A spirited experiment: the science of ghosts
SPOTTED and yellowed with age, the photograph is a standard shot taken every year by tourists clambering over the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. Sitting astride the black bulk of a cannon, a mother and daughter smile for the shot, squinting to keep the sun out of their eyes.
It's a familiar image, a version of which must be tucked into thousands of photograph albums, sealed in under cellophane next to shots of Princes Street Gardens and Greyfriars Bobby. But there's one striking feature thatmarks out this holiday snap as something different and altogether more interesting: a headless figure inwhat appears to be a long military coat, faint but distinct, captured in the right-hand side of the shot.
• Watch a slideshow of some of the pictures that are said to contain ghosts
In another photograph, a group of girls are lined up to be snapped – one with her eyes shut, as is ever the way. Standing in a living room, they look like they might be about to head out on the town. A toddler is crying in the foreground. But much more eerie is the other small child peeping from behind the legs of two of the girls; the face pale, the eyes dark. But there was no child there in the room when the picture was taken.
These are just two images from a new website, Hauntings: The Science of Ghosts, set up by Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist based at the University of Hertfordshire. At the moment there is no definitive explanation as to how these ghostly figures have appeared, but that's something that Wiseman and his team of experts hope to explore.
"Ghosts have been around for many hundreds if not thousands of years," Wiseman says. "They've been with us for a long time and understanding why that's the case – whether it's because there's evidence (for their existence] or because we have a need to believe in ghosts, and obviously I tend towards the latter explanation – it doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.
"It's a topic that most scientists steer clear of but actually I think there's some interesting science to be done there."
Wiseman, who has a reputation for investigating fascinatingly oddball subjects – luck, superstition, the psychology of humour – is calling for people to submit photographs and to take part in an online survey to share spooky experiences, as a preamble to an event he will be hosting during this year's Edinburgh International Science Festival in April. As one of a panel of seven experts – it also includes Paul Kieve, an illusionist and magical consultant on the Lord of the Rings trilogy and two of the Harry Potter films and Dr Caroline Watt from the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University – Wiseman hopes to explore all aspects of ghosts from the science of haunted locations to the history of spirit photography to how the brain can be fooled into seeing apparitions.
So what kind of photographs does he expect to receive? "I hope we're going to uncover some we've never seen before," he says. "We're going to get some expert photographers coming online to tell us what they think. Part of the explanation will be straps in front of the cameras, long exposures, dodgy film, people seeing faces in ambiguous shapes and so on. I suspect there's not going to be one explanation which emerges but several."
Wiseman has been interested in the psychology of the paranormal for 25 years. He happily admits that he's sceptical, but he's no "armchair sceptic".
"There's a case for engaging with the evidence and that's what we're going to be doing through the website and on the day as well," he says. "But I don't pretend that there's some part of me that believes in the afterlife because I don't."
Wiseman's last major paranormal experiment was in the Edinburgh Vaults back in 2001. In that experiment, Wiseman and his team took people who had no knowledge of the vaults' reputation as haunted into the space to monitor their reactions. The results, he says, surprised him.
"We had certain places that had a reputation for being haunted and when we took people into those places even when they didn't know the history they had weird experiences. That suggests there is something about that location which is creating those ghostly experiences, whether it's the size, or the look, or the lighting levels. There's something there to be explained.
"That surprised me because I thought it was all in the mind, in that you just get some people who are easily scared, who believe in the paranormal and when you take them into a place that's allegedly haunted they scare themselves into having an experience. What we showed in the Vaults investigation is actually that location matters. There were some places that made people a lot more scared and more likely to have these experiences than others. That was a nice surprise because it means there's more science to be done."
In the UK, roughly a third of people say that they believe in ghosts and as many as 10 per cent say that they've seen one. But in 100 years of parapsychology, no credible scientific evidence exists to support the existence of ghosts. However, that doesn't mean there's a shortage of explanations for things that go bump in the night. Some researchers believe that disturbances in the electro-magnetic field of the Earth creates the conditions in which we think we see or feel ghostly presences; some think that underground tremors or streams are responsible for the spooky goings on in haunted houses. There's even a suggestion that carbon monoxide poisoning in small spaces has caused the sensation of a ghostly presence.
For Wiseman, the psychological model, which has evolutionary roots, is of interest. "You become afraid, you become hypervigilant, you detect something and then you become even more afraid," he says. "When we're afraid we suddenly become very good at monitoring our environment and our own physiology. That creaking door suddenly becomes important when normally you wouldn't notice it. And once that's happened it becomes a positive feedback loop; you become even more scared, so then even more hypervigilant.
"It could be that ghosts are a good idea because if you're in an environment where there is a predator, then you want to get out of there quite quickly, so believing that there's a presence there even when there's not may well be hard-wired into the brain."
Evolution it may be, but location is certainly important. Edinburgh is a city with a surfeit of ghosts – the eerie closes; the haar that rolls from the Forth to muffle sound and hide things from view; the cobbled streets beneath which lie vaults and passageways, cellars and crypts. Wiseman reckons that Edinburgh has a decent claim to be one of the haunted places in Europe.
"I think it's partly because Edinburgh has quite a bloody history, but it's more about the architecture. Edinburgh matches the places we see in scary films."
And that's another essential part of the ghost experience: stories. From spooky stories told around the campfire, to the myriad books, plays and films that use spooks and spectres to frighten and intrigue us, narrative is key to the way we understand ghosts. Wiseman says that already comments on the website suggest that the figure in the Edinburgh Castle picture is the headless drummer boy who supposedly walks around the historic sight. People have suggested that perhaps he's not happy about people climbing on the cannon.
"Instantly there's a narrative," Wiseman says. "We can't just look at the photograph and think, 'Oh, it may be a double image'. We ask why would a ghost appear and come up with an answer. There's a real sense of drama. There are very few explanations that suggest it's a really dull ghost, not linked to anything and nothing happens."
So who does Wiseman hope will come along in April? "I hope we get a real mixed audience with spiritualists, the people who've experienced ghosts but don't know what to make of it and the sceptics too, so that it becomes a very healthy debate.
"What I hope we do is look at this complicated topic from lots of different perspectives. We've got the historians, the photographer, the people who make ghosts on film for a living as well as the psychologists. The science message there is that that's what science does, it looks at these things from lots of different perspectives."
• To send in a photograph or take part in the survey, log on to www.scienceofghosts.com. The Hauntings: The Science of Ghosts one-day event is on 4 April, 10am-5pm at the University of Edinburgh's anatomy lecture theatre; tickets cost 30. To book log on to www.sciencefestival.co.uk or call 0131 553 0322. The Edinburgh International Science Festival runs 4-18 April.
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