By Domenica Goduto
The days are getting longer and brighter, but this does little to dispel Edinburgh’s eerie atmosphere.
With its narrow closes and bloody history, it is the perfect setting for “Hauntings: The Science of Ghosts,” a one-day public event that will be held this Saturday, April 4, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, in the appropriately creepy University of Edinburgh Anatomy Lecture Theatre.
“Hauntings” is a series of talks concerning the many aspects of ghostly phenomena. The speakers, all experts in their fields, will discuss ghosts from the viewpoint of scientists, social historians, and the entertainment industry.
Dr. Caroline Watt, one of the event’s organizers, hopes the combination will prove both “informative and entertaining.”
The talks are expected to attract people interested in the science of ghost research, as well as the cultural and historical significance of the supernatural.
Dr. Watt is a psychologist at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh.
“My own work deals with the ways in which a person’s experiences are shaped by their expectations, and how our experiences can be distorted by the experiences we’re having – whether we’re cold, or tired,” she explains.
While Dr. Watt concedes that “We can’t be absolutely certain that ghosts do not exist,” she quickly points out that many factors can contribute to the impression that something supernatural has occurred.
She agrees that parapsychology occasionally gets a bad reputation because “it tends to be associated with all sorts of fringe pursuits by people who aren’t really aware of what it is we do.”
In fact, she explains, parapsychologists take a very scientific approach. They do not generally conduct overnight vigils in allegedly haunted locations in the hopes that something may appear. She feels that “there is little to be gained” by these attempts, regardless of the impression given by many popular television programmes.
However, parapsychologists will visit locations to measure a variety of physical conditions, such as light levels, humidity, and electromagnetic activity, though not necessarily at night.
Dr. Watt has conducted experiments with Professor Richard Wiseman – a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire and another of “Hauntings”’ organizers – in Edinburgh’s Underground Vaults.
They found certain correlations between physical conditions and the experiences people report.
People seem to get a spooky impression in dark locations, as well as in large rooms, both of which Dr. Watt points out “tend to make people feel vulnerable.”
Expectations also play a role – people feel more uneasy in places they already believe to be haunted. “Any ambiguous event – a draft, shadow, noise – can then be interpreted as ghostly,” Dr. Watt explains.
Levels of electromagnetic activity may also contribute to ghostly impressions, although to what extent and in precisely which manner is unclear. Dr. Watt notes that the evidence in this area is still “patchy,” although people are certainly sensitive to these levels.
In the lead-up to the “Hauntings” event, Professor Wiseman held a competition in which members of the public were encouraged to send in ghostly photographs for analysis. The entries were posted online, and viewers could comment and vote on the authenticity of each photo.
The results of the competition will be discussed at the seminar on Saturday, although the top ten photos have already been announced online.
Dr. Watt says many of the photos can be explained by the fact that people are “hard-wired as individuals, almost from birth…to see faces.” Thus any kind of pattern seen in nature, or in a photo, tends to be interpreted by our brains as a face. It is a matter of “seeing shapes where there aren’t any.”
Often, when a photo is zoomed in, it is possible to see the effects of light or texture which create the impression of a face.
However, Dr. Watt admits that the winning photo (left), taken at Tantallon Castle in North Berwick, is more difficult to explain. She and Professor Wiseman visited the site and attempted to recreate the photo, but there is nothing in the background that could suggest a face, possibly belonging to a figure in period clothing, looking out of an upper window of the castle. Furthermore, experts confirm that the photo shows no sign of tampering.
The area of the castle in which the figure appears, however, is open to the public, so they cannot rule out the mysterious face belonging to a very human visitor.
For the moment, though, the picture has yet to be fully explained.