7. Some Theories and Perspectives on Apparitions
In this blog post, we take a brief look at some of the theories and perspectives offered by parapsychologists on apparitional experiences. While apparitions are widely seen, they do not seem to be easily explained by one all-encompassing theory, something that may be due to variations in experience. Specifically, we look here at three main theories and perspectives: survival, place memory, and hallucination.
Survival is the idea that an apparition may represent an aspect of a person's personality or consciousness that lingers after death. The prime issue that arises with this idea is, what would constitute clear evidence for survival? Conceivably, one might think that apparent displays by an apparition that would suggest it may possess some degree of intelligence or conscious awareness, such as showing displays of purposeful action or an intent to communicate with the witness, would provide a good evidential basis for survival. However, this view remains debatable, as one must also carefully consider the purposeful actions, intentions and desires of the living witness, which may be just as strong (if not stronger) as those of the deceased person's, confounding the issue of whether or not a conscious intent on the part of the deceased person was clearly shown.
To illustrate this, let us take the example of a post-mortem apparition of man who appears to his grieving wife a few days after his death. In addition, let us say that the man had died suddenly in an accident, without having the chance to say good-bye to his wife and to tell her that he loved her. From the deceased man's viewpoint, the desire to communicate these messages would seem to offer a good motivation for him to appear before his wife as an apparition and relay them to her. If the wife then saw the man's apparition and did receive these messages through his actions, one might argue that this shows a conscious intent on his part to communicate, and may therefore suggest that his consciousness has survived death. However, we must now also consider the intentions and desires of the witness. The grieving wife, clearly distraught that she was unable to speak to her husband before his death, may have a strong inner desire to see him again, a feeling that may have predisposed her to seeing his apparition. She may also have a very deep wish to know that he is alright, further suggesting a strong desire on her part for him to give some kind of sign that he is indeed alright. When he she finally sees the apparition and it appears to relay the message to her, it would bring her some inner comfort.
Weighing the motivation on both sides, one might argue that the inner motivation of the man's wife to see his apparition may have been just as strong as the motivation of the man to appear to his wife in order to communicate, thus making it uncertain as to whose motivation may have actually precipitated the appearance of the man's apparition. The man may have wanted to appear to his wife to send a consoling message, but at the same time, the wife may have equally wanted to see his image as a way to console herself, separate from the man's own intentions, leading her to see a hallucination of her husband. From this perspective, it not clear to tell whose desire or intention (the man's or his wife's) was the precipitating factor in the appearance of the man's apparition before his wife. With that confound, we do not have a clear-cut basis for saying that this example illustrates that the man's consciousness has survived death (Mind you, it does not completely rule out this possibility, but at the same time, it also cannot be taken as strong supportive evidence for it). Thus, the case for survival is not often an easy one to make.
When it comes to cases of purposeful intention on the part of an apparition, there are generally two sides to the evidential coin within parapsychology. On one side, we have the confounded cases. In surveying her vast collection of reported cases of psychic experience, Dr. Louisa Rhine (1960) found 258 cases that seemed to involve communication attempts with the living by deceased persons. In 181 of these cases, the motivation seemed about equal for the deceased person and the living witness. The motivation by the deceased person seemed to be stronger in 43 cases, and in 30 other cases, it seemed much stronger. In referring to these much stronger cases, Dr. Rhine stated:
Although there seemed to be instances in which the action could much more reasonably be ascribed to the [deceased person] than the [witness], at the same time the [witnesses] in each case would have had some degree of interest in the news, even if…it would only have been the interest of an acquaintance in the death of a neighbor. On this account, although the cases of this group gave a high probability of influence from the deceased, they do not entirely rule out the alternative of production by the [witness] (p. 19).
In other words, we are still faced in these cases with the confound we illustrated above; while the deceased person's motivations seems quite strong, we also cannot neglect consideration of the witness' motivations.
We also have the case by Dr. Karlis Osis (1986) that we described earlier where Leslie's apparition had appeared before his grieving mother a few days after his death. We might recall that one of Leslie's relatives had made a plea to him to appear to his mother as a way to comfort her. If we assume that Leslie did so in response to the relative's plea, as well as to comfort his mother, then it might seem that Leslie showed some degree of intelligent motivation to appear, possibly suggesting survival on his part. However, we must also recognize that his mother was deeply in grief (having recently lost both her son Leslie and her infant grandson), and thus she may have had a strong motivation to see her son and grandson again, perhaps leading her to have a vivid bereavement hallucination of them. Again, we are faced with a similar confound as our above illustrative example.
