Yesterday I came across a British TV show on Sky channel 7 (Vibe), called Most Haunted. The basis of this programme seemed to be to have a team of paranormal investigators, accompanied by a camera crew, visit a supposedly haunted house where they look for paranormal activity. Much of the programme seemed to have the investigators standing around in the dark asking ghosts to demonstrate their presence in some way (using night vision cameras to see what was happening). During this time, various team members would indicate that a spirit was present due to cold breezes, strange noises or flashes of light (which no one else could see).
While most of the investigators took these phenomena to mean that ghosts were present, I would like to suggest instead that they are the result of several well known psychological phenomena:
- Priming – Before standing around in the dark, a psychic took the investigators on a tour of the building identifying spirits who were present and giving details about them. Such details subconsciously “prime” the investigators to interpret anything unusual as the result of ghostly activity.
- Heightened alertness – In the dark, in unfamiliar surroundings and with the expectation of ghostly visitors human senses become heightened. It is part of the survival instinct which has serves us well for many millenia. Thus even a slight noise or breeze can be perceived as a threat resulting in a surge of adrenalin and an overreaction to the “threat”. Under such circumstances our brains will embellish what has been observed, making it seem otherworldly.
- Sensory enhancement – In a dark and quiet room, our sensory input is reduced. Under such circumstances an alert mind unconsciously seeks out additional input. Thus even a slight breeze or noise can seem significant. In complete darkness it is also possible for us to perceive flashes of light due to processes internal to the eye.
- Pattern seeking – human beings naturally seek out patterns in our environment, particularly those that resemble the human face (proposed to be part of our survival mechanism by which, as defenseless babies we seek out our adult protectors). Thus it is very easy to interpret shadows and vague shapes of human figures or faces.
At no stage during this programme was any reasonable evidence presented to show that ghosts were present. However, to heighten the effect, clips of the investigators freaking out to cold breezes and noises were often repeated two or three times.
At the end of the episode I watches the resident skeptic spent the last two minutes of this ~45 minute programme outlining how none of the observations was conclusive. I suppose this is what passes for balance in paranormal entertainment – around 40 minutes of storytelling, standing around in the dark and scaring each other, followed by less than two minutes of rational analysis, pointing out nothing was learnt.