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6 Possible Scientific Reasons for Ghosts

Many people believe in ghosts, but could there be scientific explanations for some of our paranormal experiences?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #306
image of a ghost

If you believe in ghosts, you are far from alone. Around 45% of Americans believe in ghosts and as many as 18% of people will go so far as to say they have had contact with a ghost. I will also admit to spooking myself out on occasion when my dog has refused to stop barking at what appears to be an empty corner of the house.

But what makes us feel like we are in the presence of a supernatural spirit? Are there possible scientific explanations for that tingling sensation you get on the back of your neck, or the sudden feeling of uneasiness with an origin you can’t quite place? Let’s investigate six possible explanations for that paranormal feeling that are rooted in science rather than the supernatural.

6 Possible Scientific Reasons for Ghosts

  1. Low frequency sound
  2. Mold
  3. Carbon monoxide
  4. The power of suggestion
  5. Drafts
  6. We enjoy being afraid

Here they are in more detail.

1. Low frequency sound

Just as the human eye can only see light at a range of frequencies—for example, we can’t see radio waves—the human ear can only hear sounds in a range of frequencies. Above ~20,000 Hertz, sounds are too high pitched for our ears to parse them, like the echolocation calls of most bats that fall in this ultrasonic range.

Similarly, human ears have trouble hearing low-frequency sounds below ~20 Hertz—known as infrasound—but such sounds do not go totally unnoticed. In a 2003 study, 22% of concert goers who were exposed to sounds at 17 Hertz reported feeling uneasy or sorrowful, getting chills, or "nervous feelings of revulsion and fear."

So what are some of the more ordinary origins of such low frequency sounds? Weather events like earthquakes and volcanic activity or lightning, and communication between animals including elephants, whales, and hippos can all produce infrasound. And if you don’t live by any volcanoes or hippos but still think your house may be haunted? Humans also create low frequency sound via diesel engines, wind turbines, and some loud speakers or chemical explosions.

2. Mold

Breathing in toxic mold can be bad for your respiratory system, but it can also be bad for your brain. Exposure to mold is known to cause neurologic symptoms like delirium, dementia, or irrational fears. So is it a coincidence that the houses we suspect are haunted also tend to be in disrepair and so quite possibly full of toxic mold? Scientists have worked to draw a firm link between the presence of mold and reported ghost sightings, but so far the evidence is mostly anecdotal.

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