Spirituality in the Vatican
Sheldrake and Wikipedia

Unghostly Ghosts

Today over my lunch I selected two bits of reading material to look at. One is a book by a British science writer Matthew Hutson about magical thinking (which is actually quite good, and which I might review here eventually, as it is raises some interesting issues). The other is the latest issue of the SPR’s Paranormal Review, which arrived a few days ago.

First I picked up the Hutson book and carried on reading from where I left off, a brief discussion of afterlife beliefs. He rehearses the standard arguments against them: mind processes are affected by drugs and diseases that attack the brain, so it’s logical that the mind is the brain; Susan Blackmore and Olaf Blanke on NDEs; and so on. On the subject of ghosts he mentions that 34% of Britons report believing in ghosts, and 43% of respondents in this survey report having communicated with the dead, but adds:

Most ghost stories aren’t cinema-worthy, let alone enough to compel Bill Murray to dust off his proton pack. They usually amount to hearing a wind chime or footsteps, seeing a shadow move in the corner of one’s eye, or feeling an eerie presence. Such encounters implicate nothing more than draughts, knocking radiators, or pets, plus anxiety, expectation, visual illusion, selective memory, and imagination. Some ghost-myth busters have offered brain-altering magnetic fields or chill-inducing subsonic frequencies as additional explanations.

Having finished the chapter I turned to the Paranormal Review, where I found an article titled 'A Neighbour’s Return'. I'll give the gist.

It's September 1983 and a Miss Parsons is returning to her flat in Bayswater, West London, having lived abroad for more than a year. While waiting for the lift she is greeted by a neighbour, a Mrs Leyton, who she has known for years, and who is delighted that she has come back at last. They chat about this and that, and then Miss Parsons draws attention to her neighbour’s wrist, having noticed that it's bandaged. “Oh it has been like that for a month or more,” is the response. Miss Parsons is in a rush, having double parked, so Mrs Leyton says, “I don’t want to keep you”, and they part.

The next day Miss Parsons meets with the porter, and during the course of the conversation he mentions that Mrs Leyton died last Christmas. He pays no attention to Miss Parson’s protests and adds that the woman’s sister is in now in her flat, trying to sell it. Miss Parsons says nothing further, assuming it was the sister she must have been speaking to. But when she meets the sister it is someone quite different. The sister mentions that the injured wrist was the cause of Mrs Leyton’s visit to a doctor, during which a severe heart condition was discovered, from which she died soon afterwards.

The incident was investigated eight years later, and revisited by the author of the article, Peter Hallson. The essential details are confirmed by documents and an interview with Miss Parsons. Hallson examines two possibilities: that the encounter was a case of mistaken identity; and that Miss Parson’s memory of it might have become corrupted by the eight-year time lapse between it and the investigation, causing details to be forgotten or false ones added.

However there are some significant arguments against both these: mistaken identity would require another resident closely resembling Mrs Leyton, who happened also to have injured her wrist, and who also knew that Miss Parsons had been away – an unlikely combination of circumstances. Reference to the bandaged wrist at three different times in three weeks – the original encounter and Miss Parsons’ subsequent meetings with the sister and another relative – all argue against false memory.

Hallson cautions against considering such cases as hard evidence of survival, but thinks it’s at least interesting enough to put on record. That’s seems about right, although considered collectively, a substantial number of well evidenced incidents of this kind might reasonably be held to point in that direction – as the authors of Phantasms of the Living argued.

I just find it remarkable that this phenomenon barely ever gets mentioned in casual debunkings like the one in Hutson’s book. Of course it could easily be brushed aside – ‘such cases are invariably found to be caused by hallucination, mistaken identity, the corruption of memory over long periods, and suchlike’ - but we don’t even get that. It seems not at all to have penetrated the collective educated mind that this sort of thing happens.

I was expecting to write something along these lines in a few weeks time when Halloween comes round, always an opportunity for media folk to take a little walk on the spooky side. I’ll be looking out in those reviews, articles and broadcasts for the slightest sign of knowledge of the SPR’s research, without expecting any. But it seems to me that this is a problem with a doable solution. If the SPR (ideally) or some other organisation set itself the task of educating the media about the phenomenon of crisis apparitions within, say, five years, it could perhaps get measurable results.

What I also find rather intriguing is that these ‘ghosts’ don’t appear remotely ghostly. The ‘trick of the light’ school of thought assumes they’re wispy shades, something quite 'other'. But in all the most striking anecdotes the narrator at the time has no suspicion that he/she is not dealing with a real person. They’re normal encounters, seemingly with real people, and if they aren’t real people, that surely makes them very cinema-worthy indeed.

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Couldn't it be that it does not remotely appear as ghost because it *is* not a ghost (or that there are many possible phenomena which may look alike but are in fact unrelated) ? You mentioned "crisis apparations" here and in your book: A completely convincing duplicate of a person without any fear-inducing effects.
Perhaps they should not be mixed together, especially because seeing ghosts will be seen much more negatively and is normally associated with things as: Noise of unknown origin, moving things without cause, apparitions which are definitely *not* persons and extreme fear etc.

Hutson:

"Drugs and brain disease affect mental function, therefore brain = mind."

Using the same logic:

Richard Dawkins is giving a live broadcast on TV. Someone hits the TV set with a hammer, or there's a power failure, and Dawkins' image is affected - indeed, he might disappear altogether.

Thus proving conclusively that Richard Dawkins is entirely the product of the TV set, and has no independent existence.

Case closed.

"we don’t even get that. It seems not at all to have penetrated the collective educated mind that this sort of thing happens."

You're being too kind Robert.

