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Why I Used To Believe In Ghosts
And Why My Family Still Believes8/8/07
To hear my family tell it, my mother basically grew up in the Amityville Horror. Loud thumping and violent noises kept her up at night as if some animal was destroying the stairway that lead to her room. She wasn't the only one who heard the ghost. When I was a teenager years later, problems like this resurfaced for my grandmother who lived alone. It began when she started seeing chips of soap flying through the air. She assumed it was a raccoon throwing things in the middle of the night. (Do raccoons actually do this? I have no idea) Then the voices came, followed by cold, invisible hands that would close around her neck while she slept. The hands were paralyzing. She tried leaving a bowl of water out by her bed as if that would serve as a kind of talisman against the ghost. I don't know who told her to do this, but she awoke the following day with her hand resting in that same bowl of water and an unplugged electrical cord draped across it. Did she do this to herself somehow in her sleep? It was as if the ghost was sending her a message.
She didn't know what to do, so she started going to psychics and people who said they knew about this sorta thing. She soon found herself being contacted by a number of parapsychologists who wanted to set up shop in her home, but she declined. What could they do against something like this?
Finally, she began experimenting. She tried locking up the soap in a safe to see what the ghost might do. That night, it hurled the bar of soap at her, hitting the wall above her head with a loud bang that woke her in bed. She couldn't find the bar of soap, but she had smelled it. So she checked for it in the safe. It was still there.
Weird, huh? These were only a few of the things that happened to her. Soap chips flying through the air was the only one I saw firsthand. Oh! Did I mention that my grandfather fell asleep once when he was fishing at night? The sound of a flying saucer hovering just inches from his head startled him awake. He couldn't move for some reason. The UFO continued hovering for a time before it just floated away, leaving him terrified and alone. My mother and grandmother weren't the only ones with these experiences. Many in my family have had them.
Nice Ghost Story. So What's The Point?
You can see why I grew up believing in ghosts, aliens, and anything else that could land you in the booby hatch these days. I wasn't alone, either. I imagine there's at least as many believers out there as skeptics these days. I simply had no reason for doubt and every reason to believe. As a kid, there was a part of me that wondered why I never got to see the really cool stuff. Practically everyone else in my family had. (On my mother's side, at least, and a few on my father's) I had no explanation for any of it. There were times when these stories really scared me even as an adult. I would wonder if that tap I heard against the wall at night was a chip of soap or just my home settling. Then, when I was first learning about atheism, I made a little side trip to various skeptic sites across the net. I'm glad I did. They freed me. But I didn't become a skeptic or an atheist all at once.
Other Weird--But Less Weird--Explanations
I was already thinking of myself as an agnostic when I began digging into all the atheist writings I could find. I didn't yet realize what an atheist really was. So, like most people, I thought all atheists were skeptics and I clearly wasn't skeptical about ghosts. Then I realized that there are other bizarre explanations for the experiences my family had. Why did it just have to be ghosts tossing soap around and choking people in their sleep? I began to wonder if there wasn't another whacked-out explanation that didn't involve spirits of the dead, Heaven, or Hell. Here's a short list of non-supernatural explanations I had thought of (If you're not interested, just skip down to "Hypnogogia And Hypnopompia" below).
1. Advanced aliens with invisibility suits are just screwing with us.
If your first explanation was ghosts, why wouldn't you consider this one too? We have no scientific reason to believe in ghosts, yet everything science does know suggests that aliens are possible or even likely. If you laughed at this one but believe in ghosts, you should realize that the alien idea--while highly unlikely--probably makes more sense than the ghost theory. Maybe the aliens get their yuck-yucks by screwing with less advanced species? Maybe they're like God, as many believers imagine that God's motives are just plain weird and inexplicable to mere humans. Strange as it sounds, is it really as strange as saying it must be ghosts?
2. Advanced humans from the future are going back in time to screw with us.
Same thing as number 1. It's unlikely, but I suppose it's remotely possible. Don't think so? Well, we actually know for a fact that humans exist. No guessing required. And we have no reason to assume that we'll never learn to make invisible suits or travel through time. That's already more than we can say for the classic explanation of "it must be ghosts!" Again, as implausible as this explanation might be, it actually does seem more likely than "ghosts did it!" Ghosts just seem less weird to many of us because that's an explanation we're used to.
