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The Haunted Brain

Article

Richard Wiseman

Volume 35.5, September/October 2011

Reports of alleged ghostly activity tell us a great deal about the innermost workings of our brains.

There is an old joke about a university lecturer who asks his class, “Has anyone here ever seen a ghost?” Fifteen students put their hands in the air. Next, the lecturer says, “Well, who here has touched a ghost?” This time only five hands go up. Curious, the lecturer adds, “OK, has anyone actually kissed a ghost?” A young man sitting in the middle of the lecture theater slowly raises his hand, looks around nervously, and then asks, “I’m sorry, did you say ‘ghost’ or ‘goat?’”

Thankfully, the results from national surveys have yielded more clear-cut findings. Opinion polls have consistently shown that around 30 percent of people believe in ghosts, and about 15 percent claim to have actually had a ghostly experience (Musella 2005). James Houran has carried out a great deal of research into the nature of these ghostly experiences. Houran is an interesting fellow. During the day this mild-mannered statistician works for a well-known Internet dating site creating mathematical models that help promote compatibility. By night Houran transforms into a real-life ghost buster, conducting surveys and studies that aim to solve the mystery of hauntings. Fifteen years ago, he analyzed almost a thousand ghostly experiences to discover what people report when they believe that they have encountered a spirit (Lange et al. 1996).

Houran’s work revealed that reports of full-fledged apparitions are very rare. In fact, they account for only 1 percent or so of sightings; when such figures do turn up, they usually appear at the foot of a bed as people are either waking up or drifting off to sleep. Around a third of Houran’s reports involve rather fleeting visual phenomena, such as quick flashes of light, odd wisps of smoke, or dark shadows that move furtively around the room. Another third involve strange sounds, such as footsteps from an empty room or ghostly whispering. The remaining third are a mixture of miscellaneous sensations, including odd odors of flowers or cigar smoke, sensing a ghostly presence, or feeling a cold shiver down one’s spine.

For well over a century, scientists have attempted to explain these strange experiences. Like much of the research into alleged paranormal phenomena, their work tells us a great deal about our brains, beliefs, and behavior.

The Rose without a Thorn

London’s Hampton Court Palace has been home to some of Britain’s most famous kings and queens. Nowadays the palace is a popular historical attraction, playing host to more than half a million visitors each year.

The palace is famous for many things: It houses invaluable works of art from the Royal Collection, contains the best-preserved medieval hall in Britain, and boasts a giant Tudor kitchen. It is also considered one of the most haunted buildings in Britain. Various spirits allegedly haunt the palace. There is a “lady in gray” whose walks through the cobbled courtyards are as regular as clockwork, a “woman in blue” who continuously searches for her lost child, and a phantom dog that lives in Wolsey’s closet. However, despite stiff competition, Hampton Court’s most famous spirit is that of Catherine Howard.

Henry VIII ruled Britain during the first half of the sixteenth century, but he did not have a great track record when it came to relationships. He cheated on his first wife, beheaded his second, lost his third while she was giving birth to his only son, and divorced his fourth. In a move that would make even the most experienced marriage counselor raise an eyebrow, the forty-nine-year-old Henry then became infatuated with a nineteen-year-old courtier named Catherine Howard. After a brief period of wooing, Henry married Howard, publicly declaring that she was his “rose without a thorn.”

A few months after getting married, Catherine found herself very much in love. Unfortunately, the apple of her eye was not her husband, Henry, but rather a young courtier named Thomas Culpepper. News of their affair eventually reached Henry, who promptly decided to fetch the garden shears and remove the head of his beloved rose. Upon hearing the bad news, Catherine was understandably upset. She ran to Henry to plead for her life but was stopped by Royal guards and dragged back through the corridors of the palace to her apartments. A few months later both Thomas Culpepper and Catherine Howard were beheaded at the Tower of London.

The ghost of Catherine Howard is said to haunt the corridor down which she was dragged against her will. By the turn of the last century this area of the palace had become associated with a whole host of ghostly experiences, including sightings of a “woman in white” and reports of inexplicable screams.

