Busting Ghosts



Ghosts are everywhere, at least according to some. All over the world since time immemorial, ghosts and the paranormal have figured heavily into human culture. Even within today's Western society, which likes to consider itself very rational and scientific, a huge chunk of the population believes in ghosts--45% in the United States, according to this article. I personally have numerous friends and family members who not only believe, but claim to have experienced ghosts firsthand, and judging by the statistics, a lot of the class could probably say the same, even if they don't believe in ghosts themselves. Since Andrew touched on the subject of ghosts in his "What Is Science?" lecture earlier this week, I decided to go into further depth on some of the ways in which science finds the reality behind all the supposed spookiness.

I will say up front that I am an all-around skeptic. From gods to magic to possession, I don't buy into the supernatural. Andrew's brief discourse on the nature of the 'unexplained' in science is, I think, concisely summed up by Irish comedian Dara O'Briain: "Just because science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you." Scientifically speaking, at least at our present level of knowledge, ghosts fall into the fairy tale category, which (without trying to sound like a condescending jerk) is why I roll my eyes so hard whenever I see frantic bolded and capslocked pleas from very sincere, very credulous people on the Internet warning everyone never, under any circumstances, to play with Ouija boards. Unfinished business or not, there's simply no scientific evidence that the spectral dead come back to walk among, communicate with, hide in the pantries of, and generally scare the shit out of the living. Perhaps more to the point, there's no scientific evidence that they could, even if they wanted to.

Even so, a great number of perfectly intelligent, perfectly sane individuals report firsthand experience with ghosts, apparitions, or crushing feelings of dread upon entering a purportedly haunted location. One rational explanation, studied by filmmaker Carla MacKinnon, for some such encounters is sleep paralysis, a sleep disorder known to cause vivid, often terrifying hallucinations. But what about incidents that occur when the subject is wide awake? Some scientists believe they may have found an answer, and surprisingly, it has to do with sound.

According to researchers, infrasound may be the culprit behind ghost sightings. Infrasound is sound that travels at frequency lower than 20 Hertz, and can be produced by everything from big cats to vibrating pipes. It also produces some curious effects on the human body. Although it is below the range of human hearing, infrasound is known to cause anxiety, chills, nausea, and feelings of sorrow--all common symptoms associated with supposedly haunted areas. Infrasound waves are also thought to cause parts of the eyeball to vibrate, affecting vision and resulting in sightings of 'apparitions' that aren't really there.

The most famous research on infrasound in relation to hauntings was done by Coventry University scientist Vic Tandy. In 1998, the laboratory Tandy worked in had a creepy reputation--employees reported chills, apparitions, sensations of being watched, and feeling generally spooked. Working alone in the lab one night, Tandy himself felt he was being watched and saw a shadowy figure that vanished when he tried to look straight at it. Instead of quitting (as a coworker had done) or loading up on salt, Tandy ran an experiment using a fencing foil and discovered the strong infrasonic vibrations running through the lab. When the fan that was found to be causing them was turned off, all the ghostly phenomena promptly stopped. Tandy wrote two reports detailing his experiments with infrasound and ghosts: the first one, Ghost in the Machine, chronicled the experiment in the laboratory, and the other, Something in the Cellar, covered his study of a 'haunted' cathedral cellar.

Another famous infrasound study was conducted in 2003 by Dr. Richard Lord, an acoustic scientist at England's National Physical Laboratory, and Professor Robert Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. At a concert, the scientists mixed infrasound into some of the songs and blasted the music into an oblivious audience of 750 people. Afterward, responses of revulsion, anxiety, extreme sorrow, and chills during the infrasound pieces were reported from 22% of the audience.

So, if you ever find yourself seeing vanishing figures out of the corner of your eye or feeling inexplicably terrified upon entering the basement, it's not necessarily mere overactive imagination--there may be a real external reason behind it, it's just probably not ghosts. After examining the evidence, we can all take comfort in the fact that ghosts make for a lot of seriously awesome stories, but it's highly unlikely that any of us actually have to be afraid of them.


Your points on infrasound are really interesting, but I have something small to add.
I think the power of suggestion is a very real thing. I once took a trip to London, England where I stayed in a hotel room with my parents and brother. Everything went well and good, we enjoyed our stay, and left a few days later. On the return trip my father revealed that the room we slept in was apparently haunted by the ghost of a little girl (knowledge shared by my parents but not by myself nor my brother). While both my mom and dad experienced strange sensations during our visit, neither my brother nor I did. Was it prior knowledge that caused the phenomenon? - it would explain why the haunting applied to only half of my family.
This article elaborates a little bit on what I'm talking about: http://www.ghosthuntingtheories.com/2010/04/power-of-suggestion.html
In conclusion, I think the brain has a way of playing tricks on us when we're most susceptible, and this goes beyond the frequencies you mentioned and their effects.

