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Ghost Meters: I Can Name that Ghost in 5 Milligauss

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

October 1, 2013

Why do paranormal investigations use EMF meters? Turns out, they don't even know why. This is what happens when the paranormal gets sciencey. It isn't pretty but there is beeping and flashing lights.

person pointing lit-up ghost meter at quiltWhat's behind this hanging quilt? The ghost meter is pegged. (Photo by author)

I got a package in the mail from Amazon around the time of my birthday. It was light, not a book, something from my Wish List. I had my very own ghost meter! I started roaming my house looking for sources of electromagnetic fields.

If I just let my ghost meter sit there, it does nothing. But if I find a known source of electricity, then the analog meter bounces upward or, in some cases, pegs all the way to the right causing a flashing light and beeping sound. Around the house, here is what sets it off—the circuit box, the electronic displays on the oven and dishwasher, my digital alarm clock, the microwave, toaster oven and dehumidifier when turned on. No surprises there. My cell phone didn't trigger it. I tested it outside with an approaching lightning storm. It was slightly greater than 0 milligauss outside compared to inside, and varied slightly from front of the house to back of the house. The storm never got close enough for me to record electromagnetic fields (EMFs) fluxes from lightning discharges. That probably was a good thing because I would have been standing out there in a rather dumb position, you know, for science.

a circuit box is revealed to be behind the quiltA circuit box generates high EMF readings on the ghost meter. (Photo by author)

My questions about this device were many and varied. What was it really measuring? Was it telling me anything? And, most importantly, what does this have to do with ghosts?

Earlier this summer, during a ghost hunt in which I was an observer, I saw paranormal researchers each with their own kinds of EMF meters. Some meters registered a change in the surrounding field at the same time. Some individual meters would fluctuate with no apparent electrical sources. The researchers considered these fluctuations to be indicative of responsive entities or paranormal energy around us. It was assumed that these anomalies were paranormal.

Where did this idea come from—this connection between EMFs and ghosts? It looks sciencey and objective. But something is not on the level. I consulted more knowledgeable people and the parapsychology literature to get some clarity on this issue.

There is Science Behind These Devices

My meter was cheap but was noted by reviewers as being a “good beginner device”. Just don't wave it around too fast, they said, because that makes it go off.

I asked former physicist and one-time paranormal investigator on the Queen Mary “haunted” ship, Yau-Man Chan, what the deal was with these devices. He said they are simple to construct, very straightforward. They are an inductor coil and an amplifier. They pick up “impulsive” EMF signals, like a large inductive load turning on and off—an appliance with a motor, for example. Elevators, he notes, are a huge source of EMF signals like this. But because these hand-held meters are not specific enough in direction or frequency, they aren't very useful for much and not at all precise enough to conclude what is detected if it's not obvious. Electricians don't use these meters. They use more advanced equipment.

There are many other kinds of EMF meters used in paranormal investigations. GhostGadgets.com's has a discussion about the different types and how they work. I attempted to contact the owner of that site with more questions but got no response.

They do capture seemingly anomalous and transient EMFs during paranormal investigations as I observed. An EMF anomaly is an interesting phenomenon regardless of the paranormal association. It is a recording of an environmental variable that shows an unexpected flux. Yet, ghost hunters are rather convinced of their cause. I found this type of statement often: “When you find an unexplainable field, normally between 2 and 7 milligauss, it is associated with spirit activity”. (Source) This statement is problematic. There are too many leaps in logic and no evidence to support that conclusion. The connection between anomalies and spirit activity is assumed. The best we can rationally say is that we found an anomaly. Concluding “I don't know what is causing this” (often without even a modicum of effort to find out) does not equal “paranormal”. But that is indeed what happens. According to many in paranormal investigation, it's the default conclusion.

EMF meters “... detect fluctuations in electromagnetic fields and low strength moving EMF fields that have no source,” says Ghosthunting 101. How do you know there is no source? Has every potential source been eliminated? It is improbable that the investigator has been able to do that. There IS a source. You just didn't locate it.

“It is a common theory that spirits disrupt this field in such a way that you can tell one is present by higher than normal readings with [an EMF] meter.” (Source) I found that “common theory” assumption in several places – stated that it is “generally accepted” by paranormal investigators that spirits emit an ELF (extremely low frequency) field and this measurement is indicative of their presence. (Curiously, the quote above appeared verbatim and unattributed on many ghost group sites which is evidence that these websites readily copy and paste from each other.) Researchers are often far too conclusive in their baseless assertions: “Nine times out of ten, if a mysterious field is constant and stable, it's artificial; if it fluctuates wildly, it's paranormal.” (J.P. Warren, How to Hunt Ghosts, p. 145) Oh, really? Citations please! Show your work! Another possible interpretation of that statement is that the concept of paranormal is too broad and vague to be of any meaning whatsoever.

Messy and Vague Data and Language

Not all paranormal investigators get that excited over EMF spikes because they will admit it's clearly not a consistent observation. The data are all over the place. Paranormal investigator Kenny Biddle conducted experiments with the widely used K2 Meter made popular due to its appearance in the equipment array of television ghost chasers. He found the readings were inconsistent, the device was very sensitive and also easily manipulated with small electrical devices like cell phones, cameras and camera flashes. [The Bent Spoon magazine V1 p 17-22.]

Some have noted that they had a “paranormal” moment yet the EMF device did nothing. That's actually a data point that is unsupportive of the theory of EMF=ghosts, but they have not recognized the importance of that. But they would admit that no device conclusive detects ghosts.

