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Apparitional Experiences in Psychology

Jan 21, 2021
Demi Powell
Core Spirit member since Sep 4, 2019
Reading time 5 min.

The world of spirits and ghosts has always evoked a range of feelings among humans, ranging from sheer terror to delicious frissons of excitement and even hope of connecting with those that have crossed into the other side by those suffering from bereavement. In keeping with the variety of sensations aroused by apparitional experiences, it is only natural that the phenomena evoke different kinds of explanations too.

What is an apparitional experience?

An apparitional experience can be described as an anomalous, quasi-perceptual experience in which the subject perceives a living being or an inanimate object without there being any material stimulus for such a perception. While such an experience would have been described as seeing a ghost in earlier centuries, “apparitional experience” has come to be the preferred term in both parapsychology as well as mainstream psychology.

Apparitional experience in the paranormal

In the paranormal context, apparitions are the ghosts or spirits of dead people or earth bound spirits tied to a location. Often times this is a result of a residual haunting where the spirit is not aware of the physical world and is almost said to be playing “on a loop”. In fact some paranormal experts even go on to talk of another kind of apparition known as ‘shadow people’ who instead of full-bodied apparitions, are rather elusive and usually are visible only out of the corner of the human eye. When a person draws his/her attention to them, they apparently vanish. Shadow people can vary in form, but are often said to take the shape of a man. The main characteristic of a shadow person is the level of darkness they are composed of. According to this train of paranormal belief, they are so dark that they can be actually seen in a dark room. Theories that they are inter dimensional beings or even spirit guardians are quite popular among those who have experienced or researched them.

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Apparitional experiences in parapsychology

The first parapsychological study of apparitional experiences began at the turn of twentieth century with the work of Edmund Gurney, Frederick William Henry Myers and Frank Podmore who were leading figures in the early years of the Society for Psychical Research. In keeping with the early work of the Society, one of lines of their research was to provide evidence for human survival after death. For this reason they had a particular interest in what are known as ‘crisis cases’ in which a subject was said to have an apparitional experience or a quasi-perceptual experience of someone at a distance at the time of that person’s death or other crisis. The researchers theorized that if the temporal coincidence of the crisis and the distant apparitional experience could not be explained by conventional laws of physics and nature, then it could be presumed that some as yet unknown form of communication, had taken place, one of which was to be defined as telepathy, a term coined by Myers.

Over the years though parapsychological research into apparitional experiences came to focus less on the survival question or whether apparitions could shed any light on the existence or otherwise of ESP phenomena like telepathy. Instead after the 1970s, parapsychologists such as of Celia Green and Charles McCrery were more concerned with analyzing a growing number of cases with a view to providing a taxonomy of the different types of apparitional experiences; in fact in the process, they even made a few interesting observations on apparitional experiences. One of these that completely rebuffed popular ghost encounters, was that Subjects of apparitional experiences were by no means always frightened by the experience; indeed they may find them soothing or reassuring at times of crisis or ongoing stress in their lives. Yet another notable observation was that Spontaneous apparitional experiences tended to take place in everyday surroundings like the subject’s own home, and under conditions of low central nervous system arousal - while doing housework, for example.

Also, Apparitions tend to be reported as appearing solid rather than transparent. Finally it was unusual for an apparitional figure to engage in any verbal interaction with the subject; according to researchers this is consistent with the finding that the majority of such experiences only involve one sense, most commonly the visual.

Apparitional experiences in psychology

Various psychological theories have been put forward to explain apparitional experiences and of these the most common is that of hallucination in the sane. According to this view, an apparitional experience is a type of hallucinatory experience occurring to sane people in which a subject seems to perceive some person or thing that is not really there. Interestingly the majority of the human figures reported in such samples are not recognized by the subject, and of those who are, not all are of deceased persons; apparitions of living persons have also been reported. And while self-selected samples tend to report a predominance of human figures in apparitional experiences, those involving animals and even objects have also reported.

However another psychological approach to apparitional experiences explains it as an anomaly in the very nature of perception, and in particular to the distinction between top-down and bottom-up approaches to perception. Top-down theories, such as that of Richard Langton Gregory, conceive of perception as a process whereby the brain makes a series of hypotheses about the external world; this view stresses the importance of central factors such as memory and expectation in determining the phenomenological content of perception. In this context, apparitional experiences represent a form of quasi-perceptual experience in which the role of external stimuli is minimal or even non-existent, even though the experience continues to be phenomenologically indistinguishable from normal perception.

Another psychological theory explains apparitional experiences in the context schizotypy or psychosis-proneness. This is conceived of as a normal dimension of personality in which normal people, more or less high on the putative schizotypy scale, might be more or less prone to anomalous perceptual experiences like seeing apparitions, without their being diagnosed as mentally ill like with psychosis.

Latest research like the above reveal that gradually mainstream science like psychology is moving towards a non-pathological explanation of apparitional experiences even though it may still be some time before they are accept universally as evidence of afterlife and the spirit world.

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