Popular Science



THE APPARITION­S IN MOVIES LIKE THE GRUDGE and The Amityville Horror will stop at nothing to chase down their human victims, but ghosts aren’t innately terrifying. Research suggests that the brain may summon spirits as a means of coping with trauma, especially the pain of losing a loved one. Just as most amputees report what’s known as “phantom limb,” the feeling that their detached appendage is still there, surviving spouses frequently report seeing or sensing their departed partner. One 1971 survey in the British Medical Journal found that close to half the widows in Wales and England had seen their mates postmortem. These vivid encounters, which psychologi­sts call “after-death communicat­ion,” have long been among the most common kinds of paranormal experience, affecting skeptics and believers alike.

Experts think that such specters help us deal with painful or confusing events. A 2011 analysis published in the journal Death Studies looked at hundreds of incidents of supposed interactio­n with the deceased. The paper concluded that some occurrence­s provided “instantane­ous relief from painful grief symptoms,” while others strengthen­ed preexistin­g religious views.

Death isn’t the only trigger for a friendly ghost encounter either. Studies suggest kids who are bullied or exposed to dangerous situations are more likely to have paranormal fantasies, a trend psychologi­sts also found in adults with a history of childhood trauma.

There’s also evidence that sightings have other mental benefits. In a 1995 survey in The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 91 percent of participan­ts said their encounter had at least one upside, such as a sense of connection to others. So if you do see a shroud down the hallway, you might not want to run.

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