Science

Do ghosts really exist?

 
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WRITTEN BY
May 10 07:55 pm

Elaine

In 2017, writer and illustrator Adam Ellis publicly documented on Twitter a series of spooky occurrences that were happening in his apartment involving the ghost of a child named ‘Dear David.’ Was it a social media experiment, an exercise in creative writing, or—as Adam would tell you himself—a genuine account of an authentic haunting? It all depends on who you ask. 

Belief in ghosts has been around since ancient times and is featured prominently in various cultures’ folklore [1]. The idea that the soul can exist beyond the physical deceased body and can return to earth to interact with the living is literally nothing new. But the desire to prove it scientifically is a relatively modern phenomenon. Whereas the ancient Egyptians considered departed spirits to make up part of its functioning society [2], scientists beginning in the late Victorian era and continuing through to today have attributed ghost sightings to everything from mental illness to carbon monoxide poisoning to fluctuations in electromagnetic energy patterns [3]. 

The difficulty in nailing down evidence for ghostly encounters lies in the fact that when one experiences an apparition, it isn’t necessarily second nature to grab scientific tools with which to measure it. Usually, people are too frightened, caught off-guard, or unprepared to document the experience. But that doesn’t mean the experience didn’t happen. Just ask the nearly 20% of Americans who claim to have seen a ghost, according to the Pew Research Center [4]. Perhaps, instead of asking ourselves if we believe in ghosts, we should be asking why we feel the need to prove their existence.   


Karina

Nearly half of all Americans believe in ghosts, over a third report encounters, and thirteen percent report communication with the deceased.

Before choosing sides, consider this:

Up to two-thirds of children report imaginary friends. Yet, we don't quarrel over their existence. Instead, we accept that these vivid experiences are natural byproducts of healthy social and cognitive development. 

Before arguing over whether the ghosts people see are real, it's worth remembering that our brains and senses evolved for survival, not accuracy. As we mature, we don't lose the ability most of us have already exhibited to perceive, engage with, and even hold relationships with nonexistent beings. Children often readily assure you that their companions are neither real nor any less vivid than reality. As adults, however, we rely on our senses for daily survival and, as such, develop coping mechanisms in response to evidence that our senses are not particularly trustworthy instruments. A common coping strategy is sense-making, such as attributing experiences we can't explain in ourselves or others to invisible or supernatural beings, drug effects, or pathology. 

In reality, nearly 4 out of 10 adults experience perceptions they can't explain by external stimuli. This phenomenon doesn't always indicate psychosis or drugs, but it doesn't portend paranormal encounters. So, you can take a lesson from kids and accept the fact that, even when psychosis and drugs are absent, our brains can manufacture experiences at any given time. Or you can maintain that ghosts, angels, evil spirits, or whatever apparitions prevalent in your culture are responsible instead. [Sources: 1,2,3]

Fact Box

  • A Harris Poll conducted in 2013 revealed that over 40% of Americans believe in ghosts [1].
  • Ancient Egyptian culture believed that ghosts--as part of the classification of “the blessed dead”--were one of the four groups that made up society as a whole [2].
  • The Society for Psychical Research was established in England in 1882 in order to scientifically research the validity of paranormal activity [3].
  • A comprehensive study of more than 31,000 participants in 18 countries found that about 5% of the general population sees things or hears voices others cannot, making the condition about as common as having a food allergy [4].
  • The word “hallucination” was first introduced to the English language in 1572 via the translated work of Swiss theologian Ludwig Lavanter to refer to “ghosts and spirits walking in the night” [5].
  • The ghost of Abraham Lincoln has been known to haunt the White House, having been spotted by presidents, first ladies, staff, and guests - most notably by the visiting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as he was emerging, naked, from his bath and smoking his customary evening cigar [6].

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