Episode Notes for
Getting into the Spirit of Things
Blake Smith: Perhaps a loved one has died and you awake to find them standing by your bed or you pass a mirror and see a face you don’t recognize; you look again and it’s gone. A photograph shows a blurry human shape that no one saw when it was being taken. Ghosts, spirits, shadow people, poltergeists. MonsterTalk is going to take a look at a lot of these phenomena over several episodes. Tonight we start by talking about the core premise behind spirits; the idea that our personality and identity can exist beyond the death of our body; our guest, neurologist and skeptic, Dr. Steven Novella.
Blake: Welcome to MonsterTalk! This episode marks our first discussion of ghosts or spirits or maybe just things that go bump in the night. I’m Blake Smith, and together with Ben Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer, and Dr. Karen Stollznow, skeptic blogger and host of Point of Inquiry, we talk about monsters. And though they cross themselves every time they hear us say it, we’re brought to you by the fine folks at Skeptic magazine. We’ll be going into depth on many topics related to ghosts in future episodes, but tonight we get started with some discussion of spirits or ghosts, oh…you’ll hear what I’m talking about.
Blake: Ghosts. Let’s talk about ghosts for a few minutes.
Karen Stollznow: Let’s.
Ben Radford: Who’s our guest tonight, Blake?
Blake: Our guest tonight is Dr. Steve Novella.
Karen: How is he a specialist on ghosts?
Blake: No, he’s not. What he is a specialist is on brains. There’s this sort of idea that’s out there that ghosts are the continuing consciousnesses of dead people.
Ben: Conscious eye, I believe.
Blake: Conscious eye? Is that right? It’s the mind and will of a dead person manifesting itself through the spiritual realm. The question is, is there anything in neuroscience, which suggests that the mind or the consciousness can exist outside of the brain?
Karen: I guess we need to differentiate between spirits and ghosts.
Blake: Sure. Let’s do that.
Karen: …because, to my mind, a ghost is a vision or a manifestation of some kind and a spirit is meant to be the soul or some sort of animated entity that can interact, whereas, I think, some ghosts repeatedly can, but then others just repeat a particular incident like a videotape over and over again.
Blake: The haunting kind of thing.
Ben: Residual haunting.
Karen: Residual haunting, yes, energy imprints and things like that.
Blake: This probably won’t make the show, but having known so many people and what they do with their lives, it’s surprising that residual hauntings aren’t mostly guys masturbating over and over again, I mean, if you do the things you do in life.
Karen: Now, why wouldn’t this make the show?
Ben: Is this getting a little too personal, Blake? Some guy I know…
Blake: This guy that I heard about, if he haunted his basement, there’ll be ghost tissue everywhere.
Ben: He’d be spanking it.
Ben: I was having a discussion with a religious friend of mine; I was trying to understand her understanding of God and what that meant to her, of course, this is one those topics you shouldn’t really get into with your religious friends, but she mentioned that the idea that God watching her all the time, including when she masturbated, didn’t really bother her. What freaked her out was the possibility that there were ghosts that were in the room when she was, you know; I thought that was an interesting distinction for her.
Karen: I’ve heard similar things from religious friends, too. I’m talking about the idea of their grandparents watching them masturbate or something like that. I guess that’s sort of born in morals and fear and socialization of religion.
Blake: That idea that the dead are watching us, some people find great comfort in that. Oh, I was so close to having an opportunity to ask at Dragon Con, I guess two years ago, there was the skeptics versus believers debate and one of the panelists, Ben was on the panel, one of the other panelists was someone from the Catholic Atlanta archdiocese, I think; I don’t remember his name, and I stood in line to ask a question. I was going to ask him how he reconciles the idea of ghosts with the idea that, when we die, we’re judged and we either go to heaven or hell or purgatory. It seems a little weird that somehow dead people can somehow fail to find their way to heaven or hell or where ever they are supposed to go and get lost and wander around. There’s so many ghost shows and ghost people who go out and try to help people to the other side, which, to me, it seems like they’re cribbing right out of Poltergeist the movie. That idea that ghosts are just stuck here and just need a little bit of help getting to the other side; there’s so much that I find wrong with that. The idea that we, as people who are not dead, have any special insight that we could provide to dead people on how to behave…
Karen: I thought that was more the idea of spirits, again, being earthbound and needing some sort of assistance to crossover and I thought ghosts were, again, just apparitions or repetitions of events.
Blake: So you’re suggesting, if I understand you, that I should stop calling them ghosts; that those are spirits. They’re separate things altogether.
Karen: In, I guess, paranormal theory, yes.
Blake: Ok, how do I distinguish between something I see at night, like if I see an entity at the end of my bed that looks like a dead relative: spirit or ghost?
Karen: Ghost because that’s an apparition of some kind.
Blake: Ok, if I don’t see it, but I get the sense that I’m being watched by my dead relative?
Karen: I guess that would be a spirit, but they can interact with you; you might hear a voice or you might smell a scent, maybe your grandmother’s perfume or something like that, and that would be a spirit.
