Remarkable new study provides evidence that some ‘ghostly’ experiences are the direct result of neural activity.
ghostI have conducted quite a few joint studies into the psychology of so-called haunted locations, including Hampton Court Palace in London and a set of underground vaults in Edinburgh. This work has examined various ‘normal’ explanations for people’s experiences, including suggestion, expectation, infrasound, and electromagnetic fields. As is so often the case with research into the paranormal, the work has proved controversial, with some arguing that ‘ghostly’ phenomena are due to spirits. However, a remarkable new study provides perhaps the strongest evidence to date that ghostly experiences are due to neural, rather than spiritual, activity.

Basically, neuroscientists Michael Persinger and Sandra Tiller from Laurentian University got lucky. Whilst carrying out a routine EEG brain scan, their female participant suddenly experienced a sense of presence. The woman reported her arms and hands feeling icy cold, and was then convinced that there was a man was in the room, even though she was alone. In short, a classic ghost-like experience. The resulting EEG scans showed a burst of electrical activity in her left temporal lobe at the time of her experience. This finding is in line with some of Michael’s other work, in which he has argued that the feeling of a sense of presence is caused by aberrant activity in the brain’s temporal lobes, thus explaining why those with temporal lobe epilepsy report the feeling so often.

Details about the study here.

20 comments

  1. I’m not so sure about your reasoning here Richard: maybe there was a ghost in the room and it was just registered in that specific part of the brain. If you accept that “the mind is what the brain does” then any experience whatsoever would have to be ‘the result of neural activity’. Observing that this is true for ‘ghostly’ experiences does not support the proposition that they don’t exist. (The idea that these experiences are due to some pathology would be more convincing).

    (Ghosts, of course, do not exist.)

  2. There’s a great description of left temporal lobe seizure patients in Chapter 9 of “Phantoms in the Brain,” by Ramachandran. I would highly recommend it!

  3. “maybe there was a ghost in the room and it was just registered in that specific part of the brain.”

    That would mean postulating a ghost sense, wouldn’t it? Occam… etc..

  4. mannik5000… I’m not saying the above is in any way a good argument for the existence of ghosts, I’m saying it’s a bad argument against the existence of ghosts. The proposition that ghosts exist is not incompatible with the proposition that the mind is what the brain does… (There is some tension, of course).

    1. It’s a good point. I guess that it could be argued we now now where the ‘ghost spot’ is in the brain, rather than this being evidence for brain activity causing ghostly experiences.

  5. It’s interesting how often the temporal lobes turn up in relation to supernatural phenomenon. I’m sure I read something a long time ago about a connection between them and people who experience alien abduction.

    There’s also some interesting work that has been done on standing wave vibrations. The theory is that standing waves can hit resonant frequencies of parts of the eye, causing a visual disturbance, usually at the edges of a person’s field of vision. This is then subconsciously interpreted as a presence in the room. SWVs can be created by accident by ventilation systems and the like.

  6. I find the work of Persinger interesting – the God Helmet. As with all things we experience (consciously or otherwise) there is a link with neurology, you cannot separate the two. Although it can be influenced in many ways to a degree, it leaves me wondering to what degree are the ways. More posts like these please Richard.

  7. In response to Michael, surely their research is just the first step – the next step is to artificially stimulate that specific part of the brain in a way to replicate the patterns shown in the scan on a statistically significant number of people and assess whether the recipients experience ghost-like phenomena. If so, then you’ve got your proof positive. It does tie up with the idea that EM fields can induce these feelings/ halucinations though, so if targeted use of EM on this part of the brain generates a string reaction, you’ve got your culprit.

  8. Jason — yeah, that kind of thing gets far more interesting. But, again, I think evidence like that is pretty weak. If we can artificially stimulate a certain area of the brain, thereby reliably inducing the belief in subjects that, I don’t know, her mother is in the room when she’s not, would that be evidence against the existence of mothers? While I agree this research is interesting, worth pursuing and when combined with lots of other information could provide a naturalistic explanation for why people think they see ghosts, I think Richard’s conclusion in this specific blog post went beyond the evidence.

    (I’m NOT a believer, btw).

    1. Yes, that’s a good and fair point. For example, i can hold a velocimeter and force the needle to point at some number in the dial. Also, i can connect the same velocimeter at a turning wheel and the needle will also point to the same number. Maybe there are many non mutually exclusive ways to influence needle position.

  9. This is a very interesting field of research. I found Dr Wiseman’s blog while searching for UK studies based on the same mechanisms that Persinger is using at Laurentian.

    Is there a research group carrying out similar work this side of the Atlantic? My background is in Computer Science and Electronic Engineering but would love to pursue research in this area.

  10. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and
    amusing, and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is an issue that too few men and women are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very
    happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something concerning this.

  11. Hi, my question is is that possible that due to some temporal lobe activity( over/ under/ normal/ abnormal) ghost dreams are also frequent to some people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: