Thursday, August 29, 2019

'Ghost Psychology': A Fundamental Oversight

The premise of the 'traditional' understanding of a haunting often goes as follows:

Person X has passed away. Person X lived in this house for a long while. Person X also died a rather sudden, perhaps even violent, death; or, perhaps, losing them was more anticipated. Whatever the case, observations of 'strange' things happening in the environment lead one to believe that Person X continues to sustain themselves, somehow, in that place. In fact, at times, Person X (or, the 'ghost' of Person X) seems to act intelligently, giving signs, or answering questions in a way. Or, maybe they're still there doing what they always did (rocking in a favorite chair, opening a drawer looking for their cigarettes, etc). Person X has chosen, for one reason or another, to do the things they do now, in the 'afterlife', for reasons known only to them.

In come the paranormal investigators (like us), asking their questions. "Why are you still here?" "Are you angry at Person Y?" "Are you sad about (insert particular situation)?" "What would you like to tell so-and-so?"

But, how in vain might these traditional procedures, based on a potentially outmoded theory, really be?

Human Psychology is the Result of Human Biology

We, the living, breathing, Netflix-watching, don't do anything just for the sake of doing it. We either keep doing something because we are reinforced in some way by doing it, or, we change what we are doing because we are punished for a particular behavior. Although these reinforcements and punishments come in many shapes and sizes, at the end of the day, they both boil down to one thing: biological input.

Most of us don't keep eating because we have to constantly remind ourselves that we're living organisms that require energy and nutrients from food. Rather, we get a biological signal that we hunger. Then, when we eat, we are internally reward again--reinforced--by the release of neurotransmitters like Serotonin. In essence, these neurotransmitters dictate a lot of what we do and how we do it--not by telling us what to do, but by making it either more or less likely that we will engage in a particular behavior.

Herein lies the issue. Although it is a simple, easy error to perpetuate, we cannot equate something that ostensibly lacks anything approaching biology with human biology. That is to say, we can't truly begin to assume that entities or energies responsible for paranormal phenomena in an environment are acting on what we think of as human motivations. Where, then, does that leave us?

We must wipe the preconceptions from the canvas of our minds. We must start with only observing.

Examining Paranormal Behavior to Understand Paranormal Psychology (Parapsychology)

Naturalistic observation is the absolute foundation of paranormal investigation. That is to say, to do it 'correctly', we do not enter a situation expecting particular behaviors from particular entities (deceased Person X) to occur. Rather, we watch. We listen. We use multiple lines of questioning and stimulation. And then, we wait. We wait a lot.

Of course, before any of that happens, we question the living. They are the ones who have been beholden to the behavior of this strange phenomena, after all, especially by the time they've emailed, messaged, or called us. They've experienced these things over the longest baseline, and that information becomes critical. That person may have their own ideas of 'who' this entity or entities might be--but the most important aspect is what they've observed.

"I've found one of the cabinets in the kitchen open twice," someone may relay to us. "I heard a loud knock on my door one day, and when I checked it, no one was there. It happened again just recently," might come another report. "The light in the bathroom turns on by itself. I wasn't startled by it at first, but then it kept happening."

These repetitious behaviors are, at least in my opinion, fairly important. From a psychology standpoint, it poses this question: what is reinforcing that behavior? That is, what is this entity, energy, or presence getting from turning on that light switch? "Well, they're trying to get my attention, I think." And there, we would lapse into the fundamental error again: we are assuming for human psychology--that is, we are putting biological expectations on something without biology (that we know of, anyway).

There is plenty of precedent in nature itself for repetition without biological influence. Consider crystals, which form elegant patterns through repetition. The crystal does not know, or think, or feel biological influence in any way--it is simply a piece of our universe programmed at a very base level to operate in this manner. Our solar system operates off of repetition through the force of gravity (at least, that's our last best understanding). Does repetition, then, just naturally 'occur' without further explanation or causal factors? That is, does that light switch turn on because of the simple universal principle of repetition itself?

Nonbiological Entities

When it comes to hauntings, the evidence argues against the notion of repetition happening for repetition's sake. The most immediate counterargument are electronic voice phenomenon.

EVPs very well could, if recorded often enough in an environment, be proven to be on a loop of sorts as well. But our group, as well as countless others, have recorded some demonstratively intelligent EVPs--that is, the voice or sound recorded is fairly obviously in response to something we've said or done in an immediate time frame. So, how do we resolve this with the fact of the lack of biology on the part of the 'respondee'?

The truth is, at this point any theory is as good as another. (I have my own, but that may well be another blog.) We will keep our eyes and ears open, in the meantime. More importantly, we will keep trying to keep our very human assumptions in check.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Inbetween: Alternative Explanations to That Strange Voice

The bumps in the night that haunt us aren't always the product of the paranormal--but they're also not simply a 'crazy mind believing crazy things.' Alternative explanations to purported activity come up often in what we do; in a sense, we have a duty to approach any claim with a critical eye. Within the context of my professional life in psychology, knowledge of the field becomes invaluable at times. With that being said, here are the most common explanations for happenings that seem either paranormal or 'crazy', but are really neither.

