Chief Science Correspondent
A group of Swiss scientists appear to have tackled an age-old question: Could ghosts be real, or are they simply a figment of the overactive human imagination?
The answer, as well as the study's actual objectives and findings, is somewhat more complex.
A group of volunteers were blindfolded and hooked up to a robotic device that mirrored their own movements, which touched their backs when they moved their index fingers, mirroring the movements exactly. The authors called the setup a "master-slave system." Then, the authors manipulated the system to induce a 500-millisecond delay between the participant's stimulus and the machine's response. During this time, participants' brain activities were monitored using an MRI scanner. The delay, according to Telegraph, caused one-third of the participants to experience the feeling that they were being watched and touched by a ghostly presence. Twelve of the volunteers reportedly requested to discontinue their participation in the study.
The study demonstrated that the way we perceive our actions impacts how we perceive our environments. When we elicit a certain action, we expect an appropriate physical reaction. Study author Giulio Rognini said many individuals suffering from disorders such as schizophrenia experience a mind/body disconnect similar to the delay simulated during the study.
"When the system malfunctions because of disease - or, in this case, a robot - this can sometimes create a second representation of one's own body, which is no longer perceived as 'me' but as someone else, a 'presence,'" Rognini said to the BBC.
These results could have wide implications for a better future understanding of human self-awareness and mental health research. However, many reporters have taken these results to indicate that these scientists have disproven any evidence of the supernatural, and that any ghost sighting is the result of a full-body illusion.
"Have you ever had the feeling that there's someone else in the room with you, but turned round to find there’s no-one there? Was it a ghost? A guardian angel? A demon? Neuroscientists conducted an experiment to see why people might think they've seen a ghost - using robots and some brave volunteers," the Mirror reported last Friday.
The thrill of Halloween is less than two weeks in the past, and reporters are seeking a catchy story to tell. So the so-called "ghost story" has become the central focus of the study, with the author's actual psychological focus taking a backseat. Popular appeal has trumped medical relevance.
Interestingly, this study is being perceived by many as a means of explaining all ghost sightings. Yet there are some serious issues with this analysis. First, the study was meant to mimic the mind/body disconnect associated with mental illness. Therefore, these reporters have assumed that anyone who claims to have witnessed a supernatural presence is suffering from a similar mental illness - or some similar type of mental state. It is also important that this state only potentially accounted for disconnect in sense of touch, rather than vision or hearing. However, it might be interesting to see if these researchers could induce false sounds or images by manipulating these senses.
Interestingly, other researchers believe "ghost watchers" may experience a similar mind-body disconnect brought on by other types of mind alteration including sleep, sleep deprivation or drug use.
“It’s a trick of the eye,” said Joe Nickell, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry research fellow. “Your eyelid will twitch or an insect will fly by and this will trigger a momentary welling up of a mental image. It’s like a camera’s double exposure for just a brief moment.”
This experiment offers a partial impartial explanation for why the human mind will often sense the presence of beings that are not there. Sometimes, our minds may be tricking us into perceiving a slightly manipulated view of the physical world. And these findings, while interesting for potentially explaining the large number of reported supernatural experiences in our culture, may help us ultimately answer a number of larger medical questions about the human brain function and health.