The Science behind Ghosts

Written by Chad Echakowitz

Photograph by Jesse Bowser

Photograph by Jesse Bowser

This planet is massive, the galaxy even bigger, and the Universe, absolutely immense. There is no possible way that we as humans can know everything that exists. It is therefore absurd to completely discredit something that has been part of the fabric of human culture since human culture began. Ghosts hold a special place in our hearts. Even if you do not believe in them, they are excellent for captivating the mind and tantalizing our deepest fears. It is also connected to one of the oldest philosophical and meta-physiological questions ever asked: is there life after death?

Let’s start with the science. Anomalistic psychology is the study of human behavior and experience connected with the paranormal, with the assumption that there is nothing paranormal involved. As you can see, there is already a bias against whether ghosts and the paranormal are real. Even though science is filled with proving and disproving theories, this seems greatly unfair, as it is assumed that ghosts do not exist while researching how and why people believe in ghosts. This would be like saying ‘we’ll study the effects of gravity on humans, under the assumption that gravity does not exist’. The difference, obviously, is that gravity has been irrefutably proven to exist where ghosts have not. Even so, there is still a vast majority of scientific explanation out there trying to prove that ghosts are not real, and a lot less science trying to prove that ghosts actually exist. So much time and effort goes into trying to prove that ghosts don’t exist, where that time and effort could be used to try and prove that they do exist. There is a severely negative exploration of the paranormal, and that needs to change.

The science is still important though, and it is necessary to consider it, even if the end goal is to disprove that ghosts exist. But let’s take that science and do to it what the skeptics do to believers: debunk the hell out of it.


Infrasound and EMF

Infrasound is a term describing low frequency vibrations which are beyond human hearing. While we can’t actually hear them, we can still feel them resonate through our bodies subconsciously. Electro-Magnetic Forces, or EMF, are disturbances or changes in the Electro-magnetic field around us. Scientists believe that these resonances beyond human hearing, as well as the changes in the Electro-magnetic field, can lead to psychological discomfort, disorientation, feelings of panic, and changes in heart-rate and blood pressure. It can also cause hallucinations. Consequently, scientists argue that ghosts are just hallucinations caused by infrasound or EMF created by things like rusty pipes or vibrations from fan units.

Hallucinations do not happen to everyone experiencing infrasound or EMF, but it does explain cases where those disturbances have been present and people see ghosts. However, it does not explain physical interaction with ghosts. No study has suggested that tactile hallucinations (hallucinations involving feeling or the touch of the hallucination) are caused by infrasound or EMF. Therefore, this explanation cannot be completely conclusive.



Recent studies have tried to link ghost sightings with the presence of certain types of mold in haunted areas. These molds can cause irrational fear and dementia. Some studies have been investigating buildings which are famous for hauntings, seeing if these certain types of mold are present. More often than not, there is mold present in those haunted buildings.

This mold theory may be on its way to proving that these apparitions are caused by a scary lack of TLC in these haunted houses and not the presence of actual ghosts. That being said, it does not explain open areas, or ghost vehicles, or places where ghosts have allegedly been seen but there is no mold present. Additionally, the researchers themselves say that these results, and the study itself, are too much in the early stages for any of its research to be conclusive.


Sleep Paralysis

This is the most common explanation skeptics turn to. When you dream, your body tries to restrict movement of the physical body so that you don’t injure yourself. Sleep paralysis occurs when you awake during your REM sleep cycle – the sleep cycle in which you have dreams – and your brain thinks it’s still asleep, so it stops your body from moving. 30%–40% of the American population have experienced sleep paralysis, and 5% of those people have said they have experienced visual and audible hallucinations during sleep paralysis.

This can explain why people say they wake up and suddenly see a ghost standing over their bed. But there are two reasons why sleep paralysis cannot completely rule out the existence of ghosts. Firstly, it is restricted to localized occurrences: this only applies to people who encounter ghosts when they wake up from sleep. It does not explain why people see ghosts when they are fully awake. Second, these sleep paralysis hallucinations only happen to about 5% of the people who have experienced sleep paralysis. This is an exceptionally small number of the population, too small to conclusively prove that all ghosts are sleep paralysis hallucinations.



