The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts and Demons

·6 min read

Does it take a specific type of brain to experience paranormal anomalies. Some scientists think so—but that can go two ways.

On the one hand, researchers specialized in parapsychology—the psychological study of the paranormal—have spent decades studying whether and how these anomalies exist in nature, outside of the human body, and how some people might be more prone to experiencing them. More specifically, they want to know if some people have unique “abilities” that allow them to, say, see ghosts, spirits, and any other entities that might exist outside of the person experiencing it (i.e. not in their mind).

On the other hand, skeptical scholars from the field of neuroscience and cognitive psychology have been trying to show that it’s more about how some people process reality, subjectively, in their brain. Some people might just be wired to produce these experiences in their mind, even though they may not be real.

While you might assume that parapsychology revolves around ghostbusters, spoon bending, and levitating magicians, that’s not exactly the case. Parapsychology, also called “psi,” is an academic branch of psychology studied in universities and research facilities across the globe. Scientists from this field believe more academic, experimental, theoretical, and analytical research will show that what science knows about the nature of the universe is largely incomplete.

“There is more than enough data and research at this point to make a reliable claim that oddities to mainstream science do, in fact, occur,” Brian Laythe, director of the Institute for the Study of Religious and Anomalous Experience and member of the Parapsychological Association, told The Daily Beast. In fact, there’s more than a century’s worth of peer-reviewed research on these topics. Laythe said that it’s statistically unlikely that the hundreds of PhDs producing said research are all fraudulent or incompetent. “Where people fight over is the meaning and interpretation of those findings, which in bulk are theology and philosophy driven, as opposed to issues of analytical science.”

Yet, critics argue that parapsychology procedures and methods aren’t in line with rigorous scientific standards, the results are just too flimsy, and crucially, that many of these experiments aren’t replicable, which cuts at the core of how science is validated.

And there’s one big issue that persists: There are no valid theories to support most of the findings. Some theories are more based in physics, others are focused on consciousness—but parapsychologists are having a hard time finalizing which ones explain it all. Of course, this often happens across all scientific disciplines, Laythe notes, but skeptics disagree.

“We need parapsychology because if there were telepathy, clairvoyant, psychokinesis, precognition, ghosts, any of these things, then science has to be radically overthrown,” Susan Blackmore, a visiting psychology professor at the University of Plymouth and parapsychologist-turned-skeptic told The Daily Beast. “I’m glad there are other people doing it. And then of course, I’m not terribly surprised. They don’t find any reliable findings. They don’t have any theory that works. They don't have any findings that contribute to any kind of theoretical progress. So they’re always just asking the same question.”

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There’s a lot of value in learning and understanding what these experiences are like for people—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an already existing medical explanation which can justify them.

That’s what Michiel Van Elk, a professor of cognitive psychology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, is taking a stab at. The self-described “humble skeptic” has a lab focused on cognitive differences that he believes are at the basis of why people believe and experience the paranormal. According to his research, paranormal believers are more inclined to trust their intuition and emotions, and are less guided by analytical reflection. They appear to perceive more “illusory agents” in random motion displays, meaning that they might have a bias for seeing shapes and objects when there aren’t ones.

“And we identified that paranormal believers had a stronger self-attribution bias, where in a random card guessing game, they more often took credit for positive outcomes, which were in fact caused by chance, than skeptics,” Van Elk told The Daily Beast. “These findings fit with the broader view that paranormal believers are prone to a range of cognitive biases, but at the same time, that these biases may well be adaptive for fostering mental health and self-esteem.”

Charlotte Dean, a researcher at the department of psychology at University of Hertfordshire in the U.K., recently published a meta-analysis of 71 studies over the past three decades that explored links between belief in paranormal phenomena and cognitive function. Most of the findings are in line with the hypothesis that experiencing paranormal activity is linked to specific cognitive traits, Dean told The Daily Beast.

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“Believers are typically characterized by an intuitive thinking style. So that’s that kind of gut feeling. And they’ll go with that to try and explain something that they otherwise can't explain,” Dean said. “Whereas people who are skeptical of the paranormal tend to be more analytical. So they will go through every different way of solving a problem before they come to a conclusion. And we refer to that as being kind of ‘cognitively flexible.’”

According to Dean, however, research like this isn’t in complete dissonance with the field of parapsychology. Parapsychologists tend to agree, to a certain extent. Sure, some people are more prone to paranormal experiences, and neurology-related traits, beliefs, and socio-cultural environments facilitate that experience. But they say it’s not entirely correct to say that only cognitive traits or neurology is responsible for paranormal experience.

“While not without value, this approach adopted in isolation seems akin to acknowledging that some people who claim to be ill are prone to hypochondria,” Chris Roe, a parapsychology professor at University of Northampton, told The Daily Beast. “And then proceeding to adopt a model of human illness that focuses only on factors that affect hypochondria or susceptibility to placebo effects. [The British] National Health Service would be in a very sorry state indeed.”

A proclivity to paranormal experiences is distributed among the population, according to Christine Simmonds-Moore, a parapsychologist at the University of West Georgia. But that doesn’t rule out the existence of anomalies. For example, parapsychological research has shown that the concept of transliminality, a thin boundary structure between the conscious, unconscious, and environment, is a strong predictor of haunting experiences because it enables people to access paranormal experiences.

“There is some evidence that people who have more paranormal experiences have more communication between the hemispheres [of the brain], for example, and more potential for crosstalk,” Simmonds-Moore told The Daily Beast. “There's more permeability between areas of the mind and between people and the environment and social others, and potentially paranormal information” with the information being outside of the human brain experiencing it.

She argues that different frameworks of science could be applied to examine the same thing, and sometimes both could be true. “I appreciate ideas that suggest that reality might be both physical and mental and that there might be a third aspect that contributes to both,” Simmonds-Moore said. She thinks research should explore paranormal experiences both using cognitive psychology, and what is known from that, and parapsychology. “Sometimes, there might be a bit of both, normal and paranormal, going on,” said Simmonds-Moore. “Reality is complex.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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