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Brain Science of The Paranormal: We Attempt to Explain the Unexplained


Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever experienced anything you would call supernatural? Many factors come into play to create the conditions for ghostly experiences, and some of it can be explained by science and how our brain reacts to our environment.  We’ll let you be the judge when you experience anything strange yourself. Was it real? Was it because you had just watched a scary movie? Or is it your brain playing tricks on you?


Magnetic fields

In some haunted locations, researchers have measured magnetic fields that are stronger than normal or which exhibit unusual fluctuations. These may be localized phenomena that stem from electronic equipment or geological formations, or they may be part of the Earth’s magnetic field. Some paranormal investigators think the presence of strange magnetic fields as proof of a supernatural presence — the ghosts create the field. Others suggest that these fields can interact with the human brain, causing hallucinations, dizziness or other neurological symptoms.

Studies have shown that when scientists direct non-invasive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) at the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), our ability to evaluate the intentions of others, including moral judgements, is impaired. Other experiments have shown speech can be impaired by directed magnetism on the brain. This illustrates that with enough magnetic stimulation, changes in the brain’s functions do occur.



Several experiments have demonstrated that low-frequency sound waves, known as infrasound, can cause phenomena that people typically associate with ghosts. This includes feelings of nervousness and discomfort as well as a sense of a presence in the room. The sound waves may also vibrate the human eye, causing people to see things that are not there. How many times have you been scared by the flickering scenes in the Paranormal Activity series? Imagine if that happened to you in real life?

Usually, these waves have frequencies of less than 20 Hz, so they are too low-pitched for people to actually perceive. Rather than noticing the sound itself, people notice its effects. Our senses are affected by these low frequency waves, and our brain receives the signal to react. Sensory information may engage wide and diverse areas of the brain: via direct connections with the limbic system, for example, an odor can trigger intense emotions and then circuits that store memories give meaning to what we see and hear.


Ghost Stories

A large portion of hauntings are explained as demons inhabiting a home or a person. Such is the case in the Paranormal Activity films. Demonic possession is hypothesized as when your entire being is overtaken by an evil spirit.  Not all spirits are evil, though, as is the case with many of the spirits inhabiting the halls of Hogwarts.

In the Ghostbusters films, the team uses scientific tools to identify, attack, and contain spiritual entities including poltergeist activities, flying spirits and orbs.  Ancient gods who have descended upon New York City are usually the cause of these paranormal activities in these films.  Here’s hoping the ladies of the new Ghostbusters reboot will have more advanced Ghost zapping technology to wield.

In The Shining, the main character Jack Torrance is influenced by supernatural forces in the Overlook Hotel, asking him to commit violent crimes.  This story is perhaps the most haunting, because there are no hints of demonic possession, or of gods or demigods being present as a cause for Jack’s descent into madness. This movie has been ranked as one of the scariest of all time, increasing the audience’s pulse rate by a whopping 28.21%. In the story, he is a recovering alcoholic who encounters spirits of people who met very unfortunate ends in the Overlook Hotel. Is it Jack’s mental state creating this inner turmoil, or the suggestion of ghosts? His son Jack actually has a fictional psychic ability to detect ghosts, so this latent ability may come from Jack’s genetics.


Demonic Possession or Schizophrenia?

While demonic possession is a fictional condition, it was considered a real threat before modern medicine. Now, we see that the symptoms of schizophrenia largely resemble those described as being “possessed” – hallucinations, hearing voices, disorganized or catatonic behavior, odd emotional responsis.  We have seen the way the brain behaves in schizophrenic patients, and it is largely the fault of poor signaling of an important neurotransmitter called glutamate. The entire brain is affected.

Some people feel a presence around them often enough that it is something they must learn to live with. The feeling is particularly common in patients suffering from neurological or psychiatric disorders, who report a presence they can feel but can’t see, just like a ghost or a guardian angel.


Robot Phantom Hand is Coming for You

In an attempt to understand why some people have ongoing paranormal experiences, scientists in Switzerland developed an illusion to make healthy people feel a ghostly presence. The results of the simulation were astonishing, revealing that the experience is due to mismatched sensory and motor information that confuses the brain. (Science Alert)

The team from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne designed a set-up involving two robots – one that sits in front of the participant, and one that sits behind them. Each participant was asked to place their hand inside a device and then move their hand around.

Their hand movements were transmitted to the robot sitting behind them, which prompted it to put its hand on the participant’s back, mimicking their movements in real-time. This made the participant feel like they were touching their own back, but because the robot was so in-sync with their movements, their brain was able to adapt to the feeling.

Next, the team added a short delay between the participant’s hand movements and the robot’s touch – and this is where things got interesting. After three minutes of delayed touching, several participants felt that there was someone behind them, and others counted up to four ‘ghosts’ in the room. Even though the robot was standing behind them, the volunteers were aware of its presence, and still reported the distinct feeling.

“For some, the feeling was even so strong that they asked to stop the experiment,” said Giulio Rognini, robotic scientist and one of the team, in a press release.  The results suggest that when the robot’s touch was out-of-sync with the participant’s hands movements, the brain couldn’t identify the signals as belonging to the participant’s body, but rather as someone else.

The signals of the sensations of touch are a part of the somatosensory system. Processing primarily occurs in the primary somatosensory area in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex: information is sent from the receptors via sensory nerves, through tracts in the spinal cord and finally into the brain.

Scientists are taking these findings to help those who experience hallucinations and schizophrenia, but it doesn’t exactly explain people’s experiences when they have a brain without any disorders. Where does that leave people who have a paranormal experience, but yet can’t explain it with science? I guess we’re on our own with that one.  Alone, all by ourselves, perhaps in an old abandoned house, perhaps around 3:00 AM, wrestling with our own fears of the unknown.