Is Your House Haunted, or Are Your Senses Being Taunted?

Skeptics provide scientific explanations and alternative takes for strange occurrences.

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By Emilie Lorditch, Inside Science News Service  

(ISNS)—As Halloween approaches, people might find themselves feeling a little spooked. 

Two individuals identified as "foremost experts of the supernatural realm" have produced a list of phenomena that "might indicate your house is haunted." However, others contend that everything on this list can be perfectly well explained by everyday phenomena.

This story describes some items from the list, and offers some decidedly non-supernatural explanations from Seth Shostak, SETI Institute senior astronomer and "Big Picture Science" radio host, and from paranormal & pseudoscientific investigator James Randi, founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

SENSATION: You see something unexplained out of the corner of your eye.

NEUROLOGICAL EXPLANATION: "We're hard-wired by 200,000 years of evolution to be sensitive to the idea that someone might be watching us. They might be predators, after all. An uneasy feeling is perfectly natural if you suspect that someone has you in their ocular sights, whether it's a ghost or just some guy at the bus stop." - Seth Shostak 

ANOTHER TAKE: "If this doesn't happen to you, you're not very alert or perceptive." - James Randi

SENSATION: You feel a sudden change in temperature in the room.

THERMODYNAMIC EXPLANATIONS: "No heating system can deliver perfectly uniform temperatures throughout a house, and drafts can magnify the perceived difference in temperatures. Try walking around with a thermometer." - Seth Shostak 

ANOTHER TAKE:  "Every house has these. If your house doesn't have such areas, you have a very weird house." - James Randi

SENSATION: You have dramatic or vivid dreams.

PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPLANATION: "When 'paranormal researchers' ask you to recall such events, you're 'tuned' to looking upon them as supernatural." - James Randi

ANOTHER TAKE:  "It could also mean that you're finally having some new thoughts! The boss might appreciate that." - Seth Shostak

SENSATION: You hear unexplained noises or inaudible whispers.

ACOUSTICAL EXPLANATION: "It's also known as 'bad acoustics.' How often do you fail to catch all the dialogue in a movie? Do you think this is because spirits have set up house behind the screen?" - Seth Shostak

MEDICAL EXPLANATION: "I also call this tinnitus, which produces a whispering or ringing noise in the ears when surroundings are very quiet." - James Randi

SENSATION: Offensive or person-associated odors.

FLUID DYNAMICS EXPLANATION: "Odors can be highly transitory, depending on the air currents. If this is happening in your house, ask if there are any possessions of that deceased loved one still around. If it happens elsewhere, consider just how many millions of people use the same perfume or smoke the same brand of cigar as someone you knew." - Seth Shostak

SENSATION: Physical contact with something invisible.

ALTERNATIVE TAKE: "If this happens in broad daylight, you should probably see a neurologist. If it's at night, confront the person next to you." - Seth Shostak

SENSATION: Seeing a spirit.

NEUROLOGICAL EXPLANATION: "Our brains are wired to interpret shapes as faces and bodies. That's why people see the Virgin Mary in the clouds or even in cheese sandwiches. It's your cytoplasm, not some strange ectoplasm." - Seth Shostak

PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPLANATION: "No, you believe that you see something familiar, but it can be [a] hallucination, which ghost hunters really resent, because it's a common delusion." - James Randi.

THE BOTTOM LINE

"While about one-third of Americans believe in ghosts, you won't find many exhibits on these spooky beings down at the local science museum. Why? Well, one explanation that you might consider, ghosts are just figments of our highly fertile imaginations!" - Seth Shostak

"In short, if one of these events happens to the believer, the conclusion is that a ghost has made an appearance, not that something quite ordinary but uncommon has occurred -- if you're prepped to accept the 'woo-woo' solution, which ghost hunters always are. Our sensory systems are far from perfect, as magicians well know, and can be misled and can lead to delusion if encouraged." - James Randi