Ben: To my mind those are sort of artificial distinctions. Karen’s right that, in the ghost literature, there’s all sorts of people. I’ve read books where they say; these are the six categories of ghosts. And they list them off as if there was any sort of arbitrary distinction between them. They’ll talk of residual hauntings and they’ll talk about this and they’ll talk about that, neglecting to mention, with the big asterisk, that there’s no proof of any of this. You can categorize them however you want. You can say there’s 24 hours in a day or you can say there’s 23 hours in a day. It’s ultimately arbitrary.
Karen: Yeah, as I said, this is paranormal theory and their taxonomy is not necessarily ours; these are just folklore.
Blake: Is their taxonomy clearly…um…what’s the right word?
Ben: Based in reality?
Blake: Does it have a lexicography that’s established and accepted across the board?
Karen: I think, by and large, there really is and, I think, they are distinct concepts in the minds of people who believe in these thing. I think that they’ve made these distinctions to be able to talk about these things in specific ways. I think they are totally separate things. Then you’ve got poltergeists, as well, so lots of different categories of ghosts; I guess, overall, you could call them entities as a sort of an overarching term.
Blake: And we’re still talking mostly about Western-style ghosts.
Karen: That’s right. We’re talking about the culture with which we’re familiar.
Blake: The ghosts of other cultures can be very different. There’s the whole idea of the Asian…I shouldn’t even say Asian…the Japanese, they have ghost money; they try to help dead relatives with ghost money. These are all spiritual/quasi-religious ideas.
Karen: Yes, a lot of crossover there.
Blake: When asked as a skeptic, if I don’t believe in ghosts…and let just say, although I don’t believe in ghosts, there were times in my life when I did, or spirits. And of all the beliefs I questioned as a skeptic, there’s absolutely none I would rather be true than the continued existence of consciousness after death; that would just be wicked cool. That being said, since I don’t believe, how do I accept the lexicography and vocabulary of ghosts, according to these people, when, as Ben said, I can’t clearly in my mind make that distinction myself. The untrue thing here is different than the untrue thing there by this artificial distinction. That’s sort of a philosophical question not an attack on them. How as skeptics do we reconcile that because, if we’re having a conversation with people we hope would listen to us, we certainly seem to have an obligation to at least understand what they are talking about and you’re right there.
Karen: I think we’d use definitions for beliefs rather than encyclopedic definitions.
Blake: Good answer. I like that. Right on.
Karen: Thank you, sir.
Ben: There’s a point in which it’s very often useful to just begin the conversation by saying, when you say ghost, what do you mean? I’ve had conversations with ghost believers where we’re twenty minutes into the conversation and it finally becomes clear to me that they don’t believe that ghosts are the spirits of the dead; they believe that ghosts are, say, telepathic projections; that they’re actually phenomena that are created in the mind and projected outwards. Of course, I wasn’t using that definition all along and so, at some point, I often found it useful to sort of, gee, just so we’re all on the same page here. You could spend all night debating what is a ghost and everyone is going to have their own little variations usually. That’s one of the things that I find most interesting about ghost investigations is the wide variety of phenomena that are claimed for a ghost, but also just what people think it is. I can think of a half dozen very different definitions.
Karen: I think in the same way where I’ve dealt with psychics who I’ve referred to them as a psychic and they’ve said, no, I’m an intuitive or I’m a sensitive. These are different definitions and, I guess, before we, as you say Ben, before we tackle these with anyone, we need to ask their definition; what do they mean? I guess we’ll start off by asking Steve that, too.
Ben: Hopefully, we won’t come across as too skeptical for him. (12:26)
Blake: Tonight we have Dr. Steve Novella. He’s a clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He’s the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society. He’s a prolific blogger whose work can be regularly found on NeuroLogica, Science-Based Medicine, and the SGU Rogues Gallery. And speaking of SGU, he’s also the host of the popular Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, as well as the short-form podcast, SGU 5x5. And, apparently, he still has a day job, all of which suggests science has, in fact, perfected cloning. So I ask you, Dr. Novella, you’re in a desert walking along in the sand when, all of a sudden, you look down and you see a tortoise. You reach down and you flip the tortoise over on it’s back…[crickets]…you seen Blade Runner?
Steve Novella: I have and it sounds familiar, but I forget the exact reference.
Blake: [deflated] It’s the Voight-Kampff test. I’m just checking to make sure you’re not a Replicant.
Steve: I see, I see.
Ben: I thought this was a Choose Your Own Adventure or something.
Blake: Yes, turn to page 237…
Karen: Yeah, we didn’t rehearse this.
Blake: No, we didn’t
Blake: We called you on tonight to talk about ghosts. You’ve been working with the New England Skeptical Society for a long time and I’ve heard you talk about New England as ghost country. How prevalent is ghost belief up in New England?
Steve: You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a ghost hunter in Connecticut. Ed and Lorraine Warren, I think, really got the whole ghost-hunting genre started decades ago, thirty, forty years ago; they made a career out of it. They held classes where they would train people to be ghost hunters and they spun off dozens or score of separate groups. After a couple of months, everyone figured, “hey, I could do this.” There’s no actual skill or knowledge involved, so they just started up their own ghost hunting groups. So they’re all over the place.
Blake: Do you make a distinction between spirits and ghosts? We just had a big discussion about the vocabulary of ghost hunting, the vocabulary of ghost belief.
