Ghost Explained (Part 2)

Exploring the Other Side

While some people sense ghosts or see them, others are driven to sort them out, to discover what they really are.

What are Ghosts?

Ghosts are easy to define, hard to explain.  Almost everybody agrees on the basic proposition that ghosts are spirits of the dead.  But that deceptively simple definition is just a gateway to a thorny thicket of questions, some of them the most profound that humans ever ask.

What exactly is a spirit?  Is it the same thing as a soul?  Does such a thing really exist?  And if it does, can it survive the death of the body?  In what form?  Why do the dead haunt the living, or just some of the living?  Why do some people apparently see ghosts, others not?  Are ghosts vengeful?  Kindly?  Sad?  Should we fear them?  Avoid them?  Seek them out?

The answers depend largely, of course, on whom you ask, and when.  People who believe in ghosts or claim to have encountered them – a minority that hovers between 10 to 20 percent, according to most polls taken over the year, are quick to speculate on the nature and significance of spirits.  For unbelievers, on the other hand, ghosts are merely the stuff of idle chitchat, the quaint fantasies of credulous minds.  But this wasn’t always so.  There was a time, beginning about a century and a half ago, when some of the world’s finest intellects (skeptical intellects, mostly) pursued the subject of ghosts in deadly earnest.  It was for them, one might say, a matter of eternal life or death.

The First Ghost Hunters

It was in England in the 1880s that a group of Cambridge University scholars formed the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) to fix a cold and skeptical eye on paranormal phenomena.  Not given to mysticism, these dons were thoroughly systematic.  They would collect information, collate, analyze, theorize, test.  They began with ghosts.

A trio of SPR founders Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore, interviewed about 6,000 people regarding their experiences with ghosts.  In 1886, they published their results in Phantasms of the Living, a two-volume tome of 1,400 pages.  There Myers coined the word “telepathy”, postulating that some ghosts were really telepathic impulses, which percipients, the people who see or sense ghosts, took to be phantoms.  “Instead of describing a ‘ghost’ as a dead person permitted to communicate with the living,” he wrote, “let us define it as a manifestation of persistent personal energy.”

Eleanor Balfour Sidgwick, a mathematician and the principal of Cambridge’s Newnham College, speculated that inanimate objects might absorb and store psychic impressions from the living in the same way that stones gather heat energy from the sun.  When the impressions were radiated by the object, the figurative hot stones, their energy, she thought, might be perceived as ghosts.  The strength of the apparition, Sidgwick believed, depended on the emotional magnitude of the psychic imprint, the amount of stored energy, and the percipient’s sensitivity.

Ghostly Intentions

Phantasms of the Living was the first great leap into the paranormal unknown.  Based on its findings, the Cambridge group began classifying different types of ghosts.  Motive seemed to be one differentiating feature.

“We were struck,” said Gurney, “with the great predominance of alleged apparitions at or near the moment of death.  And a new light seemed to be thrown on these phenomena by the unexpected frequency of accounts of apparitions of living persons, coincident with moments of danger or crisis.”  As people experienced death or some other extreme condition, he suggested, their psyche became more adept at projecting itself in ghostly guises.

Nor was crisis the only motive.  Some apparitions brought balm for the grief of loved ones; others, comfort for the dying.  Some apparitions appeared to remind the reincarnate of their previous lives, or to give a future family a preview of a reborn person on the way.

Ethereal Theories

Myers kept his belief that human existence didn’t end at death, but he saw flaws in this telepathy hypothesis.  In Human Personality and the Survival of Bodily Death, published in 1903, he theorized that apparitions were a kind of knot of energy emanating from the agent buy strong enough to alter the percipient’s space.  As for the actual substance of ghosts, Myers proposed that specters existed not as material beings but as “metetherial” – a kind of fourth-dimensional domain.

Some years later, SPR president Henry Habberley Price, an emeritus professor of logic at Oxford University, echoed Myers with the notion of a “psychic ether,” which he described as “something intermediate between mind and matter.”  He believed that thought and other types of mental activity generated an image that survived on another plane even after the death of the thinker.  While invisible to everyone, such images might be perceived as ghosts by psychic sensitives.

Ghostly Taxonomy

G. Tyrell, who became SPR president in 1945, devoted 40 years to ghost research.  Tyrell, who held degrees in physics and mathematics from London University, is credited with formulating the four categories of phantoms that are still generally recognized today: crisis apparitions, apparitions of the living, postmortem apparitions, and continual, or recurring, apparitions.  (More details on Types of Ghosts.)

Drawing on modern psychology, Tyrell proposed that ghosts came out of a confluence of creative energy from the unconscious minds of both the agent and the percipient.  He called the result an “apparitional drama,” or “sensory hallucination.”

Researcher Andrew MacKenzie also postulated a link between apparitions and the subconscious mind.  Examing a number of reported hallucinatory experiences, he found that most of them came when the percipient was tuning out the external world and concentrating on something else.  At such times, MacKenzie reckoned the barriers between the conscious and unconscious come down.  The resulting flow from our unknown mental interior sometimes seems to be a ghost.

