Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I don't believe in ghosts--but they believe in me

I don’t believe in ghosts. And yet they keep haunting me.

I’d like for ghosts to be real. Same thing for ESP and some other parapsychological stuff, too, like Jungian synchronicity. For one thing, it all makes for excellent programming on Discovery Channel and in movies starring SNL alums. Beyond that, most of us--skeptics included--would prefer that some part of our conscious persists after death. That the journey has meaning. That we can, if we choose, watch over our loved ones and haunt our bad landlords into eternity. That we will be able to read the final Game of Thrones novel when it’s published one century from now by George R.R. Martin’s great grandson, George R.R.R.R.R. Martin.

Ghosts offer a translucent carrot towards that effect, a tantalizing ectoplasmic treat we chase despite its complete lack of recordable scent, touch, taste, sound, and sight. (And no, sadly, the apocryphal 21 grams-lighter-after-death pseudo-study doesn’t offer scientific proof that the soul has mass; it was a dubious experiment conducted by a single Massachusetts doctor whose results a century ago were reported in the New York Times but have never been replicated; we’ll get to the science-of-ghosts stuff later).

And yet some people who don’t believe in ghosts seem to have ghosts who believe in them. I’ve heard from reasonable people, in Finland and in America and elsewhere, whose freaky stories have tickled the hmmmmmm centers of my brain. Nothing that would stack up against the criteria required by full-blown empirical evidence. But occasionally someone who I trust will bust out with a ghost story juicy enough to make me shiver beside the campfire while waving a flaming marshmallow at the full moon.

One of my bosses at Harvard Medical School once had a ghost ride in her backseat all the way from Western Mass to the Boston area. She wasn’t proud of her story—I don’t know how I coaxed it out of her—but in between looking at blood pressure data and eyeball rotation, we got to talking about ghosts. She said that she kept on looking in her rearview mirror and seeing a red-headed young man in the back seat who shouldn’t have been there. She didn’t want to tell her fiancé riding shotgun about it, figuring he’d make fun of her. Well, she got freaked out enough that she finally said, “Don’t call me crazy, but I think there’s been a ghost in the backseat the last half hour.” And he said, “You see it too? I’ve been going nuts in here thinking I was seeing stuff!” They both proceeded to scream, pull over, and perform an exorcism by repeating the Latin form of “AAAAAHHHH!!!” while heebee-jeebee dancing around the car. Which, if you’re ever in a similar situation, is very similar to the English version of “AAAAAAAHHHHH!!!” and entails the pulling of hair and waving of arms. Not sure what happened to the phantom hitchhiker. Eventually it disappeared.

Most of that story’s power over me relies on witness credibility. She’s an extremely rational person. I trust her. We checked off the abundant rational explanations for otherworldly phenomena—stuff like refraction of light, momentary lapses into dreaming, pattern recognition, bad Thai food, good acid, and the like. But she didn’t do acid or eat Thai. Not that night, or any other night, she claimed. So we’ll chalk her experience up to freaky unexplained phenomena.

My mother’s story about her own mother’s death is more touching. A young woman at the time, my mom was on her way to the hospital to visit her dying mother when my mom became overwhelmed with emotion. Suddenly, she had to pull over and sob. She knew that her mother had died. Just knew it. Some time into her weeping episode, my mom felt a warm presence in the seat beside her. She stopped sobbing. Her mother—some non-corporeal variation of her—was sitting in the car seat beside her, consoling her that everything would be okay. Warmth and strength filler her. She put the car in gear. At the hospital, she took the news of her mother’s actual death a few minutes later with remarkable composure. She was prepared, after all. After that, my mom always believed, albeit self-consciously.

So here’s my story. This one actually was seen by dozens of people, although to call it a ghost isn’t quite right. Two months after my own mother died of cancer when I was 14 years old, a golden crow began visiting my backyard. And when I say gold, I mean gold. Like, the same pigment mutation for albino, only expressed as gold. Which, my research has revealed, is probably what happened to that crow. Xanthrochroism, it’s called. A golden pigment defect seen across various species, in fish most often. But crows? Black crows turned gold? I’ve never heard of another golden crow. Nowhere. It’s not in the literature, as a scientist might say. But there it was in my back yard with me and buddies. We’d be shooting hoops or messing around in the yard when the golden crow would swoop down and stare at us. Only one kid had the temerity to look at it with shy eyes and say, “Dude. Is that your mom?” He wasn’t joking. We sort of tried to laugh it off, but it got awkward. The crow kept looking at us. Did I mention the crow started visiting right after my mother died? That it kept coming back for all of high school? Probably a coincidence. Probably nothing to get worked up about. Part of the grieving process involves grasping for meaning that might or might not be there, after all, and that golden crow was right—and I mean right—there, close enough to grab, often perched on a branch hanging outside the bathroom window staring at me with its cocked head and curious black eyes when I’d find myself in desperate times of teenage angst.

