by Simon Watt
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Ghosts do not exist. There is no reliable evidence whatsoever of their existence. That so many will find this assertion controversial tells us just how prevalent is a belief in the supernatural in our society. Statistics suggest that up to half of Britons believe in ghosts and research conducted by Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire shows that about a quarter even claim to have felt the presence of some form of spirit.
Seeing, hearing or feeling the presence of a ghost is not sufficient to prove its actual existence. Your mind is out to get you. In many ways, it is your brain that goes bump in the night.
The most plausible evidence we have as to why we perceive the inexplicable is that we are predisposed to finding patterns even if they are not really there. The brain is a wonderful editor and can flesh out the details of the world in spite of the scant information it receives from our senses. It is this wonderful ability that fills in the blind spots of our eyes, that allows us to perceive colour and to stich the still images on our television screens into movement It even helps to turn variations of pitch into speech and unintelligible squiggles into written words. Optical Illusions might lead us to believe that our mind is easily manipulated, but they actuality show us how wonderful our inbuilt error corrections systems are most of the time. Most phantoms are probably mere momentary glitches in our perception.
In particular, our brain has a bias for finding faces and bodies. We are social animals, so finding and interpreting faces is of pivotal importance to us. It only takes two dark dots drawn onto a page for us to have the idea that it is a face, and often even to bestow the concept of a personality upon it. Experiments have shown that it is the two aligned black dots of our pupils that first allow babies to register faces and that their gaze will often follow any image bearing this two dot pattern.
But what makes these misinterpretations of the world so scary? After all, spectral visitations are usually found to be frightening. When it comes to our feelings about what we perceive, fear is a good default. If we don’t know what something is, from an evolutionary view point, it is better to regard it as a threat just in case there is a real danger. If we are unable to see it after a second glance, then we have even more reason to be perturbed; it could be a threat that is hidden
Seeing that which isn’t there is the small price we pay when our brain struggles to make sense of our senses. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe that thing behind you is real.
Simon Watt is a biologist, science communicator, writer and broadcaster.