Last Saturday, I went to one of those paranormal investigation classes, where they show you how to investigate areas where hauntings have occurred. I was never one to believe in ghosts with my rational mind, but going to a battlefield from the French and Indian War after dark and playing with EM sensors sounded like fun to me. I took my friend, Norman, with me. He’s an even bigger skeptic than I am when it comes to this sort of thing, but he’s into horror movies, so I figured he’d be good company.
We showed up two minutes late, thanks to his infuriatingly slow driving. When we got there, a small congregation of Pennsylvania’s characteristic population was gathered at picnic tables in a pavilion. They were all wearing the usual PA attire, which, if you’re not from around here, includes shirts with ripped sleeves, Timberlands or dirty white sneakers, and at least one camouflaged article of clothing. I noticed that I was the least-prepared person there. Some people had fancy cameras with changeable lenses; others had whole bags full of equipment. I had brought a cell phone (although I did move all relevant apps to the home screen for easier accessibility). Even Norm brought a flashlight. I couldn’t decide if they should be looking down on me for being so unprepared or if I should be looking down on them for actually taking this thing seriously. Of course, I set all these judgments aside because we were all there together, and if evil spirits were coming after us, we had to look after each other.
The instructors, Bill and his wife Linda, began the class with a short PowerPoint where they went over the basics of paranormal investigation. Mostly this was just a rundown of the various equipment available to use and how to use it, as well as some helpful dos and don’ts of the trade. The equipment was pretty intensive; it seemed like they had thought of everything: IR cameras to see in the dark, seismic sensors to catch subtle movement, grid lasers to detect dark figures. They also showed a picture of a window that apparently had a ghost’s figure. I couldn’t see anything, but it was still pretty light outside, so it was hard to see the projector screen well. Still, I was excited.
Bill closed the presentation with a reminder to just have fun. “That’s the whole purpose of this after all. Those spirits out there won’t hurt you—“
“Except for demonic spirits,” Linda interjected.
“Right, but don’t worry about them. Okay, let’s take a fifteen minute break, then head out.”
I blinked. Demonic spirits? I don’t know, that sounds like the kind of thing one should worry about. I didn’t get a chance to ask any follow-up questions, though, because there was immediately a mad rush to the bathrooms.
“Walk around for a bit?” Norm asked, standing up to stretch his legs.
“Sure,” I said, “but not too far. I don’t want to get too separated from the group.”
We walked enough so that we were just out of earshot of the group.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked me.
I paused. Normally I would just say no without the slightest hesitation, but this idea of electromagnetic field fluctuations got me thinking.
Last summer I read Mary Roach’s book on the afterlife, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Most of it just exposed the overwhelming lack of evidence for almost all of our preconceived notions of life after death. However, there was one idea she briefly mentioned at the end that psychologist Pirn van Lommel had recently been theorizing about. It’s the only plausible afterlife theory I’ve heard, and it promises retaining some degree of your life after death. It’s still pretty new, though, so there haven’t been any experiments to explore it just yet (at least that I could find—being away from campus this summer limits the number of databases I have access to). I did find the original paper describing the theory, however, and I cited it below in case you want to take a look.*
The premise of the theory is this: Consciousness is not something confined to the body. Instead, it’s an electromagnetic field spread out over space, much like radio and television signals. You can’t see or hear them until you turn on your receptor, the television, radio, or whatever. The receptor transforms the electromagnetic waves into something you can perceive. In our bodies, our brain is the receptor. It’s set to pick up the specific frequency of our consciousness, allowing us to perceive it. When we become clinically dead, our brain stops picking up this frequency, but just like how radio waves are still there when you turn the radio off, our consciousness is still out there.
It’s not the most glamorous theory, but I see it as a possibility. It was developed to explain the out-of-body experiences of patients who go into cardiac arrest, a phenomenon that happens too frequently and consistently to be just imagination or coincidence. It opens the door to the question of what our conscious does when our brain is turned off. And what emits this frequency, if it is not just inherent in nature? In other words, where is the radio station for our thoughts?
Science doesn’t really have an explanation for consciousness just yet, which makes this theory all the more appealing, and it could open the gates for a myriad of applications. However, let’s get back to my ghost-hunting story.
Bill mentioned that it was believed that ghosts emitted electromagnetic radiation, which is why a sensor could be used to detect spirits. Anytime there is electromagnetic energy involved, I get excited. I thought about it, and what if this unexplained radiation were a hotspot for some previous being’s consciousness.
I’m thinking it could be like when you’re walking along with a radio or walkie-talkie, getting white noise. All of a sudden, you walk past a patch that gives you sound. It’s fuzzy and choppy, but it’s definitely there. You keep walking, and it disappears. Maybe the same thing happens with the radiation of consciousness. We pick up on these patches that are so concentrated that it is like the person’s existence is actually there.
But, of course, an EM sensor wouldn’t be able to detect this because it’d be at a frequency either so high or so low that it would be out of the device’s range. Otherwise, we’d have already been able to detect this radiation.
So there are definitely a lot of holes in this half-baked ghost theory, but it’s a jumping-off point, right? It’s the only scientifically-plausible idea I can think of as to how something that’s dead can just show up willy-nilly, only to disappear again within seconds, leaving no evidence except the word of people and pictures in which you can kind of see a figure if you scrunch your face and hold it at and angle to the light.
This theory isn’t based on any already-existing science. Like most of my personal theories, this just halfheartedly gives possibility to something I really want to be true. I really want there to be an afterlife. It would make life itself more meaningful. If after death, we’re completely wiped out of existence and the world just goes on, and everything we’ve ever worked toward just disappears or fades over time, and life is already so hard at is it, what’s the point of living?
I told Norm no, I didn’t believe in ghosts.
*van Lommel, P. Psychology Research Progress; Nova Science: Hauppauge, 2009; p 171.