Ghost in the (Magnetic) Machine

Are ghost sightings actually hallucinations caused by magnetic fields? Over recent years, a number of researchers have put forward this explanation for hauntings, perhaps most prominently Dr Michael Persinger (he of the 'God helmet'). A new paper by skeptic Jason Braithwaite casts a critical eye over some of these claims:

The implication from these studies is that some spontaneous haunt-reports may be explained, at least in part, as magnetically induced hallucinations. Egon Spengler with his PKE MeterHowever, although this view is very popular, it is often misunderstood by scientists, sceptics, paranormalists and the general public. Quite often in the popular literature and on the unregulated non-peer-reviewed internet this 'neuromagnetic' account is cast as one claiming that strong magnetic fields may exist in reputedly haunted locations as metaphorical 'hot-spots' and as such may be responsible for some anomalous perceptions, that any 'blip' on an EMF meter is meaningful, or worse still, that such fields may well be some physical correlate of the paranormality of a haunting. In addition, it appears to be the case that the idea is being accepted somewhat uncritically by some researchers as its apparent basis in physics and biophysics can be quite seductive at first glance. As a consequence of these observations, it appears to be a good time to take a closer and more evidence-based look at an argument that while tantalising, may well be, at the very least, insufficient as it currently stands. The present paper provides a comprehensive examination of the evidence for an against the neuromagnetic account.

Read the entire paper: Magnetic Fields, Anomalous Experiences: A Sceptical Critique".

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RealityTest's picture
Member since:
16 August 2006
Last activity:
4 days 16 hours

I'm no ghost hunter but I'm aware of how ghost hunting is becoming increasingly popular, thanks to the Internet and television shows.

I've long been interested in communication with non-physical entities or beings, however, and have explored various forms of mediumship, trance writing, and such things, by myself and with others. Through those activities, I've become interested in magnetic fields (never mind how this happened -- no one would believe me). Web searches on magnetism led me to magnetometers; searching on magnetometer swiftly brought up endless pages and video clips dealing with ghost hunting -- a magnetometer has become standard equipment, apparently; as the iPhone has one built in, there's even a ghost detection app.

The writer of the article expresses some disdain for such activity but, possibly, this is a bit of a cover for some unacknowledged jealousy on his part. Of all of those many amateurs having great fun, _some_ may just be on to something (in fact some of the recent YouTube clips I'd suggest this is in fact the case -- I'm not referring necessarily to "haunted houses" so much as some truly intriguing events captured by security cameras, such as an office chair that spins by itself in the middle of the night in a location a company vacated owing to loud disturbing and unexplained noises (employees weren't comfortable working alone in the building in the middle of the night).

The writer assumes that reports of hauntings may owe their existence to hallucinations, possibly caused by such fields -- but what if this isn't the case at all?

What if "anomalous magnetic fields" are an effect of the interaction of consciousness with physical reality?

A related unanswered question is whether consciousness is only associated with the living, the "physically embodied."

As usual, a scientist -- despite a great pretense of objectivity -- brings his own beliefs into a situation and allows them to color his own findings, not so differently from the way he ascribes this to those who report hauntings and related odd events -- they must be hallucinating and he provides an explanation.

I wonder whether he has ever scrutinized the book by Robert M. Schoch and Logan Yonavjak, namely The Parapsychology Revolution: A Concise Anthology of Paranormal and Psychical Research. It includes, among much else, a brief description of Ingo Swann's encounter with a hidden and highly sensitive magnetometer.

Bill I.

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
1 day 1 hour

Strong magnetic fields will obviously disarrange the brain's circuitry, but just from watching the excellent ghost hunting series on the TV these days it is quite obvious that the phenomena are complex and multifarious. This subject is already well explored in "A Haunting In Georgia."

In that real life story a scientist wedded to the idea that paranormal activity is due to EMF effects on the brain gets his petard hoisted by evidence that such conjectures are not always applicable.