In January 2001, a palace official telephoned me, explained that there had been a recent surge in Catherine-Howard-related phenomena, and wondered whether I might be interested in investigating. Eager to use the opportunity to discover more about hauntings, I quickly put together an experiment, assembled a research team, photocopied hundreds of blank questionnaires, loaded up my car, and headed off to the palace for a five-day investigation (Wiseman et al. 2002, 2003).

The palace had called a press conference to announce the start of my study, attracting the attention of journalists from all around the world. We decided to make the press conference a two-part affair, with a palace official talking about the history of the haunting in the first half, a brief break, and then my good self describing the forthcoming investigation. A palace historian kicked off the proceedings by telling a packed room of reporters what happened when Henry met Cathy.

During the brief break, I stepped outside to get some fresh air. The strangest thing happened: A car containing two tipsy teenagers drove slowly past me. One of the teenagers rolled down the window and threw an egg at me. The egg smashed on my shirt. Unable to change, I tried to remove the worst of the stains and then returned to the press conference. A few minutes into my talk, one of the journalists noticed the marks on my shirt and, assuming that it was ectoplasm, asked whether Catherine Howard had already slimed me. I replied, “Yes. This is going to be a tougher investigation than I first thought.” Although said in jest, my comment was to prove prophetic.

Prior to the experiment, I had asked the palace to supply me with a floor plan of the corridor that would have held such unpleasant memories for Catherine Howard. I then met with Ian Franklin, a palace warder who had carefully catalogued a century of reports of unusual phenomena experienced by staff and visitors, whom I asked to secretly place crosses on the floor plan to indicate where people had consistently reported their experiences. To avoid any possible bias during the investigation, neither I nor any other member of the research team knew which areas had been marked by Franklin.

During the day, groups of visitors were transformed into ghost hunters. After hearing a brief talk about the project, each participant was handed a blank floor plan and asked to wander along the corridor and place an “X” on the floor plan to indicate the location of any unusual experiences that they might have (essentially playing a game of “spot the ghoul”). Each night we would place a variety of sensors and a £60,000 ($100,300) heat imager in the corridor in the hope of catching Catherine mid-“boo!”

Day one of the investigation went badly, with several participants wandering into the wrong corridor and then wondering why the floor plan was so wildly inaccurate. On day two, we were joined by a woman who claimed to be the reincarnation of Catherine Howard and said that she could provide a unique first-person perspective on the proceedings (“Actually, I was dragged up the corridor, not down it”; “Not sure that the new paint job in the kitchens works for me,” etc.). Day four turned out to be especially interesting. The team (which now included the reincarnated Catherine Howard) assembled in the morning as usual and reviewed the heat sensor data from the previous night. It was immediately obvious that something very strange had taken place, with the graphs showing a massive spike in temperature around 6 AM. We eagerly rewound the recording from the thermal imager to discover whether we had caught Catherine on tape. At dead-on 6 AM the doors at one end of the corridor burst open, and in walked a figure. The reincarnated Catherine Howard instantly recognized the figure as a member of Henry VIII’s court. However, a few seconds later the proceedings took a decidedly more skeptical turn when we saw the figure walk over to a cupboard, remove a vacuum cleaner, and start to clean the carpets. Thankfully, the data from the rest of the investigation proved more revealing.

People who believed in ghosts experienced significantly more strange sensations than the skeptics. Interestingly, we have obtained the same pattern of findings in several investigations at other supposedly haunted locations. Time and again those who believe in the paranormal experience more ghosts than those who don’t. As I loaded my equipment back into my car and said goodbye to our well-meaning but intensely annoying Catherine Howard wannabe, one question nagged away in my mind: Why?

The Machine in the Ghost

Neuropsychologist Michael Persinger, of Laurentian University in Canada, believes that ghostly experiences are caused by the brain malfunctioning and, more controversially, that these sensations can be easily elicited by applying very weak magnetic fields to the outside of the skull (Cook and Persinger 1997, 2001).