Steve: They make up a lot of terms to make themselves sound like they know what they’re talking about so you could make distinction between spirits and ghost and entities and poltergeists and demons and whatever, but it’s all just made-up stuff. It’s sometimes inspired by mythology or folklore, but it’s often just artificially manufactured categories. Since none of them really exist, it’s hard to have any sort of legitimate categorization.
Blake: That sounds very skeptical.
Ben: It sounds very much like a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Steve: It’s kind of pointless when the premise is flawed, right?
Blake: Baptists clearly show us angels don’t dance. It’s a trick question.
Karen: How do feel about the surge of paranormal television shows that have appeared in the last few years?
Steve: I think that these things are going to come and go. I don’t know that it’s any sort of disturbing trend; it’s just riding on the coattails of reality TV. Ghost hunting reality TV is kind of a match made in heaven, if you will. That’s what I think is responsible for the phenomenon. In a way, you know, it could be a good thing in that, how long can you watch a show about ghost hunting where nothing happens? You’re never going to find a ghost and, so far, in all these ghost hunting reality shows, nobody’s found anything; all they do is go around scaring each other. I wonder if that’s going to backfire a little bit, if eventually people will get bored of that sort of thing.
Karen: Well, I think they’re perpetrating hoaxes instead to actually have something to show on TV otherwise, as you say; it’s quite bland viewing.
Ben: That being said, Ghost Hunters is in season six now, so someone’s watching that thing for six years.
Steve: Well, it’s cheap to make those kinds of shows. You have a lot of cable channels; it’s a really cheap way to fill airtime. I think there’s probably a revolving audience; people go to it to check it out. I’m sure there’s also a dedicated audience that, for some reason I cannot fathom, wants to watch that week after week. Think about it this way, we could now say, after years and years of these ghost shows, what have they found? Nothing. I mean, this is a sloppy experiment, but it’s an on-going experiment with negative results.
Blake: Except that most of them don’t make that presentation; they imply they’ve found something. Their whole premise is built on, I guess, the ghost-of-the-gaps, right? Something mysterious happened and they have it recorded; they can’t explain it, so, you know.
Steve: It’s all a massive exercise in anomaly hunting. That’s what they do; that’s all that they do. They look for things that are superficially anomalous; they can’t immediately explain it. And then they declare whatever anomalies they encounter to be ghosts. That’s it. That’s all they got. They don’t have any basic science to predict what they should be finding; they don’t have any predictions that they can test scientifically. They don’t explore alternative hypotheses; it’s just, what was that cold spot or that flicker or that noise or that anomaly, whatever; it’s a ghost. That’s it.
Ben: It’s interesting you bring that up because a couple of days ago I was reading one of the ghost hunter’s books, I think it’s just called, Ghost Hunting, and it has a chapter, and I use the word chapter very loosely, on the science behind ghost hunting. The book itself is 263 pages…
Blake: Which is long for a pop-up book…
Ben: …and I noticed that the section on the science of ghost hunting is four paragraphs.
Karen: What do they say?
Ben: It’s Jason Hawes and he just gives a sort of a thumbnail sketch; science is about testing. Ok. And then four paragraphs later it’s on to Case 42 in 1997. It was remarkable to me that for a ghost-hunting television show and group that makes such a production out of how scientific they are, there’s virtually no discussion of that in their book. That meets up with exactly what you were saying.
Steve: Yeah, that’s all they could scrape together was a few paragraphs. They clearly don’t understand the process of science. It really is pseudo-science; it’s absolutely classic for pseudo-science. They’re sort of going through the motions, but they don’t understand the nature of hypothesis testing at all. They don’t really even understand the nature of the equipment that they’re using, how to use it properly, what the results mean, what it means to have a test for something. They basically make every amateurish mistake there is to make in science.
Blake: I have to wonder if the beliefs of what’s not a religion, I guess, in sort of ghost hunting, could someday turn into a religion. Obviously, certain religions already have a veneration of the dead, but the way they’re using the equipment now, could you see a time, I know you can’t see the future, but could you see a time when they’re using EMF detectors the same way that Scientology uses E-meters and it becomes something more codified?
Steve: I don’t know how codified it will become, I think there is already a significant overlap. I certainly have encounters with many ghost hunters, investigating local groups based in Connecticut, and they’re very faith-based. They say flat out, at times, that you have to have faith in order to do what they do. There was one group that refused to have us along on an investigation because they thought that our negative, skeptical vibes would put us in danger. Not that it would ruin the results, but we would be at risk because we didn’t have faith to protect us from whatever demons we would be encountering. They also tend to get involved with exorcism and demonic possession and those types of things, which are overtly religious, even working with, not Catholic, but with priests or ministers who do exorcisms. So it’s already a religion; it really isn’t scientific, as we said. Where it will evolve, again, I don’t think anyone can say at this point.
Blake: You actually raised one of the questions I was going to ask, which is, how common is that tie of religion to the searches? Paranormal State, which is one of the shows I loath yet keep track of, they frequently find, well, it’s not a ghost, but a demon. I’m not sure how you can make that distinction between when I don’t know what it is and another I don’t know what it is. At least on their show, I guess, they think they’re doing something nice because they’re cleansing or they’re doing a ritual or they’re doing something quasi-religious, quasi-magical to try to drive away the entity, whatever it is. I think they think they’re helping people, but I’m not so sure that they are. What are your thoughts on that?
