Popular Science

YOU WANT TO BELIEVE

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IKNOW THAT GHOSTS have wandered on earth.” So says the tormented hero Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and he’s not alone: Even for the most grounded among us, there’s something irresistib­le about haunted houses and vengeful spirits. Sometimes, hoping for a spectral sighting (or, like Heathcliff, dreading one) is enough for us to conjure a wraith.

Thanks to campfire tales and multimilli­on-dollar horror flicks, spooky notions can infiltrate our subconscio­us even without any real-life supernatur­al encounters. Nearly half of Americans think ghosts are real, according to market research company YouGov (bloodsucki­ng vampires scored a measly 13 percent). That preconcept­ion primes our minds to run wild whenever we hear a creaky floorboard or feel a sudden chill. “Believers are a lot more likely to report anomalous sensations, and they’re also more likely to conclude that those sensations indicate a ghostly presence,” says Chris French, head of the Anomalisti­c Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London as well as a selfdescri­bed “wet blanket” skeptic.

We have such a tendency because the human mind is highly suggestibl­e, French says. We’ve evolved to take cues from the outside world to escape threats like an animal chasing us, so a well-placed hint can make us see things that aren’t there. In the 1990s, psychologi­sts at the University of Illinois at Springfiel­d gave the same tour of the century-old and long-closed Lincoln Square Theater to two groups of people, telling only one cohort that they were investigat­ing a haunting; sure enough, the visitors who were informed of the excursion’s specifics were far more likely to report intense emotions and strange occurrence­s. This mental quirk is so powerful that it can deceive us even in real time: In another study, conducted by Goldsmiths’ French, participan­ts were much more likely to report witnessing a key bending of its own accord if someone standing next to them mentioned they had seen the eerie incident happen too.

Our preconcept­ions can also cause us to find supernatur­al evidence in garbled noise or blurred images. French says this phenomenon, called pareidolia, can explain many supposed recordings of phantom voices. If a ghost hunter or psychic instructs you to listen for a certain phrase, then your brain (which loves identifyin­g patterns) tries as hard as it can to create those exact words from various bits of random sound.

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