A Ghostly Presence

Walking through New York City’s Chelsea Market Wednesday evening, it was hard not to notice the macabre graveyard scenery, hanging ghosts, and appendages crawling out of the walls. There was even an installed pipe coming out of the ceiling that had a torrent of “red water” falling into a sinkhole with zombie mannequins creeping out. It was entertaining, to say the least, and visitors were loving it.

But what is it about Halloween that gets people so worked up? Surely, it can’t be just the candy—that can be found on store shelves all year round. For a brief moment, the month of October allows us to unearth our fascination with morbid ideas such as vampires, haunted houses, and ghosts. Beyond the grisly decorations, there are varying superstitions about apparitions and the otherworldly in cultures throughout the world; but how do we explain the unintentional occurrences that spook us into believing in ghosts?

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

“Scientists rarely study the paranormal directly,” writes science journalist Jim Schnabel. “There is almost never the government grant money for that, or the cultural support among scientists.” But a team of Swiss neuroscientists led an investigation into a specific phenomenon frequently described in paranormal lore for its uncanny parallel with symptoms of human diseases. The researchers, led by Olaf Blanke, have found that the feeling-of-a-presence (FoP) can occur from disruptions in a person’s sense of his or her own body and its position in space.

Dana published Schnabel’s article on their study less than one year ago. “There is a compelling parallel with the ‘voices’ heard by people with schizophrenia, which many scientists suspect are the patients’ own thoughts, experienced as the speech of other (usually invisible) people nearby,” he writes.

Blanke and his colleagues initially conducted studies by inducing a FoP in one patient with epilepsy. After successfully reproducing the sensation of this illusory presence, Blanke led a larger study involving patients with various neurological conditions, all having reported past FoP experiences. Using a variety of imaging technologies, such as MRI and EEG, researchers were able to map out lesions on the patients’ brains. According to Schnabel, they found that the lesions associated with these FoP experiences were all located in similar areas of the brain.

Results of their studies indicate that a feeling-of-a-presence “can indeed originate as a distorted perception of ones’ own body—a ‘self’ that apparently drifts away in the brain’s map of near-space until it is perceived as an ‘other.’” While more research is required to learn more about different ways this hallucination can be generated, Schnabel writes, there is hope that results will ultimately “yield insights into related neuroscientific issues such as the neural origins of hallucinated voices in schizophrenia and the delusional sense of ‘being controlled by someone else.’ Writes Schnabel:

In the meantime, it’s clear that even early studies like this one bring many ghost reports out of the realm of the paranormal and into the realm of neuroscience. Both the epileptic and normal subjects in this study often found their FoP experiences creepy and disturbing—and in some cases the epilepsy patients described the sensed presences as ghostly shadow figures.

To read the full article, click here.

Happy Halloween!

– Seimi Rurup

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