5 Famous 'Paranormal' Phenomena (Easily Debunked By Science)
It's easy to believe in the supernatural when you're lying awake in bed at 3 a.m. after many episodes of the show Supernatural. However, many people stick to the "ghosts are totally real" mindset even once the sun has come back up, despite researchers' ongoing attempts to ruin every single seemingly supernatural mystery with easy explanations. After all, everyone has seen something they can't explain.
So, in keeping with our storied tradition of periodically ruining everyone's fun by punching creepy stories directly in the dick with the groin-hammering fist of science, here are some more examples of famous paranormal phenomena that seem to have some compelling evidence behind them ... until you look a bit closer.
We're talking about ...
"Psychic Detectives" Who Actually Solve Cases
On July 12, 2009, a 24-year-old New Yorker named Melissa Barthelemy disappeared. A few days later, her sister got a call from Barthelemy's cell phone. An unidentified man on the other end said: "Do you think you'll ever see her again? You won't, because I killed her." The man then hung up, presumably checking an item off of his "Chilling Shit To Do Today" list.
Barthelemy's sister received several more creepy calls from this man, who turned out to be a goddamned serial killer, playing horrific mind games by detailing his abuse of Barthelemy. Police tried to trace down the location where the calls were coming from, but couldn't because the killer had seen the same movies as the rest of us and would hang up too quickly. Desperate, Barthelemy's family hired a psychic to help find her body. The psychic said that she was buried in a shallow grave overlooking a body of water, with a "G" in a sign nearby.
The real letters involved with this are "B" and "S".
Nine months later, cops dug up Barthelemy's body wrapped in plastic bags on Long Island's Gilgo Beach. Holy shit! A "G" in the sign and everything! And this is not an isolated incident. Some police departments actually use self-proclaimed psychic detectives (or at least allow the desperate families of victims to use them), and there's case after case after case after case after case of psychics using their paranormal abilities to solve crimes.
Does that mean all those goofy mind detectives from bullshit shows such as Long Island Medium and whatnot actually have powers?
Because if that's not a face you can trust, what is?
But Actually ...
Haha, nope! While it seems that the psychic's prediction came true, it also reveals a lot of the tricks of the "pretend to be a psychic" trade , if you analyze the case closely.
First of all, predicting that the body would be found near a body of water immediately becomes less impressive when you consider the fact that the "psychic" was talking about the victim of a serial killer who was known to be stalking a very specific area of New York: Long Island. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, Long Island is a fucking island.
Yes, an island. Suck on it, peninsulas.
As for the bit about "a sign with a G nearby" ... they are on goddamned Long Island. Any sign referencing the area in any way would've had a "G" in it, not to mention the thousands of other "G"-bedazzled signs you would find in a big city (as in the case of the "Gilgo Beach" sign -- it contains a "G" along with eight other letters the psychic could have guessed).
Being a psychic detective is in fact nothing more than making educated guesses and shrouding them in enough vague oracle-sounding bullshit so that they can say they predicted the outcome once the police actually solve the mystery. You don't have to take our word for it; there have been several scientific studies to test the so-called abilities of psychic detectives over the years, generally by having a group of regular people compete against them. To the surprise of no one but people who believe in psychics, regular Joes and supernatural seers perform the same -- almost as if they were all just making guesses based on the information given to them.
"Yes ... I am sensing that people take advantage of you ..."
The only difference was that psychic detectives use flowery, irrelevant rhetoric -- like talking about sounds and smells that the evidence is making them experience -- to sneak in up to 10 times more predictions than a normal person, which just increases the odds that one or two of their random guesses are going to be correct.
And when they hit on one, we tend to forget the misses. After all, if a magician pulled a rhinoceros out of a hat on their third try, you would quickly forget about the first two. So, a skeptic can bring up all the things the psychics get wrong, and the rebuttal will still be, "But, how did they know the sign would have a 'G' in it, smart guy?"
Thousands Of People Having The Same "Out-Of-Body" Experiences
An out-of-body experience (or astral travel, depending on how many energy crystals and patchouli bottles you have in your studio apartment), refers to the state of being wherein your body is sleeping safe and sound, but your all-powerful consciousness has broken free of your physical form and is floating around to fucking party.
Presumably in search of an incorporeal strip club.
People who claim to be able to astral project routinely describe being able to see their own bodies as their consciousness flies away, presumably to get kidnapped by the goat-legged Darth Maul monster from Insidious, which is literally the only movie we could think of involving astral travel.