(A disclaimer, as well: the following is not psychological advice. This blog will not take the place of actual psychiatric treatment. This should be sought with a professional in person.)

Anticipatory Hallucinations
Believe it or not, anyone can be susceptible to auditory hallucinations--that is, hearing things that aren't there.

I can't count the number of times I've had clients I was treating mention these episodes, usually in a very guarded fashion when first asked about the symptom, and not fall into the category of suffering from psychosis in the classic sense. In fact, stress, depression, and anxiety are very often causes of these strange aberrations in perception.

Take for example what is perhaps the most common situation in which an individual experiences an out-of-the-blue auditory hallucination: a mother hearing a baby cry when, in fact, one isn't crying. This is what I refer to as an anticipatory hallucination. These mothers are often on-guard, especially if they are first-time mothers, and their sleep has already been negatively affected by the adjustment in their life. In some cases, the mother may suffer from general anxiety in their every-day life. They are ready to hear a baby cry--so ready, that their mind perceives a baby crying without sensing it. This can prove especially true in cases of post-partum depression.

Depression itself can also lead to episodes of auditory hallucinations. In fact, one the of diagnoses we cite from the DSM V (our diagnostic 'bible') is termed Major Depressive Disorder, recurrent (or single episode), severe, with psychosis. A lot of words, but they all serve as identifying modifiers of the diagnosis. The 'with psychosis' part, again, doesn't mean that the individual suffers from Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder, or any other long-term psychotic disorder. Rather, the depths of this person's depression can be so substantial that it can infringe upon their sense of perception.

This is where things can become tricky for us diagnosis-wise. If a daughter lost her father five years ago, but says at times that she can still hear him talking to her at night, then how do we approach this? A diagnostic mind will almost immediately go the idea of depressive symptoms as an influence. The spiritual mind says that the daughter's father is trying to communicate messages to her. The difference will require more assessment (questioning) of what's being reported. No assumption tops the further acquisition of pertinent information.

And what about when you're sitting all by yourself, only to hear your name called? Here, I've found stressed-out anxiety suffers are the usual complainants of this phenomenon. These individuals are usually perpetually 'on edge', so ready to have to respond to something that they often 'hear' themselves being beckoned before it happens.

Remember: we've explored one symptom here in auditory hallucinations. A disorder requires several symptoms to be reported in order to begin to be diagnosed. Most people at some point on their lives will experience something that can be categorized or seen as a symptom of mental illness. Frequency and other coinciding symptoms are what separates isolated incidents from ongoing disorders.

Stimulant Abuse
O7S responded to a case last year in a very small northern Louisiana town. A man was reporting that he was being constantly harassed by a dark force. He reported seeing it walk past his windows, shaking his home, and generally causing disconcerting issues. This man had been so bothered by what was happening, that he had moved repeatedly from one camper trailer to another--three total--in trying to elude this entity.

What our group found when we arrived on the scene made things abundantly clear to me what was going on from the get-go. The foil over the windows was an obvious tip, but when the claimant admitted to a history of substance abuse during our interview, my skepticism on this case was cemented. We conducted the investigation despite my read on things. We'll always give the people asking for our help the benefit of a doubt.

Later, during the evidence review, we did recover something in our audio that might have been considered paranormal by some in our group. Of course, I had already fallen prey to my own bias. There wasn't a lot of the evidence, and I disagreed with what I was told was captured (and offered an alternative explanation). I stand by my interpretation.

This claimant had a history of methamphetamine abuse, which he had stated had stopped some time ago. I personally doubted this, but even that is a moot point. Meth abuse, whether still not being used or not, often leads to Stimulant-induced Psychotic Disorder. The most common symptoms of this are heightened paranoia (the feeling of being followed, stalked, or conspired against), auditory hallucinations not unlike the ones mentioned in the previous section, visual hallucinations (almost always fleeting shadows seen at the corners of one's vision), and emotional lability (shifting moods, especially evident in disproportionate irritability).

All of that can make anyone feel like they're being targeted by a demonic entity.

All we could do in this case was urge the claimant to consider substance abuse treatment. He was not satisfied with this conclusion, unfortunately. Hopefully one day he'll consider our suggestion.

The Unexplained

And then, sometimes neither of these categories fit. Remember: try to debunk a perceived strange phenomenon on your own first. It's human nature to want to jump to conclusions, to be able to readily explain something even if through spiritual means or whatever one's belief system may be. Once all of the above has been ruled out, then it's time to really start arching that eyebrow.

Then it's time to contact us.