In a typical Persinger study, participants are led into a laboratory and asked to sit in a comfortable chair. They then have a helmet placed on their heads, are blindfolded, and are asked to relax for about forty minutes. During this time several solenoids hidden in the helmet generate extremely weak magnetic fields around the participant. Sometimes these fields are focused over the right side of the head; at other times they switch to the left, and once in a while they circle around the skull. Finally the helmet and blindfold are removed, and the participant is asked to complete a questionnaire indicating whether he or she experienced any strange sensations, such as the sense of a presence, vivid images, odd smells, being sexually aroused, or coming face-to-face with God.

After years of experimentation, Persinger claims that around 80 percent of participants tick the “yes” box to at least one of these experiences, with some even going for the “all of the above” option. The study has been featured in many science documentaries, resulting in several presenters and journalists putting Persinger’s magic helmet on their heads in the hope of meeting their maker. For the most part, they have not been disappointed. Psychologist Susan Blackmore, for example, felt as if something had gotten hold of her leg and dragged it up the wall, followed by a sudden sense of intense anger (which is exactly how I would feel if someone took my leg and dragged it up a wall).

All was going well with Persinger’s theory until a team of Swedish psychologists, led by Pehr Granqvist from Uppsala University, decided to carry out the same type of experiments (Granqvist et al. 2005; Larsson et al. 2005). (For additional information about this work, see www.nature.com/news/2004/041206/full/news041206-10.html.)

It all started well, with some of the Swedes visiting Persinger’s laboratory and even borrowing a portable version of one of his helmets for their own study. However, Granqvist became worried that some of Persinger’s participants may have known what was expected of them, and their experiences could therefore have been due to suggestion rather than the subtle magnetic fields. To rule out this possibility in his own work, Granqvist had all of his participants wear Persinger’s borrowed helmet but ensured that the coils were turned on for only half of the participants. Neither the participants nor the experimenters knew when the magnetic fields were on and when they were off.

The results were remarkable. Granqvist discovered that the magnetic fields had absolutely no effect. Three of his participants reported intense spiritual experiences, but two of these were not being exposed to the magnetic fields at the time. Likewise, twenty-two people reported more subtle experiences, but the coils were turned off for eleven of them. When Granqvist’s work was published in 2004, Persinger argued that the poor showing may have been due, in part, to the fact that the participants who had their helmet coils turned on were exposed to the magnetic fields for only fifteen minutes and to the fact that Granqvist ran the DOS-based software controlling the coils in Windows and thus possibly altered the nature of the magnetic fields. The Swedish team defended their work and stood by their findings.

The idea of electromagnetic spirits has caught the imagination of the media and public alike. However, the scientific jury is unconvinced. So has anyone solved the mystery of hauntings? Before we delve deeper, it is time to discover more about the power of suggestion.

The Subtle Hint of Silage

In the late 1970s, sensory scientist Michael O’Mahony from the University of California took the power of suggestion to new heights when he persuaded the BBC to undertake an ingenious version of his well known sensory study during a live program (O’Mahony 1978). O’Mahony constructed some mock scientific apparatus (think a large weird-looking cone, masses of wires, and several oscilloscopes) and managed to keep a straight face as he told viewers that this newly devised “taste trap” used “Raman Spectroscopy” to transmit smells via sound. He then proudly announced that the stimulus would be a country smell. Unfortunately, the studio audience interpreted his comments to mean the smell of manure, resulting in a significant amount of laughter. After clarifying that they would not be broadcasting the smell of cow shit into people’s homes, the research team played a standard Dolby tuning tone for ten seconds. Just as the bottles in the more pedestrian versions of O’Mahony’s study contained nothing but water, so the tone did not actually have the ability to induce smells.

Viewers were then asked to contact the television station and describe their experiences. A few hundred viewers responded, with the majority stating that they had detected a strong smell of hay, grass, or flowers. Although they were explicitly told that the smell would not be manure-related, several people mentioned that they had detected the subtle hint of silage. Many respondents described how the tone had brought about more dramatic symptoms, including hay fever attacks, sudden bouts of sneezing, and dizziness.

