Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Paranormal or Paranoid?

I wanted to discuss just one of the reasons that paranormal phenomenon is often dismissed and considered the irrational musings of the common man; our own brains. The fact is that what the mind perceives is based on many things from external stimuli to the person’s own brain chemistry/brain injury and interpretive/explanatory style. I might hear a sound in another room on a ghost hunt, but Buddy might hear footsteps. Janice might see a dark shadow near the door and Tommy might assume it’s the faint light casting a shadow from the door.

When you read these sort of mental conditions below, you can see exactly why many in the scientific world dismiss paranormal phenomenon. The fact is, humans are not very accurate receivers and interpreters and what is one man’s fear is another man’s pleasure, so any sensations found on a good ghost hunt can be chalked off to variations of these conditions (thank you Wikipedia):

In psychiatry, thought broadcasting is the delusion that one is capable of "inserting" thoughts into other individual's minds, or that others can perceive them (telepathy); for instance that one's thoughts are being transmitted from one's mind and broadcast to everyone. This is one of the first rank symptoms of schizophrenia.

In psychiatry, thought insertion is the delusion that thoughts are being inserted into one's mind by someone else. It is a symptom of psychosis which occur in many mental disorders and other conditions. Thought insertion along with thought broadcast, thought withdrawal, thought block as well as other first rank symptoms are primary symptoms and should not be confused with the delusionary explanation given by the respondent.

A hallucination, in the broadest sense, is a perception in the absence of a stimulus. In a stricter sense, hallucinations are defined as perceptions in a conscious and awake state in the absence of external stimuli which have qualities of real perception, in that they are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space. These can come in many forms including auditory (hearing), visual (seeing), tactile (feeling).

The paragraph above about hallucinations is telling. It mentions “absence of stimulus” but as any ghost hunter knows, we only react to stimuli, so technically we’re not hallucinating, we’re simply noticing a noise. It’s up to our interpretive styles to decide if that means “ghost” or “unexplained noise by something of this world.” I admit to being a true skeptic in the field. My explanatory style begins with “everything is explainable” and then when I’ve exhausted all possibilities, I throw up my hands and categorize it as “paranormal” for now.

The reason the field has trouble advancing is that we are using humans to interpret and receive stimuli and report on it, so it’s not very efficacious. We try with crude electrician’s tools to map out phenomenon, but we really have no truly objective ways, as of yet, to respond to phenomenon without the use of these fallible human interpreters.

My greatest hope is that some day stories of hauntings will not just be anecdotal, but will be the precursor to using equipment that can actually verify phenomenon. From then on the human body and its senses and explanatory style will actually make us the bloodhounds of the ghost hunting world when equipment can then verify—yup, he did sense it and he was right. I’m looking forward to that day.


  1. Wonderful story. I would worry less about the people having out and out hallucinations and full blown delusions than people that delude themselves, have personality disorders, or who are just lying. Most people with psychosis that leads to hallucinations and delusions are easy to spot because their behavior and speech patterns are so bizarre. You know them when you see them. It's the people with paranoid personality disorder or schizotypal personality disorder that I would worry about. Their delusions are subtle and they usually make sense. They may not hallucinate but their paranoia and magical thinking makes them believe things that are not real. They are also not easily treated with antipsychotics or any psychopharmacological treatment because personality disorders have been shown to be resistant to medical treatment.

  2. Hey Jessica;
    Yeah, it's a throwing the baby out with the bathwater situation. Because some people can be having some serious personality issues (I've ran into them before) most are honestly experiencing things they can't explain. Even with the wide range of drugs available nowadays, I still type up reports every day for mental health professionals involving people who just stop taking their meds because they don't "feel like themselves." I can imagine if you're used to those kinds of mental features, having them quiet down might make one feel strangely not themselves. You hear something very similar when you watch the psychic kids show--the kids who see and hear ghosts are treated as if mentally ill when they could be terribly sensitive. It's such a fine line when the way we sense ghosts has to do with the senses and yet those senses can vary from person to person. Hopefully, some day we can universalize it all by having the right objective instruments at hand and then we can actually see what features people feel and sense that link up with positive readings by instruments. We could really train ourselves to be good receivers some day.