Visit any culture around the world, and you’re bound to hear some sort of myth or legend relating to the paranormal. The jinn of the Middle East, hungry ghosts of East Asia, screaming banshees of Ireland, or the doppelganger of Germany. Does the shared, cross-cultural belief in ghosts mean that they are actually real? Or, does the human psyche work in a way that makes this a universal phenomenon?
Researchers have begun exploring the psychology of paranormal beliefs and anomalous experiences. In fact, the University of London has its Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths devoted to the question. The field of anomalistic psychology focuses on finding psychological explanations for paranormal experiences. They start with the understanding that paranormal is not real but a result of the human psyche.
So what about the way we think creates the experience of ghosts and other unexplainable occurrences? The head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Professor Chris French, told the American Psychological Association that all sorts of cognitive biases can create the ‘illusion’ of ghosts.
For one, sleep paralysis, a state in between sleep and wakefulness in which people often report witnessing the paranormal. According to Professor French, many people experience the paranormal during this time between waking consciousness and dream consciousness. Sometimes people report a sense of another presence in the room. They may hallucinate, hear voices, or witness strange entities like witches or demons moving around. The experience can feel so realistic that the individual believes that they had an encounter with a real ghost.
Anomalistic psychologists explore all sorts of commonalities between paranormal phenomena. Another one: the Ouija board, a board game with letters, words, and numbers said to channel messages from the spirits. It derives from the Victorian Era, a time when Spiritualists held seances in hopes of communicating with the dead. (The beloved writer of the Sherlock Holmes books, Arthur Conan Doyle, was a practicing Spiritualist).
Those who believe in the power of the Ouija board say that the spirits use a small, heart-shaped piece of wood, called a planchette. Supposedly, the spirits move the planchette to different parts of the board to answer questions. Their “spiritual energy” will move the planchette over words like “Yes” or “No”, letters, or numbers to share messages from beyond.
For anomalistic psychologists, however, they chalk up the experience to the participants not realizing that they are actually moving the planchette. It’s a sort of inattentional blindness that the psychologists say happens in other similar types of experiments. The Ouija “players” don’t realize they are moving the planchette, even though they actually are.
Many other tricks of the brain can create the illusion of the paranormal. For example, the human brain has a tendency to see faces in shapes. They may look at a strange shape in a tree and see an angelic figure. They may look at a photograph and see a spooky face in the background.
On a deeper level, believing in the paranormal provides an important way to avoid the harsh truths of life, like coping with death. A ghostly spirit, after all, gives some sort of proof of life after death, which can help someone who lost a loved one.
And while these scientific approaches to the paranormal are all well and good. One fact remains: the phenomenon continues to excite (and fright) people in every corner of the world. Visit any destination, and you’ll surely hear tales of the paranormal.
And who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Ghosts have become so popular that endless numbers of books, movies, and TV shows cover the topic. Children still enjoy a spooky tale around the campfire. Millions of people celebrate Halloween each year, an ancient tradition said to mark the time when the veil between the living and dead becomes the thinnest.
So do ghosts really exist? You may just have to visit a haunted destination for yourself to find out. Would you brave an evening stroll through one of the most haunted places in the United States. If you spot a scary specter, is it a trick of the brain or a ghostly soldier who lost his way after the battle? Perhaps seeing is truly believing, and there’s only one way to find out.
Robert Haynes did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.