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Do ghosts change their clothes, use underwear?

That’s one smart-alecky quip to throw cold water on animated accounts, which you’ll hear often in this season of ghosts, of ethereal creatures crossing the oceans of time and space—as Dracula in that movie poetically put it – to appear to their loved ones, or to the faithful. You can follow it up: If ghosts pass through walls, why don’t their clothes pass through them?
The question of iron logic though to debunk beliefs in ghosts is one that underpins the basic principle underlying modern knowledge and probability theory, even in such a mundane field as journalism: Which account is more credible?


That is, to explain ghost sightings, which of the following two explanations is more credible and reasonable?

• One, that all the laws of nature as we know it were suspended or violated just for an episode that didn’t benefit anyone except to give some people some thrill or justification for their religious beliefs;

• Or two, that the sighting was reported by somebody so much traumatized and in grief by the death of his or her loved one that he or she simply “saw things”; by somebody who was psychotic; by religious ideologues wanting to prove their beliefs; or, quite simply, by charlatans and writers just out to make money.

It is of course an ancient belief, and of nearly all cultures on the planet. I’ll bet nine out of ten readers of this column would swear that there are ghosts. Indeed, even in the US, according to a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll, 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, that spirits of the dead return to the land of the living.

The belief in ghosts is also so powerful since it assumes one thing we really wish for: a personal existence after our bodies cease to exist. Indeed, I’ve noticed that the most passionate in believing in ghosts are usually those deep in Catholic religiosity.

The powerful entertainment industry has made more and more people believe in ghosts. Each decade has its hit ghost story: “Amityville Horror” (1979), “Poltergeist” (1982), “Ghost” (1990), “Sixth Sense” (1999), “Paranormal Activity” (2007). Include there the plethora of vampire movies in the past years.

It seems to me that one out of two Filipino movies or TV series these days are either ghost or fantasy movies. Maybe we are so miserable that we have to get kicks out of the tiny doses of adrenalin we get from watching horror movies.

But as that insight attributed to the French novelist and journalist Anatole France, put it, and paraphrased in so many versions now: “If 50 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”

“But I saw it with my own eyes” is of course the insistence of ghost-believers, even of one hard-nosed reporter who claimed that he saw his boss who just died, suddenly appearing very happy in his office. Since he idolized the guy so much, I bit my lips so I wouldn’t say, “You should’ve asked him if still drinks his Remy Martin and smokes his Cohibas where he is.”

But both science, and would you believe it, an ancient form of meditation have explained why “you can see it with your own eyes.”

Belgian-French explorer Alexandra David-Néel reported long ago that there is Tibetan Buddhist (or Tantric Yoga) meditation technique in which the seeker “creates” a “tulpa”. That is, he visualizes for months and even years an imaginary entity, usually a god or goddess, or at least a benevolent creature protecting him in his hermit cave.

As narrated by an Englishwoman who became a Tibetan Buddhist adept and actually practiced the technique (Tenzin Palmos in her memoir “Cave in the Snow”) that imaginary entity becomes as real as “real” people are, that the tulpa would even greet her as soon as she woke up in the morning. Her mind’s creation of the imaginary creature was so strong that it took her two years of visualizations and meditation to gradually dissipate that created creature. Such is the power of the mind.

Western culture isn’t really unfamiliar with the tulpa phenomenon. Children are known to have imaginary friends that they imbue with human personalities, which gradually disappear as the child grows. A German word has entered the English language to describe a similar phenomenon of one’s ghostly double: Doppelgänger. “Extreme” explorers, such as solo mountain-climbers arctic region trekkers have reported imaginary companions appearing to accompany them, the mind’s trick of raising the moral of such solitary adventurers.

Even our broadcast and tabloid journalists even occasionally report as straight news cases
of grade-school students in some outback getting possessed by a spirit living in an old tree in the school’s grounds, and even fainting in front of video cameras. Haven’t they heard of the proven phenomenon of mass hysteria, especially among children?

Why does man have such a capacity to create a very realistic entity in his mind? Among other explanations, it is a crucial survival talent that emerged out of our evolutionary history.

If our hunter ancestors had to see all the features of a saber-tooth tiger, he won’t have time to flee and would most probably end up as tiger-snack, and we wouldn’t be here.

Instead, those who survived had the mental capacity to visualize out of very few details—a small striped pattern among the bushes for instance—a whole, ferocious tiger. The mind has to perceive the tiger with all its details so that the human’s adrenalin would kick in for him to sprint away, or have the strength to throw a deadly spear accurately.

More recently, physiologists have found out that such capacity “to fill in the details” is most pronounced in our peripheral vision, which is a big advantage obviously for our hunter ancestors.

Thus for a modern urbanite vacationing in a rural setting, leaves and branches blown by the breeze become, even for a few moments, manananggals or kapres, or their deceased uncles.

It’s been only in the past two or three decades that science, using the most modern technology (such as brain surgery and much-better-than-X-rays magnetic resonance imaging) has been incontrovertibly proving how foolish a belief in ghosts are, beyond the logical arguments against it.

Stumbled upon by brain surgeons’ efforts to find a cure for epilepsy, discovered was the fact that electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain (if you’re into details, the left temporoparietal junction) created in that person visions of the Doppelganger and shadowy ghost-like persons. Experimenters using “virtual reality” and simulation technology—for instance, a video of your back broadcast to mini-TVs on your glasses—have reported the distinct feeling of having out-of-body experiences.

Another relatively recent scientific discovery debunking beliefs in ghosts involves the phenomenon of infrasound, or “silent sounds” which vibrate below the 20 Hertz level that our hearing system do not perceive these. Storms, wind, the movement of tectonic plates, even appliances such as electric fans, generate these.

While our brains do not hear them, these “infrasounds”, which are vibrations in the air, still affect our hearing system and our bodies, creating such feelings as dread, a “presence”, creepy footsteps, weird indistinguishable humanlike voices. Yes, those are feelings and sounds usually reported in haunted houses.