Thursday, July 2, 2015

Devil in the Details

A while back, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a true believer of the paranormal realm.  We were discussing a paranormal team's claim that they may have encountered an evil entity on a case.  An investigator suddenly experienced strong emotions that didn't feel like they were coming from him:  overwhelming anxiety, apprehension, sadness, overall discomfort.  The other team members said he tends to be skeptical and this was not typical behavior from him.  My friend discussed possibilities that are based only on spiritual/religious belief systems such as demonic oppression and possession, and I discussed real-world possibilities like extremely low frequencies and infrasound.  These are known (meaning, they have been observed and replicated in experiments) to cause the same sensations in some people as those described by the team member.  I went on to voice my concern over how this team discussed their suspicion of a negative entity with the homeowner, even though they admitted that they had not reviewed all of the data they collected on the investigation.  In my opinion, it was irresponsible.  My friend agreed that they should not have influenced their client, but then asked:  "But what if you're wrong?"

This simple question addresses why I choose to approach paranormal claims from a skeptical approach.   I, like every other person on this planet, am flawed.  I carry around my own biases and preferences.  So I concede I could be wrong; perhaps there are demons hanging out, waiting for the opportunity to nab an unsuspecting ghost hunter.  But here's the thing:  there is no objective, verifiable evidence they exist.  The concept of demons is traced to purely religious and spiritual beliefs. Various religions and cultures throughout history have viewed them differently, so there's not even a consensus among believers to what exactly they are, how they behave, or what their motives might be.  The term demon is derived from the latin daemon, which is a transliteration from the greek daimon, from the Indo-European term dai, translated as "distributer of destinies".  The earliest beliefs is that these were neutral beings, neither good nor evil, but were messengers revealing a person's destiny, and it was the perception of the recipient which decided whether it was positive or negative.  Later, Neo-Platonians considered demons to be both good and evil beings.  But as new religions were born, the concept of these beings changed to break with older traditions and fit new spiritual ideas and agendas. For example, as Carol Sagan noted in his book, The Demon-Haunted World, St. Augustine, an early influential Christian theologian and philosopher , assimilated the earlier pagan tradition replacing "gods" by "God" and decided that demons were evil, declaring that though they posed as messengers from God, it was a ruse to lure humans to their demise.

There are various ways, or models, of explaining abnormal behavior.  The oldest is the Demonological Model.  Archeological evidence of human skeletons support that during the Stone Age, people would practice trephining, creating a hole in the skull to release evil spirits.  Most often, it also released the patient's life functions.  In ancient Greece, it was believed that madness was caused by the gods.  Hippocrates was an exception, surmising such behavior was caused by a brain abnormality.  Unfortunately, his idea didn't catch on for another 2000 years. During the Middle Ages in Europe and the early Colonial Period in the United States, it was a common belief that madness, as well as fairly common conditions, were signs of possession by agents of the devil, such as witches. People suffering from nightmares, undiagnosed illnesses, or deformities could be under suspicion.  Fueled by Pope Innocent VIII's endorsement of the Malleus Maleficarum, a treatise on the prosecution of witches, this led to widespread hysteria and the death of thousands of innocent people.

On the other hand, science has given us possible explanations for these same experiences, supporting them with objective data that people can refer to for further study.  For example, in the study of psychology, the medical model views abnormal behavior as a symptom of an underlying disorder, such as a biological or biochemical issue.  While for much of history, auditory and visual hallucinations were believed to originate from supernatural agents, such as demons or witches, a secular movement finally gained traction with philosophers and scientists during the mid eighteenth century.  Visions and voices were now being viewed as having physiological origin, due to overactivity of certain areas within the brain.  The notion of incubi and succubi tormenting sleeping victims has frightened people throughout history.  But we now know this is explained by a fairly common, albeit frightening sleep disorder called sleep paralysis.  At the University of Waterloo, J.A. Cheyne and  colleagues have shown that between a third and a half of the general population has experienced this phenomena.  As the body enters REM sleep, the body is paralyzed, outside of shallow breathing and eye movement.  When this process is disturbed and dreamer awakens during this cycle, they will be unable to move, feel like a heavy weight is pressing down on them, might have a sensation of an evil presence, and are understandably overwhelmed by a sense of terror.  Because the brain is transitioning from a dreaming to waking state, the subject may be seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling things from their dreamscape.   These are hypnogogic hallucinations, and are not always as intense as those experienced in night terrors.  For example, common examples of hypnogogic hallucinations include waking to hearing one's name, seeing a figure by the bed, having a sensation of being touched, and smelling perfume or smoke.  As I mentioned in other posts, I've experienced  these all of my life.  Believe me, they seem and feel very real.

Many times, people react negatively to the term "hallucinations", assuming they are associated only with mental disorders.  This is untrue.  While there are mental illnesses which cause hallucinations, there are also mundane environmental and physiological causes as well.  I already mentioned how infrasound can cause uneasy sensations in some people.  It can also create visual misperceptions, such as seeing gray shadows.  Another example is sensory deprivation.  When deprived of light for some time, mild visual hallucinations such as flashing or colorful lights, can appear.  I often experienced these in my father's darkroom at his professional photography studio.  (I thought they were cool, so I wasn't frightened.)  Another example is hearing voices.  Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology NYU School of Medicine, explains in his book Hallucinations, that many sane people report hearing voices. This phenomenon was recognized in the nineteenth century during the rise of neurology.  Early researchers found such hallucinations were not uncommon in the general population.  The most common auditory hallucination is hearing one's own name, which Sigmund Freud reported experiencing in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.  According to Dr. Sacks, recent studies confirm it is not uncommon for ordinary people to hear voices, and that most of people do so are not suffering from a mental illness such as schizophrenia.

