Whatever you do, don't look behind you – because the answer isn't there, says psychologist Alison Gopnik. The real ghosts are glitches in your brain, and in a way, that's even scarier.
According to a 2009 Pew Research survey, 18% of adults in the U.S. say they’ve seen a ghost or at least felt its presence. An even greater number (29%) say they have felt in touch with someone who has died.
Humans have felt presences for at least as long as we have recorded history and, naturally, where there is mystery there are scientists poking and prodding to get to the bottom of it.
So how does this supernatural phenomenon hold up under scientific scrutiny? Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik tells us a spine-chilling story this Halloween, where a bunch of scientists from University Hospital of Geneva ran a neurological study to examine the popular claim of spirit-world sensations. Through a very interesting method, what they found was that patients with a particular kind of damage to their frontoparietal cortex where especially likely to have this ghost sensation, and that our brain can dupe us into feeling things that really aren’t there – we may literally feel a touch on our back due to a brain glitch.
That’s not so scary, right? That’s kind of comforting. Well, Gopnik’s ‘boo!’ moment in this tale comes in the form of a pensive and introspective twist: the frontoparietal cortex is the same brain region that lets us sense our own bodies, and be aware of our own kinesthetic motions. If it can be duped, how do we know that it’s always reliable? How sure are you that your hand is holding a mobile phone, that your thumb is scrolling on the screen, and that you’re tucking it away in your pocket? It feels real, your frontoparietal cortex tells you that’s very real, but this experiment suggests it could very well be an illusion. How confident are you that your sense of your own body is real? It’s something we haven’t got to the bottom of yet.
Alison Gopnik's most recent book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children.