Psychological Explanations for Seemingly Paranormal Phenomena

ghostly figure in white dressAbout half of all Americans believe in ghosts, with 22% reporting a personal experience with ghostly phenomena, according to a 2009 CBS News poll. Science and religion have long competed to explain seemingly paranormal experiences, such as hearing the voice of a deceased loved one or seeing ghostly figures. While no one can say with certainty that ghosts aren’t a part of our world, psychological phenomena may explain many common experiences.

Suggestibility and Priming

People are highly social creatures, and this means they’re also highly suggestible. If you see another person behaving fearfully, for example, you’re more likely to feel fear, even if there’s no obvious threat.

Suggestibility can fuel myths about ghosts and haunted houses, particularly in an environment that seems creepy. If you stay at an ostensibly haunted house, you’re primed to see ghosts because you’ve been told you might. This means you might interpret a strange noise as a sign that a ghost is present, particularly if other people seem frightened by the noise. Old and abandoned houses and locations that have a scary story—such as a hotel where someone was killed, or a home where someone committed suicide—can further prime your mind to “see” ghosts, even when you might otherwise explain away unusual apparitions and sounds.

Hallucinations

It’s easy to think of hallucinations as the domain of people who are disconnected from reality, but hallucinations are fairly common. About 10% of people who don’t have psychiatric issues report experiencing a hallucination at least once. People are more likely to hallucinate after the death of a loved one, and a large portion of people who have lost close family members report “seeing” or “hearing” the family member shortly after his or her death.

If you have vision or hearing problems, your odds of hallucinating are greatly increased, as degenerative conditions that affect the senses can cause you to perceive things that aren’t really there.

Sleep Issues

Perhaps one of the most frightening and common human experiences is the “phantom face.” Sleep paralysis helps to keep you safe when you’re sleeping. It prevents you from jumping out of your bed when you dream you’re jumping on a trampoline and ensures that you don’t actually hit someone when you dream you’re in a fight. Sometimes, though, sleep paralysis lasts a few moments longer than sleep itself. This can cause you to wake up unable to move, and images from your dreams can make their way into your waking life, seeming very real.

About 40% of people report seeing an image, such as a phantom face, upon waking up. This phenomenon can be terrifying, but it’s not caused by ghosts. The technical term for this type of sleep-induced hallucination is a hypnagogic hallucination.

Connecting Unconnected Things

The human mind is incredibly adept at building connections. This is the reason we’re able to master complex math, build seemingly intelligent machines, and remember vast quantities of information. But this connection-building tendency can also cause people to believe things that aren’t true. Apophenia is the tendency to see connections between unconnected events. This tendency can cause you to interpret mundane experiences as supernatural. For example, if you dream about your grandmother and then hear her favorite song on the radio, you might conclude that she’s communicating with you.

Pareidolia, a related phenomenon, occurs when people “complete” incomplete images. There are mundane examples of this in everyday life. Anyone who has noted that the front of a car looks like a face is engaging in pareidolia. Pareidolia, however, can also cause people to see ghostly images. Your mind, for example, might perceive a cloud of dust as a face. Combined with high suggestibility, apophenia and pareidolia can cause you to see things that aren’t there. And while the two behaviors can be associated with some mental health conditions, they’re normal cognitive processing mechanisms that everyone engages in from time to time.

References:

  1. Alfano, S. (2009, February 11). Poll: Majority believe in ghosts. CBSNews. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500160_162-994766.html
  2. Pareidolia. (n.d.). The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Retrieved from http://skepdic.com/pareidol.html
  3. Poulsen, B. (2012, July 31). Being amused by apophenia. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reality-play/201207/being-amused-apophenia
  4. Sacks, O. W. (2012). Hallucinations. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

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  • Gilly

    Gilly

    November 1st, 2013 at 3:42 AM

    You know that the true believers are really going to hate you for this one!

    I don’t know whether I believe in ghosts or not, even all the Ghost Hunter shows and stuff aren’t convincing enough for me to know one way or the other. But the stuff you have written about here, hallucinations and sleep problems and stuff, all of that is a lot more believable to me than the other ghost stuff.

  • Victoria

    Victoria

    November 4th, 2013 at 10:16 AM

    I am a firm believer with 40 years of my personal ghost and witnessed an evil spirit take over my cousins body. It was frightening to say the least. An exorcism gave her back to us. While I believe some hallucinate, etc., I know there are ghosts among us. That said, this true believer does NOT hate the blogger. In fact, I can not recall ever hating anyone for anything. I have read both sides for many years. I appreciate everything I have read. I know you meant well and likely did not completely mean *hate.* I appreciate your reply. Thank you for posting!

    V

  • Kathy

    Kathy

    December 17th, 2016 at 9:45 PM

    I am all glad I read this. I suffer both from periods of insomnia followed by a few days of heavy sleep afterwards. While I sleep I often dream of being held down. I feel myself as trying to scream. I see hands and forearms but cannot tell who they belong to. I believe my mind is awake but I cannot physically wake and move. I am
    Paralyzed at that moment. It’s so frightening I almost then I almost stay awake on purpose. It was mentioned the “Ghost” tv programs out now. It crossed my mind if my condition could maybe be paranormal. I am afraid to bring it up to either both my Priest and my Doctor. Any suggestions?

  • L.T.

    L.T.

