Monday, February 7, 2011

The Science of Ghosts

I'm pretty sure I've talked about this before, but definitely not in this much detail. Because of the nature of the month I'm going to bring up the conversation again only to add a little bit more. But first let me lay down some ground rules. I'm not even going to pretend to answer any questions about if ghosts actually exist. I won't say whether I believe in ghosts or God (because yes, that discussion leads there) or not. That information does nothing but ruin a discussion and can sway any person's thinking. Instead I will talk about the possibility of paranormal activity in the real world. Let's face it, if ghosts exist their interactions with our world are based on the world of physics and so should have measurable qualities. Those are the things that I would like to ponder and weigh in on.

Ghost Hunters, Ghost Lab, and Ghost Adventures are TV shows that all lay claim to the same thing. They use science and skepticism to search for and prove/disprove the existance of ghosts and other paranormal activity. The only problem is that they don't. They try, but they just don't measure up. I guess real science doesn't make for good television.

I'll save my arguments on the methods of their studies for another post. I do want to talk about the types of phenomenon they typically encounter. As a scientist (and a physicist specifically) it is the phenomenon that intrigue me and get to me wonder how this all could be possible in the first place. If ghosts are real they have to be bound by the laws of physics and so we can use our understanding of the world to try and answer some fundamental questions (hopefully).

A lot of evidence that is encountered on these shows are of the electromagnetic kind. They typically use equipment that can detect an electric/magnetic field. They will capture digital recordings of voices. Sometimes they will even pick up footage of strange lights and sounds. Some of it is actually pretty convincing but a lot of it is very debatable.

Electric/magnetic fields are generated by just about everything. Our bodies generate EM fields all the time. Every piece of electronic device generates an EM field, and the magnitude of the field depends on the output power of the device. A refrigerator or a transformer may create a very large field (because they deal with a lot of energy transfer) while an alarm clock might have a very small one. You can imagine your house is riddled with EM fields. In fact the Earth is covered in them. The Earth generates one, the Sun generates one, the weather creates EM fields, you name it it probably generates and EM field.

Because our bodies generate EM fields as well there is some interaction between our fields and the fields from the world around us. The level of interaction and the effects are not well known, but you can bet that sometimes too much is not good. Because our brain relies so heavily on electric signals between our neurons, a high interfering field may disrupt these signals and can induce trickery. It has been noted that paranoia and fear are common symptoms of high EM field exposure. Don't be surprised either. Our emotions are the result of the very same signals that trigger muscle contraction, breathing, dreaming, etc. If we can use electricity to revive a heart, why can't the same effects be used to control brain patterns?

Another interesting anomaly is the occurrence of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) where a voice may be recorded on a digital device when no voice was heard during the recording. Sometimes recordings sound like legit people saying legit things. Most of the time however the sounds are just noise and can be interpreted as words or a voice.

Our brains are interesting devices. We can decipher the information from the world around us through our senses. All the data processing gets sorted in the brain. Over millions of years our brains have evolved a streamline process so complicated calculations can be figured out rapidly. One example is how our brains try to pattern match everything we see. It looks for certain shapes, and its favorite shape is a human face. Similarly it tries to identify patterns in other ways. When responding to an auditory stimulus, our brain wants to hear certain sounds and will try to process noise as words or even voices.

If I recorded a muffled person speaking and played it for you, you probably wouldn't be able to understand what was recorded. But, if I told you what the recording said, when I played the recording you would only be able to hear what I told you you would hear, whether I'm right or not!

When you're brain isn't looking to fit a round peg into a square hole, you may turn up something. I've heard some EVPs that sound like real people who aren't in the room sometimes. I have no possible explanation for this. The answer is out there though. If you examine the waveform, the recorded sounds are at a much lower amplitude and actually is around the same volume as the background noise. Think about that.

The noise can be caused by a number of reasons. Noise is everywhere. It is basically the random fluctuations of energy. Some factors are: thermal energy, radiation (cell signals, lights, etc), other sound, etc. When filtering an audio clip you cannot just throw this out, because you may be throwing out your evidence. It may be unlikely though that your evidence is anything real if it is so low it hides in the noise levels.

Speaking of noise, I came across an article (not too credible, but useful) that spoke about infrasound. This is low frequency sound that is inaudible to the human ear, but can affect us nonetheless. It was discovered that a sound at 19Hz is resonant with the human eye and could distort sight. It distorts vision in such a way that the person who experienced it thought they were seeing another person in the room out of the corner of their eye. The noise came from a fan in their lab.

I'm not saying that explains all ghostly figures, but it might explain a lot. In a lot of cases, ghost hunters see evidence in similar settings. They all hunt at night (when most other noise is silent), in old buildings or settings (where there could be lots of sources of low frequency sounds), and during weather (wind blowing could make this noise). If you can subtract that stuff out, you may have yourself a ghost.

If ghosts are real, then they need some form of energy to interact with the world. We convert matter into energy by eating. Since ghosts don't eat (do they?) they have to use something else. Maybe they do draw from the background energy of the world. They can't pull too much, because that could lead to a perpetual motion machine (which can never be created).

Why don't ghost hunters ever hunt during the day? There would be lots of ambient energy for a spirit to draw power from. What about during a thunder storm? The air would be ionized and could be a source of energy. My hunch is that ghosts would need more potential energy than kinetic, but what about a really noisy room? All the moving molecules could be a source of energy. I might be starting to contradict myself, but if you want ghosts you need to feed them.

I hope I haven't swayed you one way or the other. I'm merely trying to provide things to look out for when searching. You can't admit everything as evidence because then you wouldn't be a very good scientist. You can't also dismiss everything either, because you may be missing something crucial. This is why you need lots of data points and lots of data sets. Testing theories never hurt anyone and is the nature of experimentation. If you are a ghost hunter, than go out and get some ghosts with a proper scientific eye. If you love to watch ghost shows, stay keen on what is going on in the environments. be skeptical about the evidence they supply because it is after all entertainment. No evidence is boring and network executives don't want that. They want advertising and will do anything to keep you tuned in, so just stay focused but keep an open mind.

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