Steve: I think they do a lot of harm, actually. If someone really believes that their house is haunted to the point where it’s disrupting their life and they’re going to call in the ghost hunters to help them out; this is not a casual believer; this is not somebody who is just curious or who finds the whole thing entertaining; it’s probably part of their belief system. They’re very ripe for exploitation, whether innocent or deliberate. One possible harm is that you may be playing into an actual delusion. I have investigated cases where I thought that the clients or victims, however you want to perceive them, were, frankly, delusional, like they needed psychiatric attention. The worst thing you could do in a situation like that is say, you know what, your delusions are actually real. That’s like absolutely the worst thing you could possibly do, but that’s exactly what they did. They then would do the cleansing or the exorcism or whatever. There’s always a temporary response; you play into someone’s delusion, they’re going to respond according to the script and the script is, when you have the exorcism, the spirit gets driven away; but it always comes back. You actually didn’t do anything or accomplish anything except reinforce the belief or reinforce the delusion and make the problem even worse. You didn’t address the underlying problem, which was a rather fixed belief in something superstitious or magical that’s not real, but yet is disruptive.
Blake: I think from personal experience, I like having a real answer rather than a temporary patch, if you will. I know Ben’s done a case where he investigated and provided a resolution that was based in reality for the people who were experiencing the haunting.
Karen: But what if they don’t want to listen to that?
Blake: Well, that was what I was going to say. It’s seems tricky to me to balance helping them out of a situation if, assuming they’re not delusional, but they’re experiencing something odd, to help them out of that without coming in and saying, I know there’s no ghosts because there’s no such thing as ghosts; for people who find comfort in the idea of continued human consciousness…
Steve: You can approach that as a professional would, I mean, I’m a physician, we don’t confront people’s believe systems; it’s not my job as someone’s doctor to confront their faith or believe system at all. I do just address the factual claims that are within the scope of my profession, so you could certainly say, we’d not confront their believe in an afterlife or even in ghosts or spirits, just to address the very specific phenomenon that you see before you and tell them, well, this time it was a loose shutter or whatever was making the noise and that’s it. Who knows what ripple effect that might have; you can never predict, you really can’t force feed people things like this, but, you know, it may plant the seed of doubt and they may think next time maybe there’s a mundane explanation, too; maybe not everything is supernatural. If, again, if they are highly invested in that belief system, there’s nothing you can do about anyway, but at least you could address their temporary problem.
Karen: My concern is that, if they don’t receive that confirmation bias, then they will just go to another group and they will come through and give them an explanation that they want to hear and to give them some sort of resolution.
Steve: That’s true. They may, in fact, do that. At least you haven’t done any harm. You’ve done your role appropriately and didn’t contribute to the situation. If they decide to completely ignore you and then go to the next ghost hunter whose going to give them the answer they want to hear, that’s out of your control, right?
Ben: Well, Steve, following up exactly on that, speaking of ghost believers, who have done some serious harm, you’ve worked with Ed and Lorraine Warren. Can you give us some background on them?
Steve: Yeah, that’s a very long and interesting story. They were a very interesting couple; Ed Warren passed away a few years ago; Lorraine is still around. This is sort of a classic combination where Lorraine was a self-proclaimed clairvoyant or psychic, so she would walk into a house and then her “scientific instrument” was to just take a psychic impression; she would feel whether or not there was a spirit there and whether it was a demon or a ghost or whatever. Ed portrayed himself as more of the scientific investigator. I found it very, very amusing to watch the dramatizations of them and their work on TV or in the movies because, when you know them personally, they’re nothing like that image; that sort of fake Hollywood image that gets made of them. Ed was a very simple guy, you know, very unsophisticated, and this was his livelihood; this was the thing that got him up in the morning. He clearly liked being at the center and having these interesting stories to tell. To his credit, he parlayed it into a career. He wouldn’t know a scientific experiment if he tripped over it; he really knew absolutely nothing about science. He wanted validation, though; he really wanted our validation of what he was doing. At the time, we were a self-formed, local skeptical group, but he desperately wanted us to validate his evidence and was very unhappy when we reported on it unfavorably. At the same time, we talked to a lot of people, we encountered a lot of people who thought that Ed and Lorraine didn’t treat them well; that they committed hoaxes or frauds whether to get a lot of money out of an old woman who wanted to talk to her dead husband or just a “pious” fraud where, when they take their students to a house, Ed maked sure that’s there’s some anomaly that they run into. It was a very fun experience for us and we came away from it with a lot of nuggets about how to approach these things and how ghost hunting groups operate in their belief systems; very, very antithetical to science. It was really interesting, they were very hostile to science, but, at the same time, wanted the validation of science, but, of course, just were not going to get it.
Ben: And Lorraine is still active, isn’t she?
Steve: Yeah, she’s still giving lectures. I don’t know how much their old activities in terms of like classes and investigations that she’s doing. They always were surrounded with the current group of people that they were training in the craft of ghost hunting. It was like revolving door; it was always a different group whenever you went by, but they always had a few people surrounding them.
