This latter point was the subject of a brilliant little study by Chris Jensen Romer, funded by the Society for Psychical Research, and which was just published this week. It bounces off (and improves upon) a 1996 study by Houran and Lange, which looked at how individuals who are primed to notice "paranormal occurrences" in their houses mostly... do.
Romer's study, which is outlined in more detail here, involved five couples keeping a diary of "unusual or unexplainable experiences" that occurred in their homes over a one-month period (between October 17 and November 17, 2012). Here were the instructions that were given to the couples who volunteered:
For the next month, until November 17th, please pay particular attention to any unusual occurrences in your residence. These occurrences may be emotional feelings, physical sensations, or environmental events in your residence. Please keep detailed and accurate notes, even if you know or believe to know what caused the occurrences to happen. I will need the gender and age of adult occupants, and who had each experience noting. If you have children please do not discuss this with them. I have no desire to upset children! The types of unusual experiences I am interested include but are not limited toOf the five couples involved in the experiment, only one of them reported no experiences of any kind that fell into the categories listed. The other four couples all reported varying numbers of odd observations; one couple said that these had occurred in the family car, but not in the home, a finding that Romer's analysis excluded as it did not fit the methodology, but which still supports Romer's conclusion quite nicely. The other three couples all reported a great many goings-on, with one recording 22 overall "unusual experiences" -- just shy of one a day.
* Visual – seeing things not there* Audio – hearing stuff with no known cause*Tactile – the feeling of being touched with no obvious reason* Olfactory – strange smells* Sensed “presences”* Intense emotion for no apparent cause beyond that you might normally experience* Object movements with no apparent cause* erratic function of equipment.
What's most interesting about this study is that consistently, the test subjects reported higher and higher frequencies of "unusual experiences" as the month progressed. Although in my opinion it's still a small data set to draw any kind of rock-solid conclusion upon, the relationship looks linear -- the number of weird things you notice seems to be directly proportional to the amount of time you've spent looking for them. This, Romer concludes, "... may simply show the priming effect of participating in the experiment. There is no reason to think the participants would have thought very much if at all about what occurred, let alone ascribed it to spooks, if they had not been participating in the diary study." It's evident that these peculiar little events happen all the time, and most of them (rightly) escape our notice; but when we're forced to notice them, we do, and then the ones we notice increase our certainty that "something strange is going on," and the whole thing snowballs. Romer writes, "... I have no doubt that life is full of tiny anomalies: during the day it has taken me to write up this replication my partner has texted to say she had her sat nav come on while lying on her bedroom floor and make her jump by telling her to “turn right”; I myself thought I saw Cuddles my black cat sitting on top of a cupboard, but on looking again he was not there, and was still sleeping in my bedroom when I returned to the computer." We only ascribe meaning to them when we're primed to -- when enough of them occur in rapid succession that we're forced to pay them more attention, when we already thought our house was haunted... or when we're asked to notice them and write them down. After that, positive feedback takes over.
It's the psychological component of our perception that always makes me suspicious of eyewitness accounts. People act as if we're highly accurate recorders of what we experience, when in reality our attention is selective and our memories highly unreliable. Odd, then, that eyewitness testimony is considered one of the highest forms of evidence in courts of law, isn't it? What Romer's study does is to cast further doubt on our ability to discern what constitutes out-of-the-ordinary occurrences -- which makes me even more suspicious of most of the alleged evidence of hauntings.
On the other hand, the whole thing has made me wonder a little about the scraping noise I keep hearing up in the attic. Wonder if I should investigate?
Nah. I'm sure it's nothing.