Spooky Science: The Science of Ghosts

Going into the history of ghosts on
Fueled by Death Cast

By Angela Garrity, Guest blogger

In this Science segment of The Science of Ghosts, the Incredible Jeff takes us to haunting depths of the spiritual realm. Prepare for hair raising and temperature dropping as we hunt through the spectral experience of otherworld encounters in the final destination chapter of Spooky Science.

A black and white photo of a ghost standing in a doorway. This photo is of the Amityville Ghost
A photo of the Amityville Ghost.

The idea of ghosts has been around since ancient times — seen in ancestral worship, honoring the dead and the sinking feeling of missing someone who has passed on with the wish of wanting to contact them.

The belief in ghosts is the most widely accepted form of paranormal phenomenon and even spun their own literary genre: Ghost Stories. Most people have a ghost story of their own or know of an encounter that happened to someone they know.

The scientific community does not believe in ghosts and cites lack of evidence to warrant the existence. However, science does have a few ideas about what apparitions could be.

One of the biggest issues science has is the actual definition of what a ghost is. Are they full bodied, human like ghostly forms? Or are they just energies that can interact with the physical world? There are so many contradictions about ghosts. Either they can move thorough solid objects without disturbing them or they can slam doors shut and throw objects across the room – like a poltergeist. Why do they appear clothed and with inanimate objects such as hats, canes, or dresses?

There are also many reports of ghost trains, ghost ships, and ghost cars. The limits of our own perception and just ordinary physical occurrences can count for some ghost sightings.

Air pressure, temperature and humidity changes can account for slamming doors and creaking floorboards. Pareidolia is a human tendency to recognize patterns in random things. Skeptics consider this to be an explanation for seeing ghosts.

This tendency has been part of humanity for some time. It was even referenced in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when the play’s namesake even describes a cloud that looks like a camel. Hamlet had quite a few ghosts in the play, as well.

Pareidolia can cause people to interpret random images or patterns of light and shadow as faces. A stick figure face, despite its simplicity, can convey mood and information and be drawn to indicate emotions such as happiness or anger.

Is this why so many of us have seen a face or full figure in the darkness of a room, for it only to be a coatrack or lamp?

A black and white photo of a group of people with a ghost above them

This also lends to the idea of the Power of Suggestion. You believe there is a ghost, because someone said there was one there.

In 1813, Physician John Ferrier wrote, An Essay Towards a Theory of Apparitions. In it, he wrote that ghost sightings were the product of optical illusions. For Ferrier, apparitions could be explained by what he termed “a renewal of external impressions.”

According to research in the field of anomalistic physiology, ghost sightings could be attributed to hypnagogic hallucinations — the stuff you see in between being asleep and being awake. In fact, people who experience sleep paralysis, speak of seeing ghosts or being held down by sprits. This could be attributed to neurological phenomenon like mirror neurons.

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both — when someone acts and when someone observes the same action being performed by another. Thus, the brainwave mirrors the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself, acting.

This could also account for feeling a presence — a touch of the hand or your back. As you recall observing this action, and manifest seeing or feeling it happen.

In the last century, the widespread emergence of high-powered electronics is everywhere across the globe — from the phone in your pocket to the appliances in your home or car. The added electrical fields could be a factor. Some scientists proclaim that these, along with the Earth’s magnetic field, can cause hallucinations and neurological symptoms.

A Canadian neurosurgeon, named Michael Persinger, has been studying the effects of electromagnetic fields of people’s perceptions of ghosts for years. His hypothesis is that pulsed magnetic fields can make people feel as if there’s a presence in the room with them by causing unusual activity patterns in the brain’s temporal lobes.

Also, because of the way the solar wind interacts with Earth’s magnetosphere, the planet’s magnetic field stretches out on the side that’s in darkness. Some researchers hypothesize that this expanded field interacts more strongly with people’s brains.

Mold growing in run down haunted sites, low frequency sounds emitted from machinery and even carbon monoxide poisoning have been considered factors for hauntings.

In 1941, Dr W.H. Wilmer published a report of a family that moved into an old house and began experiencing weird phenomena like being held down by ghosts, and a constant invisible presence. The actual reason was a faulty furnace filling their house with carbon monoxide. The family had aural and visual hallucinations from the poison. The furnace was fixed and so was the family.

People have been trying to contact the spirit world and commune with the dead for ages. The practice of leaving an offering to communicate with the dead has been around since ancient Egypt. The three most widely known ways of hoping to communicate with ghosts are the Ouija board, the séance and the exorcism.

The oldest is most likely the Ouija board, which uses a planchette and can allow a ghost or spirit to interact with the talking board directly. One of the first mentions of the automatic writing method is found in China around 1100 A.D. in historical documents of the Song dynasty.

A black and white photo of two people using an Ouija BoardPhoto: Smithsonian 

Elijah Bond decided to patent the planchette along with the talking board in 1891, selling the Ouija board to immediate success. The Ouija phenomenon is considered by the scientific community to be the result of the ido-motor response. This is the psychological phenomenon where someone makes movements involuntarily. Small muscle movements can lead to large effects. Planchettes, in particular, are well suited for their task. Many used to be constructed of a lightweight wooded board, fitted with small casters to help them move more smoothly and freely.  Now, they are usually plastic and have felt feet which also help to slide over the board easily.

In Victorian England, it was considered highly fashionable for wealthy ladies to hold a séance and serve tea to their friends. The popularity of seances increased during the 19th century with the founding of the religion of spiritualism. The traditional séance you’re picturing with the spiritualist or medium trying to communicate with the spirits in a circle of people was done with various tool like candles, talking boards and even spirit cabinets - where the medium would be bound and placed inside. A diversion tactic much like those used by modern versions of stage magicians.

Mediums, psychics and fortune tellers all claim to be able to commune with the spirit world and retrieve questions to answers they’re asked. There have been accounts of seemingly unreal coincidences and even manifestations of tables moving, bells ringing, and a ghostly presence being summoned.

Exorcisms have been around for a very long time and different practices are attributed to almost every modern religion. Thanks to author and filmmaker William Peter Blatty, exorcism is widely understood because of the wide culture surrounding the film, The Exorcist.

Science takes a pretty hard stance on this. Demonic possession is not a psychiatric or medical diagnosis. The illusion that exorcism works on people experiencing symptoms of possession is attributed to some by the placebo effect and the power of suggestion.

In 1862, the ghost club was formed to investigate reports of ghosts. Charles Dickens and Sir Author Conan Doyle were original members. They could be considered the first “ghostbusters.”

The 1984 movie, Ghostbusters, led to a resurgence of paranormal investigating groups. Paranormal investigators use a bunch of different tools to detect and try to capture evidence of spirits. Some tools have more to science than others. The ghost detection equipment was born from malfunctioning electronics. Tools like digital voice recorders trying to capture electronic voice phenomenon (EVP), still photography and video, EMF detectors, ghost boxes, and a ghost hunting expert are more widely known since the popularity of tv shows such as Ghost Hunters.

The debate on if ghosts exist can be tormenting, with both sides supporting rattling evidence about the dearly departed. If energy is neither created nor destroyed, we are left to be haunted by possibility.

Check out the full Science segment below, and tune in every Sunday for a new Science Segment on the Fueled by Death Cast YouTube. Or, catch the Science Segment LIVE on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. EST on Facebook Live.

Related: Spooky Science: The Science of Witches