Sunday, March 1, 2015

Believing Is Seeing

It is said that seeing is believing. But, beliefs are NOT facts.  When someone says, "I know what I saw", it is inaccurate.  They know what they believe they saw.  Only a portion of the visual process involves the eye, the rest is perceived in the brain in a series of complex processes.  Furthermore, our expectations influence that perception.  

Studies suggest that even language and cultural expectations influence how we see our world.  Various cultures have different words and categories for colors, and actually see them differently from others.   Various experiments with the Himba tribe have supported this.  English, like many of the world's major languages, has 11 basic colors terms.  Himba has five, each covering a wider range of colors.  For example, "zoozu" is a term used for various dark colors that we would call darker blues, greens, browns, purples, reds or black. One experiment involved showing Himba subjects a color wheel of green tiles and having them pick out the one slightly different shade of green. While generally, Westerners had more difficulty selecting it, Himba subjects identified it right away.  Interestingly though, a new color wheel was presented with all green but one blue tile that was obvious to Westerners.  However, the Himba had difficulty identifying it.  (This experiment with the Himba tribe is included in the following video: )
Recently, we saw how people's perception of color varied when a picture of a dress went viral.  Some saw it as white and gold, while others saw it as blue and black.  Scientists who study color explained the discrepancy was due to how our eyes evolved to see in daylight and how our brains tried to match it to the daylight color gradient, filling in the details for us.  (Personally, I saw it as blue and gold.)

When we believe in ghosts and told a place is haunted, and then further primed with stories of specific apparitions, shadow people, or strange lights, the likelihood increases that we will misperceive what we see to fit our expectations.  Many ghost hunters still "investigate" in the dark.  While it makes for entertaining TV, it also creates so many issues hindering valid research. As I've mentioned in other posts, our eyes are not well adapted to see in the dark.  When our brains try to make sense of what our eyes see poorly in a dark environment, it "fills in" details that aren't really there.  But even in bright conditions, a person's beliefs and expectations will influence what they think they see.  Priming also explains how different people may "see" the same thing at a location.  

In another post, I mentioned watching a TV program which showed an interesting experiment at Loch Ness.  On one side of the shore, people were asked to witness the researchers launch a log into the lake.  They asked the witness to draw it.  Not surprising, they drew a straight log.  But then, the researchers asked people on the other side of the lake, who were not privy to the log launch, to draw what they saw.  Interestingly, the straight log now grew a neck and head, similar to what the Loch Ness monster reportedly looks like.  Were these people lying or dimwitted?  No, they saw a shape in the water across the lake, a group of people watching said shape, and then their expectations about the notorious location filled in the rest.

Priming also enhances pareidolia, or matrixing, in photos and videos.  How many times have we seen paranormal pictures of blobs with a caption of "little girl" or "demonic face" and then a whole lot of viewers post "I see it too!"  But in reality, there is nothing there.  We are hard wired to see faces in random patterns.   It is an evolutionary tool that helped our species survive.  To use Michael Shermer's (The Believing Brain) example, when our ancestors were strolling along a savannah and saw what looked like face within the tall grass, they immediately had to decide whether it meant danger or not.  To proceed without knowing whether it was a random pattern made by the grass or a predator, would be detrimental to survival.  Through experience, our brain evolved to err on side of caution.  

Pareidolia can make you see faces in this picture.  But one face is really there, and wants to meet you for lunch.
Source:  ArtWolfe/Caters News

In her book, Eyewitness Testimony, Elizabeth Loftus explains how our brains do not record an event like video tape.  The process is quite complex.  There are three stages of how we form memories of an event.  The first is how we perceive an event.  As discussed above, we see there are various factors which influence how we can misperceive what we see.  The next stage is retention.  During this stage, discussing, or overhearing someone else's account of the same event can unintentionally manufacture new details and dramatically change the witness's memory.  Finally, there is the retrieval stage where some time after the event, the witness is asked to recall specific details.  Obviously, if there are flaws in the first two stages, the retrieval stage will be inaccurate.  And even if the event was perceived accurately, details can be forgotten, leading to failure of retrieval.  Furthermore, the conditions at the time of retrieval influence the accuracy.  Some factors include what type of questions are asked, how the questions are worded and who is asking them.  While Loftus's book focuses on the reliability of memory in criminal cases, it can be applied to other situations, including paranormal claims.  Like witnesses of crimes, many witnesses of seemingly paranormal experiences report it caught them unexpectedly, feeling fear, and "it happened so fast", all which can increase the likelihood of misperception.

