Updated: Dec 30, 2021
The common misconception that those who believe in apparitional experiences are science denialists is, judging from the example of my younger self, unfair. Unfortunately, a comprehensive education in the trifecta of physics, chemistry and biology had left me wholly ignorant of the social sciences and indeed the scientific method itself, resulting in acceptance of a series of somewhat-pseudoscientific explanations.
The Stone Tape Theory, inspired by Cantabrigians Charles Babbage, Eleonor Sidgwick and Edmund Gurney and popularised by an eponymous 1972 TV Play by Nigel Kneale, claims that emotionally charged event can be imprinted onto the very stones of the locations where they occurr and later replayed as apparitions. A very appealing hypothesis until one notices small but significant differences between magnetic tape and rocks.
The hypothesis by Guy William Lambert, one of Sidgwick and Gurney’s successors at the Society for Psychical Research, that underground water turbulence could account for some of the physical aspects of apparitional experiences was put to the test by Cantabridgians Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell who shook a condemned house very nearly to its foundations with minimal effect on the object placed within.
The influence of magnetic fields on the brain is at least an easier hypothesis to test. Unfortunately, research by Michael Persinger, including using his so-called God Helmet on the likes of Michael Shermer and Susan Blackmore, who reported induced experiences, and Richard Dawkins, who did not, failed to show any significant results when replicated by Prof. Chris French among others.
IT engineer and amateur fencer Vic Tandy discovering that his foil blade vibrated in a supposedly haunted laboratory, which is explanation enough for why he carried a sword at work, proposed infrasound as the cause of both phenomena. Prof. Richard Wiseman is currently conducting research into this theory and while initial results seem interesting a lot more work is to be done.
As appealing as these hypotheses are, the vast majority of apparitional experiences can be rationally accounted for with already reasonably well-understood social and psychological factors, such as hallucination, expectation and suggestion. An early education in the social sciences and the scientific method could, perhaps, have ended my youthful plunge into pseudoscience before it had even begun.
We discussed these and other seemingly pseudoscientific ideas put forward to explain the phenomenon known as ghosts on Cambridge Skeptics: Live!