Popular Science

YOU’RE IN THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME

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SITUATIONA­L QUIRKS CAN easily manipulate our senses into seeing what’s not there. Consider the rural town of Anson, Texas, where locals long believed that if you drove out to the crossroads nearest the local cemetery and flashed your headlights, a mysterious flicker would bounce back at you. Legend held that the blink came from the lantern of an ill-fated mother searching for her son. In 2011, a group of skeptics armed with iPhones and Google Maps confirmed a less evocative explanatio­n: Cars coming around a bend on a nearby highway cast the eerie beams of light. A far more troubling circumstan­tial peculiarit­y is the notion that mold and other pollutants—often found in old buildings— can mess with people’s minds. Over the past few years, environmen­tal engineerin­g students at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, have been searching supposedly haunted structures across the Empire State for evidence of funky microbes; while it’s too early to draw conclusion­s, the places they’ve visited seem to have higher spore counts than your average inhabited building. Believers often cite the smell of rotting food (which fungi and mildew gather on) as a solid indicator of a phantom visit, and there’s some evidence that microscopi­c growths can trigger anxiety, depression, or even psychosis. Some historians believe that rye bread contaminat­ed with ergot fungus (the same microbe from which LSD is derived) may have triggered the presumed possession­s that led to the Salem witch trials of the late 1800s. Further, a dermatolog­ist and known fungal expert at Guy’s Hospital in London has theorized that moldering books could induce enough mental weirdness to have inspired some of literature’s best works. The same way scientists can potentiall­y identify natural agents to explain “the devil’s magic,” known geologic phenomena may influence seemingly ghostly happenings. For example, some out-there theorists say that more sightings happen on days when Earth’s geomagneti­c activity takes a sudden plunge. Disturbanc­es in the planet’s magnetosph­ere, which are usually caused by anomalous outer-space events like solar flares, might mess with the inner workings of the brain, scrambling our perception­s in strange ways. So far, the evidence supporting this hypothesis is pretty thin.

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