The “Raman Spectroscopy” was simply scientific mumbo-jumbo. In reality the experimenters were exploring how the power of suggestion can cause people to experience various smells. James Houran (of Internet dating and ghost-busting fame) also believes that suggestion may play a vital role in unlocking the mystery of hauntings.

Houran speculated that if suggestible people believe that they are in a haunted house, they may experience the strange sensations typically attributed to ghostly activity. In addition, he noted that those experiences are likely to create a feeling of fear that will cause people to become hyper-vigilant and pay attention to the subtlest of signals (Lange and Houran 1999). They will suddenly notice that tiny creak in the floorboards, the swaying of the curtains, or a brief whiff of burning. All of this will cause them to become even more afraid and therefore exhibit even greater hyper-vigilance. The process feeds on itself until the person starts to become highly agitated, anxious, and prone to more extreme sensations and hallucinations.

Findings from many studies support Houran’s ideas. In my own work, those who believed in ghosts reported far more weird experiences than skeptics, and their sensations tended to focus on the type of scary-looking locations that are frequently featured in horror films. Although these findings are encouraging, the ultimate testing of the theory involves taking suggestible people to a place that does not have a reputation for being haunted, making them believe that it does, and seeing if they experience the same kind of ghostly activity reported in “genuine” hauntings. Houran has conducted several of these experiments with intriguing results.

In one experiment he took over a disused theater that had absolutely no reputation for being haunted and asked two groups of people to walk around it and report how they felt (Lange and Houran 1997). Houran told one group that the theater was associated with ghostly activity and the other that the building was simply undergoing renovation. Those in the “this building is haunted” group reported all sorts of weird sensations, while the other group experienced nothing unusual. In another study, Houran asked a married couple living in a house that had no reputation for ghostly activity to spend a month making note of any “unusual occurrences” that they noticed in their home (Houran and Lange 1996). Reporting the results in the paper “Diary of Events in a Thoroughly Unhaunted House,” he noted that the couple reported an amazing twenty-two weird events, including the inexplicable malfunctioning of their telephone, their name being muttered by a ghostly presence, and the strange movement of a souvenir voodoo mask along a shelf.

Hauntings do not require genuine ghosts, underground streams, low frequency sound waves, or weak magnetic fields. Instead, all it takes is the power of suggestion.

Ghosts, Gods, and Goblins

Although the psychology of suggestion accounts for many ghostly phenomena, there still exists one final mystery—why on earth should our sophisticated brains have evolved to detect nonexistent ghostly entities?

Scientists have proposed various theories to account for what goes bump in our minds. Psychologist Jesse Bering (2006) from the University of Arkansas has suggested that both ghosts and God help forge a more honest society by convincing people that they are constantly being watched. Bering and his team tested their idea by carrying out a somewhat strange experiment. In their study, students were asked to complete an intelligence test. The test had been carefully constructed to ensure that the students could cheat if they wanted to, and the experimenters could secretly monitor each person’s level of deception. Just before taking the test, a randomly selected group of students was told that the test room was apparently haunted. As predicted by the “ghosts make people more honest” theory, the students who thought that they were in a haunted room were far less likely to cheat on the test.

However, perhaps the most popular theory to account for the evolution of ghostly experiences concerns the “Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device” (Barrett 2004). Oxford University psychologist Justin Barrett believes that the idea of “agency”—being able to figure out why people act the way they do—is essential to our everyday interactions with one another. In fact, it is so important that Barrett thinks the part of the brain responsible for detecting such agency often goes into overdrive, causing people to see human-like behavior in even the most meaningless stimuli.

In the 1940s, psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel conducted a now-classic experiment that provides a beautiful illustration of Barrett’s point. Heider and Simmel created a short cartoon animation in which a large triangle, a small triangle, and a circle moved in and out of a box. They then showed the meaningless cartoon to people and asked them to describe what was happening. Most people instantly created elaborate stories to explain the cartoon, saying, for example, that perhaps the circle was in love with the little triangle, and the big triangle was attempting to steal away the circle but the little triangle fought back, and the small triangle and circle eventually lived happily ever after.