Inside the Mind and Out

The pioneering work of Tyrell and MacKenzie can still be seen in the work of present day psychical researchers like William Roll, a prominent American parapsychologist.  Like them, he explains haunting as an interactive drama between haunter and observer, as he calls the percipient, but he proposes that the phenomena occur along a sliding scale.

Haunting visions or sounds can be related to a particular situation or event, which Roll contends, seems “to leave an imprint in the environment that lots of people can respond to.”  But he sees no need for such carrier substances as psychic ether.  “All we need to say is that there is no sharp distinction between mind and matter, and that the processes that go on in the human brain may also go on in the human environment.  To me the main interest of these phenomena is that they suggest body and mind and matter are not as clearly distinguished as we have been led to believe, that mind is enfolded in matter, that there is meaning in matter, that the physical environment has mental qualities that come from the people who have lived in that environment.”

“Those qualities imprinted on the environment compose the ghostly side of Roll’s equation.  The percipient composes the other.  Hauntings move on a sliding scale between them, driven by whichever factor, the spectral or the personal, is more active.  If the power lies toward the environmental end, the imprint should be so deeply etched that anyone can discern it.  At the far end on the percipient side of the scale, the observer creates the ghost out of nothing, that is to say, he or she makes it up.

Roll says that the latter type of haunting seems to follow emotional stress; it is often seen, for example, in strife-torn marriages.  Then, according to Roll, the percipient creates “an objective reality” to fill a void.  “It is like a dream that has become real,” he explains, “a strong need that somehow has created a situation that satisfies it.  My impression is that memories will be drawn out in response to needs.  And it is just as likely to happen in a new duplex as in an old mansion.”  Anything, including oneself, can be haunted.

Ghostly Behavior

Today, speculation about ghosts has largely passed out of the academic realm.  Seldom ghost hunters are full-timers who are serious about their subject.  Their language is more casual than that of the academicians, and their scientific tastes tend more toward psychology than physics.  For instance, Troy Taylor, the founder and president of the American Ghost Society, finds it useful to divide phantom encounters into two types: the intelligent haunting and the residual haunting.

The intelligent haunter, according to Taylor, is “the personality of a once-living person who stayed behind in our world instead of passing over to the Other side.”  Such ghosts are self-aware and are able to interact with the living.  The residual haunter, on the other hand, is merely “an imprint that is left on the atmosphere” of a haunted site.  It is the spirit of an event, rather than a personality, that plays out over and over in phantom form.

As to the nature of intelligent ghosts, Taylor reports that generally, they are “very sad.  We have to remember that many of them are very confused over what has happened to them.”  Some, he says, don’t even realize that they are dead.  Ghosts are never evil, he contends, although they do project in their phantom forms whatever personalities they had in life: benevolent, caring, angry, bitter.

David Oester and Sharon Gill, co-founders of the International Ghost Hunters Society, agree.  “A ghost is a mirror of who he or she was in life,” they say.  “If they were happy campers in life, they will happy campers in death.  The reverse is also true.  If they were angry and mean in life, so too in death.”  Whatever their natures, the spirits remain earthbound “because of unfinished business, unresolved issues, or because they have a comfort level and choose to remain here.  In many cases, the soul or spirit has negative earth emotions that were not released while living, and now these negative emotions are creating an anchor that will hold them back until they can release these negative emotions.”

Times have changed.  Pondering a ghost’s “unresolved issues” seems a far less pressing task than trying to validate religion by proving that spirits exist.  Now and then, though, an echo of the old urgency can still be heard: “Ghosts are really the evidence,” say Oester and Gill, “that religion should lean toward as proof of an afterlife.”

Ghost Explained (Part 1)

The Quest to understand life after death

From Spiritualism to quantum physics, the quest persists to find out exactly what haunts us, and how, and why…

Inquiring Minds

The idea that the energy of life just vanishes into nothingness in death has never been comfortable for us humans.  Such potent energy must go somewhere: to Paradise, perhaps, or the Underworld, or some purgatorial holding pattern, or the interstices between the stars.  It must revive secretly on some other side of existence.  And there, many have long supposed, the spirits traverse eternity, reaping whatever good or ill they sowed in life.

Such an explanation accounts nicely for what happens to an individual’s life force.  But not all energy that has gone on to its post-mortem dimension seems content to stay there.  Unfinished business, hatred left unquenched,  revenge uncompleted, one’s murderer gone free, lost or unrequited love, the need to warn or scare or save one’s survivors; there are so many compelling reasons not to rest that one would expect the ether to teem with souls still not quite decoupled from life.  And so they seem to over about us, occasionally visible, often subtly perceptible, just out of earshot, but nevertheless there, palpable enough to prompt never-quite-answered about who they are and what they want.