But Actually ...
To demonstrate what's happening here, just try this party trick. Get a friend to sit in front of you, so you're looking at the back of his or her head. Close your eyes, and reach around with your right arm and stroke your friend's nose. Take your other hand, and stroke your own nose using the same motions. Keep this up for a minute or so, and you'll suddenly become convinced that your own nose is about 3 feet long. If you're both guys, try it with your exposed penises! Let us know if it works.
"I CAN FEEL IT WORKING!"
Anyway, the point of this exercise is to show off yet another task that your brain performs in the background: keeping track of exactly where your body parts are at all times. You just don't notice it until it misfires, as in the above exercise, or when you knock over your water glass because your brain thought your hand was about 2 inches farther to the left than it actually was. Well, brain scans of people who have gone through out-of-body experiences show that they tend to have damage to areas of the brain that just so happen to be responsible for sensory data, motor functions, balance, and the aforementioned ability to sense their body's position and movement in space.
When that part of the brain misfires badly enough, you can feel like your entire body is in the wrong place.
Swiss researchers have actually been able to replicate the out-of-body effect by stimulating the right angular gyrus, which, despite sounding like an invention from an episode of DuckTales, is actually the area of the brain that's responsible for creating the mind's representation of oneself. While treating a woman with epilepsy with electrical stimulation courtesy of cranium electrodes, the researchers found out they could deliberately cause her to experience sensations of falling or becoming lighter. As the intensity of the electrodes increased, she eventually said that she was able to see herself from above, like the camera in an Assassin's Creed game.
Hopefully not this one.
Now, that part is a little harder to explain, aside from the fact that lots of what you "see" is your brain cobbling together conflicting data into some coherent whole that makes sense. When one part of the brain says, "Whoa, our eyes are totally 10 feet away from our skull right now!" it probably just quickly gives you the "view" of the room you would expect to have in that situation. Truly, your brain is never more impressive than when it's just making shit up.
For further evidence of this ...
Many People Reporting The Same "Near-Death Experiences"
Certain types of bookstores are filled with tomes written by people detailing their near-death experiences, or NDEs for short. Even if you haven't deliberately subjected yourself to these stories, you probably know the drill, thanks to the 10 million or so movies that have used it as a plot device: The person floats away from his or her body and into a tunnel with a bright light at end. There may be a meeting with a deceased family member or religious mascot, and the person is eventually told that it is not his or her time yet. The person then awakens from the Dead Zone to write a book that Oprah cannot recommend strongly enough.
But Actually ...
It turns out, you can totally have a near death experience without almost dying. It's just your brain misfiring in a number of frighteningly hilarious ways.
"I did it for the lolz."
For instance, simply believing that you are near death can be enough to trigger all the symptoms of a traditional NDE. Other things that may trigger a "near death experience" include depression, isolation, meditation, or a traumatic life event, such as the death of someone close to you (in which case, we suppose the "near death" refers to your relative proximity to death).
And even if you do experience an actual life-threatening incident, the likely culprit for the familiar "white light" people describe is fairly simple: Thanks to a malfunction in your REM sleep phase that enables you to experience vivid dreams and sleep-like immobility while awake (basically sleep paralysis), you hallucinate certain images before or after the life-threatening event, including heavenly glows, deceased family members, Patrick Swayze, etc. It's basically just a trick of the brain.
If our brains ever do have us meet after-Swayze, it better be the one that does roundhouse kicks. Not the pottery guy.
Furthermore, cross-cultural studies have found that the type of NDE you experience depends greatly on the culture you were raised in, which, in addition to providing more evidence to the theory that NDEs are doses of perceived reality in a dreamlike state, is why testimony from NDE survivors has been unable to end all religious conflict on Earth -- everyone sees whatever deity he or she subscribes to, instead of the flailing tentacle beast who actually rules over all creation.
Ghosts That Leave (Audio) Evidence Of Their Existence
Most ghost sightings are clearly dreams or just outright bullshit -- anybody starved for attention can claim they woke up in the middle of the night to see a creepy old woman floating down the hall. But, there is a very specific subset of ghosts who prefer to manifest themselves exclusively through sound, and who randomly show up on an otherwise normal, undoctored recording. This is called an Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP), and rarely has the phrase "fuck that noise" been more accurately employed than when listening to a recording of a bunch of ghosts whispering to each other:
But Actually ...
