A 2005 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses — and nearly half believe in ghosts.
Believers in paranormal activity–especially those who believe they have been personally contacted by ghosts–frequently report a series of specific feelings that accompany the experience. The most common feeling on this list is the overwhelming sensation of there being a presence nearby.
Recently, scientists set out to try and recreate this experience, essentially attempting to create a ‘ghost’ in a laboratory.
The experiment used a robot to trigger a mismatch in the participants’ senses.
“The robot was made in two parts, and the participants stood in between them — with one part behind them and the other in front of them — wearing blindfolds and headphones. The participants reached out in front of themselves and tapped a button on the robot, triggering the robot behind them to reproduce the participants’ arm movements, and touch their backs. This created the illusion that the participants were reaching out in front of them and touching their own backs.”
Then came the real spooky part, as the scientists initiated a delay in the feedback the participants were receiving. This delay caused them to feel as though there were an invisible presence behind them, touching them.
“For some, the feeling was even so strong that they asked to stop the experiment,” said Giulio Rognini, a neuroscientist who led the study.
The findings are being used to further investigate how lesions in the brain affect people who have epilepsy or have suffered a stroke. This info could also help researchers understand the root causes of schizophrenia. “These patients’ hallucinatory symptoms, such as hearing alien voices and delusions that they are being controlled, could be triggered by an incorrect of integration of senses in the brain.” So far, the illusory ghost perception has been linked to lesions in three brain regions: the temporoparietal cortex, the insular cortex and the frontoparietal cortex.
So, where does that leave us? Does this experiment essentially dismantle the idea of a spirit world in which sentient beings exist? Should all the legions of intrepid ghost hunters sell off their Geiger counters, electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors, ion detectors, infrared cameras and ultra-sensitive microphones and accept the first office jobs they can find?
Not necessarily. While this experiment certainly contributes a fascinating scientific probe into the cognitive mechanisms by which humans can experience ‘ghostly’ sensations, let’s remember that they are manufacturing one particular type of experience. The experiment only scratches the surface of a wide array of complex ‘paranormal’ experiences that have been reported, including poltergeists, astral projection, and large-scale consciousness anomalies reported by the Global Consciousness Project at Princeton University. Ultimately, they may say that all of these can be explained by processes of the brain.
But we still subscribe to the Orch-OR (orchestrated objective reduction) theory, which holds that our consciousness is comprised of quantum information held in microtubules.
Scientists have shown how you can recreate the eerie sensations of feeling like someone is behind you; they haven’t proven that remnants of past minds don’t still loiter the laboratory.