This was an online survey about experiencing unusual events, the type that one might put down to a spiritual or paranormal cause. I was invited because the people conducting the research hadn’t had many responses from atheists (perhaps unsurprisingly). And so I took the survey, and felt a little uneasy because it asked me to describe events and beliefs that I know are completely irrational, but I also acknowledge that I experienced. The brain is complicated and plays tricks on all of us, even the most hardened skeptic. Richard Wiseman’s book, Paranormality (link below), gives an accessible introduction to psychological tricks that we can play on ourselves and others, as well as explanations of phenomena that are often attributed to “things we cannot explain”. Well, turns out we can.

My experience involved seeing an apparition. At the time I didn’t believe in ghosts either (I don’t think I ever really have, but as a child I enjoyed the romanticism of the idea), but I was sure that I’d seen something. It felt eerie and weird, because I was sure there was something there, but knew that rationally there wasn’t. Had I dreamed it (basically, yes)? I was walking along the Ashton Canal towpath through Ancoats, when I imagined that I saw a man wearing a frock coat and top hat, pointing at one of the mills. Well, it seems pretty clear that my own prejudices and knowledge of the area’s history came into play in developing this hallucination. Like a dream, it was probably just my brain regurgitating previously absorbed information and spitting it out in a disordered fashion. But why did it happen then? Who knows? And who cares? Not me, it was just a thing that happened and has no significance to my life now. I don’t need to attach meaning to every single thing that occurs; and I accept that just because something is unusual, it doesn’t mean that it is the work of a higher power or some woo nonsense.

But actually talking about it put me on edge.  I feel that, as a skeptic, I should “know better”.  Like I shouldn’t have had the experience in the first place.  Which is a silly belief, of course.  As stated above, all of our brains are susceptible to being fooled.  The placebo effect still works even if you know that you’re being given a placebo.  As well as evolving adaptable and complex brains, there are a few quirks.  And by understanding them for what they really are, we can really enjoy our brains.  Why cloud the brain’s beauty with superstition when we could be striving to find out a far more interesting truth?

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