To get to the bottom of this phenomenon, let's start with this guy:
That's the famous "face on Mars" that got a whole bunch of UFO nuts changing into their best conspiracy pants when it was photographed by Viking 1 in 1976. Of course, it's not an actual face at all -- we just see it as one because of a psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia. As we have previously discussed, pareidolia refers to your brain's tendency to distinguish familiar patterns when none are actually present. Here's a higher resolution photo of the same structure on Mars, taken at a different time when the shadows fell into different positions:
It's clearly Falco from Star Fox after a Two-Face-like accident.
Well, your ears are just as prone to this phenomenon as your eyes (since, ultimately, it's the brain finding the patterns). Every single video claiming to capture the sound of disembodied voices whispering is an example of it. Have you ever sat at a computer at the office, barely registering the hubbub on the background, when, suddenly, you could swear someone said your name? Or you heard someone call you out on a crowded street, only to find that nobody is there?
Or, do you remember the 1980s controversy over supposed Satanic messages hidden in rock songs that could only be heard when played backward? At first, the songs just sound like nonsense ... but, if someone tells you what you're listening for, you'll hear it.
Retroactive warning: On top of ghosts, we're going to ruin those cute "talking animal" videos for you, too. Sorry.
Likewise, this auditory pareidolia gets worse when you're the kind of dingbat who wanders around supposedly haunted places, trying to hear ghost voices. Your brain will automatically begin sorting all the random background noise into a recognizable pattern, and your desperate need to hear poltergeists speaking to each other will shape those patterns until you're left with something that sounds, at best, like a stream of spectral gibberish, because apparently ghosts just don't have anything interesting to say.
The reason people find haunted houses so fascinating is that they're never just haunted for one person. While you can easily dismiss any single witness as a crank or scammer, it's harder to dismiss the experiences of entire families (including children) who are either legitimately traumatized or are somehow all Oscar-caliber actors.
And then you've got the old mansions/warehouses/castles that boast generations of terrified victims, all of whom claim to have seen the same thing, begging for help until a team of goofballs has no choice but to spend the night wandering around and shouting at each other through night vision cameras.
Also generally losing their shit over the fact that 100-year-old houses occasionally suffer from cold drafts.
But Actually ...
There are a number of weird theories about this, some of which are just slightly less strange than "the tormented souls of the departed."
First, we've previously explained the phenomenon of infrasound, noises at frequencies too low to hear but that can cause emotions ranging from mild dread to outright panic. One building that was experiencing multiple ghost sightings got rid of them by fixing a malfunctioning exhaust fan.
Not a gateway to the beyond. To tetanus? Yeah. Beyond? No.
But then, there's the chance that you saw your deceased grandmother hovering around your basement because you were poisoned. Ever notice how shiny new buildings don't seem to have ghost troubles? Well, those moldy old buildings often have literal mold in them, and when you look at the health effects of toxic molds, you find things like hallucinations, anxiety, confusion and "brain fog." That's why a group of Clarkson University researchers have started doing a study on this -- prowling around supposedly haunted sites around New York state. They're not performing seances and asking the dead to speak; they're testing the air quality.
See? What you thought was a restless spirit was merely a fungus that's slowly eating your brain tissue. So, uh, you still probably should move.
And finally, we should point out what is almost certainly the most common source of hauntings: the mere power of subconscious self-suggestion. They once did a study on hundreds of visitors to Hampton Court Palace, one of the most notorious haunted houses in England. Half of the participants were told that the palace had recently experienced a dramatic increase in terrifying ghost phenomena, while the other half were told the exact opposite. In what will probably come as no surprise, the people who were led to believe that Hampton Court Palace was a poltergeist disco reported a significantly larger amount of paranormal experiences than those who were told it was just a boring old house.
Once you've been told you're in a ghost house, everything from creaky floorboards to random drafts of cold air gets reinterpreted by the brain as proof of poltergeist attacks. It sounds so simple -- to the point of being disappointing. At least, it's simple when we see it happening to other people. Everyone reading this will, at some point today, believe something very strange and impossible about the world, simply because you were primed to believe it beforehand.
It's just how the brain works, and it's spookier than anything else on this list.
Oh, but don't worry. There's plenty of magic left in the world. And by magic, we mean nightmares. Just check out The 5 Creepiest Urban Legends (That Happen To Be True) and 5 Creepy Urban Legends That Happen To Be True (Part 8) to see what we mean.
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