All this does not mean paranormal researchers should dismiss eyewitness accounts out of hand.  As scientific paranormal investigator Ben Radford explained in his book, Scientific Paranormal Investigation, it IS a valid starting point for an investigation.  However, if a researcher is there to conduct a productive investigation, it is important for them not to take the account at face value, because as discussed above, there are many factors complicating how people perceive and interpret experiences. Many times clients call in paranormal investigators to validate their experiences.  I've seen paranormal team websites boast things like "We believe you" or "You're not crazy, we'll help" and similar slogans.  While I agree that it is helpful to reassure a sincere client that they experienced something and aren't necessarily going bonkers, it is NOT helpful to encourage them that it was paranormal, without providing scientific, valid evidence.  When we label ourselves investigators or researchers, we should strive to understand how the human mind processes the natural world before we offer presumptions about the supernatural one.


Denise Grady, Discovery Magazine, "The Vision Thing: Mainly in the Brain"
 June 01, 1993

Rachel Adelson, American Psychological Association, 
"Hues and views: A cross-cultural study reveals how language shapes color perception."
February 2005, Vol 36, No. 2  Print version: page 26

Adam Rodgers, Wired, "The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress"
February 26, 2015

Elizabeth Luftus, Eyewitness Testimony
Cambridge; Harvard University Press, 1996

Benjamin Radford, Scientific Paranormal Investigation
Corrales NM ; Rhombus Publishing Company 2010 

Michael Shermer,  The Believing Brain 
New York:  Times Books  Henry Holt and Company, LLC,  2011

Monday, February 2, 2015

Labor of Love

As Valentine's Day approaches and love is in the air (or at least on the airwaves in the form of commercials), I've been thinking of one of my favorite sayings:  "Promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate."  So, with that in mind, I'd like to share what I love regarding paranormal research:

Those who question everything:
Accepting claims or "evidence" at face value doesn't count as either investigating or research.  As I've mentioned ad nauseam, there are countless environmental, psychological and physiological explanations for seemingly paranormal experiences.  Since I've started this blog, I've always maintained that unless we actively seek, identify and rule out every possible natural explanation to a claim, we cannot honestly declare it paranormal.  And "unexplained" doesn't necessarily mean paranormal.  It just means we can't explain it at the time, which change with more information and expertise.   I appreciate those who aren't afraid to ask questions and challenge claims.  When a paranormal team posts a picture on social media claiming they caught a ghost, we should ask for control shots, comparison shots, environmental conditions, EXIF data before we blindly say "good catch".  Same goes for EVPs.   We should ask what else could that "voice" be?  Something mechanical?  Environmental? Organic?  Is there video available to cross reference a cause of the sound?  When we go on a ghost hunt or ghost tour, we should do our own independent research into the history of the location and its ghost stories.  Contact local historians or librarians who have access to, or can point you to, documents containing the truth.  Many locations either manipulate facts or fabricate stories to lure paying customers.

Those who sincerely seek other opinions:
Many times we see excited ghost hunters throw up a picture on a paranormal page, saying they want honest opinions, but in reality, they really just want a pat on the back for their "proof".  Then they get defensive when people more knowledgable about photography inform them they really took a picture of a moth. But occasionally, my faith in humanity is briefly restored when people accept informed opinions and even express gratitude for the information.  These are the people who have an authentic thirst for knowledge and are not in this just to boost their egos.  This is where networking, as long as people can be civil, is be a good thing for the paranormal community.  I personally learned a great deal in such constructive forums, gaining not only new information, but resources for continued reference as well.

Those who keep an open mind:
Many people still misunderstand the term "skeptic", confusing it with "cynic",  one who outright dismisses claims.  But a true skeptic dismisses or accepts a claim based on objective, verifiable data.  They may change their mind if new information is presented.  Most skeptics I know are open to the possibility that the paranormal exists, but demand valid evidence. On the other hand, I respect the believers who recognize and manage their own cognitive bias and are open to natural, rational explanations to seemingly paranormal evidence or experiences.  If we are honestly searching for the truth in paranormal claims, we must accept it might not be what we expect.

