Why do people see ghosts?

Ruling out psychosis, or the existence of actual ghosts, how do we explain ghostly sightings?

I saw one just after my son was born. To be exact, I ‘felt’ the ghost rather than saw him. ‘Feeling’ someone in the room is such a common occurrence in ghost sightings that it has a clinical name: “feeling of presence,” or FP.

In fact, survey data shows that while 18 percent of Americans say they’ve seen or been in the presence of a ghost, 29 percent say they have felt in touch with someone who has died.

A lightning storm lit up the sky while I sat bleary-eyed in Gabriel’s pitch-black bedroom, breastfeeding him in the armchair at some unknown hour. Then, the sensation descended – not as a possibility, but an absolute certainty, the way you know it’s raining because you are suddenly wet: there was a young man standing next to me.

My eyes scoured the contours of darkness for shapes, silhouettes. Petrified, I felt a maternal sixth sense alerting me to danger. It took every ounce of reason and self-reassurance to return Gabriel softly to bed and close the door, feeling all the while someone was watching us.

I tried to rationalize away the ghost as a manifestation of my anxiety as a new mom. My brain was uncomfortably awash with post-pregnancy neurochemicals responding in exaggeration to mundane stimuli: a baby’s face, a baby’s cry. I lay awake at night after putting Gabriel back to sleep thinking with genuine amazement that women everywhere do this all the time.

The thought astounded me. Why weren’t more new moms jumping from rooftops, or putting their heads in ovens?

Maybe my ghost was a subconscious idiom to express what many new moms feel they can’t: misery. Still, it was hard to “disbelieve” something I could sense almost tangibly.

One study claims to have reproduced a sense of “ghostly” presence in a lab by introducing unpredictability. Subjects, blindfolded and ear-plugged, were attached to a robot that reproduced their hand movements (e.g. tapping the air in front of them) on their backs using a robotic arm. When the arm corresponded in real time to subjects’ movements, they recognized it as produced by them.

But, with a few milliseconds delay, subjects reported feeling an eerie presence in the room. The temporal disconnect mixed up their sensorimotor signals so they no longer recognized the input signals as belonging to their own body. Some subjects were so spooked they opted out of finishing the experiment.

Another researcher proposed that a ‘sensed presence’ can be a reaction to extreme or unusual environments that we are unprepared to process, leading us to focus more within ourselves. In these circumstances (think Shackleton’s failed Antarctic expedition, survived air-crashes, space travel, solitary sailing) it is common to adaptively imagine a third man (as the phenomenon is called) who provides moral support when one needs it the most.

These explanations never made my ghost disappear. But they helped me to reconsider him as something else: a symptom of my feeling fundamentally disoriented, of not knowing what to expect.

And perhaps my ‘third man’ appeared, if not to provide me comfort, then to alert me that things were different now. I’d wandered into an uncharted terrain of sleepless nights, dirty diapers, sterilized bottles and the desperate deciphering of different baby cries. This was my ‘no-man’s land.’

So maybe there’s an ethical imperative to acknowledge that the ghosts we see – or feel – are not leering over our shoulders, but are instead inside our brains: personifications of our attempts to situate ourselves among deep uncertainties. We can become haunted by our own insecurity, in effect, ghosting ourselves.

–By Kristin Kostick, Ph.D., staff scientist at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine

4 thoughts on “Why do people see ghosts?

  • August 27, 2020 at 11:09 pm
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    It isn’t inside the brain. My daughter and I saw the same ghost at the same time. I caught them on film and had others verify they saw the same thing before it disappeared. I would like to understand what makes some see ghosts while others can’t or how sometimes a person can see them and other times they can’t. Maybe a scientific way can explain it like one must have visibility to the color spectrum from x point to y point and only x number of people can see that many colors or one must have cells that regenerate at x speed because they possess a certain characteristic that allows the eye to see more faint images. If someone were to work hard enough and believe or trust that ghosts exist, they could probably find a common characteristic like these and find out how it works to allow the eyes to see ghosts where people without this feature can’t.

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    • October 23, 2020 at 5:27 am
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      As ghosts are spiritual they can minifest themselves intentionally to those they want to see them and not to those they don’t. I am sure there is a science in all this inside our brain which one day will become a reality to all of mankind.

      I believe ghosts ie deceased humans manifest themselves intentionally first and foremost as a way of communicating to us that they need help and I am referring spiritual help in terms of prayers and masses said for them so their soul can Rest In Peace and pass onto the other side of the spiritual spectrum.

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    • October 23, 2020 at 6:18 am
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      As ghosts are spiritual they can minifest themselves intentionally to those they want to see them and not to those they don’t. I am sure there is a science in all this inside our brain which one day will become a reality to all of mankind.

      I believe ghosts ie deceased humans manifest themselves intentionally first and foremost as a way of communicating to us that they need help and I am referring spiritual help in terms of prayers and masses said for them so their soul can Rest In Peace and pass onto the other side of the spiritual spectrum.

      So the moral of the story is if a ghost manifests him or herself to you, in all likelihood they are seeking your help. So the best way you can help them is by saying a Rosary for them and for a mass to be said as for one thing is for certain if they are in paradise they won’t be around and or if they have been condemned they won’t be around either.

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  • October 21, 2020 at 8:13 pm
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    I have felt the presence of a spirit today, the 22 of October 2020 at around 3.30 am, I was asleep for up to around 1.00pm with my 6 year old daughter. I ran out of sleep as from that time and stayed awake in bed till 3.00 am. Suddenly, I started dreaming of a man who I think was already dead and had died of an accident. The man was crying when he tried to remember at how his death occurred. There was a certain woman at the same time who was with the man but the woman was not dead. At this point I was not fully asleep. Here is the most terrifying moment of it; the dream ended I kind of woke up and started thinking of my own things. It was until then that I had an alert message on my phone. Immediately I felt a strong presence of a spirit, of my late sister to be precise. My whole body was shaking. I have never felt that before. The presence of that spirit kind of possessed me for a while..I wanted to pray to God but my mouth could not utter a word, I was not able to speak. I just produced some kind of noise coming deep down my heart-the sound took around 4minutes then it disappeared and the presence of the spirit was gone. Very terrifying right?

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