There are a few studies that are suggestive that haunt phenomena is correlated to local EMF variances. However, others that have not found this correlation. Much more solid work is needed before we can definitively link EMF anomalies to experiences described as “hauntings”. Yet, the link is widely touted by paranormal researchers.

Vagueness is a problem in this field. We have an unreliable reading of questionable accuracy, positing an unknown source or the source is that which we have not yet conclusively determined to exist. We can't even get an operational definition of a “ghost”! Science is particular about defining terms and using supporting references. Not so with 99% of paranormal “research.” You can't do anything resembling science is such a state.

I'm Not the Only One Questioning this Stuff

As I was gathering info for this piece, playing with my Ghost Meter and all, a post appeared by Martin J. Clemens that ends up echoing my sentiments:

“It's really as simple as this: there are many possible causes of EMF fluctuation in a given space, and as long as there is doubt about what caused the reading, it cannot be attributed to any one phenomenon.”

He asked around the paranormal community—why do ghost hunters use EMF meters in investigation? They can't give a good reason why. The answer Clemens got was again the standard idea that there is some unclarified, unproven “association” between spirit activity and EMF fields. Some say they do it because everyone else does. Or, break out the gadgets because that's what they think they should be doing. It's a relatively new idea that is now deemed essential, without foundation. Maybe we should blame Ghost Busters. (Don't laugh, there is validity to that inference.) Clemens concludes: “Pointing your meter into a dark room and declaring that any readings you get are the result of ghosts is quite silly.” Indeed.

EIFs (Experience-inducing Fields)

Let's step away from the weekend ghost hunters who are mimicking what they see on TV and check out what experimental parapsychologists are doing. The ASSAP website has a report of studies done on EMF anomalies. The authors there are perfectly clear that, while many paranormal researchers believe that ghosts emit an EMF or disturb the magnetic field when they are present and thus can be measured, there are “no formal studies to support such ideas.” (Source) They caution that even if you do an investigation at a site with the electric mains turned off, you STILL can get natural fluctuations, more appropriately called xenonormal because they appear paranormal but are not. They suggest using a more precise piece of equipment like a magnetometer to get more accurate and useful information. Unfortunately, magnetometers are NOT available for $30- $100 on Amazon like EMF meters. They also recommend data loggers and more thorough baseline measurements. Good basic advice. ASSAP concludes that the use of EMF meters is very problematic and they are not intended to be “ghost meters”.

As I said, the anomalies are curious phenomena regardless of their association with ghosts. ASSAP researchers examined the idea of experience-inducing fields (EIFs), electromagnetic field fluctuations that may lead people to have strange or disturbing experiences that they could potentially describe as “paranormal”. A fascinating study was conducted in a castle with some precise equipment (Magnetic Anomaly Detection System) that led to some interesting results. (Source) In 2004, a small group of researchers took measurements around a so-called “haunted bed”. Comparing the readings at the pillow area with the reading from the middle of the room, there was a definite difference. This showed the anomaly was based on location, not time. A follow up experiment showed that the bed itself was a magnetic anomaly! Just moving your head around slightly while on the bed could cause your brain to experience a large change in the magnetic gradient which, they suggest, could be an EIF. Since it was the natural EMF interacting with the iron frame, this effect did not need any electricity to manifest, so it could be a historical condition, leading to the reputation as a haunted bed. I don't know enough about the effect of fluctuating fields on the brain so I can't tell if this is plausible or not. Many researchers will cite M. Persinger's experiments with the “god helmet” where he was able to induce odd experiences by changing the magnetic field around the brain (Source). How this experimental condition is relatable to real-life situations is arguable. And attempts to replicate or to show similar results have not been successful. If there is something to this research, I'd like to hear more about it. But I would prefer they leave the “spirit energy” bits out since that interpretation is more wishful thinking than anything else.

Circling on back to my original problem: What caused the EMF fluctuations on my ghost hunt? I would bet I'm the only one from that trip that critically examined the EMF environment for that area. I even looked at other case reports from paranormal investigators at this location. They were useless, mentioning anomalous EMF readings with little to no specific information. Based on what I learned, it is a far more plausible explanation that some stray EMF from other people's devices or from the adjacent airport and harbor were responsible for the anomalies than the spirit of former inhabitants trying to communicate.

I have seen this pattern repeatedly in paranormal research groups—attributing every standout observation recorded in a supposedly haunted location (from a slight breeze, a tiny sound, or a blip on the instrument) as “paranormal”. This is sham inquiry—where all evidence is matched to a preconceived proposition to which you are already committed [S. Haack, Defending Science Within Reason, p 96]. Are EMF readings the new “orbs”?—artifacts from equipment that some interpret as evidence for a personally meaningful conclusion? (Source) Yes, I think so.

This research into electromagnetic anomalies reminded me of a field experiment for a geology class where we measured magnetic and gravity anomalies across a mile stretch of road. We thought the cows made the magnetometer spike! There were anomalies all right but it took some probing to figure out this was perfectly natural and explainable due to the rock types below and power lines above. I'm not saying paranormal investigators should give up the EMF research, I'm saying it's time to pause and be more reasonable about this. It's time for paranormal investigators to rely less on paranormal default explanation and employ some critical thinking to their work. Otherwise, we just have silly lights and beeping that signal people playing pretend scientist.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.