Saturday, 21 January 2017

Hallucinations and Ghost Sightings

In a rational world, the first response to what might seem like a 'paranormal' experience should be to go through a mental list of possible 'natural' explanations. And with a supposed 'ghost sighting', that list must include 'hallucination'.

Now I know that people who insist they have seen a ghost get particularly adamant that they were not 'seeing things', but hallucinations are more common than you might think, especially among children. According to one British study, 17% of 9-12-year-olds experience hallucinatory episodes, a number that roughly halves in teenagers and drops again in adults. Researchers believed this was actually a low estimation. They found that most hallucinations were occasional and non-symptomatic of mental health issues, but are generally a result of 'life stresses, poor sleep and periods of low mood that fade when the difficult situations do'.

An article about this report in the Guardian drew comments about readers own experiences. These included this one from 'hpat77':
'As a child, my hallucinations were extremely vivid, and terrifying. I remember being surrounded by thousand of spiders, crawling all over me, and despite my mother's persistent reassurance that none of it was real, I still felt that intense fear as I could not shake the realistic creatures from my vision. This happened a few times, but now as I leave my teenage years I have long grown out of it.'
And this one from 'caliandris': 
'I had hallucinations three times as a child, aged about 8-11. In each case I had a very high temperature associated with an ear infection. The striking thing about them is that I can still remember them vividly, and how frightening they were: a small woman knitting on the windowsill, hundreds of bouquets of flowers protruding from the walls, and a complicated sequence where I was chasing a police car and was stopped by an elephant on an elastic band...'
This subject strikes a chord with me because I had three similar experiences as a child. I can't put a date on them, but they probably all happened before I turned eight years or so. I don't recall being under any stress or anything, but I can tell you that these hallucinations were incredibly vivid and I still remember each incident very clearly today, over 40 years later.

One occasion involved a frog. I never liked frogs - slimy, jumpy little things - and one night as I lay in bed, my head to the side, I saw this frog suddenly jump up onto my bed, near the pillow, and then hop under the sheets. I freaked out and screamed and my parents came running into my room. 'What's wrong?' 'THERE'S A FROG IN MY BED!' They ripped back the sheets and... nothing there. They looked all around the place, but no frog. They said I must have been seeing things, and I was, but it felt very, very real.

Another time, I was walking across a busy road in Bury, Lancashire, just behind my mum. It was daytime. We'd been to a supermarket and were crossing through traffic to a bus stop on the other side of the road. I distinctly remember looking up and seeing a massive Saturn V rocket (those big black and white ones) flying horizontally and silently through a small break in the low clouds directly overhead. I watched the black-white-black-white sections moving through that gap, and was totally lost in the moment. Then suddenly I became aware of cars braking, horns honking, and my mother pulling on my arm and yelling at me. I'd stopped halfway across the road and brought traffic to a halt, standing there staring at this rocket in the clouds. It was an incredibly vivid sight and has stayed with me like it was yesterday. I also remember my mum shouting at me at the bus stop and me being embarrassed and crying as everyone stared at me. But, again, it seemed so real. Quite frankly, if wasn't so totally unfeasible that an Apollo mission rocket would be flying low over south Lancashire, I might still suspect that maybe I really had seen something.

A third occasion, which was probably the earliest and the scariest of these incidents, happened when I was lying in bed at night, head to the side, staring at a wardrobe, when suddenly two strange figures slowly lifted their heads into my line of view on the side of the bed. One was what I can only describe as a 'Mother Goose' lookalike, with a large human-sized goose head and spectacles. The other was a woman with a strange wide face, overly large eyes and red Dusty-Springfield type hair. They both stopped and looked at me silently and I screamed, at which point they both slowly moved down out view. My mum came running in, but there was nothing there. I told her what I saw but was assured that I was just seeing things.

So while the frog and the rocket were demonstrably not real and therefore easily dismissed as hallucinations, what about when people see human figures, especially in their bedroom at night? In my case, because of the 'mother goose'-type figure, it was just weird enough to be dismissed as 'seeing things'. But what if there had been no goose? What if it was just the female figure? There is an existing cultural explanation for such things, and that explanation is that it could be a ghost. So instead of being able to just dismiss it as an hallucination. I'd be left with with the feeling that maybe I'd just seen a ghost. Space rockets and non-existent animals can be explained away, but ghosts... well, that's what they do. They look like people and appear and disappear at random, just like I saw.

So how many people who believe that as children they saw a strange human figure were in fact hallucinating? How many one-off sightings by adults have the same explanation? It is of course impossible to say, especially as some people become very emotionally attached to the belief that they have seen something so incredible.

Despite this, hallucinations do happen to a significant percentage of the population and should always be considered when it comes to a list of possible explanations for ghost sightings, although they would be more plausible in some cases over others. 

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