Can Science Explain Why People See Ghosts?
Do ghosts really exist? It’s a question that’s been debated for centuries. All of the scientific evidence seems to lead to a negative conclusion, and yet about 30% of people still maintain that they believe in ghosts and the paranormal. Why does everyone seem to know someone who’s had a ghostly encounter with a dead relative or historical figure? Why is the internet flooded with first person accounts and even video footage of ghosts visiting from beyond the grave to send messages to the living? Can science explain this ghost-mania? Is there a logical reason behind why people see, or claim to see, ghosts? This article explores four scientific theories that endeavour to explain why humans have reported sightings of ghosts since the beginning of recorded history and to prove, in a certain way, that perhaps ghosts do exist after all.
1. The Power of Suggestion
The question behind why people see ghosts is so widespread and prominent that an entire psychological model has been developed around it. The Houran and Lange model of the haunting phenomenon (catchy name, right?) postulates that the mere power of suggestion can cause people to see ghosts. That is, if a person believes that a certain place is haunted or that past ghost sightings have happened at a specific location they’re far more likely to report experiencing a paranormal encounter of their own.
In a study performed in 1997, 22 participants were led around an old, derelict theatre. Eleven of the participants were told that the theatre was simply under renovation, while the other half were warned that the theatre was haunted. After the experience, the group that were told the theatre was haunted reported experiencing a much higher frequency of ghost sightings and other paranormal experiences than the control group. While the sample size for this study is small, the findings are certainly compelling and can explain a lot of modern day 'ghost' sightings.
I took the liberty of trawling through some paranormal experience forums on the internet and found that the majority of the stories about ghost sightings had a distinct pattern; the unfortunate person was staying in a hotel overnight, and before they’d even had the chance to go up to their room the receptionist had told them to stay alert because they’d had guests report ghost sightings in the past. 'Hotel room' is regularly switched out for 'park' or 'graveyard' or 'church,' but the common dominator is that the ghost-sighter entered the situation expecting to see a ghost. The power of the human mind is immense; it’s entirely possible that the brain could invent a complex and vivid ghostly scenario based solely on expectation.
2. It's All in Your Head
There’s evidence to suggest that people who strongly believe in or claim to have seen ghosts physically use their brains in different ways to people who don’t believe in the paranormal. A study conducted by D. Pizzagalli in 2000 found that "strong believers" in paranormal phenomena showed an "over-reliance on the right hemisphere." In other words, electrical activity in the right sides of their brain was stronger than in those who didn’t believe in ghosts. The science of which brain regions correlate to which functions is still developing, but this study certainly seems to indicate that there’s a link between the right hemisphere of the brain and having a tendency to see, or at least to strongly believe in, ghosts. Perhaps the reason that some people claim to have had a paranormal experience is simply because the way their brain works predisposes them to such beliefs.
Have you ever seen a ghost?
3. Alone and Scared
People very rarely report ghost sightings when they’re surrounded by other people. I don’t think there’s ever been an account of a ghost appearing in the middle of a crowded stadium or a train at peak hour to scare the living daylights out of hundreds of people at once. Instead, people who experience paranormal phenomena tend to do so when they’re alone and in a strange and unfamiliar place. It may be possible, then, that conjuring up a ghostly or spiritual presence in our minds is actually an adaptive mechanism to banish loneliness and fear. We wish so hard that someone was there to help us cope with the scary or unfamiliar situation that we actually start to feel that there’s a guiding hand on our shoulder or the spirit of a deceased loved one helping us to cope.
4. Electromagnetic Fields
Another explanation for why people experience ghostly phenomena involves magnetic fields and something called infrasound- sound waves with a lower frequency than what human ears can reliably pick up. This phenomenon has been studied widely by Neuroscientist Dr. Persinger and a team from Laurentian University, who designed and built an apparatus, aptly named the "God Helmet," which sends magnetic signals to stimulate certain parts of the user’s brain. When put on, the helmet caused many to report seeing apparitions, ghosts, or even visions of Christ. Indeed, some of the most famous 'haunted' places and buildings, such as the South Bridge Vaults and Hampton Court Palace, have been found to have strong and irregular magnetic fields.
After analysing the evidence, the only logical and scientific conclusion to come to is that no, ghosts don’t really exist. Your grandmother and your pet cat are dead and they’re staying that way forever. However, this doesn’t mean that every person you’ve encountered who has claimed to have experienced a paranormal phenomenon is stupid or a liar. If you yourself have seen a ghost it doesn’t mean that you’re crazy. There are very real scientific explanations behind why people believe that they’ve seen a ghost. In a way, then, perhaps it can be said that ghosts actually do exist, if only in the minds of the people who see them.
Sources and Further Reading:
- The Houran and Lange model of Haunting Phenomenon: Lange, R. and Houran, J. (1997). Context-Induced Paranormal Experiences: Support for Houran and Lange's Model of Haunting Phenomena. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 84(3_suppl), pp.1455-1458.
- Why 'right-brained’ people see ghosts: Pizzagalli, D., Lehmann, D., Gianotti, L., Koenig, T., Tanaka, H., Wackermann, J. and Brugger, P. (2000). Brain electric correlates of strong belief in paranormal phenomena: intracerebral EEG source and regional Omega complexity analyses. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 100(3), pp.139-154.
- Alone + scared= ghosts (and further theories): https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/out-the-ooze/201507/why-some-people-see-ghosts-and-other-presences
- The 'God Helmet': http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/God_Helmet/god_helmet.htm
- Ghostly magnetism at Hampton Court and the South Bridge Vaults: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3046179.stm
Which theory do you find the most compelling?
Questions & Answers
© 2018 K S Lane