Have you ever had the chills? You know, the frights, spooks, willies, nerves, jitters, heebie-jeebies? Do you get these feelings when you have to enter a dark room alone, or if you find yourself on a lonely street at night?
Even the most hardcore skeptic can still be frightened by dark or scary places. One does not have to believe in ghosts to be a little apprehensive about staying in a large medieval castle alone through the dead of night. Sure, being rational is a distinct advantage, as we skeptics can reassure ourselves that there is nothing to be afraid of. However, sometimes it seems that our imaginations did not get the memo.
Some fears are innate and primal. We can rise above them – but they are still there. Apparently we are descended from those hominids who had such an innate fear of the dark, who wanted to stick close to their parents at night, or seek the comfort of fire’s light. Those who were fearless and more comfortable hanging out alone near the shadows probably did not fare very well. So fear is always with us, lurking in the more primitive parts of our gray matter.
Fear of the dark is also not the only innate fear. The first time I had an MRI scan, I never thought for a moment it would cause me any fear, but then the sensation of being completely helpless inside that small tight tunnel resulted in a primal claustrophobic sensation. I was able to distract myself and get through it – but the fear was there.
Most of us also like to be scared. Halloween is a favorite holiday in my family (especially with by brother, Bob, who actually runs a haunted corn maze in October). We like to be brought to the brink of terror, but then relieved in our own safety. It gives us a thrill. Perhaps it is also a way to experiment with the boundaries of our own fear – to know what is safe, or perhaps how we will react when real fear rears its head.
There are other reasons than fear that belief in ghosts persists. Our brains are not perfect tools – they are subject to a host of anomalies in perception and altered states. Our hardwiring can easily generate a sensation of an entity, perhaps right at the periphery of our vision. We can hear noises that are nothing more than neuronal echoes. We have have waking dreams – a fusion of the awake and dreaming states. Sleep deprivation (not uncommon on late night ghost hunts) can result in hallucinations and altered perception. And we are highly suggestible, often seeing and experiencing strange phenomena simply because we expect to.
Research has also shown that the more frightened we are, the more likely we are to see patterns where they do not exist. It is as if when our nervous system is put on alert for danger, we shift into hyper-pattern-recognition mode. When sifting reality for real patterns, we tend to err on the side of seeing patterns that are not there, rather than missing genuine patterns. Fright and anxiety shifts the balance further in favor of seeing patterns.
It is therefore no surprise that during ghost-hunting, or a seance, or hunting for EVP’s, etc. that people will experience strange things and attribute them to the paranormal.
Some scientists have also tried to explain such experiences (not that it is really necessary) as a response to physical phenomena – such as magnetic fields or infrasound. Research into these effects, however, have been mixed, with the best double-blind studies showing no difference in strange experience when the magnetic fields or infrasound were on or off. It is not implausible that physical phenomena contribute to spooky experiences, but the evidence for these specific causes is thin.
Understanding human nature itself is one of the key skill sets for critical thinking and skeptical analysis. We are, generally speaking, a jittery species, with some built in fears – fears that kept our ancestors alive (and still likely have some survival benefit today), and now feed the horror movie and Halloween industries, as well as the annoying ghost-hunting genre of reality TV.