Throughout this podcast, I have told stories about people who have claimed to see or communicate with spirits. Though I do believe in ghosts, I think that it’s important to learn the science behind paranormal encounters, as possessing a healthy skepticism can lend more credibility to experiences that don’t fall under logical explanation.
The range of paranormal experiences is both diverse in actual activity and universal in occurrence: Doors slamming on their own, objects hurtled by phantom hands, whispers from incorporeal voices, ominous dreams foretelling the future or revealing past information, and ghostly apparitions disappearing mid air– ad infinitum. Despite these so-called hauntings taking place in wildly different time periods and locations, they all have the same general flavor: things going bump in the night, whether it be at a ryokan in feudal Japan or a dive bar in modern-day Vermont.
What could account for such similarity? According to skeptic.com, the answer can be easily found within our own minds. Psychoactive drugs and undiagnosed mental illness are an obvious culprit, their prevalence as common worldwide as ghost encounters. However, even more compelling answers deal with our evolution and psychology. Humans are natural-born dualists, meaning that we inherently make a divide between “body” and “mind.” Owing to the brain’s inability to perceive itself, we don’t see ourselves as being our bodies. Rather, we see our memories, personality, and sense of self as stemming from a different source. Dualism allows us to perceive hallucinations as existing outside ourselves, which could explain why we believe the blur in the corner of our eye to be the spirit of a nineteenth century smallpox victim and not a blip resulting from a stressful job and a lack of sleep. Another explanation deals with evolutionary instincts that helped us survive millions of years ago.
Have you ever walked alone through an isolated area and thought you heard rapidly approaching footsteps, only to feel foolish when you recognize them as the echo of your own? Blame evolution. Our brains are hard-wired to find patterns in nature to assist in predator detection. Though ultimately serving to keep our hearts beating so that we may continue our genetic line, patternicity sometimes ends with false positives, like the artificial pursuant. In the moments between remembering that one stabbing that took place three blocks from here two years ago (A) and perceiving the second pair of footsteps (B), we have to decide whether or not the two are connected– a decision that could kill. Because the risk is so high, humans naturally figure that all patterns are real, and therefore are all connected. This default could explain occurrences where we forget to turn off the TV at night (A) and wake up remembering the iconic scene of Samara emerging from the screen in “The Ring” (B), and immediately feel the need to start Googling DIY exorcisms. The lengths to which our brains have strode in order to ensure offspring has the unfortunate side effect of resulting in ridiculous behavior.
Regardless of whether or not you believe in ghosts, evidence suggests that our brains want us to make a connection between the unlit hallway to the bathroom and the slasher flick we just watched– not because it wants to keep us up all night, but because there exists entrenched in our DNA a desire to live, with its antithesis being an aversion to death. Now that we have stepped out of nature enough for animal predators to be for the most part a non-issue, we have invented new creatures to fear. As humans are inclined to do, we have anthropomorphized our fears into ghosts, creating a stimulus for our built-in security system to catch.