Ben: Last year I did an investigation for the show, MysteryQuest, outside of Los Angeles, and the team that they pulled together included a demonologist. When I saw that on the call sheet, ok, that will be interesting. Well, it turns out, he is Ed’s nephew. He was quite proud of the fact; he couldn’t tell me enough times how he had trained at the knee of Ed Warren. It was all I could do to bite my tongue; well, that’s good, we’ll see what ghosts you’ll find.
Steve: We had a laugh at that too. Ed would always present himself as a demonologist, as if that means something, just sort of a self-titled thing. He had his pre-packaged set of folklore that was his replacement for actually knowledge, but, again, very classic pseudo-science, just all the superficial trappings, but none of the substance.
Blake: We brought you on because you are a neurologist and I thought you might be well qualified to discuss one of the principle philosophical and scientific questions behind the whole idea of, I’m going to have to say spirits because Karen keeps correcting me when I say ghosts, but the idea that human consciousness can survive without the brain, outside of the brain, after the brain; I guess, dualism, if you will.
Steve: Yeah, philosophers call that dualism as sort of a broad category; there are many different types of dualism, but they all involve something other the physical properties, the physical action of the brain, being completely and totally responsible for what we experience as consciousness or mental function. There’s something else that could be completely non-physical, like a spirit; it could be something else that’s physical, but not understood that’s just beyond a reductionist approach to brain function. There’s the whole spectrum or just something mysterious that we have no idea what it is, but something decidedly non-physical and not the brain. I think that the position of most neuroscientists is that we’ve come quite a long way in figuring out how the brain, in fact, does cause consciousness. We certainly know that it causes consciousness and we have a lot of information about the kind of processes that produce consciousness. We don’t know everything, of course, and there are still certain aspects of brain function that relate to consciousness. Not all brain function contributes to consciousness; some brain processes are subconscious and exactly what the difference is, why is your cortex conscious and your cerebellum is not conscious, we really can’t say that; that’s something that has yet to be discovered. But not knowing exactly how the brain generates consciousness doesn’t mean that we can’t be relatively certain that it, in fact, does. Everyway you choose to ask the question, if the brain is 100% responsible for consciousness, what would we predict from that hypothesis? Well, we would predict that if you turn off the brain, you turn off consciousness; if you damage the brain, you damage the consciousness; if you pharmacologically alter the brain, you alter consciousness. That’s exactly what we see; that there’s this very close correlation between brain function and consciousness. There’s also no evidence, now, of course, people who believe in the paranormal will dispute this, but I maintain and many others maintain that, when you look at it, there’s really no evidence for any mental phenomenon outside of brain function. So until there is, dualism, I think, is dead in the water. The only thing that the philosophers that are still putting it forward, like David Chalmers and others, have to turn to, in my opinion, is this sort of God-of-the-Gaps argument that we don’t fully understand how the brain causes consciousness therefore there must be something else, but I think that’s a logical fallacy. There doesn’t have to be something else; there’s just a gap in our current understanding.
Blake: That’s completely consistent with what I’ve heard. I think you summed up, let’s call it the believer’s side, in a nutshell; if science can’t explain it, then there’s still room for it to be something supernatural. Have you heard this position that consciousness exists outside the brain and the brain is just like an anchor point? I’m not really sure what that’s all about.
Steve: The brain-as-antenna.
Blake: There you go. The brain-as-antenna.
Steve: That’s a special pleading argument that’s designed to explain why brain function correlates with cognitive function so much. Say, well, that part of the brain isn’t causing that phenomenon, it’s just receiving it. So, of course, if you alter it, then you’re going to be losing that part of the signal and then, therefore, that’s why changing the brain will change consciousness. That doesn’t really hold water. First of all, it’s an unnecessary hypothesis. I likened it to saying that there’s an invisible fairy sitting in my light switch and, whenever I flip the switch, he makes the connection to turn on the light bulb. It’s a completely unnecessary, un-falsifiable step that you don’t have to interject. Ockham’s Razor comes in at some point; well, if I can explain everything I see with just saying the light switch opens and closes the circuit, I don’t need the invisible fairy there to do it. The brain-as-antenna is the same way; it’s a special pleading argument in order to explain why the brain correlates with consciousness, but the simpler explanation is that the brain correlates with consciousness because it’s causing it; it’s not just correlating with it. I also think the other argument that shoots down the brain-as-antenna form of dualism is where the arrow of causation goes. The brain-as-antenna, the arrow of causation goes from the mind to the brain and, with the neuroscience position, the arrow of causation goes from the brain to the mind. We can test that because, if you alter the brain, we’re not talking about destroying it or turning it off, but if we just alter the function of the brain, that changes the content of consciousness; it doesn’t just remove parts of consciousness, it can actually alter it. If you make the analogy between a TV and the program that the TV is showing, there’s nothing I can do to a television to change the story of a television show that I’m watching. I can change the channels, I can change the reception, I can drop out one of the colors, I can do things like that, but I can’t make a drama into a comedy; that’s at the other end.
Blake: Yet beer can. Right?