I completely agree with your point about the power of suggestion. Studies indicate that there are a number of natural explanations behind paranormal experiences, and people simply getting psyched (or psyching themselves) into it is a big one. For the sake of topical brevity on this post, I didn't cover it, but I think the power of suggestion is a really fascinating phenomenon and exerts an huge amount of influence on people. It's one of the main reasons people mistake ordinary things for evidence of ghosts, and why others buy into it. For example, the picture at the top of the post is the famous "Amityville Ghost Boy" photo. It's been pretty well debunked ( http://newsfromthespiritworld.com/2012/04/07/ghostly-pics-amityville-ghost-boy ) as just an ordinary living person (not even a kid), but at the time the investigators claimed that the camera had captured the ghost of a murdered boy or a demon. Many people still believe it's a credible photo. Clearly there's a lot to be said for people seeing and experiencing things because they expect to.

I really enjoyed reading your post and it really made me question a lot of things. I actually constantly have sleep paralysis and even without sleep paralysis I have seen ghosts on many occasions. As I was reading your evidence on infra sound I found it to be fascinating because I never really knew that below 20 hertz sounds or the vibrations could allow someone to feel anxiety or that eerie feeling of being watched. However, I am curious if it is possible to be able to visually see these ghosts without having feeling of anxiety or sorrow. Does the infra sound mainly cause terror and the feeling of being watched? Because there has been many times when I was in sleep paralysis and felt quite tranquil and was still able to hear and see things that were not normal. Also would the infra sound apply more to a closed room rather that the outdoors where there are a lot of things happening at once? I guess my only argument or questions would be how specific of a setting or environment do you have to be in order to pick of the infra sound lower than 20 hertz to have that eerie feeling? And how is it that you can see “ghosts” without having the sensation of fear that may come along with it.
I am a firm believer that there is a supernatural world around us and whether it can be explained through sound waves, it still does have an impact on us and at times I feel we get to caught up on trying to explain it scientifically that we never try to combine it with the spiritual aspect.
Here is a link to the natural spiritual sounds that gives us good feelings and the history behind it. Why can’t sounds be considered to be more of a spiritual experience rather than a scientific one?

I'm sorry that you have to go through that, Alexandria. In my research, I found evidence that seemed to suggest that infrasound was most associated with feelings of anxiety--actual 'visions' were not uncommon, but they weren't as frequently reported. Infrasound can occur indoors as well as outdoors; in fact, both tigers and elephants, to name two animals, are known to produce infrasound vocally--which might be part of an evolutionary reason for it to cause such distress in humans--and use it over long distances. (Sorry for linking to just a general Wikipedia entry, but it honestly does have some good information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infrasound ) As for seeing 'ghosts' without any negative feelings: from what I've been able to find out, sleep paralysis causes hallucinations, often frightening ones, but the fear itself is simply a reaction. It would seem logical that different people might react to those situations in different ways. Furthermore, alleged ghost sightings are undoubtedly caused by other things than just infrasound. As mentioned earlier in the comments, there's the power of suggestion, for one thing--if you expect to experience ghosts, you're probably going to--combined with the sad, simple fact that the human eye and the human brain are very unreliable things. They constantly misinterpret, miss things, and pick up things that aren't actually there.

Theoretically, there could be ghosts, or more generally, a supernatural/'spiritual' plane. I don't believe in one personally, because I find no good reason to. Other people are welcome to believe in such things, but I think it's a mistake to say that "we get to caught up on trying to explain it scientifically that we never try to combine it with the spiritual aspect." I don't think that trying to understand things scientifically is getting "caught up"; I think it's an extremely important step in building a worldview. If people hadn't devoted their time to getting "caught up" in scientific explanations, we'd still be sacrificing virgins instead of understanding that bad weather and volcanic eruptions just happen, for very concrete reasons that have nothing to do with the supernatural. I suppose my point is--without sounding offensive, I hope--that we shouldn't just settle for a 'spiritual' explanation simply because we haven't found a scientific one yet. Spiritual/supernatural explanations could be real, hypothetically, but since at this point there's no evidence that they are, just deciding that that's what we're going with is a good way to fuel ignorance and misinformation.

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