Can neuroscience explain our paranormal obsession?

From UFOs to ghosts, our strong reaction to unexplained phenomena has a lot to do with our brains

Published June 25, 2011 6:01PM (EDT)

We have been sitting in the dark for hours. I am on the outside of a circle of a half-dozen strangers, reclining on the thick carpeting of a suburban home, watching the silhouette of a hulking man with a digital audio recorder. We are waiting, and listening, for some proof of a ghostly presence in the room. And I, for one, am not optimistic. I’ve come here with Lou Gentile, a well-known figure within the murky realms of ghost hunting. And so far, we have found nothing to confirm what this family in central New Jersey has told us: they talk about strange rappings, jiggling doorknobs, and an occasional bang in the basement. We have heard nothing of the kind. But more than that, we both think the vibe this family gives off is strange enough without the additive of spirits.

The family patriarch, whom I’ll refer to here as "Paul," moves with the disassociated air of a ghost himself. He is a quiet, intense divorcé who seems to rule over his girlfriend and son with his ominous silences. Like me, he has recently lost a parent -- in his case, his father. And while his family seems to maintain an appropriate skepticism, he clearly wants to believe.

Earlier, he showed Gentile a series of odd photos, including one that displayed what appeared to be a large, jagged light in his bedroom. He seemed happy when Gentile told him he wasn’t sure what kind of camera defect might produce that anomaly. "It could be a defect," Gentile told him, "but I haven’t seen one quite like this."

Paul also showed us a video he made in the basement, which was about as interesting, aesthetically, as might be expected. The static image he captured was mostly darkness, with the outline of a weight bench in the middle ground and still more darkness fanning out behind it. Every few seconds, however, a ping echoed in the room. "The sound is probably distorted by the condenser microphone on your camera," Gentile told him. "But it’s worth investigating."

Gentile sent me down to the basement at that point, to sit in the dark. And though I was suitably scared for a minute or so, it quickly became clear to me that the "mysterious noises" Paul drew our attention to were produced by nothing more spectral than the air conditioning ducts that cut back and forth across the ceiling. I reported my findings to Gentile, who expected as much. "It doesn’t mean nothing is happening here," he told Paul. "But the sounds on the video are just produced by your air conditioning unit."

Paul, sitting cross-legged on the floor, looked distraught. Gentile readied his little digital recorder and asked Paul to turn off all the lights in the house. Hours passed. Gentile asked questions into the darkness, then played back the audio, listening for ghostly responses. Believers call this "electronic voice phenomenon." I considered it a kind of investigative dead end, a series of unintelligible, scratchy noises that could easily have been produced by the recorder itself -- the sounds occasionally coalescing by chance into a snatch that could be mistaken for a word or maybe even a phrase. On this night, Gentile didn’t seem particularly impressed by the results either. So to shake things up, he invited everyone in the circle to take turns asking questions.

When it was Paul’s turn, he knelt down in front of the recorder and asked the only question of the dark that could be expected from a grieving son: "Are you my father?"

- - - - - - - - - -

For many people, and especially hardcore skeptics, all the paranormal ever amounts to is the wishful thinking of the grieving, the impossible fantasies of people with wild imaginations. But in my new book, "Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away The Unexplainable -- And Couldn't," I argue that the paranormal amounts to much, much more than that. To my mind, the paranormal reveals us, believers and unbelievers alike, and calls us toward a fuller more compassionate understanding of each other.

My own family passed a series of ghost stories on to me, stories they swore to be true. And I have my own memories of the events they describe. I remember the banging noises, for instance, that sounded like something was trying to hack its way in through the roof. I remember my older brother throwing his hands on top of his head and staring up at the ceiling in dismay. I remember my sisters claiming that their bed covers had been jerked from them, violently, as if by invisible hands. My mother and father once sat and told me about what they called "the ghost." I was in my mid-20s, recently graduated from college. I had instigated the conversation by telling them I wanted the definitive account. The tale they told me was sensational, complete with a spellbinding ending that seemed shocking to them all those years later.

