Alone at home and hearing weird noises – why does it feel so creepy? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 14.12.2017
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Alone at home and hearing weird noises – why does it feel so creepy?

Do you ever think you've seen a ghost and get scared? Wasn't it the rustling of curtains in the wind? We know it's totally irrational, but there's little we can do to stop the fear. Where does the feeling come from?

The night is cold and damp. You can hear the wind howling around the building; hear thick and heavy raindrops pummeling the window panes. Inside it is warm. The flickering candles emit a soft and comfortable light. Colorful images flash across the television screen as the newsreader presents the headlines in a low murmur. You sip your wine, your eyes fixed on the screen. Suddenly you whip around. You have seen something moving out of the corner of your eye. But there's no one there. And how can there be? After all, you are alone.

It's a phenomenon that has happened to all of us at least once. But why does it happen? Is there somebody there? Or is our mind playing mean tricks? Parapsychology, the scientific study of the paranormal, examines these questions and tries to answer them on a psychological and neuroscientific basis.

Studying the paranormal

"Parapsychologists are typically involved in three different research areas," explains Dr. Ciaran O'Keeffe, Head of Psychology at Buckinghamshire New University in England, who specializes in parapsychology, forensic and investigative psychology.

 "The first is called extra sensory perception, short for ESP, which is an umbrella term and covers abilities like telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance. Second, is the action of the mind on an object - bending a spoon without touching it, for example. That's psychokinesis. And the third is after-death communication, sometimes termed 'survival'. Here, parapsychologists study haunting experiences, poltergeists, and mediumship, the communication between dead and living spirits."

Ghosts and aliens (Colourbox)

Ghosts come first and foremost from imagination

Parapsychology also has an answer to the inexplicable movement of the presence that you have seen in your peripheral vision. Although there might be several explanations, the neuroscientific one is probably the least creepy: our peripheral vision is produced by so-called retinal rod cells, which have a much lower resolution than the cone cells in our central area of vision.

A flash of movement

"If we think we've seen a movement out of the corner of our eye it is typically poor quality, non-detailed shapes and black or white. That is a result of our rods not ‘seeing' color," O'Keeffe explains. "If there is any interpretation of it, then our brain is ‘filling in the gaps', something called visual substitution. Effectively our brain is trying to come up with a rational explanation for something we've seen, or we think we've seen. That ‘rational' explanation can even be a ghost."

No matter the reason, the short moment in which you believed another person or being to be in the room, was enough to put your body on high-alert. You are breathing heavily, your heart is beating hard against your ribs and you can see the wine in your glass quivering in unison with your shaking hand. While some people hate this type of experience, others actually enjoy the feeling of being spooked.

Why some like to be spooked and others don't

This is down to the chemicals in our brain that play a major role in our fundamental ‘flight or fight' response. These same chemicals, including the neurotransmitter dopamine, also contribute to other emotional states, such as excitement and happiness. In addition, dopamine controls the reward and pleasure centers in our brain, which explains why some people get a ‘kick' out of being frightened out of their wits.

"The variation of dopamine release in one person's brain versus another's is fundamentally the reason why some people enjoy scary ventures and others feel completely terrorized," says O'Keeffe. "There is also quite a complex psychological factor involved that can come down to early negative experiences with haunted houses or horror movies."

An abandoned building in Chernobyl (DW/J. Thurau)

A haunted place - Chernobyl

Haunted houses give us the creeps

While we're on the subject of haunted houses, let's talk about them a little bit. Dark and derelict buildings and places have been the fuel of horror movies and crime novels for decades. On the one hand, they fascinate us, on the other, they give us the creeps.

Some psychologists say that this is an evolutionary trait which ensures that we avoid situations and places that could put us in danger or make us vulnerable. After all, somebody or something might be lurking in the shadows down the corridor; an almost inaudible creak of the floorboards and the flutter of a torn curtain could indicate movement. Our body responds with a heightened level of arousal and attention, readying us to fight or flee at the crucial moment.

O'Keeffe takes a different approach: "I like to think that this is to do with the unknown and letting our imagination run amok. In that dark, derelict place there may be lurking the most horrific and grotesque demon ready to jump out at us. Or at least our imagination would have us believe that will happen."

A sense of presence

Our imagination also plays a great role in having a ‘sense of presence'. Although there can be a number of reasons why somebody might feel a presence, psychological and environmental factors are thought to be the main causes.

"The power of suggestion would be sufficient for someone to feel a presence. So, simply by telling someone that a building is haunted is enough for them to misinterpret perfectly natural occurrences as having a supernatural explanation," O'Keeffe explains. "Suggestion together with imagination and a belief in ghosts or the paranormal is a powerful combination to give someone that sense of presence when there's actually nothing there."

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