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They are called phantasms, spectersor spirits. The ancient Greeks referred to them as shades while in Scotland they are known as wraiths. The Germans use the word spook, unless they cause a racket in which case they get the label poltergeist. Most people just call them ghosts and are either fascinated by them, or are terrified of them, or sometimes both.
The belief that human spirits could continue to haunt the living after death goes back to ancient times. We know that many primitive societies' burial customs included rituals to banish the spirits of the departed from the earth. As far back as biblical times, King Saul had the Witch of Endor summon the spirit of dead prophet Samuel for advice. More recently, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the belief that the living could contact the dead through spiritualism and séances tickled the public's fancy. Currently TV shows where "ghost hunters" trek to supposedly haunted locations to find spooks are popular on the cable channels.
Are they real? Or are they just the product of our overactive imaginations?
Most ghost stories are connected with the idea that spirits are the souls of people who died under difficult circumstances - for example, murder or suicide - and continue to inhabit the earth. Troubled by their death, they haunt the places where they lived and died, unable to move on to the afterlife. One early account of this involves the Greek philosopher Athenodoros Cananites. Athenodoros became interested in a haunted house in Athens and started watching it at night. Late one evening an old man, bound at the feet and hands with rattling chains, appeared to him and beckoned the scholar to follow him. The ghost disappeared suddenly and Athenodoros had the spot where he vanished dug up. A man's shackled bones were found at the location and after a proper re-burial, the haunting ended.
Tales like those of Athenodoros are typical but don't really prove that ghosts exist. For science to confirm anything a phenomenon must be repeatable. Unfortunately ghosts, if they exist, do not seem to keep a regular schedule and their sporadic appearances make scientific observation nearly impossible. In addition, there is no scientific theory involving physics to explain how ghosts would work.
This, however, does not prove that ghosts do not exist. For many years scientists refused. to believe in meteorites because their falling out of the sky was sporadic and not predictable or repeatable. Scientists also viewed the universe as perfect and had no theory to explain how there could be little pieces of extra rock floating around in space.
Of course, meteorites do exist and they now have been observed on many occasions. They also fit in with our current scientific theories. Might we one day be able to prove ghosts exist? Even if we can't do that today, perhaps science can do the next best thing and prove that a location is "haunted."
Ghost stories have been around as long as there have been stories themselves. The idea of apparitions from the spirit world goes back to the very beginnings of written history, and probably even farther back in oral traditions. A recent CBS News poll concluded that nearly half of all Americans believe in ghosts, and 22 percent say they have seen or felt the presence of a ghost.
And yet mainstream science has long been clear and unequivocal: There is no scientific evidence of a supernatural explanation for ghost sightings. So how do we explain those incidents when rational people sincerely believe they have seen or felt a ghost? What are some of the scientific, non-paranormal explanations for the phenomenon of ghost sightings?
Sometimes a legitimate natural phenomenon, or a combination of different phenomena, can result in a "ghost sighting." For example, research dating back to the 1970s suggests that extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields can stimulate certain parts of the brain and produce effects that are often associated with hauntings.
In cases where people claim to have seen an apparition, but there are no psychological or emitted energy factors, the "ghost" can simply be an optical illusion. Most commonly, it's an incident of light bouncing off a window or other reflecting surface. There's also the psychological phenomenon of pareidolia, where the brain gives significance to random images or patterns -- seeing faces in clouds, say, or the ghost of your grandmother in the shadows of a wardrobe closet.
Even when all the known physical and psychological factors have been eliminated as explanations, it's possible that ghost sightings may be caused by forces that we just don't yet understand. Robert Schoch, associate professor of natural science at Boston University, has been doing research on the relationship between brain waves and geomagnetic waves. Schoch cited the phenomenon of "crisis apparitions" -- when family members see the "ghost" of a faraway relative at the exact moment that person died. "Some people will dismiss this as coincidence," Schoch said. "But there have been, in my assessment, very good statistical studies of such things that take it out of the realm of coincidence."
According to Schoch's hypothesis, such apparitions aren't ghosts at all, in the sense of otherworldly spirits. Instead, the phenomenon may be a kind of extrasensory perception that we can't yet measure. Schoch's research concerns whether brain waves of certain emotional states may be transferred between people over long distances on low-frequency wavelengths -- the same wavelengths that are detected in the Earth's geomagnetic field.
"One study looked at crisis apparitions and geomagnetic patterns on the surface of the Earth," Schoch said. "It turns out that the incidents of crisis apparitions correlate with geomagnetic flux."
Schoch said it can be professionally risky, in the academic community, to advance any theories that include parapsychology phenomena like ESP or ghost sightings. But he still believes there is value in exploring these topics. "When you get rid of all the bogus crap, which is 95 percent plus of it, there is a residuum left where it seems to be something real...................."
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