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3 scientific explanations for ghost sightings

Some ghost sightings don't need science. That's a kid in a sheet.

Some ghost sightings don’t need science. That’s a kid in a sheet.

You look like you’ve seen a ghost.

Relax, it’s just stock photography of a child wearing a sheet on his head, and we’ve seen more scary stock photography elsewhere on these pages.

Still, one in five Americans claims to have seen a ghost. If you’ve witnessed paranormal activity yourself, you may think that’s proof enough. Not necessarily, says science. Here’s three explanations for ghostly goings on – and this doesn’t even touch upon Scooby Doo style criminals in masks, which experts believe make up between one and four percent of ghost sightings*.

1. Science of Ghosts – Sleep Paralysis

Asleep, but awake. Sleep paralysis is an unpleasant experience.

Asleep, but awake. Sleep paralysis is an unpleasant experience.

Have you ever woken up to find you can’t move? Your brain is active, your eyes move and you can see fine, but you can’t move your limbs? You might feel like something is sitting on top of you, and you may even see or sense mysterious figures around you.

That’s sleep paralysis, buddy. Unless there really are mysterious figures in your room, in which case you should probably change the locks and get less creepy friends.

Here’s the science: when you’re dreaming during the REM phase of sleep, the body needs to be paralyzed to prevent you from acting out your dreams. Glycine and GABA are the chemicals responsible – if they don’t kick in, you might sleep walk.

But sometimes they’re a bit too effective, and your body remains paralyzed after you regain control of your other faculties, leading to a period where you can’t move but are fully alert. This will last from a few seconds to several minutes.

Unfortunately, you’re also more likely to hallucinate, fresh out of dreaming. You may believe that the reason you can’t stand is that demon sat on your chest, or you may be absolutely certain that someone is on the other side of the room just outside of the field of vision. The worst part? You’re paralyzed so can’t scream for help.

Never had this? Be grateful – your author here has, just the once, after taking flu medicine with caffeine, despite being physically exhausted. Some people get it several times a month, but it’s more common amongst teenagers and young adults.

Read more about sleep paralysis

2. Science of Ghosts – The Creepiness of Infrasound

Sound too low to consciously hear can still affect the body and mind.

Sound too low to consciously hear can still affect the body and mind.

The human ear is pretty weak compared to our friends in the animal kingdom. Ask any Shiba Inu if they want to swap ears, and there’s no way they’d agree – that’s just crazy talk. Anyway, there are certain frequencies that the human ear can’t consciously register, but that doesn’t mean they have no impact.

It turns out that infrasound – specifically the frequency between seven and 19 Hz – affects humans directly, even if they can’t hear it. It can induce fear, dread and panic. Scientists actually tested this at a live concert, by including some infrasound with the music, and 22 percent of the audience felt something unusual.

Why do we feel this dread? It might be evolutionary – some wild animals humans should avoid use this frequency to communicate, so in most cases if you feel dread, it’s kind of a good thing.

But not always. Which brings us to Vic Tandy. In the engineering facility he worked at, not only were staff constantly feeling uneasy, but occasionally they would see dark figures out the corner of their eyes that would vanish when focused on.

Not ghosts: infrasound. Turns out there was a silent exhaust fan in the space was sending out a wave at 18.9Hz. Once turned off, the panic, dread and visions stopped.

Wait, the visions stopped too?

Yep. 18.9Hz is around the right frequency to make the eyeballs vibrate, which means that anything static in your peripheral vision can appear both far bigger and moving. So that ghostly figure… it might just be some dust.

Sure enough, Tandy went on to test for infrasound at many other ‘most haunted’ spots, and found similar results.

Read more about infrasound.

3. Science of Ghosts – Carbon Monoxide Leaks

Carbon monoxide can do strange things to our perceptions.

Carbon monoxide can do strange things to our perceptions.

Carbon monoxide is still a major killer – it’s poisonous, odorless, silent and deadly. But on its way to killing you, and it can also play tricks on the brain along the way, as reported in the American Journal of Ophthalmology in 1921.

The ‘H’ family moved into what appeared to be a haunted house in 1912. They’d hear footsteps in empty rooms, hear strange voices calling their names, see dark figures – all signs of a good old fashioned haunting. They were also feeling fatigued, suffering from headaches and witnessing their plants die. The latter three were the giveaway here: it turned out that a leaky furnace was filling the house with carbon monoxide, leading to oxygen deprivation and hallucinations.

Read more about the carbon monoxide ‘haunted house’

There’s an unofficial fourth here, too. Your friends are playing a trick on you, and you should get your own back with a prank of your own. We’d recommend infrasound.

* This stat is entirely made up. The rest is all true though.

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