"We didn’t know what it was," my father told me recently. "We called it a ghost because we didn’t know what else to call it."

It is my position that one thing human beings hold in common is that we tend not to like uncertainty very much: That is how the unexplained events in my family home loom as an authentic ghost tale to some, while others see the story as evidence for how misperception and superstition fuel paranormal belief; this flight from the unexplained is also how an Unidentified Flying Object comes to be regarded as an alien spacecraft by believers while skeptics strain to paint it as military flares or a weather balloon. In truth, of course, an unidentified flying object is just and only unidentified. But our need for strict definitions prevents many of us from seeing anything as unknown at all. And this race to eliminate mystery seems simply part of what it means to be human -- and perhaps neuroscientific in nature.

One of the strangest books of recent times, "The End of Science," was penned by John Horgan, a former senior writer and current blogger for Scientific American, who in spite of so much evidence to the contrary argues that there are no more scientific revolutions to be had. Of course, potential revolutions still abound: dark matter and dark energy are thought to make up roughly 95 percent of the universe, yet direct evidence of their existence eludes us.

Temple University recently produced a book that identifies 13 competing theories of quantum mechanics and explores their implications for how we understand the very nature of existence. Some highly esteemed scientists, including Karl Pribram and quantum mechanics mastermind David Bohm, advanced the idea that the human mind and the entire universe are like a hologram -- a three-dimensional projection from some other, more fundamental reality.

If the universe doesn’t seem quite weird enough for you yet, consider the matter of time, a particularly sticky wicket: To explore the subject, physicists Yakir Aharonov and Jeff Tollaksen devised an incredible experiment, in which the act of measuring a particle predictably changes the value of the same particle in -- get this -- an earlier measurement. Numerous labs around the world have been successfully conducting and replicating the experiment, which seems to indicate something awfully wild about reality: an action taken in the future can affect what happens in the present, at least at a subatomic level.

Aharonov and Tollaksen aren’t sure exactly what to make of their own experiment. But this is precisely the spot at which we can use a real, scientific mystery to understand something about ourselves and how we react to the paranormal. Most likely, you rebelled, internally, during this last paragraph. The controversial results of this experiment -- the mysterious nature of their findings -- may have bothered you so much that you simply dismissed it as impossible. But without belaboring the nature of time, there is a part of your brain that probably sent you a tremulous message to watch out when I wrote something that seems so nonsensical. Maybe you furrowed your eyebrows, your pulse quickened, you momentarily held your breath or even felt angry or dismissive, as if what I had written must be false and I must be stupid or even craven to write it. But here’s the thing: that wasn’t you, or at least not the rational, reasonable you. That was your brain talking -- most dramatically, your amygdala, a necessary but frustrating part of the brain. The amygdala is the spot in the brain I accuse of making us seem to lack humility -- the part of our brain that can cause us to haughtily dismiss information we find threatening or don’t understand.

When our place on the food chain was not so secure, and we had to deal with predator cats on a regular basis, the amygdala -- a pair of almond-shaped structures near the base of our temporal lobes -- did great work. Our brain processed visual images of a shadow moving in the grass, and our amygdala shouted, "Danger!" In response, we froze. Our more logical information-processing centers kicked in, quickly trying to determine: Is this shadow a crouching tiger or a hidden rabbit? If the shadow was big enough, our logical frontal lobes responded, Close enough to a tiger for me, our amygdala sent a stronger signal of abject fear in return, and we ran.