Separate from audio hallucinations caused by psychosis, various explanations have been proposed as to why normal people hear voices.  Dr. Sack cautions that these subjects need further research since the majority of studies have focused on psychiatric patients, not the general population.  But some research suggests auditory hallucinations may be associated with abnormal activation of the primary auditory cortex.  They also may result from an inability to recognize internally generated speech as one's own, possibly resulting from cross-activation with a auditory areas of the brain or a physiological barrier that prevents us from hearing inner speech as external.

As mentioned earlier, for much of human history, madness has been considered a result of demonic forces.  Consider a person who suddenly becomes withdrawn, hears voices tormenting them, becomes self-abusive, claims there are entities following them, develop bizarre speech patterns, and becomes uncharacteristically disorganized or sloppy.  To some people, these could be seen as supposed signs of a demonic oppression or possession.  But to medical professionals, these are classic symptoms of schizophrenia. This medical illness has been studied more than any other mental disorder because of its seriousness. The symptoms are diverse and vary between patients. The exact cause has not been identified, because it is likely that there is more than one.  The brain of a patients with severe schizophrenia appears significantly different than a normal brain on PET scans and other brain images.  Researchers are studying various factors, such as dopamine activity and another neurotransmitter, glutamate.  Genes are a factor, since one is four times more likely to be diagnosed with it if there is a history of it in their family.  Research has linked certain genes such as CNP and ERBB 4 to schizophrenia as well as OLIG2, a gene associated with brain development and function.  However, since identical twins have only a 50% chance of developing the illness if their twin has it, there are other factors besides genes to consider.  Recent research suggests it may occur, at least in part, due to abnormal brain development during late teen and early years.  During this time, the brain naturally eliminates some connections between cells as part of maturation, but the rate of loss of tissue in the prefrontal lobes and parietal lobes has been observed to be more pronounced and covered a larger area in schizophrenic subjects.

 While ghost hunters and demonologists may be sincere, they typically approach cases from a completely subjective approach.  (It doesn't help that over the past several years, paranormal "reality" shows, which many ghost hunters emulate, have promoted the more sensational "demonic" story lines over average ho-hum ghosts.) On the other hand, psychologists, neurologists and other health professionals publish case histories, studies and medical trials for peer review and further testing and study.  Science is dynamic, it is constantly changing. As new discoveries and information appears, previous conclusions are challenged and reassessed. If the evidence no longer holds up under scientific methodology, it is dismissed. When faced with such a case where people are demonstrating behaviors mentioned above, only a properly trained and licensed medical professional, such as a psychologist, can diagnose, rule out and treat psychological issues.  Most ghost hunters do not have such qualifications, and can run the risk of making a situation worse for a client and their family, even if they have the best of intentions.

Some time ago, while listening to a paranormal web radio show, someone boasted in the chat room that when they use a ghost box to "communicate"with spirits, at least they are "helping" people while skeptics only want to help themselves.  First, fooling yourself and others with extremely flawed and subjective information is not helping anyone.  Secondly, offering real-world explanations and solutions IS helping.  For example, I was contacted by a mother who was worried about her toddler son.  He woke up screaming in the middle of the night saying "bad dream" and "ghost".  He was so upset, the mother had a hard time getting him back to bed and asleep.  He was still scared and agitated the next day, and said the ghost had been pinching him.  So I sent her links to scientific articles about hypnagogic hallucinations, as well as articles by psychologists explaining how it is common for young children not to be able to separate fantasy. I went on to suggest that she reinforce it was only a dream as to not feed his fear, and if it continued, to contact her pediatrician.  She thanked me because she had never heard of this fairly common sleep disorder, and said she would follow my advice and talk to his pediatrician.  Pardon me if I think it's more helpful to inform a worried parent about a documented condition that can be addressed by a qualified health professional, than using a broken radio.  One can imagine the possible damage that could be done to that little boy if Ghost Box Lady, or someone like her, provided their idea of "help" in that situation.

It is not my purpose to judge or criticize others' spiritual or religious beliefs, especially since I was raised in a religion that supports the existence of demons.  But it is presumptuous and even irresponsible to make claims or present "evidence" based solely on those beliefs.  If paranormal investigators are truly interested in helping people, I urge them to take a step back from their own beliefs or agendas and consider what is in a client's best interest.  Does anyone really want to risk making a situation worse by feeding a delusion?  Does anyone really want to risk creating unnecessary and unfounded fear in a family?  By approaching a claim objectively and using critical thinking, we help reduce being blinded by our biases, deceiving ourselves and most importantly, misleading those seeking help.  Science may not have all the answers, but as physicist Brian Cox says, it differs from other traditions because it can be checked to see if it is true.


Joni E. Johnston, PhD,  Complete Idiot’s Guide to Psychology,
New York: Penguin Group, 2009

Oliver Sacks, PhD, Hallucinations
New York, Toronto,: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

Carl Sagon, The Demon Haunted World
New York: Ballantine Books, 1996

Spencer A. Rathus, Psychology: Fourth Edition Annotated Instructor's Edition
Philadelphia: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990

Vic Tandy, "The Ghost in the Machine"
Journal of the Society for Psychical Research Vol.62, No 851 April 1998