While my inner skeptic knows it was coincidence, my outer novelist still decided to this year draft another novel titled, “The Golden Crow,” that pursues the “what-if” of golden crows and the afterlife (and demons and science and teenage world domination conspiracies as well; sorry, dear reader, I can’t help myself). I just could never shake the feeling that the golden crow meant something. (Crows, by the way, have been mythologized as messengers between our world and the spirit world in cultures literally spanning the globe and from all ages, from ancient India and China to the Celts to Native Americans to Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon, who tragically died while filming an excellent action flick, The Crow, in the early 90s.)

If you’re interested in the science stuff I promised earlier, read this link http://www.ack.net/Paranormal103008.html. A few years back I wrote a science-of-ghosts thing for my old paper, the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror. It was a lot of fun. Nantucket, the old whaling capital of the world, provided excellent atmosphere for the piece. Salem is more famous for its witches, but Nantucket is one of America’s hotbeds for paranormal activity, and it inspired an excellent famous-isalnd-ghost-story collection that's on every good Nantucket resident's or visitor's book shelf. Many islanders admit to either having seen something freaky themselves, or to having heard such testimony by a trusted source. There’s even a ghost tour run by the Nantucket Historical Association. Ghosts are kind of part of life there.

This story took more research and uncovered more cool stuff than you'd believe. I spoke with the long-time head of the American Parapsychological Association, Dean Radin, a super interesting guy who was involved with the studies by DARPA and the CIA for the cold war psi spying programs of the 1970s, as well as the so-called Stargate program of the 1980s. A lot of that stuff was fodder for the Cohen Brother's movie, “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” Interesting to me, was that the American Parapsychological Association was not only begun in 1885 by pioneering Harvard psychologist William James, but since 1969 it has been part of AAAS, the world’s largest and most prestigious science association. Radin also told me something I didn’t print, about his work with a former astronaut who believed he saw angels (or something ghostly and beautiful) while in outer space, a phenomena that’s supposedly been reported by more than one astronaut.

I also spoke with James Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota and a really great guy and engaging skeptic whose book, “The Physics of Superheroes” I highly, highly recommend. This guy really nailed it on the science side and his quotes were absolutely money. Worth skipping ahead to his stuff.

Please leave comments about your own freaky stories. I’d love to hear them. Needn’t be about ghosts. Ever had a psychic link with someone? Or predicted something would happen via dream or premonition? I’ll be continuing this theme for the rest of the month, time permitting, and your stories are encouraged!


  1. Deep in the meditation period of a yoga class, I saw my grandfather's face, full of tension. He said nothing, just looked at me with his faded brown eyes. "It's okay, Grampa," I told him. "I love you. Go home." The tension slid away and his image faded out. Grampa was, in fact, very ill at that moment, but he recovered to tyrannize the nursing home staff for several more months, but because of distance I never saw him again.
    I am rationally certain my vision was literally all in my head--meditation, my worry about him, the need to say goodbye. Yet I'm glad my final encounter with him was so ethereally peaceful.

  2. Beautiful story, Nikki. Thanks so much for sharing. I bet others are nodding their heads to this. Once my rational-minded friends let their guard down, it's amazing how many have had some sort of telepathic experience involving a loved one, be it through a dream or a powerful feeling or a vision like the one you just shared. I never had the patience for meditation, except one time my wife dragged me to a class and my mind went blank-- I think I got into that meditation zone-- whereupon it seemed like an image was inserted into my brain. It was this vivid triangle, like an electric orange/yellow color. I wish I had a point to that story, but that's it, other than that it was a unique mental experience. Back in my research assistant days, there were two meditation studies on the same floor as our sleep study; apparently, meditation is getting more and more attention from science for its therapeutic benefits. I wonder what else has been found in meditation studies? Might be worth digging into.

  3. Love the post and the stories in it. Rita

  4. I've got a couple, Eliot.

    First, when I was a teenager, my grandfather lived with some of my mom's cousins down at the Jersey shore. One day my mom and I were visiting. I went upstairs to use the bathroom. Like a cheap horror movie, the shower curtain was drawn across the whole bathtub. I could feel the presence of someone in there, so I pulled back the curtain. I felt like something had passed through me. Creeped out, I went back downstairs and promised myself I wouldn't use the bathroom again there. A while later, we were all talking downstairs in the kitchen, when I mentioned what happened in the bathroom. My mom said she felt the same thing when she went up there. My mom's cousin chimed in -- she's a medium and she said that some old dead guy who comes to speak with her enters the house through the shower.

    My ex, who is one of the most rational, skeptical people I know, was at a party near Atlantic City when she was in high school. The conversation turned to ghosts and how the house they were staying in was rumored to be haunted. She laughed it off and went to the bathroom. The bathroom mirror was surrounded by vanity lights, and one by one, they all popped and broke. She tried getting out of the bathroom but the door was stuck. In the room where the rest of the people were, the ceiling fan turned on by itself. They all were pretty freaked out and didn't spend the night.

    I've got a third one but it's more private. If you're interested, I'll PM it to you.

