Spooky Particles and Bigger Ghosts

The Christmas Monkey Cage (to be broadcast at 9am on 27th December) will be with Deborah Hyde, Mark Gatiss, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and The Bishop of Leeds. We’ll be talking ghosts, holy and secular.

Even before The Smiths instructed me, I have been hanging around cemeteries. Not being as happy go lucky and gregarious as Morrissey, I usually went alone. Sadly, I never caught sight of a ghost. My sceptical view on the spirit leftovers of once fleshy humans has never dampened my delight in a good ghost story. On the few occasions I foolhardily walk through woodland at the dead of night, MR James keeps me company, unhelpfully reminding me of what may lie in the bristling undergrowth.

In an early series of The Infinite Monkey Cage (which I co-present on Radio 4), we asked why people believe in ghosts. Research into auditory hallucinations, the ability of our pattern seeking brain to leap to strange conclusions, and the importance of the prevalent myths we are brought up with all played their part. During the broadcast, we were hexed by three witches, and we received a complaint that we had a biased panelled as we only populated it with the living.

What is a ghost? For some it is a translucent version of the deceased, for others it “some kind of energy”. “Some kind of energy” is useful when trying to define ghosts, water memory or why the universe seems to expand at such a rate.

Lately, scientists have spent more time pondering the “spooky action at a distance” of quantum entanglement rather than just plain old spooks, but that has not left the spirit world unscrutinised.

Richard Wiseman, professor of the public understanding of psychology, sent volunteers into the famously haunted vaults under Edinburgh’s South Bridge.The volunteers were unaware of which areas had the strongest reputation for ghostliness. Afterwards, Wiseman found that the same areas were repeatedly rated as more “haunted”. Wiseman considered this was due to environmental factors. The spookier rooms had higher ceilings and more exterior lighting directly outside the vault. Wiseman believes this is due to an increased sense of vulnerability in such environments, or maybe it’s just that ghosts are tall and need a big room.

Coventry University’s Vic Tandy worked in a building where staff had felt dread in certain areas and sense of a “presence”. After elimination of other possibilities, he concluded it was caused by infrasound. An exhaust fan was sending out low level frequencies, around 18-19hz soundwaves, that can create a resonant vibration in the eye and lead to illusions of shadowy presences. This is a frequency below our conscious hearing experience. Tandy further tested this in the “haunted” room of an abbey and found that due to circumstances of the rooms dimension and the activity of nearby factories, it had become a chamber of infrasound, and so a room of nausea, discombobulation and strange terror for visitors.

One of the most recent experiments to understand where ghosts may lurk involved a robot arm. Professor Olaf Blanke, from Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, wanted to build an experiment that created the sense of a foreign body in the laboratory. Participants controlled a robot device with their index fingers which would caress their back. The volunteers felt as if they were touching their own back. When the touching was very slightly out of sync with their control, the mind could not make logical sense of the experience. They felt as if they were moving oddly towards the mechanisms fingers, and as if they were being watched by another presence in the room. Two volunteers were so spooked that they opted out. This out of sync sense of ourselves leads to us creating another presence, which may be imagined as phantom presence. If it’s not caused by a robot arm, this experience can be caused by exhaustion or disease.

Our imagination is flamboyant, we should enjoy it, but be wary of it, too.

Once, I worked with the wonderfully eccentric actor, Sarah Miles. On hearing that I knew Richard Dawkins, she wondered if I could share his contact details as she knew a cottage so haunted that she wanted to leave him chained to a bed overnight, believing this would overturn many of his suppositions. I wonder of she ever tied him down, that’s an episode of Britain’s Most Haunted I’d tune into.

Dead Funny Encore is out now (stories by Stewart Lee, Alice Lowe, Josie Long, Isy Suttie, Rufus Hound and many more)

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles series 4 is up and running now including Alan Moore, Noel Fielding, Sarah Bakewell…


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