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Discussion 2 to Ask the Patriarch 245
Ghosts and Spirits

by: JT

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I have no problem accepting that the ghosts or spirits you saw when you were five were very real to you. These experiences do seem real. At a similar age sixty years ago staying at a cottage at a lake for the first time, I woke fearfully up to a huge bear in the corner of my bedroom. It disappeared when the lights went on, but as soon as they went off, the incident light from the moon and stars made enough shadows to put the bear back in the corner.

And it's not a factor of being young that makes a person see things that are not there. This is what I posted in my Facebook status on 28 February this year (a couple of spelling misakes fixed):

I was walking this morning in the misty light of dawn and a movement caught my eye. I looked and I saw a small black head with a long beak sticking out of the blackberry bushes. Looking into the bush, I saw a large black body and a very long tail, iridescent at the end. I thought some tropical bird blown a thousand miles north. Moving slowly so as not to startle the bird, I got my camera out, turned it on, and focussed the telephoto on the bird. Looking into the viewfinder as I brought the bird into focus, I realized I had caught a glimpse of the extremely rare black plastic garbage bag.

Until I was concentrating enough to get a good picture, I was absolutely certain I was looking at a bird. If I had not had a camera with me, I probably would have continued my walk, certain I'd seen a bird in a blackberry bush.

What do my bear and bird have to do with your ghosts? I suggest it is the same mechanism at work. We evolved as both prey and predator. Our brain evolved to interpret light and shadow in ways that will benefit us. We have a predisposition to interpret light and shadow as life - life which we might see as lunch - or which we might see as something which wants to make us their lunch.

The interpretation system does fail - and it tends to fail more often in seeing things that are not there than in not seeing things that are there. Erring on this side tends to enhance survival because it is an affordable mistake. The mistake of not seeing food when we need it - or not seeing something which wants us for food can be fatal. Evolution prefers safe mistakes to dangerous ones.

I suspect what you saw was an interplay of light and shadow sufficient for your brain to interpret it as something alive, but ethereal enough to be seen as not quite there - or spirits or ghosts. But the experience is yours. No-one else's. It is impossible to say at this remove what you actually saw.

My predisposition is to explain such things away. Those who accept the supernatural tend to have an accepting predisposition.


A heron I photographed which actually was there.