Yet, on the flip side of the coin, there may still be a small number of cases where the deceased person's motivations seem strong, while those of the living witness seem weak or even nonexistent. As an example of such case, the late Dr. Ian Stevenson (1982) referred to a case initially described by psychical researchers Edmund Gurney and Frederic Myers (1888-89, pp. 422 – 426). In this case, a woman who just moved into a rented room in a house suddenly saw the apparition of a man who had died three years earlier, and whose widow had died in the house the day after the woman had moved in. The woman had never known the man or his widow, and thus she apparently had no conscious intent or reason to see the man's apparition. However, if we assume that the man had appeared in the house in order to help guide his dying widow to the afterlife (i.e., it was a kind of "take-away" post-mortem apparition), then there would seem to be an intelligent or conscious intention on the part of the man to appear as an apparition in the house, and this might therefore point in the direction of survival. We also have the other case by Dr. Stevenson (1995) that we looked at in Section 2, where the doctor saw the apparition of his father-in-law, which apparently spoke and thus seemed to exhibit an intent to communicate.
We might also look at this issue of survival in relation to haunting cases. Traditionally, the phenomena reported to occur in an allegedly haunted house, such as voices, footsteps, and occasional object movements, are attributed to an "intelligent" ghost that is presumed to reside in the house. If this traditional view has any merit to it, then one might expect to see phenomena that seem to reflect an intelligent or purposeful intent (such as voices, communication through raps, and wall writing) occur more often in haunting cases with apparitions than in haunting cases without them. To test this view, Drs. Carlos Alvarado and Nancy Zingrone (1995) compared the haunting phenomena occurring in 89 cases that had apparitions with 83 cases that did not have apparitions. While overall the apparition cases generally had more reported haunt phenomena than the non-apparition cases, they did not significantly differ in terms of seemingly intelligent or purposeful phenomena. This suggests that, while the amount of phenomena occurring in a haunted house may be somewhat dependent on whether or not an apparition has been reported in the house, the occurrence of seemingly intelligent or purposeful phenomena in the house may not be clearly indicative of the presence of an "intelligent" ghost.
In sum, the case for survival is unclear, and still seems open. If additional cases like the one referred to by Dr. Stevenson (1982) are able to surface, we might be faced with more evidence with which to better weigh the issue of whether or not apparitions represent some form of survival after death.
Well-defined haunting apparitions, like those seen in the Gordy case (Section 2), seem to suggest a lingering "trace" or "memory" of a person in the area where he or she once lived or worked. In fact, the origins of the idea that a place might somehow retain a "memory" relating to people or events from the past can itself be traced back to the early days of psychical research (Roll, 1981). Among the four theories she offered to possibly account for the cases of haunting apparitions documented by the Society for Psychical Research, Eleanor Sidgwick (1885) had mentioned one theory
... which I can hardly expect to appear plausible, and which, therefore, I only introduce because I think that it corresponds best to a certain part of the evidence .... It is that there is something in the actual building itself – some subtle physical influence – which produces in the brain that effect which, in its turn, becomes the cause of [an apparition] (p. 148, emphasis added).
Similarly, Edmund Gurney (in Gurney & Myers, 1888-89) wrote that some apparitions repeatedly seen over time in a certain location suggested to him
... not so much anything associated with the popular idea of "haunting," or any continuing local interest on the part of the deceased person, as the survival of a mere image, impressed, we cannot guess how, or we cannot guess what, by that person's physical organism, and perceptible at times to those endowed with some cognate form of sensitiveness (pp. 417 – 418).
In other words, he thought that haunting apparitions might represent an image from that past that somehow became "imprinted" into the surroundings of the location, and that might later be perceived by psychics and mediums.
The Italian psychical researcher Ernesto Bozzano (1920) offered a similar approach to the haunting apparition. Referring to Bozzano's approach, the Oxford philosopher H. H. Price (1939) wrote:
Now it has often been suggested that such apparitions are due to some sort of localised trace or vestige or impress left in the matter of the room. These traces would be the quite automatic result of the emotions or other experiences of some person who formerly inhabited the room, much as finger-prints result automatically from our handling of a wine-glass or a poker. Thus on this view the apparition is not a revenant, as popular superstition supposes – not a deceased personality revisiting the scenes of its former experiences nor yet an "earth-bound" spirit lingering on in them – but is something more like a photograph or a cinematograph picture. (The physical trace would correspond to the photographic negative; and it would be as it were "developed" when anyone with a suitable mind and nervous system [e.g., a psychic] enters the room.) This is what Signor Bozzano calls "the Psychometrical Theory" of Haunting. For in psychometry [i.e., the process of obtaining psychic information about a person by handling a personal object belonging to them] too we seem to find that a material object retains traces of the past experiences of a person who was formerly in physical contact with it (p. 324).