Millions of years later, Homo sapiens is here -- and we brought our amygdalas with us. Some of us, like kids in the inner city, or soldiers in the battlefield, still need them a lot. These are people who worry on a daily basis about potent threats to their health -- about a lump in a stranger’s pocket that might mean he is carrying a handgun; about a mound of dirt on the side of the road which might cover a bomb. But for most of us, the amygdala (along with other parts of the brain responsible for mediating emotion and processing conflicting information) is responding to far less grave mysteries but is still sending us messages of anxiety and fear whenever necessary and much of the time besides, including when the boss says something harsh to us at work, a co-worker cuts us a nasty look, or when we hear an idea that conflicts with our worldview. This has profound implications for all of us, and our conversations about the paranormal. Oftentimes our first reaction, even if it is about an intellectual subject, is an emotional one: We react to the ideas we hear with this primitive part of our brain. And when we feel emotionally committed to a position, that is precisely the time we’re in the greatest danger of reacting -- not from our frontal lobes, like enlightened human beings, but from our amygdalas, like angry or frightened monkeys.

We see this play out in our culture wars, in politics and in our debates over science and religion: Believers sometimes consider those of no or different faith downright unholy. Nonbelievers, of late, take great delight in openly deriding believers as irrational and childlike. And too often the rest of us wind up listening to people letting their amygdalas inspire far too much of the talking.

There is intriguing research that backs this up, including not just brain scan technology but Terror Management Theory. It seems that both religious and irreligious people see death and threats to their worldviews as of a piece; in other words, he who threatens my life and he who threatens my way of looking at the world are, on a psychological level, related. That is a dangerous way of thinking, but it seems we’re built for it -- machines constructed to fight.

As I write in "Fringe-ology," both religion and science have aided our efforts to find some peace. Mystics have come up with some great ways, in meditation and prayer, of taming the more unruly, emotional centers of our brain, including the amygdala. And of course science helps in particularly dramatic fashion. If anxiety is our response to mystery, then discovering the truth and eliminating the mystery not only gives us more information about the world, it helps to soothe us. The problem is that we often lack real answers. At that point, our own psychology can’t help but get in the way. The anxiety we feel at confronting a real mystery encourages us to supplant the unknown with an answer that fits our preexisting worldview. For mystics, that means injecting God or some similar force into all the explanatory gaps; for materialists, it means maintaining faith that some prosaic explanation, far from mysticism, will ultimately emerge.

This dispute is often portrayed as a one-way road -- a hustle from superstitious religious belief to the sweet rationality of science. In this view, science is often typified as a perfect, self-correcting system, which compensates for our faulty wetware by gathering and totaling up evidence. Mystics, with their reliance on subjective experience, can’t make the same claim. I find this standard analysis to be devastatingly accurate -- to a point. My critique is that while we might look over the long haul and see a "perfect," self-correcting system, we aren’t looking at today from the perspective of a decade, a generation, or a century from now. This means we might be looking at a completely laughable model of reality and calling it the most likely one -- just because this is the time we live in and this is the best information our science has yielded to date.

Modern neuroscience provides a fantastic example of this: Scientists are examining brain function at the level of the neuron to try and explain how consciousness is produced. Yet no one has figured out how neuronal firing and the interactions of neurochemicals produce thought, your feelings of being you, with your specific set of wishes and wants and fears, who feels a particular sensation upon perceiving the color red or enjoying the flavor of a good steak. Of course, there is a level of activity going on below the level of the neuron -- a level we can’t investigate so well because we don’t yet have the instruments to do the job properly. And so, modern neuroscientists, for all their advancements, could prove to be just like the drunk looking for his misplaced car keys under the lamppost.

Where, we ask the drunk, did you last see your keys?

About three blocks away, he replies, a little man on his hands and knees.

Then, why are you looking here?

Because, he says, this is where the light is.

In short, I’m not critiquing science. I’m calling for more of it. And in "Fringe-ology," I also call for all of us to accept who and what we are -- to accept that, from moment to moment, we perceive and interpret the world according to the best model we’ve constructed to date.