The questions about the fate of the life force have been asked for thousands of years.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, it appeared at times that science was on the verge of providing some definitive answers.  Energy of all sorts was on the verge of providing some definitive answers.  Energy of all sorts was much on people’s minds then: electrical energy, magnetic energy, how to two transferred back and forth, how energy was transformed into light and heat.  Energy never vanished, it seemed, it merely changed forms.  So it might be with the energy of life, some scientists speculated:  Perhaps life was another manifestation of energy, as indestructible as electricity or sunlight, and as quick to take another form.

It made sense, and it carried the advantage that the whole business of an afterlife might be viewed objectively, not through the distorting lenses of superstition or metaphysics.  And if one could quantify the existence of human energy after the body’s death – ghosts and spirits, as it were, why couldn’t one get in touch with them?  Why couldn’t science open a line to the Other side?

Science and the Supernatural

The idea smacked somewhat of hubris; the science of the time (and of today, for that matter) was as yet ill-equipped to unveil nature’s most closely held secret: the mystery of death and what lies beyond it.  Even so, there were pioneers willing to try.  And if they fell short, some were equally willing to cloak their efforts in enough pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo to at least confuse the issue.

One of these was Franz Anton Mesmer, the 18th century Austrian physician whose theory of “animal magnetism” – a natural magnetic energy he believed to exist in all living creatures, suggested the possibility of sensing objects and events beyond ones’ waking ken.  Mesmer was wrong about nearly everything except the technique of hypnotizing or “mesmerizing,” subjects.  Still, his incorporation of magnetism into his spiel imparted a certain learned aura to his work and to the otherworldly pranks of a legion of Mesmerists who sprung up on both sides of the Atlantic.

Emanuel Swedenborg, a renowned Swedish scientist who was a contemporary of Mesmer, offered a philosophical counterpoint to the Austrian’s mind-bending hocus-pocus.  The hidden worlds to which Mesmer clamied to send his hypnotized subjects were familiar ground to Swedenborg, who reported the frequent company of Jesus, a host of spirits, and even God.  He framed the afterlife into six spheres of Spiritualism, which spirits traversed from the lowest (life on Earth) to the highest (unknowable to us).  About equal parts brilliant and deranged, Swedenborg like Mesmer, helped fertilize the occult ground of what would become, in the 19th century, the Spiritualist movement.

Science and the Soul

By the end of 19 centaury, science and mediumship have gone their separate ways, the latter dissolving into the often suspect claptrap of channeling and psychic hot lines, the former searching for spirits in wholly new directions.

These days, the serious scientists speculating on the soul’s possible survival tend to be, of all things, physicists.  Their mystical turn of mind is doubtless linked to quantum mechanics itself, the science describing the cosmos as a mysterious mesh of being and nonbeing in which tiny, invisible bits called quanta – the building blocks of the universe – behave in exotically erratic and unpredictable ways.

All creation is joined “in a state of unending flux of enfoldment and unfoldment,” says the University of London’s David Bohm, a leading authority on quantum mechanics and also a student of Eastern mysticism.  Bohm asserts that human consciousness is part of a unity that includes the whole universe.  If such oneness is indeed the case, it’s logical to assume that somewhere in that universe, disembodied souls exist.

Another physicist influenced by Eastern thought is Brian Josephson, a Nobel laureate and professor at England’s Cambridge University.  “One is not the same as one’s body,” says Josephson, who defines the soul as a nonphysical “organizing center” of the self.  He is convinced that this organizing center survives death.

Mind, Brain, Soul

Other scientists approach the soul by speculating on whether human consciousness is separable from human flesh: Is the mind merely what the brain does?  Or is it more, and other – an entity that can exist independent of the brain and survive the brain’s death?  One renowned thinker who argues for the second proposition is Australian neurophysiologist Sir John Carew Eccles, another Nobel Prize winner.  “I cannot believe,” says Eccles, “that the wonderful gift of a conscious existence has no further future, no possibility of another existence under some unimaginable conditions.”

Eccles has an ally in Sir Karl Popper, the eminent philosopher of science.  Popper posits the existence of three worlds: a material one containing the brain and all other material objects, an abstract world in which the mind dwells, and a world that holds all the mind’s achievements, all the fruits of civilization.  These worlds interact constantly, but they are essentially separate; the mind, therefore, enjoys an existence independent of the brain.

No End in Sight

Inquiring minds, including some of the best minds around, do indeed want to know.  But this side of the grave, will we ever really understand what death is and what the spirit is and whether it survives after the body dies?  The best minds seem to think not.

Physicist Josephson contends that physical science will never, by itself, unravel all reality’s secrets, although he concedes that mystical insight may open new path-ways for rational thought.

Neurophysiologist Eccles is even more modest about the prospects, although a good scientist that he is, he allows for all possibilities.  “I don’t want to claim that I have some extraordinary revelation telling me the answer” says Eccles.  “I keep everything open.  I keep so many doors open because I am, as it were, a lost soul trying to find my way in the unknown.”