    November 6th, 2017 at 11:46 AM

    I’ve had very bad sleep paralysis regularly since I was a little kid, and I very quickly learned to sleep on my stomach. That’s the best preventative step I know of. I know how absolutely terrifying it is, but don’t worry: it is entirely normal.
    It’s also crazy what kind of tricks your brain plays on you. For instance, one night while staying in a hotel, I had a sleep paralysis episode where (apart from the usual spectral figure of doom) I thought that I could see the digital alarm clock on the bedside table. I would have sworn that I was awake, that my eyes were open, and that I could see the green light of the numbers. And, per the usual sleep paralysis, I couldn’t move or scream, was absolutely terrified beyond description, and felt a threatening presence in the room. When I finally woke up, I went to the bathroom, had some water, and got back to bed. But as I did so I realized that the alarm clock had red numbers. The alarm clock from my sleep paralysis episode had, in fact, been just like the green digital alarm clock I had back in my bedroom at home. I guess the ol’ brain could remember that there was an alarm clock, but the dreamtime props department couldn’t remember the right color, so my “default” image of a digital alarm clock got subbed in. And when I started watching the “Hannibal” TV show, the dang ravenstag got to make cameos instead of the usual dark, spectral figure who menaced me during sleep paralysis. If you get sleep paralysis as often as I do (monthly), you start to notice these little details that prove that it’s just our poor, easily-bamboozled brains flipping out. It doesn’t help much during the episodes themselves, but it at least helps calm you down once you wake up. And do speak to your doctors or go to sleep specialists if you’re really concerned – sometimes sleep paralysis is a symptom of sleep apnea.

  • dave

    dave

    November 1st, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    Sure I know that these things can happen. You can be sensitive to the power of suggestion or even in some cases have some sort of freaky sleep disorder that could lead you to believe that you are seeing things. OK, I get that. But there is a reality to this that no one seems ready to acknowledge and I am not quite sure why. Why does there always have to be some clear cut explanation for something when there are simply some things that are just unexplainable? Don’t we take other things on faith, then why not this too? I know that there are ghosts because this is something that I have expereinced myself, and I don’t think that believing in this is something that makes me crazy or that others necessarily have to be afraid of. It is just part of our world that maybe makes some people a little uncomfortable, but believe me, they are out there.

  • Victoria

    Victoria

    November 4th, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    Dave, good posts! I replied with my ghost story. However, it is awaiting the moderators to approve it. Perhaps, you would like to read it. Thank you for speaking up!

    V

  • Victoria

    Victoria

    November 4th, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    I agree with Dave. I have a ghost who has been with me since childhood. I believed that he was attached to the house. Toilets flushed. Footsteps, etc. However, when I moved out of the house to my own place, he moved with me. In the different houses, he had “favorite” game . We have lived in our current home just over a year. In all cases, the phenomenons occur when I am alone. Within a few days after moving, he let me know he was here. His most popular games here are tapping on my bedroom door whole closed. The tapping comes from inside my bedroom. I have stood outside the door and it’s real. Next time, I am going to try to record it. The other game is with our family pictures. They are on the hallway walls. There are at least 30 pictures. I will straighten the photographs and the next morning they are all crooked – worse than when I straighten them. This phenomenon, I shared with my husband. Also, other people have seen him with me but I had never told them. I believe the more attention one gives a ghost, the more power/energy they possess and become stronger and more active. Every now and then, I talk to him only to say that I know he’s here. Also, when I was about 17,one of my cousins started playing with the Oijia (spelling?) Board and ended up possessed by an evil spirit. There was a wrenching battle b/w the spirit and priest. Hours later, the spirit was gone and my cousin returned. I haven’t imagined these things for over a 40 year span. People are entitled to their opinions of ghosts and that’s fine but I have seen and heard a lot in over my 40 years. I *know* without a shadow of doubt that ghosts are among us

  • Dave

    Dave

    November 5th, 2013 at 4:43 AM

    Thanks for the support Victoria! We believers have to stick together because there are far more people who won’t believe than those who are willing to take a look at things in a different way.

  • DJ

    DJ

    August 5th, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    Accepting Christ and his father and a Holy Ghost is socially acceptable but when people say anything about the possibility of spirits or ghosts then that is nuts? Who in our lifetime has seen the above? It is taken on faith that Jesus walked on water but no one can see ghosts? Extraordinary things can only happen if they are holy? It always infuriates me when people are treated like lunatics if they say they have had an unusual experience with a ghost or spirit but people will donate millions to faith healers because they claim to talk to God. A little balance here people!

  • Cindy

    Cindy

    December 7th, 2014 at 8:56 PM

    I am a 58 year old female. I have had experiences with spirits myselF. I lived in a Miami apartment three years ago. I had a mischievous spirit that would pull my hair while I slept, and hide the remotes. I was ok with that until I heard the thing growl and scratch like an animal. Soon thereafter I moved to Massachusetts into a charming 100 year old colonial with my granddaughter and daughter. Several months ago, my eight year old granddaughter said she heard someone make a kiss sound in her ear while sleeping. Two months ago, I saw a full body apparition, dressed just like my granddaughter,in the kitchen. I knew it was a spirit, but have been unsure why it presented itself to me as my granddaughter. Shortly thereafter, I heard “ahhh” coming from inside my ear. The couple who lived here before us for 40 years were childless. They have both passed away. This is worrying me

  • alok y

    alok y

    April 20th, 2017 at 7:41 AM

    ghosts are Not real. its all play of our brain. like
    if you are in a dark room. alone, so everytime you will get scare.
    but if you will be in a dark room with any one so, darkness will not scare too much.
    our brain creates all the things. its figure everything what we see. what we hear and what we know.
    sometimes we feel very cold when we think or talk about ghosts. it happens because our body is very sensitive and as you think about ghost. our brain show us every horrible things we ever felt around

  • Erik

    Erik

    October 16th, 2018 at 9:18 AM

    Mental health concerns, common errors of processing, and genuine paranormal experiences all exist and people experience them. It is good therapy to not dismiss a paranormal experience and the emotional aspects of it for a client, and instead to explore with the client and truly dig. Maybe a rational explanation is there, perhaps one could be used to answer whys, sometimes there is no explanation.

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