Various paranormal activities have long been troubling people, making them afraid of certain things or believe in supernatural forces. The word ‘paranormal’ means ‘beyond normal’ or ‘contrary to normal’. It includes such phenomena as ghosts or other spiritual entities, extraterrestrial life, astrology, etc. According to scientists like Richard Dawkins, paranormal events should be unpredictable, non-replicable, defy the laws of physics and represent an unpremeditated series of misinterpreted phenomena The physicist also gives the following definitions to the word ‘paranormal’. It is an event that cannot be understood, has no explanation and lies beyond the reach of science The only thing, according to Dawkins, which can be called paranormal, is perpetual mobile. It is not possible to create it with any future technologies, since it will violate the fundamental laws of physics
On the other hand, the repeatable and testable events arising in the world with no explanation but that can be controlled and tested scientifically, should be called ‘perinormal’. This word means ‘within normal’ and it can be referred to the events that cannot be explained today. However, the possibility exists that such events will be explained in the future, when scientists will have new advanced technologies. Dawkins supports his point of view by telling that perinormal events are the ones that science does not understand yet, but is looking for the ways to find an explanation to it. Nevertheless, some of such events still can fill people with amazement.
The evidence that supports Dawkins’ point of view can be found today. For instance, the technologies that exist nowadays all over the world, such as television, radio, mobile phones and numerous other electronic devices, would seem paranormal or supernatural, if seen by people who lived two centuries ago. Now we see that it is perinormal. Another example of a perinormal event is placebo. Scientists only begin to understand the effect of placebo and biochemical channels that the brain stem forces making them behave in a certain way. Nevertheless, it is not fully understood yet Other examples of perinormal events are hypnosis and contact with extraterrestrial life. Both of them are being researched currently, but still cannot be explained to the extent that would let scientists understand them completely.
Therefore, no events should be called paranormal in case they are repeatable and do not violate any fundamental laws of physics. In the meantime, it is important to remember that cultural values and beliefs of a person can have a significant effect on the way he or she sees and perceives the events currently considered as paranormal. It includes seeing ghosts or other supernatural beings. If a person is sure that what he sees is something supernatural, it will remain supernatural for him or her regardless of how science explains it. Thus, in order to have a better understanding of a paranormal, or better called ‘perinormal’, phenomenon, we should study it not only from a scientific perspective of a human brain, but we should also penetrate into psychological factors of human mind. More so, it is necessary to analyze a person’s belief in the event which exerts an important influence on the perception and understanding of such phenomenon.
The Importance of Belief in Paranormal Events
A person’s sincere belief in something has an extremely important meaning. Cases are known when one was, for instance, healed due to his or her faith in the medication or in the doctor’s ability to cure people. Such effect, called placebo, is still being discussed and examined by scientists and it is still not fully understood. Experiments have been held to see that if a person is given a specific medication and said that it would heal him, its effect will most likely be positive. It worked even with not real medications but with vitamins or inert drugs. Thus, the placebo effect proves that the perception of events and brain’s role are significant for a person’s physical health.
Another notion is also used in medicine and it is called psychosomatics. When a person believes that he or she has a serious illness, this person tends to develop such illness. Sometimes it may prevent successful treatment and in other cases it can even create the disease that did not exist. Psychosomatic diseases involve the patient’s body, mind and soul. They are usually worsened under the influence of such factors as stress and anxiety. Moreover, in some cases, when, for instance, a person has a chest pain that is due to stress, no physical explanation is found for that. Certain physical symptoms can be directly caused by the mind, including fast heart rate, shaking, sweating, headache and many others. Diseases that involve psychosomatic factors are also often complemented with depression. In the meantime, if a person does not have faith in treatment, it is unlikely to help him or her. Such disorders may even lead to more serious physical or psychological issues. As with the placebo effect, it is still not clear to the scientists how such mechanisms work and why mental state causes physical problems.
One of the reasons which can explain it is sincere faith of a person in the seriousness of the disease or in the effectiveness of the treatment. Belief is an important factor, because it is important for a person’s behavior. Moreover, a person’s behavior and actions base on his or her belief in certain things. The belief system also determines the reactions to other people’s behavior. Personal beliefs that everything around is what it seems to be are extremely significant. One’s belief in what he or she sees, hears and feels is fundamental in his or her life. Moreover, when such beliefs are challenged, most people tend to resist to that and support their point of view. It may even lead to the fits of anger and to a personal insult. According to Hufford, people’s beliefs are usually embodied into their life stories; and vice versa, stories are the natural consequence of beliefs and traditions Moreover, the arguments and counterarguments in such stories help people support their beliefs.