Those who walk the walk:
I love those who actively practice and experiment with their cameras, recorders, and other equipment outside of investigations.  Those who take the time not only to learn how their gear works, but what factors and conditions may affect them, and what quirks they have that can create false positives. Those who are willing to eliminate equipment and techniques they once favored, as they apply more objective methodology. Those who are constantly reading all they can about valid investigative techniques and searching for new resources.  I appreciate investigators who physically go to locations and research the claims themselves.  I applaud those who go beyond a cursory fact check, and actively search old archives and documents and even interview people who have a connection to the history of the location.  Unfortunately, this sometimes results in exposing a well-known story as a fabrication and these investigators receive some backlash from some ghost hunters for destroying their fragile little fantasies.  But that is REAL investigating,  and what those all of us who call ourselves "investigators" and "researchers" should strive for.

Those who possess a little humility:
I have a lot of respect for those who can say, "I don't know".  Too often, we see paranormal investigators who present themselves as "experts" and instead of doing the morally right thing and admit something might be beyond their knowledge, they make up something that sounds science-ish to save face.  This is a disservice to any client they have as well as paranormal research.  It's okay to say "I don't know" and then refer to someone who does have the expertise to get to the bottom of a claim.  I also respect those who can admit they were wrong.  Most of the skeptics I know started out as believers.  But as they learned about the many factors that can cause misidentification or misperception, they were willing to reevaluate their beliefs and change their approach to paranormal research.  They threw out useless fancy gadgets and distanced themselves from their former favorite TV para-celebs.  (I cringe when I think of the money I wasted over the years on some popular "ghost hunting" gadgets.)

Those who engage in civil debates:
The reason I dislike the term "paranormal unity" is because those who wave that banner claim all paranormal investigators are searching for the same thing. That is false.  There are those who want to prove ghosts exists, no matter what.  There are others who want to prove ghosts do not exist, no matter what. There are those who are like me, who believe in the possibility they exist, but all natural causes must be identified and ruled out first before we can even consider anything might be paranormal.   So even though there are clearly different agendas, I encourage civil discourse and debate because it is an excellent way to expand our viewpoints and gain knowledge.  I admire those who are passionate in their opinions, but can express them without name-calling, personal attacks and insults.  If we are truly trying to get valid information out there, the fastest way to shut people off to it is to engage in such tactics.  The people I learned the most from, and who most inspired me to practice and promote critical thinking in paranormal research, where those who backed their arguments with objective information and sources instead of bashing.

Sharing is caring:
I applaud those with professional expertise who are happy to impart information to others.   Those who are willing to put themselves out there and promote their opinions on websites, blogs, podcasts, videos, books, lectures, etc.  They list sources for others to check on and learn from on their own.  They are happy to promote and support others who have expertise in specific areas.  They take the time to answer questions and give their educated opinions on submitted "evidence".  Most of them who I know personally do not receive any monetary compensation for it, and instead receive a lot of headaches in the form of criticism, threats, and cyber stalkers. But they do it for the love of sharing knowledge and combating the overwhelming amount of misinformation regarding paranormal investigating.  I also admire those who support preserving the history of locations they investigate.  I know several teams who help their local historical societies preserve historical sites by fundraising or even physically participating in restoration and upkeep.

Those with a healthy perspective: 
I am wary of those who seem obsessed with the paranormal.  Passionate interest is one thing, but making ghost hunting one's identity is another. I see teams that are way more invested in creating team logos for their shirts and cars, getting as many likes for their team pages than doing basic research into the "evidence" they are posting or learning any scientific methodology to go with the science-y terms the like to use.  I've met too many such people who are so emotionally invested in their "evidence", or ghost hunter identity that they are shut off from reality. They resist any facts that may challenge their illusions.   On the other hand, I've seen skeptics who don't know when to walk away from a lost cause.  You just can't reason with the unreasonable, so move on to something productive and constructive.  I respect those in the paranormal community who are equally active in other interests, like history, sci-fi, music, and volunteering for charitable causes.  And I love those who have a healthy sense of humor and have FUN when researching or discussing the paranormal.  

Those who nurture their curiosity:
Most of us got into paranormal investigating because we were curious.  Were there really ghosts?  Could we capture them on film or tape?  Why would they haunt a specific location?  I have skeptic friends, who may not believe there is any scientific evidence of ghosts at this point, who still love investigating.  Why?  Because they never lost their curiosity, they just redirected it.  What could cause that sound?  What factors could contribute to people seeing a shadow person in that hallway?  Why do batteries drain in that basement?  What is the real history behind the stories?  And the list of questions to ask goes on - including, "What if?"