Fact Check: What Does Science Have to Say About Ghosts?

Is there room for the supernatural in science?
Rupendra Brahambhatt

Although there is no scientific proof for the existence of supernatural phenomena such as ghosts or demons, there are millions of people around the world who believe that these paranormal forces do exist, and many of them even claim to have experienced such phenomena in real life. A survey conducted by YouGov in 2019 revealed that four out of every 10 people in the U.S. think that ghosts are real, and a surprising survey from 2021 divulged that 45% of Canadians claim to have used an ouija board to summon ghosts at least once, and 32% have consulted a psychic.

While there is no proven method or machine by which someone can really recall supernatural forces (yes, not even the ouija board), to some extent, science can logically explain why people feel the presence of unrealistic paranormal energy or beings around them. 

Why would you encounter ghosts?

Based on the laws of science as we know them - ghosts, demons, zombies, vampires, and wandering spirits are just fiction. There is no substantial evidence that suggests the existence of any such supernatural phenomenon in the real world. However, there may be reasons based on science for why people feel they have had a paranormal experience.

The haunted 19 Hz frequency

In the 1980s, British engineer Vic Tandy discovered that infrasound (low-frequency sound between .1 and 20 Hz that is below the level of human hearing) is able to tamper with human senses and can result in feelings of disquiet and eerieness, similar to those reported by people seeing ghostly figures. His findings came from his personal experience of working in a lab that had a reputation for being haunted. Tandy himself saw a greyish spirit. Looking around, he found an extractor fan emitting noise at a frequency of 19 Hz and, when it was turned off, the visions and feelings of discomfort disappeared. 

Fact Check: What Does Science Have to Say About Ghosts?
Source: Nina Ž./Unsplash

Tandy did some further research on infrasound and found that these waves are capable of making humans and animals experience blurred vision, fear, giddiness, and panic attacks which may then be misinterpreted as a paranormal experience. After this, Tandy became something of a ghost hunter.

In 2001, he claimed that infrasound was also responsible for apparitions and feelings of dread felt in a spooky cellar near Coventry Cathedral, where a number of visitors had claimed to see a female ghost. Three years later, Tandy also debunked the paranormal beliefs associated with the haunted Warwick Castle of Warwickshire, England. At the end of both of these investigations, the 19 Hz infrasound frequency was found to be the reason behind the occurrence of figures that appeared like ghosts.

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Disturbed mental health

Research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry highlights that anxiety, sleep deprivation, epilepsy, and other kinds of neurological issues can give rise to the fear of ghosts in an individual. Moreover, psychiatrists believe that mentally ill patients are more likely to report paranormal activities around them as compared to others, possibly as a result of suffering from an anxiety disorder.

A report reveals that around 30% of mental health patients report experiencing some other type of paranormal phenomenon (such as seeing demons), at least once in their lifetime during the night. 

External stimulants

Psychoactive substances, such as psilocybin and LSD, are able to alter brain functions and can make a person feel like he or she is having a supernatural experience. Moreover, some bacteria, mold, and fungus may also cause psychosis (a mental disorder that disturbs an individual’s ability to perceive reality). 

The rye ergot fungus has been suggested as the precipitating cause of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, in which a number of people were accused of being witches and executed. Victims of rye ergot can suffer from paranoia, hallucinations, spasms, and stillborn children.

Other theories suggest that the earth’s geomagnetic field, solar flares, and many other cosmic events may also affect human brain activity, however, no such theory has been experimentally proven thus far. 

However, sometimes an idea or suggestion is even enough to trigger the visions of imaginary horrors around you. Research and psychological experiments indicate that visual and verbal suggestions can influence the way people perceive the environment around them. For example, if you are staying in some random hotel for a couple of days, and one day a friend informs you that the hotel is haunted, there is a possibility that from there you begin to feel fear or even experience some paranormal happenings around you. 

Researchers have demonstrated that verbal suggestion could make people more likely to believe they are seeing paranormal key bending, rather than sleight of hand, and to be more confident that their viewing of psychic phenomena was reliable. Research has also demonstrated that suggestion and misinformation can distort people's memories of an event, causing them to believe the misinformation.

Therefore, suggestions sometimes play a major role in shaping human perception and even make people believe in unrealistic things such as ghosts.

Personal loss and loneliness

Canadian rock singer Céline Dion, during an interview in 2016, said that she often meets with the ghost of her late husband. Similar claims are made by many people around the world, who lose someone close to them. But do they really see or hear their deceased loved ones? The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud observed this phenomenon during the early 1900s and called it wishful psychosis, short-term "madness of the mind" during which a person doesn't want to accept reality and starts imagining the presence of a dead person.

Fact Check: What Does Science Have to Say About Ghosts?
Source: Stefano Pollio/Unsplash

However, the death of loved ones is not the only thing that can make you experience ghosts. Research explains that loneliness, attachment, and childhood trauma are also factors that can lead individuals to believe they have seen ghosts and spirits.

Ghosts, angels, or other imaginary characters may be created by the human brain in order to cope with the feeling of loneliness and loss. 

The undeniable contribution of popular culture

There is an endless number of Hollywood blockbusters that insert themselves into the viewers' consciousness that can range from the classic 1980s flick A Nightmare on Elm Street to Dracula and The Conjuring. After watching such movies and TV shows, many kids (and adults) don’t want to sleep alone and they avoid visiting the dark corners of their own house.

A study published in the Global Mass Communication Review suggests that horror movies can lead to nightmares, phobias, anxiety, stress, escapism, and various other psychological issues in young people. Continuous exposure to such types of content can also affect an individual's behavior and perhaps even cause them to suffer from psychosis.

Back in 2000, researcher Corrine Dalelio examined the increase in paranormal or pseudo-scientific television shows that occurred in the 1990s — examples included Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X Files, Charmed, and Touched by an Angel, along with films like The Sixth Sense, The Craft, and The Others . She found that the proliferation of paranormal themes in popular culture correlated with beliefs in the paranormal among the general public.

People love to experience and explore horror through films, TV shows, and books. Psychologists also believe that horror films and content may be good for OCD patients as they may enable patients to confront and overcome their fears. However, at the same time, mental health experts also confirm that watching horror movies, especially binge-watching, can have adverse affects on mental health. This is partly because, when watching a scary movie, the body releases large amounts of adrenaline and other hormones - that's what makes these movies exciting. This can lead to heightened activity in the brain, excitement, anxiety, insomnia, and even sleep deprivation which, in turn, can make people more suggestible.

So far, all these studies and research work indicate that according to science, the only place where ghosts, ghouls, and demons exist is simply in your head.  

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