The similar example can be found in the faith in paranormal events. When a person sincerely believes that he or she has seen something paranormal, for instance, a ghost or a flying saucer, it is hard to make this person change his or her mind. Even if such individual actually saw a game of lights instead of a ghost or an unusual cloud instead of a flying saucer, he or she will continue to believe in what his or her eyes interpreted in a special way. Reasons for a person to believe in the supernatural vary from medical conditions to cultural values.
Belief in Paranormal Events: Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Faith in God
Belief in a paranormal event may exist due to various reasons. One of them can come from malfunctioning of a person’s brain. A disease called temporal lobe epilepsy may cause visions, hallucinations, hearing voices, shape distortions, vertigo and out-of-body experiences in patients The history gives us several examples of known people who had such disorder. They are Apostle Paul, Muhammad the Prophet, Joan of Arc and Fyodor Dostoyevsky Unfortunately, it is not possible to have an exact diagnosis of these historical personalities, since no way exists to obtain the measurements of their brain activity and look at their brains in an EEG machine. Nevertheless, scientists have enough evidence to suppose that it was the fact.
For instance, Apostle Paul had an experience resembling an epileptic seizure. According to the Scriptures, he “saw a flash of light, fell down, and heard the voice of Christ” What makes such experience resemble a seizure is the following: he lost balance, had auditory hallucinations and visual illusions. Moreover, it is known from the Bible that Paul remained blind for several days after this experience and temporary blindness is another symptom of the seizure, even though rarely encountered This episode is considered to be not the only one in Paul’s life, since mentions about other similar events can also be found. It proves the fact that the Apostle suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.
Similar evidence can be found about Muhammad the Prophet. He also had visions, saw flashing lights and heard angels’ and Allah’s voices. In addition, the prophet had out-of-body experiences, which are characteristic of epilepsy, as well. It is known from legends that Muhammad had suffered from that disorder from his childhood, since he was born with excess fluid around the brain The similar evidence can also be found in life descriptions of Joan of Arc and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. They all had mystical experiences, such as conversations with God and hearing voices.
Most people known to suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy are extremely religious. It can be understood as a logical consequence, since the experiences they have are an important proof of the existence of God for them. They have faith that He talks to them, even though what they hear or see is a mere result of electrical activity that occurs in the brain at the moment of seizures Even when a non-religious scientist Michael Persinger, studying the disorder, stimulated his own temporal lobe, he had an experience similar to the ones described by Apostle Paul. It proves that a strong connection exists between the brain sections stimulated during the seizure and religious beliefs of a person.
Persinger convinces that biologically, all mystical and spiritual experiences are based on the spontaneous stimulation of the temporal lobe area The so-called “God Spot” can be found like that and the person will have visual and auditory hallucinations. In such cases, the increased communication between the left and right temporoparietal areas may cause confusion between the sense of self and the sense of others As a result, a person may feel the presence of God or another supernatural being nearby, hear voices and see flashes of light, etc.
In order to prove his point of view, Persinger conducted an experiment using first-year psychology students and putting special helmets on them. Various parts of their brains were stimulated with magnetic waves and the participants had to press a button in front of them when they felt the presence of a mystical being. The experiment showed that the participants pressed the button every time their temporal lobes had been stimulated. One of the students even reported the out-of-body experience
Thus, temporal lobe epilepsy and stimulation of brain area definitely have connection with people’s mystical experiences. The exact reasons of such connection and the ways such seizures occur are still not perfectly clear to scientists and more researches and experiences should be held in order to understand and explain it properly. Nevertheless, what is clear is the fact that many similarities can be found between experiences of world-known spiritual leaders and prophets and common people who suffer from epileptic seizures. Even when individuals who have experienced such visions and hallucinations receive the logical explanation, they still tend to believe in what they have seen, even though such visions existed only in their minds. It is one of the examples of how belief in a paranormal event can make a person discard all scientific explanations.
Belief in Paranormal Events: Cultural Norms and Values
Another thing that influences the rooted beliefs in paranormal events is cultural norms and values of a person. In case stories about paranormal experiences are embedded in the cultural values shared by the storyteller and the listener, they are more likely to seem believable The manner of telling such stories is also important. It is always possible to notice whether the person believes in what he or she tells or not.
An experiment was held by Professor Ervin Beck, who studied contemporary legends. The experiment demonstrated the way people believed in paranormal events. For instance, one of the participants narrated a story about a place on a road, where accidents occurred due to paranormal activities Throughout the narration, the participant mentioned both rationalistic and supernatural explanations of these accidents, but tended to believe the latter more. She mentioned that the road had a dangerous bend and bad conditions for drivers. In the meantime, she persuaded her listeners that the accidents had occurred due to the ghost that used to appear on this road. Thus, even though she could explain the event from a logical point of view, she still preferred the supernatural one, since it corresponded with her belief system. During her narration she seemed to be having a debate with herself by mentioning bad road conditions and ghost appearances in turn. In any case, the conclusion was single and undoubted: drivers were afraid of that road segment and did their best to avoid driving on it.