From this, Professor Price (1939, 1940) developed and proposed a concept that he called "place memory" to account for haunting apparitions. Referring to this concept, he wrote:
Instead of stretching our ordinary notions of sense-perception, we could stretch our ordinary notions of memory. We could say that memory is not just a property of living organisms, as we ordinarily think; but that it, or something essentially like it, is a property of every point in physical space (Price, 1940, p. 384, his emphasis).
In other words, according to Price's concept, memory extends to places in such a way that one might be able to "remember" the past memories that are a part of a certain location. At first, this concept might seem a bit counter-intuitive, but to better grasp it, we might consider another form of place memory with which we are probably all familiar: When we re-visit a place that we once frequented in the past and have not visited in a long time (such a favorite hang-out from high school), we may immediately begin to reminisce about the good times we had there in the past. Here, you are remembering your personal memories of the place. In Price's concept, the limits of memory extend a bit farther, to the point that when we enter a place, we might be able to (psychically) "remember" the memories of other people from the past. When manifested psychically, these experienced memories of others might take the form of haunting apparitions. An apparition of a deceased person that is seen in the place where or she lived or worked, and that matches that person's appearance, would represent an externalized place memory, according to Price.8
Other psychical researchers, such as Tony Cornell (2002), have similarly made reference to the "stone tape theory" of hauntings. As Cornell wrote:
The reader may recall that this theory was put forward some time ago as the cause of recurrent visual and auditory paranormal phenomena in old buildings. It suggests that there is a mechanism whereby emotions of the living become absorbed and retained by the fabric of a building. Thus, so the theory goes, these recordings either lie in wait for whatever it is that causes them to be replayed for an individual who is sensitive to their continued presence (p. 391).
Cornell goes on to point out that the difficulty with this theory is in working out the precise mechanism by which these impressions of the past are retained. That admittedly is where researchers now have to focus their efforts in order to determine the value of place memory as a theory for haunting apparitions.
Physician and parapsychologist Pamela Heath (2004) has suggested that place memory may be initially formed by living people through a psychokinetic (PK) process, where the minds of living people experiencing emotional events may interact with the matter in the surrounding environment of a certain location. In line with this idea, a number of PK studies by parapsychologists have found evidence to suggest a possible influence of mind upon matter (Bösch et al., 2006; Radin, 2006, Ch. 9). In addition, Dr. Heath's suggestion may receive some preliminary support from laboratory studies of applied PK efforts by psychics, in which the PK effect seem to "linger" around for a short time before dissipating, or in which the effect seems to extend to the surrounding environment (Williams & Roll, 2006). Additional research on this topic may provide us with better insight into the theoretical plausibility of place memory.
Lastly, we consider apparitions as hallucinations. Typically, the term hallucination is seen as having a negative connotation, implying a pathologically induced experience. However, there is a more neutral meaning to the term, referring to an experience that seems just like an ordinary sensory experience, but which did not directly result from signals received from our body's sense organs. In this sense of the word, apparitions may represent sensory-like hallucinations that may be a product of the witness' own neurological and/or psychological making. Neurologically, some apparitions may possibly arise from magnetic field stimulation of the brain's temporal lobe (Section 6), producing hallucinatory sensations that, without any clear sensory source, may be attributed to a ghost. Psychologically, some apparitions may arise through certain mental states that may potentially alter one's own perceptions. These states can include suggestion (e.g., merely suggesting that a location may be haunted could cause one to be more attentive to one's surroundings), psychosocial stress, and perhaps even a mild altered state of consciousness produced in a pre-sleep state or through magnetic stimulation.
This is only a small sample of the many theories and perspectives on apparitions that have been offered over the years, and it seems, depending on the case, each is potentially applicable. Future research may perhaps tell us more about which, if any, could be more applicable than the others.
Bryan Williams, University of New Mexico
Annalisa Ventola, CERCAP, Lund University
Mike Wilson, Psi Society
8.) We should add that H. H. Price should not be confused with Harry Price, the famed British ghost hunter from the 1930s; they are two different people.
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Roll, W. G. (1981). A memory theory for apparitions. In W. G. Roll & J. Beloff (Eds.) Research in Parapsychology 1980 (pp. 5 – 7). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
Sidgwick, E. M. (Mrs. H.) (1885). Notes on the evidence, collected by the Society, for phantasms of the dead. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 3, 69 – 150.
Stevenson, I. (1982). The contribution of apparitions to the evidence for survival. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 76, 341 – 358.Stevenson, I. (1995). Six modern apparitional experiences. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 9, 351 – 366.
Williams, B. J., & Roll, W. G. (2006). Psi, place memory, & laboratory space. Proceedings of Presented Papers: The Parapsychological Association 49th Annual Convention (pp. 248 – 258). Petaluma, CA: Parapsychological Association, Inc.