Scientists Replicate the Feeling of a Ghostly Presence

Creepy scene in desolated houseNearly half of Americans believe in ghosts, and 18% report seeing ghostly apparitions themselves. A variety of psychological, cultural, and sociological phenomena can lead people to think they’ve seen ghosts. And, of course, some ghost sightings remain totally unexplained. Many people who claim experience with ghosts report feeling a peculiar presence, and Swiss researchers have now duplicated this phenomenon in a lab.

Can Scientists Duplicate Ghostly Experiences?

The research, which was published in Current Biology, looked at the brains of 12 people who had neurological abnormalities, with epilepsy predominating among the group. All of the participants had previously experienced the sensation of a ghostly presence in the room with them. MRI scans of the patients’ brains showed abnormal functioning in the insular cortex, parietal-frontal cortex, and temporo-parietal cortex. These brain regions affect self-awareness, spatial perception, and movement. The study’s authors believed that problems in these brain regions could lead to a sensation of being watched by a ghost or phantom.

To test this theory, researchers blindfolded participants and then asked them to move their hands. As participants moved, a robot mimicked their movements and touched them on their backs. Participants experienced some spatial confusion during this portion of the test, but they quickly adapted and adjusted their movements accordingly. Researchers believe this was because the robot synchronized its movements to the participants’ movements.

Next, the robot mimicked participants’ movements, but slightly delayed its touch yielding a temporal-spatial discrepancy for participants’ brains to process. In this scenario, participants reported feeling a presence after about three minutes, suggesting that this sensation might be due to a combination of brain and environmental anomalies. 

The study doesn’t explain every ghostly phenomenon, but does show how differences in the brain can add up to significant differences in perception. Researchers continue to study why some people report seeing or experiencing ghosts. Learn more about this field of psychology, known as parapsychology, in the article What Can Parapsychology Tell Us?


  1. 18% of Americans say they’ve seen a ghost. (2013, October 20). Retrieved from
  2. Ghost illusion created in the lab. (2014, November 6). Retrieved from
  3. Wen, T. (2014, September 05). Why do people believe in ghosts? Retrieved from

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  • Steven


    November 13th, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    Those who truly believe in the existence of paranormal activity are going to say that this is an effort to write off the validity of the things that they have seen or experienced.

  • Lacey


    November 13th, 2014 at 3:57 PM

    Why does it have to be described as an abnormality and not just as a difference?

  • Brenton


    November 17th, 2014 at 4:00 AM

    We are always searching it seems for ways to explain away the fact that there are those people who are more sensitive to having the paranormal experience and that there are some things for which there is just no logical explanation.

  • sadie


    November 21st, 2014 at 10:39 AM

    So I get it, you are replicating a feeling… but what does that have to do with anything other than to show that the mind can be easily manipulated? Or maybe that’s what this is all about, showing how vulnerable some of us can be to simple mind manipulations?

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