Renoir’s brush strokes fuel our imaginations, much like the dimly-lit corridors of suspected haunted houses. The darkened context, married to a pre-existing openness to the supernatural, allow ghosts to rattle their chains. Few specters are spied in daylight. This, claims Zhaoping, is not coincidental.

Zhaoping and her colleagues asked 18 observers to concentrate on the center of a black computer screen. Every few seconds the observers were required to judge whether or not a small, dim, gray rectangle briefly flashed on the monitor. Test results suggested people have no trouble identifying the object’s presence when viewed against a bright, white background. But against a darker, poorly-illuminated background, observers often reported seeing the target when, in reality, it did not exist.

The experiment emphasizes what most in the scientific community have long believed: ghosts are nothing but the product of overactive imaginations.


But Zhaoping’s work falls short of proof, and ignores a significant percentage of ghostly encounters. The spirit world cannot be reduced to mere glimpsed sightings. There’s far more substance to ghosts.

Take, for example, events last month at a boarding school in Malaysia. The school was shut down for several days after hundreds of students saw apparitions flying around their classrooms in broad daylight. Hysteria ensured in dormitories and the assembly hall. Events repeated the next day, and many children were sent home with parents, while staff and Department of Education employees attempted to regain order.

Mass sightings such as this cannot be explained by Zhaoping’s team. The context for sensory deception did not exist as the events played out during daylight hours. Group hysteria can be induced by narcotics or environmental stimuli, but such paranormal activity, witnessed by so many, and over an extended timeframe, ought to send science back to the lab.

Ghostly encounters contain many more elements than poor lighting and momentary glimpses of uncertain shapes. The history of haunting makes for fascinating reading, and even a brief snapshot shows that any scientific theory needs to account for sustained visual and auditory phenomena. Many sightings even include olfactory clues and a measurable temperature change.

One of the earliest encounters is recollected by Pliny the Younger (circa 50 AD). He tells of the philosopher Athenodorus, who rented a property in Athens, only to be bothered by a restless spirit, complete with jangling chains. The revenant would appear before Athenodorus and beckon him follow to the courtyard. There, the philosopher dug and discovered the bones (and chains) of a man buried without proper funereal rites. After rectifying this injustice, the philosopher was never again bothered by his undead visitor.

In the First Book of Samuel, King Saul has the Witch of Endor summon the spirit of Samuel, while Jesus Himself is mistaken for a ghost by the disciples following the resurrection.

The city-states of Mesopotamia believed that to neglect the dead meant inviting the undead to practice evil upon the living. The later Greek states included many accounts of ghosts, some evil, others impartial to their breathing neighbors. One legend has Euthymus boxing a ghost at Temesa, rescuing a local girl as a result of his victory.

Most themes prevalent in ancient ghost stories are still present today. The account of Athenodorus could easily be modernized to any New England setting at the start of the 21st century.

Specters such as Resurrection Mary still prowl the streets of Chicago, since an initial encounter in 1934. Like many encounters, Mary is no mere fleeting image at the periphery of vision. Indeed, Mary is only recognized for the ghost she is after dematerializing. She often vanishes through the cemetery gates on Archer Road, in Justice, after a prolonged presence among the living, sometimes dancing in clubs, sometimes eliciting a ride ‘home’.

Stories of ghostly hitchhikers are popular urban legends, yet their roots lie in well-documented events, events which still occur today with alarming regularity.


What, then, are we to make of these ghostly goings-on?

Some, no doubt, are the remnants of dreams. The bedroom visitor is among the more popular spirits, and observers on the cusp of wakefulness are prone to fall foul of Zhaoping’s contextual hallucinations.

Electromagnetic energy in the immediate vicinity of observers can change melatonin levels within the brain, resulting in distorted perceptions. A thunderstorm produces significant electromagnetic build-up, and none may deny its association with ghost stories.

Cultural stimuli play their part, too. Some people are prone to experience paranormal phenomena more than others, and perhaps this prevalence is due to a deep-seated desire to encounter the unexplained, which in turn leads to the misconception of events.

The theories are as numerous as the spooky graveyards that dot our haunted heartland, but no one satisfies as an explanation. Beyond the work of GNM Tyrrell in 1953, little academic research into the phenomenon of ghosts has been carried out.

Perhaps an investigation into this otherworldly topic is too creepy for most scientists (and their careers). The chains of establishment may prove stronger than those binding the spirits to their spooky domains.

Regardless, the mystery of ghosts and ghouls is sure to haunt us to the grave… and perhaps beyond.

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