Steve: You can do the analogous thing to consciousness. You can use pharmacology, for example, to change the nature of consciousness itself; the way it functions and is put together to alter consciousness in a way that is just not analogous to receiving some kind of signal from the outside. So it’s both unnecessary and doesn’t really fit the full breadth of evidence that we have.
Karen: And, Steve, there’s a simple analogy out there that the mind is software and the brain is hardware. What do you think of the metaphor?
Steve: It’s not a bad metaphor as long as you are not trying to make a dualist argument. It does breakdown in that the mind really is hardware; it is what the brain does. We may use that as a somewhat sloppy shorthand when we are thinking about contributions to neurological function from the hardwiring of your brain and the biochemistry of the brain versus your experiences, knowledge and belief, you know, the kind of things that the brain will have experienced over time. When neuroscientists use the hardware-software analogy, they’re making that distinction. I wouldn’t extend it to the software being something other than stuff that’s happening in the neurons themselves, in the brain itself.
Blake: Have you read that book, On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins?
Steve: I have not, no.
Blake: He’s the creator of the PalmPilot and Handspring and I guess he stopped doing hardware development and software development to go learn to be something of a neuroscientist; he went back to college. Basically he wanted to develop a theory of intelligence because he didn’t feel that you could a good theory of artificial intelligence until you could really explain what intelligence is. It’s a really interesting book and I’m dying to hear someone who actually has a neuroscience background’s opinion on the book because, frankly, I’m not educated enough in that area to figure out if he’s right or not, but it’s a very interesting book.
Steve: Yeah, it sounds interesting; I’ll add it to my growing stack of books.
Blake: Yeah, yeah, exactly. There’s an audio book. The good thing about you and the audio book, you don’t need the pictures like I do.
Steve: I certainly have read a lot about that notion of the relationship between, and I’ve written about this as well on Neurologic, it’s a very interesting topic, the notion that, as we try to develop artificial intelligence, that that research program is occurring in parallel to the program to basically understand how the brain works; to reverse engineer the brain. Those two research programs, which are occurring in parallel, side by side, are increasingly feeding off of each other. We can learn about the brain by trying to build a digital model of it and then that also teaches us about how we might go about creating artificial intelligence. I do think that we probably, when we do achieve something…obviously we have forms of AI, but we have human level AI, the kind of thing we would really think of as being conscious and aware, I think that the shortest path to that is going to be duplicating the hardware of the human brain or a primate brain or some kind of vertebrate brain. We will probably create artificial intelligence before we fully understand how it functions, but then that will be a tremendous research model. We’re getting really good at manipulating the biological brain in order to study how it works. Imagine if we had fully rendered digital model of the human brain and could do anything we wanted to it; that would be such a boon to neuroscience. So these are very natural research programs that will definitely feed off of each other and they are and they will increasingly do so over time.
Ben: Along the same lines, as you know, one of the claims of some ghost hunters is that electromagnetic fields or EMFs, can cause hallucinations and maybe possibly creating ghost experiences. I think there was some research by Persinger; do you know of any good evidence for this or is this sort of more pseudo-science.
Steve: I wouldn’t call it pseudo-science; I think it’s speculative at this point. It’s not unreasonable. We can, in fact, use electromagnetic waves to either increase or decrease the functioning of different parts of the brain and, if you do that to parts of the frontotemporal lobe, for example, you might, in fact, induce out-of-body experiences; so that much is not implausible. It has to be focused and in a certain frequency to have this effect. It seems unlikely that environmental electromagnetic fields would be fine-tuned just enough to cause this effect. So I can’t say that it’s impossible; it’s an interesting idea; I just don’t think it’s terribly plausible. At present, while we can certainly duplicate it in a lab, I’m not aware of any evidence to suggest that it actually happens out there in the world.
Ben: Right. Because there’s obviously a big distinction between instigating hallucinations or odd feelings in very specified, intentional effect and, for example, saying that somebody who sits in front of a computer is being exposed to EMFs and that might cause them because, as you said, environmental ones are everywhere.
Steve: They’re everywhere; they’re not nearly as powerful as the ones we’re using in the lab and, again, it has to be really focused and at specific frequency so it’s just not really plausible you’re going to get it sitting in front of a computer screen.
Blake: It does seem to explain that you can create these effects from within the brain without having to have a ghost.
Steve: Oh, yeah, that much has been clearly established. We can produce these effects with pharmacological agents, you know, hallucinogens, that’s basically what they do; sleep deprivation, oxygen deprivation can produce these effects, it could certainly happen in the course of a cardiac arrest, for example, and is plausibly responsible for out-of-body experiences and so-called near death experiences. These happen sometimes in people spontaneously, but they can certainly be provoked and, as I said, now we can do it pretty reliably in the lab with electromagnetic fields; transcranial magnetic stimulation is the specific technique. There are parts of brain that subserve these functions. We know there’s a part of your brain that makes you feel as if you’re inside your body that makes you feel you’re a distinct, separate entity from the rest of the universe. If we disrupt these parts of the brain, you could feel as if you’re floating above your body or that you’re looking at yourself from behind your body or that you are one with the universe or you may interpret that in different ways. Sometimes people interpret that in line with their metaphysics and their belief system; they may feel they are one with God or one with nature, or whatever. People have these experiences sometimes when they have seizures; other people will have them when they use hallucinogens. It’s absolutely a brain phenomenon that is well described and we actually have a pretty good working model now of the actual neuro-anatomy that subserves it, so it’s not really that mysterious anymore.
