I see junk out of the corner of my eyes all the time. Since I need glasses to see properly there’s already a strike against my peripheral vision. Mostly I see people, but sometimes animals too. Sometimes I recognize them sometimes I just see vague shapes that resemble people or things. I don’t, however, make the jump to thinking that I’m seeing spirits. There was a time when I might have. I’ve since learned things, and know better.
The brain is very easily tricked. Pareidolia is the term used to describe the brain’s tendency to find patterns in random stimuli. It’s part of how our brains are wired. We can see a series of lines on paper as a face because of our brain’s ability to recognize patterns. It allows you to recognize my drawings as people in spite of my inability to render them photorealistically. Rorschach tests, clouds, the face on Mars, all examples of how you can see pareidolia in action. The thing is the mind fills in the blanks when there isn’t enough information, or the information given is similar to prior information.
It works for sounds too. You recognize words because your brain is constantly trying to make sense out of sounds you hear, so if a series of random sounds come at you it will try to arrange them into something it recognizes as speech. That’s why ghost hunters can hear voices from beyond in static on recordings. I often hear music in background noise.
You can prime your brain to see or hear something too. If you expect to see someone in particular you’re more likely to pick them out of a crowd. If you expect to hear voices in static you most likely will. On the show Ghost Hunters a lot of the time if the clients don’t hear what they “should” be hearing Jay & Grant will tell them what they heard. Then, of course, they do too, having been properly primed. Some sounds don’t require priming. They sound enough like a voice that the people in question can make out the desired sounds on their own. Which still doesn’t prove a darn thing other than our brains are similarly wired.
Of course they are aware of pareidolia on that show, but only when it suits them. If it doesn’t make for good TV they seem to forget about it. Which is fine. They’re still a better show than Most Haunted ever was. With Derrick running around “talking to the spirits”, channeling them, and running from them alternately.
I like paranormal shows, but unfortunately they have very little to do with science. Most of the participants have virtually no understanding of what the scientific method is. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as what they do is clearly presented as nonsense, which it never is.
Now new shows are popping up all the time. They’re a little late in the game to be jumping in now. Paranormal shows are going to fade away the way pirates did after the third Depp film. At least until the next major disaster reignites interest in it. Or ghosts take a tanker ship hostage near Somalia…