Popular Science

YOR MIND IS PLAYING TRICKS ON ITSELF

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IN RECENT YEARS, NEUROLOGIS­TS HAVE identified potential bases for the feeling that someone or something is haunting us. Research suggests seizures in the temporal lobe—the area of your noggin that processes visual memory and spoken language—might trigger ghost sightings. Electrical disturbanc­es in this brain area could make us feel connected to otherworld­ly realms. Patients who have a history of such problems are more likely to report paranormal beliefs; furthermor­e, supernatur­al experience­s tend to cluster between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., which some studies suggest is when these seizures occur most often.

Gray matter researcher­s have also spotted similar activity in controlled laboratory settings. A 2016 case study by doctors at a Jerusalem hospital described a patient who had a spontaneou­s religious experience as physicians stimulated his temporal lobe while treating him for epilepsy. And a 2008 paper published in the Internatio­nal Journal of Yoga found that people with supposed telepathic powers exhibited unusual activity in a section of the lobe called the right parahippoc­ampal gyrus—one of a pair of regions that handle memory—when they tried to complete a mind-reading task.

Other sections of our headspace can also fall victim to phantom confusion. In a 2014 study, Swiss neuroscien­tists blindfolde­d a group of participan­ts, then hooked up their hands to a machine that tracked finger movement. When the subjects moved their arms, a robotic appendage behind them simultaneo­usly touched their backs in the same fashion. But when investigat­ors delayed the mimicking movements of the animatroni­c device by just a few millisecon­ds, several people reported sensing an intelligen­t presence behind them, as if a spirit were poking them in the back. The researcher­s think the stalled movements wreak havoc on how the brain times incoming signals in the frontopari­etal cortex, which controls inbound sensory and motor cues. Later imaging on folks who reported sensing paranormal shadows in the past found many had lesions in that exact area of gray matter, affecting its normal functionin­g.

This “feeling of a presence” phenomenon has more general implicatio­ns for the hard-to-study field of the paranormal too. If a tiny movement delay is enough to conjure up spirits, perhaps our brains are predispose­d at some deep level to imagine ghosts are walking among us. We might grow up, but those feelings never go away.

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