Karen: Do you think that neuroscience can explain ghost sightings?
Steve: Well, yeah. I think that there’s a host of neurological phenomena that can contribute to people believing they have seen ghosts. There are visual allusions, visual hallucinations, there are these other more profound neurological phenomena like out-of-body experiences, etc. There’s also a host of sleep phenomena such as hypnagogia or hypnagogic hallucinations, which I’ve actually had myself. I can tell you they can be very profound experiences that usually involve the perception of an entity in the room with you. We know from neurological disorders. Also 15% of the “normal” population, without a specific sleep disorder, can have these types of sleep associated hallucinations where they perceive that they’re paralyzed, that there may be an entity sitting on top of their chest, or there’s a malevolent entity in the room with them. If the brain can produce that experience completely internally, and we know it can occur with certain disease states like narcolepsy and we can actually stop them from happening with medication, that’s a lot of evidence to say this is an internal brain phenomenon. When a similar experience happens, we have a very plausible explanation at hand that this is just a neurological phenomenon.
Karen: Can you tell us about your experience?
Steve: It happens when I am sleep deprived. I spent four or five years of my life being sleep deprived during my medical training. When I was an intern and a resident, I would have to work forty or so hours at a time. When I finally did get to sleep after being awake for more than twenty-four hours or so, I would almost invariably have a hypnagogic hallucination where I would sort of drift in and out of being sort of pseudo awake…it really is a merger of being awake and being asleep; it was hard for me to tell if I was awake or asleep. I would often, like over and over, try to get out of bed and just dream that I got out of bed, but I thought I was awake when I actually wasn’t. When I did try to wake myself, I would be paralyzed. At times I had kind of like a night-terror experience where I felt there was a malevolent entity in the room with me. Just imagine believing that just out of the corner of your eye, there is something malevolent, but you are paralyzed and you can’t turn to look at it or even make a sound to maybe alert somebody else there is a problem. It’s a very terrifying experience. It hasn’t happened to me actually in a long time; it only happens when I’m very sleep deprived.
Ben: Well, given your work schedule, I’m surprised that’s not all the time.
Steve: Well, even though I have a pretty hectic work schedule, I don’t have to take call anymore; I don’t have to stay up for thirty-six hours straight anymore.
Ben: You would probably see more ghosts if you did. You mentioned a couple of the ghost investigations; about how many have you done and what sort of cases were they?
Steve: I think we did a dozen cases or so all around the Connecticut area. Often we were called in by acquaintances or like a friend of a friend kind of thing who knew that we did this to investigate a home that somebody believed was haunted, so we spent a few nights in houses; nothing ever happened. One funny thing that happened was one of the people claimed, who thought the house may be haunted, that the lights would go on and off by themselves and we discovered the lights were on a timer switch.
Ben: Way to go, Sherlock.
Steve: That was an easy one. There were a couple of radio shows that hooked us up with a local ghost hunting group and then had us all go into a haunted house, you know, a skeptic and a believer. Of course, nothing happened whenever the skeptics were there, but whenever we were out of the room, the ghost hunters would see stuff, but it was all just their subjective reports of things. And I reviewed a number of exorcisms. There were a couple of groups very active in Connecticut doing exorcisms and I looked at hours and hours of videotape and also got directly involved in a few cases.
Blake: It seems like a lot skeptics have become skeptical activists because of sort of the web 2.0 and Facebook and all the social networking tools out there. And I’ve heard so many of them want to go on a ghost hunt. They’ve learned a few things from reading or listening to podcasts and they want to go out there and do something, you know.
Steve: Yeah, do it.
Blake: I was going to say, do you have any advice?
Steve: Yeah, just do it. It’s a lot of fun. I’m not against armchair skepticism. I know like Joe Nickell and other guys who fulltime are investigating stuff like this; that’s great. I’m not critical of armchair skepticism; I do a lot of it; I think there’s an absolute role for it. All scientists do this. Whenever one scientist reads a paper describing the research of another scientist and critiques it, he’s doing armchair skepticism; that’s part of the scientific process. But you do learn a lot when you actually go into the field and see what people are actually doing because you’ll be amazed; it’s a lot dumber than you think it is. My friends and I were perpetually amazed at how much more stupid the whole process was than we ever imagined. We gave it far more credit than it really deserved. We went to one alleged haunted place where a group that we were working with was doing EVP, Electronic Voice Phenomena, and they were interpreting the traffic out in the street or, at one point in time, I think a mobile or something dangling from the ceiling started to move on its own, but the fan came on. There are things that you pick up on when you’re in the room that you wouldn’t necessarily think of if you’re just taking second-hand report and trying to figure it out from your den. You essentially lose a lot of respect for the gullible ghost hunters or EVP hunters or whatever when you actually see them in action because it’s hard for you to imagine how childishly silly it all is until you see it firsthand.
Karen: Did you actually correct them in engaging outreach?