Everyone knows full well writers like this're doing exactly the same as their equivalents along the pro Fortean spectrum: they're preaching to the faithful for personal profit and riling the opposition for personal satisfaction by attacking examples even their most ardent counterparts'd hesitate to use.

It's the same approach Randi used on his dowsing investigation show of many aeons ago. This tweedy British military type's wheeled on an' aces every test from map dowsing to finding objects in the studio to distinguishing liquids then Randi announces "But now for the final test which'll prove once and for all whether dowsing actually works..." and suddenly this bewildered lookin' woman's wheeled on to do a test which's doesn't seem to be defined and hardly has she started what exactly it is she's supposed to do than she's brushed off as a complete and utter failure.

And of course if the bum's rushed person dares to speak out or act up then out's wheeled "Isn't this just yet more proof these people have bats in their belfries?"

TSK "Couldn't it be that it does not remotely appear as ghost because it *is* not a ghost (or that there are many possible phenomena which may look alike"?

I concur in principle while qualifying this with the personal experience after me Dad died I kept seeing and interacting with him in many different forms for years afterwards some of which were Predator translucent traditional ghost-like others vividly flesh and blood like as well as in a wide range of ages ranging from him as a lad in his late teens [though I only met him so to speak when he was in his late forties] all the way through to a a very tired and delapidated looking old man [he died aged 92 in hospital].

I'm squeamish though over whether the many possible phenomena which look alike're unrelated.

For instance if we moderns can have out the body experiences mightn't more mature civilizations both here and elsewhere've developed them to much more sophisticated levels and therefore as a means of exploring the universe?

In which case if Elsewhereans visited here and tried to communicate with less mature consciousnesses might they not be perceived as fantasical quasi impossible objects or produce mind bending interactions which seemed more like strange hybrids of 1930s Flash Gordon episodes crossed with surreal dreams or out and out nightmares?

Well I'm hard pressed to believe that hearing what seems to be a wind chime or footsteps constitutes a ghost story! But regardless of whether they are or not, they are clearly totally uninteresting.

What are interesting is apparently encountering someone you know, conversing with them about completely mundane everything things, only to find out afterwards that the person you were talking to is dead. I think this happens far to frequently to be accounted for by normal explanations.

But to what extent this gives evidence for a "life after death" I'm completely unsure about. It just seems utterly bizarre to suppose a dead person would talk about utterly mundane things.

Also I think people experience such apparitions where the person being seen is still alive. Yet they were not aware they were appearing as an apparition to someone!

So perhaps not very evidential for an afterlife, but nevertheless absolutely fascinating!

I'm well aware that my following statement will attract ridicule from certain quarters, but I believe that my giant schnauzer, Biff, saw the ghost of my newly deceased horse a couple of weeks ago.

The strange thing is/was that I didn't realize what was happening at the time. It was only upon analysis of the situation later, and in consultation with others, that it dawned upon me. I suspect this is one of the anomalies of such encounters: we're not expecting such events and their significance doesn't register until later. I could kick myself for not being more on the ball at the time of that occurrence. But, having said that, if ever there's a next time I suspect the relevance of any such direct encounter will probably elude me again.

Ps. And As I said to Ian earlier, on fb: I'm pretty certain that a dead person would talk about 'utterly mundane things'. Imagine if you encountered someone who opened a conversation with the following: 'Hello, I hope you understand that I'm dead.' You'd hang around to hear more, wouldn't you? ;)

If the deceased person didn't know they were dead (or were in denial), they might behave in mundane ways. A friend of mine related a very similar story about his friend returning to Mexico to visit the home town, meeting an old friend, who asked him to pay some money owed to his mother. The visitor suggested the fellow pay her himself, but the old friend said he had to be somewhere. The visitor continued in to town to see his friend lying in a coffin at his wake. My friend speculated about our spirits remaining temporarily as 'thought forms' or 'energy forms,' or something that evaporate eventually. Doesn't shed much light on if or what the afterlife is.

What are interesting is apparently encountering someone you know, conversing with them about completely mundane everything things, only to find out afterwards that the person you were talking to is dead. I think this happens far to frequently to be accounted for by normal explanations.

But to what extent this gives evidence for a "life after death" I'm completely unsure about. It just seems utterly bizarre to suppose a dead person would talk about utterly mundane things.

Also I think people experience such apparitions where the person being seen is still alive. Yet they were not aware they were appearing as an apparition to someone!

In my opinion that an apparition is not worthy of the film is a sign that is authentic, because reality is rarely as spectacular as the film. We note also that if someone just died, the most plausible is that he/she talk about mundane things.

If an apparition has the look of a deceased and show intelligent behavior, interacting with witnesses, etc., then it is evidence of an afterlife. Cases like this have happened, so there are cases of apparitions as evidence of an afterlife.

About the apparitions of the living, we note that these apparitions point to something like the astral body, which is a requirement of an afterlife.

I'm fascinated by that story as I've heard others like it (never had anything remotely like that happen to me, though).

So does it mean that if you don't know a person is dead, it's easier for you to see and interact with them than if you already know, and don't have any expectation of ever seeing them again?

Hello Christine. I can only speak for myself, but I would imagine that's the case. We tend to see only what we expect to see, and we don't expect to see ghosts. I think that could explain why animals are said to be more sensitive to the presence of such phenomena: they have no preconceived ideas.

I totally think that cases like this at least point to some "paranormal" process but considering the phenomenon of apparitions of people still alive (and appearing to someone else while being occupied with something else and unaware of appearing to another person) it is not a strong prove of the survival of consciousness. Maybe an apparition is just an accumulation of personal habits, an imprint of consciousness, a personal creation? This does not at all mean that our consciousness might not go somewhere else but maybe it is by far more complex that we could imagine...

The comments to this entry are closed.