Why Do People Believe in Ghosts?

But it’s also true that if you already believe in ghosts, or are told a place is haunted, you are more likely to interpret events as paranormal. A 2002 study found that believers in ghosts were more likely than non-believers to report unusual phenomena while touring a site in Britain with a reputation for being haunted. Visitors who were told that there was a recent increase in unusual phenomena occurring at the site also reported a higher number of unusual experiences on the tour.

The author says that the man at the top left,
whom she can’t identify, was not in the room
at the time this photo was taken. (Tiffanie Wen)

Another study demonstrated that hearing or reading about paranormal narratives, especially when the story came from a credible source, was enough to increase paranormal beliefs among participants. With the abundance of ghost-hunting shows in the U.S. and the UK, like Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures and Most Haunted, which is returning to screens this fall, it’s probably not surprising that studies have also linked belief in ghosts with exposure to paranormal-related TV shows.

“What we have is people trying to make sense of something that, to them, seems inexplicable,” says Christopher French, a professor of psychology and head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, “So you get the misinterpretation of noises or visual effects that do have a normal explanation, but not one that people can think of. People assume that if they cannot explain something in natural terms, then it must be something paranormal.”

According to French, hallucinations are more common among the general population than most people realize, and are sometimes wrongly interpreted as ghosts. He points to sleep paralysis—a phenomenon that occurs when someone wakes up while still in the dream-inducing REM stage of sleep, in which your body is paralyzed— as one example. Studies have shown that around 30 to 40 percent of people have experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their lives, with about five percent of participants reporting visual and audio hallucinations, including the presence of monstrous figures, and difficulty breathing.

The experience has been interpreted as paranormal in several cultures. In a study done in Hong Kong, for example, 37 percent of students reported at least one instance of what they refer to as “ghost oppression.” In Thailand, the term for sleep paralysis–phi um—translates to “ghost covered.” In Newfoundland, Canada, it is known as a visit from the “Old Hag.” The woman in Swiss artist Henry Fuseli’s famous 18th century painting, “The Nightmare,” is said by French and other researchers to be suffering an episode of sleep paralysis.

Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain, argues that we see causal, intentional relationships—even when they don’t exist—because it is evolutionarily advantageous to do so and because humans have the tendency to look at patterns and see them as deliberate. In a column for Scientific American, Shermer writes, “We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agent­icity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.”

One example of this is our tendency to see faces in random images, a phenomenon called pareidolia. In a study conducted at the University of British Columbia, researchers Aiyana Willard and Ara Norenzayan found that participants with a higher tendency to anthropomorphize—meaning those that are more likely to assign human qualities to non-human things—were also more likely to have paranormal beliefs.

“There is also the emotional motivation for these beliefs,” French says. “The vast majority of us don’t like the idea of our own mortality. Even though we find the idea of ghosts and spirits scary, in a wider context, they provide evidence for the survival of the soul.”

With that in mind, I reached out to Apple Inc. for a comment on the images at the start of this article. A representative for the company was kind enough to check out the images, but didn’t have a comment for the story. And though a few independent analysts had a good look at the photos and suggested that Laura’s could be something related to high-dynamic range photography, no one was able to come up with a definitive explanation for the man in my apartment.

Maybe more images like mine will surface and someone will come up with a technical explanation for these spectral iPhone photos.

Or maybe, it’s just a ghost.

Presented by

Tiffanie Wen is a writer based in Tel Aviv. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, and the Jerusalem Post.

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