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Spooked? Scientist explains why we see what isn't there

Seeing ghosts? Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and professor at the University of Hertfordshire, says don’t worry: There’s no such thing -- and you're not the only one who's seeing spooky sights. In his latest book, "Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There," Wiseman, a former magician, looks at psychic phenomena through the prism of science.  

Arman Zhenikeyev / Featurepics

Q: What is it about humans that make us want to believe in the paranormal?
A: I think there a few things going on. First, I think it’s comforting. If you’re sick, and there’s a psychic healer who says she can help you, or if you lost someone you love, but a medium says she can contact that person, both of those things provide some solace. Second, many people claim to have had paranormal experiences, and that’s very attractive to certain groups.

Q: Is it more acceptable to believe in the paranormal in London than, say, Chicago?
A:
Actually, it’s hardwired into our brain, so it’s a worldwide phenomenon. About 40 to 50 percent of people in the U.K. claim to have had a paranormal experience. In the U.S. it’s about 80 to 90 percent. That’s a terrifying statistic, but it’s not surprising with all the psychic hotlines and (paranormal) television shows there. We couldn’t even get the book published in the U.S. because it takes a skeptical look at the paranormal. Publishers said there would be no interest.

Q: We’ve all seen stories about rooms that are unusually cold. Even the family pet won’t go in them. What’s going on?
A: We’ve run quite a lot of experiments on so-called haunted places. Sometimes it’s not actually colder in those rooms. It’s just thermal patterns or low frequency sound waves from traffic or wind. Animals detect that better than humans.

Q: So when the family cat starts acting weird, you’re saying we don’t need to run from the room screaming like little girls, right?
A:
You can do whatever you want in your own home. But being afraid is perfectly normal. In terms of evolution, we got cues from animals. If an animal was afraid of something or seemed vigilant, that was a cue for humans to be more watchful.

Q: Sometimes people say they feel a scary presence while asleep. Then they wake up and can’t move.
A:
It’s called sleep paralysis, and it’s really well established. When you dream, the body is very sophisticated and paralyzes you so you don’t act out a dream. But sometimes there’s confusion between waking and dreaming that can cause some bizarre imagery. Once people understand that, it’s not so terrifying.

Leave a comment telling us about your last encounter with the paranormal.