Another participant narrated how he had witnessed a ghost once. His narration included phrases like “I could not believe it” and “I know there was something there” Even though the storyteller was scared, he still believed that what he had seen was a ghost and did not consider any logical explanations of the event. The latter could be hallucinations or the game of lights. The narrator had a sincere faith that an unfortunate death of the owner caused haunting of the house or of things that had belonged to him or her and that related to his or her death in some way. Therefore, his belief that what he had seen was what it seemed to him, namely a ghost, was deeply rooted into his perception.
The feature that can be noticed in Beck’s experiment is the fact that the stories told by participants involved such commonly familiar things as roads, old houses, attics and forests Moreover, in some way they often included the members of their families. Perhaps, it provided some realism to the stories and made them more believable for the participants. In addition, such stories usually have both fixed and free elements. If the former remain unchangeable, the latter can be altered or supplemented by the narrator Thus, the combinations of communal and individual experience, as well as the cultural traditions make the stories more believable, even in cases they narrate about paranormal events.
Cultural norms and beliefs have much in common. As Hufford demonstrates, a person’s conclusion about the meaning and value of something he or she has seen is usually in accordance with person’s culture Even when stories about paranormal experiences are private, their justification and development of belief in them should be supported by the society. Thus, the belief systems of the society exert a huge influence on the perception of stories about ghosts, conversations with the dead, etc. Rumors, news and stories that gradually become local legends become an indispensable part of the culture and they leave a significant trace in the minds of people who face them somehow.
Belief in Paranormal Events: Personal Experiences
Paranormal experiences can be roughly divided into two categories. First of all, it is a direct paranormal experience. To compare it with an ordinary experience, it is close to the situation when one comes by his or her friend’s house, sees him sitting on the porch and believes that he is at home. Thus, such kind of experience implies that a witness perceives a supernatural being directly. Such a situation may lead the witness to a choice between “Those are hallucinations” and “This is a ghost” Another category is an interpretive paranormal experience. In an everyday situation, it is similar to coming by a friend’s house, seeing lights turned on in the windows and believing the he is at home. In other words, it is about interpreting something and making a connection, for example, between certain sounds and a ghost to whose activity they might belong.
In his article, Hufford demonstrates an example of a story about the personal paranormal experience of a family. They live in a house they consider haunted. The family has encountered different situations that can be called either direct or interpretive experiences. For instance, they heard sounds, such as steps or a nonexistent doorbell’s ringing, which they attributed to the ghost living in their house. Moreover, they felt the ghost’s presence and saw it. One of the family members even talked to the spirit and understood that he was harmless for them. Another time, she had a more scaring experience with the spirit and in that case she considered him to be a different one, because, as she convinced, the first one could not have done that
The set of stories told by the family members serve as a combined set of their related beliefs. The variety of experiences is organized and presented as a confirmation of such beliefs, which helps people understand them Such beliefs appeared due to different reasons. For instance, the family was told that the former owner of the house had disappeared and he was thought to have been murdered after paying eighteen sheep for the house Afterwards, as they were warned, the house became haunted as the owner was thought to keep visiting it regularly and living in one of the rooms. Thus, this belief came to the family as an oral history and the members accepted it as truthful on the authority of tradition without having any personal awareness of the situation All other beliefs came to them from their own experiences, either direct of interpretive ones.
Background knowledge has much to do with beliefs, as well. For example, if the family did not know what a ghost was even as a notion, most likely they would not see it. In this case, even if they heard strange noises, like footsteps, they would not interpret them as something paranormal. They would attribute them to something familiar and coming from this world. Of course, having a belief and merely being familiar with it are not the same things However, being aware of a certain paranormal activity and its presence in the house can make an important contribution to the belief system and perception of things. It occurs due to the fact that when people encounter something on their way, they create their suggestions about it looking into their accumulated background knowledge and their beliefs. Even though they do not hold a belief but are aware of its existence, it still can be found in their minds and can influence the perception of a strange noise as footsteps of a ghost. For example, not many individuals believe in the existence of vampires but most people heard or read about them and know that they have to use garlic and crucifixion as a protection from them Similarly, even though the family in the haunted house did not have a background experience with ghosts, they had background knowledge that violence and injustice towards a murdered person can cause haunting. Such knowledge, in its turn, contributed to their belief that they heard and saw a ghost.
Many people have irrational reasons to keep believing in certain things. For instance, one of the family members had an utterly unpleasant experience with a ghost, having been paralyzed, pressed and tormented by it at night. Since all the family members already knew that the ghost of their house’s former owner was harmless, the girl attributed her experience to another ghost they had never encountered before. On the other hand, Hufford has a scientific explanation to her experience. She had a “sleep paralysis” which is considered to be an experience of being paralyzed in the presence of a frightening being In this condition, people usually think that they are awake and can see their natural environment in an ordinary way; however, they continue sleeping not being aware of that.