3. Maybe they're all just flat out crazy or hallucinating.
I don't believe my family is actually crazy. (Not that kinda crazy at least) Yet even this explanation is still more likely than ghosts. In fact, it's probably more likely than the other two explanations because it's so ordinary by comparison. We know that people can be crazy. We even know that some people are highly susceptible to hallucinations and that we can share such experiences in groups. So of the three alternatives, this one is logically the best.
Do You Believe This Stuff, Then?
Every one of these seems like a better explanation for poltergeists than ghosts. If you found any of them unacceptable, then you probably shouldn't believe in ghosts or haunted houses at all. At least there's a grain of scientific truth behind these other ideas. (More or less) What does the "ghosts did it" explanation really have to offer that covers the bases better than the three alternatives I just gave?
The reality is that I don't believe either of the first two explanations. The real point is that none of us knew enough to offer any useful guesses about the cause. I wasn't even there when most of it happened. The only thing I ever saw was flying chips of soap which--according to my grandmother--could have been an animal throwing things. I don't know if raccoons really are known for sneaking into houses and throwing soap and dog food (they do have the ability to grip things like a human) but that seems far more likely than ghosts invading her home. And could my grandmother (or a guest who was staying the night?) have draped the cord through the bowl of water and put her hand in it while she slept? It's possible. People have done far stranger things in their sleep. Bear in mind that most of these later events happened when she had a neighbor staying with her, so I'm not reaching as far as it might seem.
Ultimately, the ghost explanation was nothing more than the first assumption everyone came to. We knew of little else. But we could have tried a lot harder.
I don't think my family was crazy either, but they might have been hallucinating. Once I began digging for answers in earnest, I soon stumbled across an explanation that trumped all the rest.
Hypnogogia And Hypnopompia
In this context, both words refer to a recently discovered explanation for nearly everything that I've just told you about. It's when something in the brain misfires and leaves you trapped between a dream-state and full awareness. People who suffer from hypnogogic states are actually still dreaming even though they're also fully conscious. They're actually being paralyzed by the same brain circuitry that keeps us still when we're sleeping normally, which is why they often feel as if they can't move. But unlike a dream, hypnogogic experiences seem as real as the words on this page.
Don't buy it? Remember that every one of my family's experiences happened while they were sleeping, trying to sleep, or otherwise in a state where they might easily doze off. (Except for the flying soap chips which I saw for myself when I was up watching TV at her place one night) So it seems that I finally have a rational, useful explanation for their experiences. I've been told that this condition can be inherited, which could explain why so many on my mother's side have seen ghosts or other things. Guess I didn't get the gene, or I only got it in its weakest form.
But How Do You Know They're Just Dreams?
Typical signs that you're having a hypnogogic experience include the following: hearing voices that are sometimes unintelligible and sometimes speaking only a single word over and over, the sensation of someone touching you, something sitting on your chest or choking you, a feeling that some sort of presence is there with you, an inability to move, or even various smells. My family has experienced them all. The victim may also think they are floating, being carried, or see bizarre hallucinations. Some people even have OOBE (Out Of Body Experiences) where their soul seems to leave their body. They may even think they're seeing things in other rooms or places, when in fact they are dreaming these events. Or they feel as if some malevolent force is actually slamming them against the walls of their home and sliding them up to the ceiling and around the room.
These experiences may seem very real, but are actually nothing more than lucid dreams. Still, one can understand why so many people insist they were abdubted by aliens or terrorized by ghosts. My family still believes these experiences are real, but I obviously have doubts. The real clincher for scientists is that they can actually reproduce these experiences in the lab with machines that can trick the brain into reproducing this same state!
Bear in mind that we are all living in the Matrix. Well, sorta... The world we experience is actually a simulation created by our own brains. Even now, your brain is taking all the information coming in from your senses and is using that data to build a 3D simulation of the world around you. Normally, that simulation is pretty accurate. But if the simulation "software" malfunctions in some way, we can easily have these experiences without knowing they aren't real. It's weird to think about, but it's also true.
We shouldn't make fun of people who suffer from this affliction. All their senses are telling them that these experiences are real and it can be truly terrifying. I don't know too many skeptics who have this condition. Probably because many of them wouldn't be skeptics if they did. The only reason I got off so light is because I don't appear to have it and I actually took the time to look for a scientific explanation.
Still, the good news is that understanding brings clarity and hope. All it takes to be a skeptic is an open mind and a willingness to employ good, objective reasoning.
-the Atheist Geek-