Contact with spirits

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In March 1994, Stephen Young went on trial in England for the gruesome murder of Harry and Nicola Fuller. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the second-day of deliberation, but not before consulting the ghost of Harry. The night of the first day of deliberation, four of the jurors set up a makeshift game of Ouija in their hotel. Fuller soon joined the party, telling the four that Stephen Young had killed him and that they should vote guilty.
“I was crying by this time, and the other ladies were upset as well,” one juror later said. They ended the game and reported their findings to the other jurors the next morning. When the judge eventually learned of the séance he ordered a retrial. Young was once again convicted, this time using evidence only from living witnesses.
According to Gallup, 32 percent of Americans claim that spirits of the dead can return, and 37 percent believe in haunted houses. Another 16 percent aren’t sure. Most paranormal encounters don’t make particularly gripping ghost stories. They consist of seeing something out of the corner of an eye or hearing an odd sound late at night, perceptions that can usually be blamed on drafts, tricks of the light, or family pets. Further, once you have it in your head that you might see or hear something, your brain is often happy to oblige by presenting a hallucination, especially when you’re tired or scared.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence of a visitation is what’s called a sense of presence-the feeling that an agent is with you, typically less than a few feet away. Such a sense has been explained as a form of out-of-body experience in which your body image is doubled. Researchers have also proposed that we have evolved system for sensing the presence of others-after all, you’re often aware that someone is near you even without consciously recognizing the signals you’re picking up on. (Close your eyes while sitting next to someone to experience this effect.) Perhaps we can have hallucinations of this sense.
A feeling of presence often arises in extreme environments and situations, such as when one is cold or isolated or at high altitude, or when one is suffering from exhaustion, fear, hunger, or monotony. Mountaineers often report such hallucinations. Sir Ernest Shackleton wrote that during one 36-hour Antarctica march, “It seemed to me often that we were four, not three,” and his companions had the same “curious feeling.” Fear and loneliness have both been shown to amplify our detection of agents in our environment; they put us on high alert for intruders or companions in our midst.
Bereavement enhances the chances of a visitor. When loved ones do stop by, it’s usually in the first year after their deaths. Survivors might see or hear something or, more commonly, just have a feeling of closeness. Or, more rarely, extreme closeness: In the 1970s, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist made famous by her five stages of grief model, set up a spiritual retreat near San Diego. During séances there, a self-proclaimed psychic named Jay Barham would turn off the lights and pretend to be various spirits so he could have sex with their widows. One victim said later, “I needed to believe.”
Neurotic or extraverted individuals are most susceptible to perceived contact. Neurosis can intensify elements of grief, such as anxiety, whereas extraverts might feel a greater need to connect because of the emphasis they place on social interaction. Those with epilepsy also have more contact experiences because hyperexcitability in the temporal lobes can generate a sense of presence. Scientists have been able to induce sensed presences by placing magnets
over subjects’ temporal lobes, leading some to propose that the Earth’s magnetic fields might be enough to make certain locations feel haunted. The fact that people sense presences most often when experiencing grief suggests that contact with spirits may be more than a twisted hallucination; it may be a healthy form of coping.

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