In short, people saw agency where none existed. Barrett believes that the same concept helps explain gods, ghosts, and goblins. According to the theory, many people are very reluctant to think that certain events are meaningless, and they are all too eager to assume that the events are the work of invisible entities. They might, for instance, experience an amazing stroke of good luck and assume it is angels at work, be struck down with an illness and see it as evidence of demons, or hear a creaking door and attribute it to a ghostly woman in white. If Barrett is right, ghosts are not the result of superstitious thinking. Neither are they spirits returning from the dead. Instead, they are simply the price we pay for having remarkable brains that can effortlessly figure out why other people behave the way they do. As such, ghosts are an essential part of our everyday lives.

Paranormality book cover

On Publishing Paranormality

All of my previous books have been produced by large American publishing houses. However, when it came to my new book, Paranormality (www.paranormalitybook.com), the situation was different. Many major publishers were convinced that there simply isn’t a market for a skeptical book about the paranormal. When no serious offers came forward, I decided to take a bold step. I will publish the unashamedly skeptical Paranormality as an e-book in America and have my U.K. publisher ship physical copies of the British book to the United States. It is a daring experiment, and I have no idea how it will work out. I don’t have the large-market budget and connections of a large publishing house. However, I hope that I will have the support of the skeptical movement and anyone else who cares about science. Psychic hotlines and television shows are a multi-million dollar business. Many people do not want the American public to read books like Paranormality. For that reason alone, I believe that they deserve the largest audience possible.

References

Barrett, J.L. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? United Kingdom: AltaMira Press.

Bering, J.M. 2006. The cognitive psychology of belief in the supernatural. American Scientist 94: 142–49.

Cook, C.M., and M.A. Persinger. 1997. Experimental induction of the ‘sensed presence’ in normal subjects and an exceptional subject. Perceptual and Motor Skills 85: 683–93.

———. 2001. Geophysical variables and behavior: XCII. Experimental elicitation of the experience of a sentient being by right hemispheric, weak magnetic fields: Interaction with temporal lobe sensitivity. Perceptual and Motor Skills 92: 447–48.

Granqvist, P., M. Fredrikson, P. Unge, et al. 2005. Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of weak complex transcranial magnetic fields. Neuroscience Letters 379: 1–6.

Houran, J., and R. Lange. 1996. Diary of events in a thoroughly unhaunted house. Perceptual and Motor Skills 83: 499–502.

Lange, R., and J. Houran. 1997. Context-induced paranormal experiences: Support for Houran and Lange’s model of haunting phenomena. Perceptual and Motor Skills 84: 1455–58.

———.1999. The role of fear in delusions of the paranormal. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 187: 159–66.

Lange, R., J. Houran, T.M. Harte, et al. 1996. Contextual mediation of perceptions in hauntings and poltergeist-like experiences. Perceptual and Motor Skills 82: 755–62.

Larsson, M., D. Larhammar, M. Fredrikson, et al. 2005. Reply to M.A. Persinger and S.A. Koren’s response to Granqvist et al. ‘Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak magnetic fields.’ Neuroscience Letters 380: 348–50.

Musella, D.P. 2005. Gallup poll shows that Americans’ belief in the paranormal persists. Skeptical Inquirer 29(5): 5.

O’Mahony, M. 1978. Smell illusions and suggestion: Reports of smells contingent on tones played on television and radio. Chemical Senses and Flavour 3: 183–89.

Wiseman, R., C. Watt, E. Greening, et al. 2002. An investigation into the alleged haunting of Hampton Court Palace: Psychological variables and magnetic fields. Journal of Parapsychology 66(4): 387–408.

Wiseman, R., C. Watt, P. Stevens, et al. 2003. An investigation into alleged “hauntings.” The British Journal of Psychology 94: 195–211

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman is Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. He is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Skeptical Inquirer consulting editor. For more information about his work, visit richardwiseman.com.