Steve: Oh, yeah. We would burn our way through them very quickly because, as soon as we started giving them an honest assessment of the evidence that they were so impressed with, they lost interest in us very, very quickly. But we would get a few good investigations out of them and then they would basically, once they realized that we were not be impressed with their evidence, they decided we weren’t worth it anymore. But we got what we wanted, right? We got a good story out of it.
Blake: It’s always so important, I think, for people to look at what the actual claims are. I see it again and again and again people trying to find out who died at the place or how can we explain this; let’s start with who is the ghost, not is there a ghost. It’s just so odd.
Steve: Right, right. Yeah, then, of course, they start to tell stories about the ghost in life, as if that’s supposed to be impressive. And then they find out, when you investigate it, that the details match the stories they were spinning. So, of course, they’re doing a little bit of retrofitting, but also, you could have just investigated it ahead of time and figured out those details, right? These are things that obviously you were able to dig up with a little bit of investigation. Who’s to say that you didn’t know that information before you got in front of the cameras and started saying these details about the ghost. So it’s not really evidence because it’s not a controlled situation.
Karen: A bit of hot reading.
Steve: Yeah, yeah, exactly. It’s easy to do cold reading, but they sometimes can do hot reading as well; they can cheat. I guess it’s good reality television, but it’s not science.
Blake: As a neurologist this may have up, there’s a sort of thing I’ve noticed, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so, that at nighttime I’m more susceptible to supernatural-type thoughts than during the day.
Steve: The heebie-jeebies?
Blake: Yeah, that kind of thing. What’s causing that? It’s not just because it’s dark outside, right, or is it?
Steve: No, I think it is, I think it is the dark. I get the heebie-jeebies. It’s subconscious; it’s instinct. I certainly can also tell myself there’s actually nothing to be afraid of, but the emotion is raw and it’s just there. If you’re alone in a scary environment in the dark, you suddenly start to look over your shoulder, you’re aware of things. It’s easy to envision this as a survival instinct and we know from primate research that fear of the dark seems to be instinctual in most primates, so it’s not a stretch to think that it would be in humans, as well. Make absolute sense. We evolved in an environment where there really were monsters in the dark behind the grass and being instinctively afraid of that was probably a huge survival advantage.
Blake: It’s a bit hard to tow the MRI out to the graveyard and sort of see what’s going on in the mind out there. Have you seen any studies looking at that sort of fear state, the irrational fear state?
Steve: There have been fMRI and other types of studies showing people images that are meant to evoke either disgust or fear or violence and you can use that in order to see which parts of brain light up. I haven’t, and this probably because it doesn’t exist for practical reasons, seen anything in the field or in the graveyard; maybe when this stuff gets more portable we can do those kinds of studies. There absolutely have been fMRI studies looking at which parts of the brain light up in reaction to emotional stimuli including fearful or violent stimuli.
Ben: Do you have any upcoming projects or anything you guys are working on that will be surfacing in the coming weeks and months?
Steve: We’re pretty busy with our core work; the podcasts, The Skeptics Guide…you guys know now that producing a podcast on a regular basis is quite a commitment…
Ben: Yeah, but, it’s not as much as if it’s a good one. If we did a quality show, then it would be much harder work.
Blake: We do ours weekly, but it’s w-e-a-k-l-y.
Steve: Right, right. I contribute to four blogs, you know, you mentioned them, plus Skepticblog is the one you didn’t list actually and then we’re producing some YouTube videos. We do have a YouTube channel. We had hoped to produce a lot more, but producing video is ten times the work as audio, so those are coming more slowly than we thought. We’re working on some other web-based projects; we’re going to be increasing our web presence significantly in the near future.
Blake: I really need to make this part of my regular panel of questions; what’s your favorite monster?
Steve: Um…yeah, that is a good question…
Karen: He doesn’t have one.
Blake: He’s going to have to pull out the monster role d20…
Karen: Just say Bigfoot.
Blake: Don’t say Bigfoot.
Steve: Nah, Bigfoot’s boring. I certainly like very menacing, sophisticated robots, but also, interesting organisms, so like the Alien, I thought, was wonderful; that’s a great monster, if you will, because it’s just vicious and relentless and just cool.
Blake: Are you fan of the Aliens vs. Predator?
Steve: I saw one of those movies; it was all right.
Blake: I think the comics are better. All right, Dr. Novella, thank you so much for talking about monsters and ghosts and robots and artificial intelligence.
Steve: Well, thanks guys, it’s been a lot of fun.
The views expressed on this program are not necessarily the views of the Skeptics Society or Skeptic magazine.
Science in your inbox!
eSkeptic delivers great articles, videos, podcasts, reviews, event announcements, and more to your inbox.
Please support the work of the Skeptics Society. Make the world a more rational place and help us defend the role of science in society.
Browse by Topic
The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)
For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.
Top 10 Things to Know About Alternative Medicine
Harriet Hall M.D. discusses: alternative versus conventional medicine, flu fear mongering, chiropractic, vaccines and autism, placebo effect, diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, “natural remedies,” and detoxification.
Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine
Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods.
Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?
This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.
The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs
Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.
Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?
What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?
The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts
Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…
Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)
If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!
Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.
5 Cryptid Cards
Download and print 5 Cryptid Cards created by Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton. Creatures include: The Yeti, Griffin, Sasquatch/Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Cadborosaurus.