I think this fact could set us free if we let it. In admitting we don’t know the final answers, in admitting we’re prone to see the world as we’ve always seen it, and acting on this understanding, we open a door to conversation -- as opposed to debate -- and the exploration of new ideas, a good faith sifting through of the facts we have. I think, theoretically, most religious people can at least grope their way toward accepting this: in theological terms, doubt is often seen as a necessary part of real faith. Skeptics might have a harder time, because they usually profess that they deal only in facts. But as I argue and I believe demonstrate in my book, the arch-skeptic is as capable of seeing things according to his or her biases as the believer.

Perhaps, through acknowledging this aspect of ourselves, we can learn to talk about so-called paranormal issues productively, so that believers and disbelievers alike gain a better understanding not only of how the world works but of themselves and each other. The way I see it, we’re all land-based mammals on a planet with a greater surface area devoted to things that swim. We are all trapped on this same unforgiving rock, floating through space, with no rulebook for living other than the one we discover and write together. Under such circumstances, are we better off approaching each other in a posture of debate -- or conversation?

I suspect that most of us are reasonable enough to realize that systems of thought, whether religious or scientific, that have survived for centuries and for millennia must necessarily contain truths that are ours for the taking. What gets too little play, at least in our public discourse, is any sort of middle or integrated view in which both political parties have valid points to make, or both rationalists and mystics have something to teach.

Bringing people into this kind of collaborative worldview won’t be easy. And the media is one of the obstacles we need to overcome. Journalists often portray the fight between mysticism and materialism in stark terms -- and through the lens of some dramatically phrased question, like: Can science and spirituality coexist?

In turn, I ask the reader to do me a favor. Stand up, please, and go to the window: Are great plumes of black smoke arising from the supposed "war" between religion and science?

I thought not.

So it’s past time, I think, to look past the false choice with which we are too often presented -- to embrace paranormal and spiritual claims, or hotly reject them -- and instead simply consider all the possibilities they represent. I ask that we instead enjoy these stories for what they reveal about all of us.

In researching and writing "Fringe-ology," I had ample opportunity to consider various explanations for colorful tales that both entertained me and pushed me well past my comfort zone.

In one pivotal scene, I describe Ricky Sorrells' account of a UFO sighting he claimed. The "ship," as he described it, hovered silently for several minutes just 300 feet directly over his head. Its size was so massive he could not see an edge to it, in any direction. Its underside featured a series of inverted cones that projected upward, inside the craft. And when it took off, he said, it remained silent but lit out with a speed unlike anything he could even imagine.

I didn't believe Sorrells' account. How could I? I have nowhere to put such images, no frame of reference in which a ship like that could even be possible. But I didn’t disbelieve him either. In fact, I found Sorrells as a man to be highly credible. He had nothing to gain from spinning a tall tale and demonstrated a real yearning to know precisely what it was that he did see.

Well, wouldn't we all like to know what he saw -- or if he saw anything at all? But of course, for now, all we can have on the subject are our beliefs.

Undoubtedly, this state of affairs will fire the amygdalas of a great many people who will argue, confidently, that we do know the answer to this question: Sorrells must simply be lying. More charitably, he misperceived some natural, earthly phenomenon as something incredible. Others will argue, just as strenuously, that he must have seen an alien craft from the Zeta Reticuli system. But to me the truth in this instance offers the virtue of both accuracy and opportunity: Because we don’t know precisely what Sorrells saw, we are free to imagine the answer; and in sifting through the explanations we each offer up, we’ll find something incredibly powerful: We’ll find each other. We’ll find ourselves. We'll find -- in Sorrells' tale of an airship, in "Fringe-ology's" other reports of ghosts and psychics and spoonbending -- the world we most expect or wish to see. And who knows? Maybe 10 years from now, or 100, or 1,000, we’ll discover exactly what Ricky Sorrells saw in the sky that day.

Steve Volk is a longtime staff writer and regular contributor at Philadelphia Magazine. His work has been published in Rolling Stone, VIBE, Men's Health, Men's Journal, the New Republic, and many others. He lives in Philadelphia.

Adapted exclusively for Salon from "Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable -- And Couldn’t," published by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.

By Steve Volk

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