Thus, the belief in ghosts has a great significance in this case. Having this belief, house dwellers attributed all strange noises and occurrences to a ghost that lived in their house. On the other hand, having no such belief, they would explain these experiences differently, in a more rational manner. For instance, noises could be explained as small animals in the attic or children playing a prank and the girl’s experience would be described as a nightmare
Belief in Paranormal Events: Scientific Perspective
The scientific studies of paranormal events began in the end of the 19th century. It coincided with the beginning of the age of energy, when scientists began to investigate radiation, electrical current, radio waves and magnetic fields. Nowadays, it is a well-known fact that the human brain is powered by electricity. The energy it constantly generates is enough to keep a flashlight going It sends electrical impulses to stimulate thoughts or actions. Scientists are sure that paranormal events operate in the similar way as the electrical energy does, and that they can cause phantom-like effects by stimulating the brain with electricity. It this case, a stimulated person gets a feeling that he or she is haunted by a shadowy figure Due to that, scientists demonstrate that ghosts are not paranormal beings but mere biological quirks and electrical misfires in a person’s brain.
Thus, with the research of the supernatural that followed, some scientists even convinced that appearance of ghosts, conversation with the dead and telepathy were achieved “through energy transmissions connecting minds to one another and even to the dead” Incredibly enough, such opinion was confirmed by other scientists persuading that a human brain functions as a receiver that obtains signals at the subconscious level. Further, the appearance of ghosts or other supernatural beings began to be considered a specific energy signal, or a wave, obtained by the brain Such theory was confirmed by an experiment held by Olaf Blanke, a Swiss neuroscientist. He sent an electrical current into a brain region called the angular gyrus using an electrode. Even though this experiment was focused on language processing skills, the scientist obtained an unexpected result. One of the experiment subjects obtained a feeling of someone else’s presence in her bed. This presumably supernatural being was silent and shadowy and it scared the participant. Moreover, the experimenter succeeded to notice that its appearance and disappearance corresponded to the current he sent to the participant’s brain Such experiment persuades that a paranormal experience can be caused by errant electric signals in the brain. Moreover, people often look for an explanation to the experiences that are actually much easier than they think. Often, considering the presence of the background knowledge and experience, such explanation can involve a paranormal activity.
Nevertheless, even such scientific discoveries do not prevent people from believing in supernatural powers, in telepathy, the existence of ghosts and aliens, etc. Some people are convinced that the electric current sent into the brain actually mimic the work “of an equally powerful spirit” Eventually, the results and conclusions of scientific discoveries similar to the abovementioned ones are not accepted by everyone. What is usually more important for people is their personal perception of the world and science often has nothing in common with it. For such people, our world is more interesting and more mysterious if they do not consider scientific discoveries in the field of paranormal experiences.
According to the abovementioned, no activities in the world can be called paranormal. Instead, such activities should be called perinormal. It means that we do not understand these events yet but have a potential to understand them in the future. Therefore, a day will come when everything we encounter will be explained from a scientific point of view. Having a conversation with God is possible due to the stimulation of the temporal lobe. Hearing strange sounds in the house is the result of belief that the house is haunted. Seeing ghosts is the consequence of erroneous electric impulses in our brain. All these explanations seem to be logical and they should leave no trace of doubt preventing people from seeking for other, supernatural explanations.
Nonetheless, even though we are aware of all abovementioned things, we still see people who sincerely believe in the supernatural and, moreover, experience it occasionally. It proves that the scientific perspective cannot explain everything. What should also be considered is a person’s individual perception of the world, his or her psychological characteristics, cultural norms, values, traditions and, what is the most important, beliefs. They are usually based on a person’s background knowledge, background experience and culture. A belief can make an enormous contribution into the life of a person and his or her perception of everything that happens in the world, both normal and paranormal events.
If a person is convinced and deeply believes in the fact that he or she encountered a paranormal activity, even the most elaborate scientific explanation is unlikely to persuade such person that it was merely in his or her brain. As a result, not only science should be considered in explaining the supernatural. It is also necessary to examine the psychological factors existing in human mind and analyze a person’s belief in the event which exerts a great influence on his or her perception and understanding of the phenomenon. Therefore, the topic of paranormal and perinormal events needs further, more detailed studies and experiments.
“Dr. Richard Dawkins – Paranormal or Perinormal?” YouTube video, 1:12:53, posted by Muon Ray, November 12, 2012
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Miller, Karen. “Brain Structure Influences Belief in Paranormal Phenomena.” In Paranormal Phenomena. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008.