Many people try to disprove photographic evidence of ghosts by saying the photographs which capture ghosts are either caused by faulty camera equipment or doctored photographs. A new theory is that ghosts are just faulty HDR photography, which is found in most modern smartphones. HDR photography is a setting which takes three photos of the photographic subject: an overexposed, underexposed, and normal picture. It then puts all three together to provide a perfectly exposed picture, allowing for better lighting, and a clearer picture. Some theorize that when using HDR photography on a person, if the person moved, it may cause the appearance of a ghost-like figure.

While this argument has a lot of weight, it cannot disprove all ghostly photographs. There are plenty of fakes, the photographs are usually blurry, have been left out in the sun, or used a weird setting that caused a ghost to appear. But this cannot be true of 100% of all ghost photographs. Again, it is a choice of what you believe or not, even if the photographic evidence of ghosts would be decent proof of the existence of ghosts. Perhaps that is why people try so hard to prove that ghost photographs are fake.


Anthropomorphism and Pareidolia

Anthropomorphism is the ability of the human mind to assert human characteristics on to none-human things (for example: talking animals). Pareidolia is a form of anthropomorphism where the mind sees human faces on random images. The brain does this instinctively due to empathy being an evolutionary advantageous feeling. As such, psychologists argue that ghosts are just anthropomorphized things, which our brains automatically assume are human. Because they are dark or hazy, we assume they are ghosts, when they can just be, in reality, nothing.

This seems to be a pretty strong argument. We look at any object and we immediately think of it as having two eyes, a nose, and a mouth; so long as there is some basic resemblance to a human face (think, for example, of your car: the headlights look like eyes and the grill, a mouth). This could explain ghost sightings which people catch from a distance, but it cannot fully explain interactions with ghosts, where they touch people. There can be no anthropomorphism there.


Sensed Presence

This usually occurs when people are isolated, or in an extreme or unusual environment often with high levels of stress. The person will perceive or feel that another person is there with them to help cope with the hazardous situation. This can range from a vague feeling of being watched to a clearly perceived, seemingly flesh and blood entity.

Again, another strong contender for proving that ghosts do not exist, except for the fact that the person experiencing this is usually in a stressful environment. It does not explain ghost sightings when people are relaxed, nor ghosts caught on camera.


The Power of Suggestion

A recent study has shown that when people are told that a place is haunted, or that the hauntings have been more frequent lately, the person will see a greater number of sightings than a person who was not told this information. It has also been shown that believers are more likely to see a ghost when suggested to, that ghosts will be present, and that even non-believers will see ghosts if told by a believer that ghosts are likely to be present. Suggestion is extremely powerful. Another study showed that when persons were told that a table had moved or that a bell had wrung, some participants believed it, even when they had not seen the table move or the bell ring themselves.

This is also tied to the ideomotor effect, where our bodies will move unconsciously by mere suggestion. This type of thing often occurs where participants have to hold on to something, such as the planchette on an Ouija board, and the muscles of the body will move involuntary by mere suggestion that the object should move by itself.

This is also a really strong argument for disproving ghosts. The human mind is easily suggestible and influenced. That being said, it cannot disprove all ghost sightings, especially those where the person or people have not been suggested to, and have had tactile encounters with ghosts.


Final Thoughts

It is in the defence of the mystical that I write this article. But it is also in the defence of myself. In my life I have had two experiences with ghosts. When I was younger I was sleeping over at my grandparents’ house in Scotland. I turned off the lamp in the lounge to go to sleep and as I did so, a hand grabbed hold of my arm and would not let go until I turned the light back on. Two nights later, out of the darkness came a deep rumbling voice that spoke to me in a language I did not understand. These two encounters cannot be explained by any of the science above. I was not sleeping, I was not stressed or agitated, no one else felt uneasy as if there was infrasound or EMF, there was no mold in the house, my parents and grandparents do not believe in ghosts so there was no suggestion to me that ghosts were present and there was no way I imposed my thoughts in an anthropomorphic way. I truly believe these were real ghosts incursions, and you can be skeptical and you can try and explain my encounters any way you want but what you can’t do is prove them irrefutably false.

Whether ghosts are real or not is still far from being proven. Whether you’re a believer or a skeptic, there is no hard evidence to sway the argument in one way or the other. But wouldn’t it be nice if ghosts were real? The Universe would be so much more mystical, amazing and fascinating. If you don’t believe, that’s okay; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I like to believe that my Universe is inexplicably complex and mysterious, and isn’t that an awesome way to live? 

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