  5. Oh man, that's the first real sinister ghost/poltergeist story I've heard. Very creepy, and very good. Having been in AC, I can believe that there are some pretty disturbed souls roaming about. Do PM me your other story. Love to hear it.

  6. Just a question, really. What is the status of knowing in the following extract: 'While my inner skeptic knows it was coincidence'? (Is there any way of knowing? dismissing, yes, but knowing..?)

  7. A valid question, indeed. My interpretation of "knowing as a skeptic" means that my rational self is compelled by what the burden of observable and recordable evidence indicates is the most likely--or definite--cause/result/truth; as opposed to what my emotional self might better desire or feel is more correct. I can't "know" whether that golden crow was a message or a messenger from another plain. As a teenager I couldn't help but think so. Still, it can't be proven. That requires faith, at least as I understand the concept. Are my feelings towards the experience a dismissal? Perhaps. Then again, what did my neighbors think of the golden crow? What significance did it carry for them? How about the albino squirrels racing around Jamaica Pond in Boston the first time I pushed my new-born daughter through it--were those carrying a message for me, or for the other thousands of people walking along there? Or the time, two years ago, a bald eagle clutching a freshly caught trout flew close enough to touch above my head in my father's driveway; and an hour later, Air Force One and Obama flew almost close enough to touch above me while I was on the light rail tram to a Mariner's game (which we lost to the Yankees, the day Ichiro was traded into the clutches of the Yankees). We're surrounded by these wild moments. I find them fascinating. I explore their mystical/alchemical interpretation at great depth in my upcoming novel, The Last Ancient.

  8. Thank you for your reply, and do excuse me if I push the questioning a bit further. What I’m wondering about is your opposition of rational self and emotional self. This tips the balance too far, I would argue, in favour of the rational self – because emotions are generally considered untrustworthy (which, of course, many times they are). (But not always.) Consequently, the rational self is left as the sole reliable arbiter of truth.

    If, however, we try another opposition, rationality versus imagination, we come up with a different picture. How, for instance, did Einstein work out Special Relativity and General Relativity? By imagining (a) what would it be like to ride a light beam and (b) what would it be like to fall from a house and, with no ground to interrupt the fall, to keep on falling. After the imagining (right brain stuff) came the rationality (expressing the insights in equations: left brain stuff).

    A similar process arguably took place with the alleged Newton and apple incident: imaginative musings followed by rational calculations.

    Mind you, I’ve got to admit it would be quite another matter imagining what the golden crow etc might signify, then finding any sort of rational calculations to back it up.

    Maybe ‘The Last Ancient’ will demonstrate imaginative truths in a persuasive fashion?

    1. Thank you for your post, and no apologies necessary. You bring up interesting points worth discussing.

      Actually, I don’t believe imagination and rationality are opposed. They’re in lock-step. That’s because I don’t think imagination is a primarily emotional mental activity, although emotion certainly factors into the process. Imagination is drawn from the same wellspring as creativity, which is demonstrated through various studies to be a form of cognition that links specific neural networks designed for specific tasks, in order to find novel solutions. In creativity, or imagination, we’re connecting various brain regions that don’t always play nicely together (not simply the left and right sides, a model that is becoming antiquated). Scientific American Mind frequently has articles about the creative mind to this effect.

      The history of science is bursting with examples of high imagination; there are some incredible stories in addition to the great examples you cited with Einstein and Newton. But, I need to examine your statement: “imaginative musings followed by rational calculations.” I think people don’t muse first, but after rationally wrestling with a problem. When their linear logic fails to answer the problem, the imagination swoops in like a charismatic Indian chief to bring together all the warring tribes of the mind.

      Think of how some people literally dream the answers to complex questions. Here, we are in a different state of consciousness where our minds can make connections otherwise impossible when awake. We are open to receiving what some call visions (and perhaps sometimes they are). For instance, while at MIT, mathmetician John Newman dreamed that his (Beautiful Mind-famous) protégé, John Nash, explained the answer to a mathematical formulae he’d been working on. Dream-Nash was right, and Newman published it. There are a shocking number of examples of these kinds of dreams for scientsits, and I vaguely recall one of Paul McCartney’s best songs came to him in a dream. I won’t steal my own thunder from my next planned blog on dreams and dreaming by citing too many more. But there’s another level of dreaming that is harder to explain by strict rationality, and that’s Jungian archetype and symbols, and precognition and synchronicity. Jung had a dream that foretold WWII. I’ll get into that next week.

      But yes, the Last Ancient delves into the what-if of visions: what if they do come from an external source? What if these visions elevate the self into higher forms of consciousness, as alchemists transmute base materials into precious metals?

      So, the golden crow—I’d love to see one again. It wasn’t a figment of my imagination. It was a unique natural phenomena at a unique time in my life. The coincidence was incredible. I’d love for it not to have been a coincidence. I guess you could say that I remain skeptical, but open to and fascinated by the amazing and the fantastic.