Monday, August 3, 2015

Logic and Lizards

Originally published for Paranormal Enlightenment Magazine:

My late father was a man who had many interests.  For example, he built model trains and was an avid gardener.  It was common for him to call me out to the garage to show me a new model building he painted or out to the yard to show me a prized rose blooming.  Once in a while though, my dad would take advantage of my gullibility.  On one such occasion during a visit a few years ago, he called from the garage, "Come out here, so I can show this." Since he'd been busy working on more models, I suspected nothing nefarious about the request and ventured into the garage, where, with a smirk, he pointed down at something near my feet: a skink.  For those who don't know, skinks are long, skinny lizards that look very similar to something I am phobic about - snakes.  I screamed and broke a couple laws of physics by promptly levitating four feet backwards.  Dad got the biggest kick out of it, enjoying a good belly laugh at my expense.  (The skink remained unharmed.)

I will get back to dad and lizards in a moment, but before I do, I want to discuss something important for us, as paranormal investigators, to be aware of:  apophenia, commonly called pattern seeking.  According to RationalWiki, apophenia is "the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data".  Other related terms include Carl Jung's "synchronicity", in which he asserted that coincidences containing symbolism actually had meaning.  I've talked about Michael Shermer's term "patternicity" before.  From his book The Believing Brain:  "Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature.  Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not."

There are types of apophenia that paranormal investigators should be aware of when trying to find the cause behind claims.  Many are already familiar with pareidolia, also called matrixing, where a subject sees a meaningful shape, most often faces, in random patterns.  This also applies to sound, when ambient noise at certain frequencies and patterns can sound like speech.  Confirmation bias is when one tests their hypothesis in ways to only confirm it, not disprove it.  Hindsight bias is concluding that seemingly meaningful events have caused a current situation.  This is common in the paranormal community, where people take random events and connect them.  For example, weird noises in the house, disturbing dreams, and sensation of cold spots if taken individually, will each likely have mundane and unrelated explanations, but putting them together makes a recipe for a classic "haunting".   Of course, priming increases the likelihood of seeing a certain pattern that isn't really there.  For example, if we are told that a picture has what looks like a little girl, we are more likely to see a little girl in a pixilated blob.  When we are told what a supposed EVP says, we are more likely to hear those words, even if what was recorded wasn't a voice or words at all.

During a recent visit home, I pruned the rose bushes for my mom.   Naturally, as I was doing so, I thought of my dad, who taught me where to make cuts on the plants as well as the history of some of the roses.  Like one that came from a cutting from my grandmother's yard, which grew from a cutting from my great-grandmother's yard.  Afterward, I took the cuttings to the proper garbage bin and when I lifted the lid, sitting on top of the yard waste and staring at me with malice, was a spotted lizard. Not proud to report that I developed a spontaneous case of Tourette's Syndrome and slammed the lid shut.  I couldn't help but think how my dad would have gotten a good laugh out of this.  (Later, with my mom by my side for protection, I propped the lid open so the lizard could safely get out.)

The next day, I went to visit my dad's grave.  Because it is in an old picturesque rural cemetery, I brought my camera with me.  As I wandered around some of the older graves, I soon sensed I was being followed.  I heard a rustling of leaves on the ground behind me as as I walked and turned around but saw nobody.  Feeling a little creeped out, I continued taking photos, and as I stooped to get a shot of a wooden marker, my stalker made itself known:  a little brown lizard.  I waved my arms at it to try to persuade it to go elsewhere, and, thankfully, it did.  But soon after, another rustling of dried leaves from the opposite direction revealed another brown lizard, running straight for me.  It hopped up on a the concrete boarder of a plot right by me and started doing little push ups, which I took as a direct threat to my well-being.  I decided me and my camera were going elsewhere.  And again, I thought of Dad, watching this scene and chuckling at my irrational fear of the tiny reptiles.

Was my connecting the lizards to my dad merely a product of apophenia?  As a skeptic, I have to admit it is most likely.  But might it be possible that Dad was somehow around, laughing with me?  As a grieving daughter, I want to think so.  A psychologist once explained to me that it doesn't matter whether such experiences are actual contact with deceased loved ones.  What matters is how they keep their memories alive, and eases the pain of our loss somewhat.

I continue to encourage paranormal investigators to remain objective and use critical thinking when investigating claims.  But my experiences also prompt me to remind researchers to understand how and why grieving clients may be processing and interpreting information.  Several years ago, I was part of a writing seminar in which we all critiqued each other's pieces.  A woman wrote a ghost story, where after the funeral of the main character's father, a balloon floated from room to room until it rested by a photo of the deceased man, proving he was there with them.  I had to open my big mouth to provide a rational explanation like air currents and the stack affect in homes, and said it would take a lot more in the story to convince me there was a ghostly visit.  The woman broke down in tears, and later someone explained to me that although she had written it in the third person, the story was about her own experience.  I felt awful, but it was a painful lesson for me to be much more sensitive to others' grief when listening to their paranormal claims.  Maybe that's why those lizards were giving me the stink-eye.


Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
New York: Times Books 2011, 59