PUTTING THE "I" INTO INVESTIGATION
Self- Awareness (noun): Conscious knowledge of one's own character and feelings
This is a topic I've discussed many times in conversations with friends in the paranormal field- the importance of being aware of, and acknowledging, the various factors that can influence our thinking when we're investigating. These factors come in many forms- they can be psychological, environmental, even medical, and each of them is capable of affecting our perceptions and thus perhaps greatly affecting or altering the outcome of an investigation, depending on our awareness of them, and how we respond to them.
I guess in order to explain, it might be best if I take the different factors I mentioned, and break them down into categories so as to illustrate them better!
A LITTLE PSYCHOLOGY
I've visited a lot of different locations over my years as an investigator- from hotels and residences to disused asylums, gaols and hospitals. One thing that strikes me as a very big possible influence on our perception, and thus our investigations, is the appearance of the location.
Take the photo above, for instance. This was one I took at a location I've investigated twice now- a decommissioned Asylum. Looks pretty spooky, doesn't it? And that's one vital thing to consider here- the way in which the appearance of a location can affect our perceptions, and our expected outcomes, when we investigate.
If we were to investigate a location which is modern and/or bland in appearance, would we have a different perception of it- a different expectation? Can the appearance, the ambience, affect the way we respond and react to certain stimuli? I do think it can.
If we were spending time in a location that looked like the one in the photo above, and if, for example, we were to hear an unidentified noise, might we react to or perceive that noise differently than if we were to hear a similar noise whilst spending time in a bland, modern-looking location? I think perhaps some of us might, hence I think it important that we be aware of the impact the appearance of a location can have. It may look spooky, and it may be old, but does that necessarily mean that any creak, tap, or bang is paranormal? Absolutely not.
Other factors can be added for consideration here too, such as the weather and time of day, for instance. If we visit or investigate a location on a bright sunny day, no matter its appearance, might we be less inclined to attribute any strange noises to a paranormal cause? If we're there on a stormy, grey day, wind howling and rain pelting, might we view that same location differently, and attribute different causes to anything unusual that happens? And if we're at that location at night, that changes things again..
One of the investigations I've been on that was most demonstrative of those considerations was at a decommissioned Asylum (not the one in the photo above), and it took place on a sweltering summer afternoon and night. During the night, a thunder and lightning storm broke, almost overhead. I was alone at the time the storm broke, setting up a camera and recorder in a vast, empty ward.
Did the weather conditions, the sound of the thunder and the blue glow of the lightning, and the darkness of night affect the ambience of the location for me? You bet they did- I thought it made the place even more fantastically eerie and atmospheric!
But as I've always tried my hardest to be aware of how such factors might influence my perceptions, I made sure to my utmost to not let the weather conditions, the time of day, the appearance of the location and the atmosphere that combination created, affect the way I looked at anything that occurred that night, or my findings or conclusions.
I know there's lots of talk in the paranormal field about how weather conditions, or time of day may be capable of enhancing possible paranormal activity but as yet, and as with everything we speculate on, nothing's been proven conclusively!
From my personal experience the weather, or the time of day, has made no difference to my findings, aside from adding some fantastic sound and/or lighting effects..and I've had some interesting experiences on daytime investigations as well as night-time ones.
If we DO feel some difference is apparent, I feel it very important that we be aware of how much of that may be something we might have created in our minds due to the effect things like the weather, and the setting we're in, and whether it's dark or not, can have on the way we look at a situation.
Another factor that plays an important part here is the information we've read, or researched, or been told, about a location we're investigating.
To give an example here, I was fortunate enough to spend a night in what's purportedly the most haunted private residence in the country- a beautiful old homestead called Monte Cristo.
Monte Cristo is extremely well-known in the paranormal community here in Australia, and it's very easy to find many stories of its' dark past, and of the many different strange experiences had there over the years.
I'm lucky to have the assistance of a very good historian with my location research (Thanks Deb!), and in her research she couldn't find any documented confirmation of some of the horrendous deeds apparently committed there, or some of the reputed deaths that occurred. Historical records and documentation can be sketchy sometimes, and when talking about Victorian-era locations quite often records have been lost, or perhaps purposely destroyed too.
But despite all this, and the fact that there is no documented confirmation to back up some claims, many visitors to the homestead over the years have reported experiences, which they've attributed to some of the individuals said to have lived and/or died there. How could this be, if in fact some of the events in the homestead's past may not have occurred?
You guessed it- prior information! It's perhaps what people have been told about what went on there that may have affected their perception of what could have been a perfectly ordinary occurrence, and therefore in their minds has been translated into something paranormal, unexplained.
I'm not saying every report of an unusual experience there is imagined- indeed, two of my team members had unusual experiences there, and I had one myself..but as I was spending time in what's reputedly the most haunted house in the country I feel it important to consider and acknowledge the possibility that I may have misinterpreted something that could have been completely natural and explainable, due to where I was, and the fact that this could have created subconscious expectations, no matter how aware I was of that possibility and tried to rule it out. Our mind is a powerful thing, and we need to remind ourselves of that constantly too.
I think it's important that we consider the effect any prior information we have on a location might influence the way we look at any experiences we may have there. In order to prevent that from happening, sometimes it may be best that if we can do so, we "go in blind" to a location, so that our perceptions are not influenced by any prior information.
I try to limit the information given to any of my team when we're investigating a new or not-well-known location; I sometimes feel it's better that myself and my historian friend are the only ones aware of what any research has uncovered.
Our psychological makeup- our beliefs and expectations, the things which can- and do- affect our perceptions of a situation, are vitally important things to be aware of and take into account before we jump to conclusions about anything that occurs whilst on an investigation. After all, these belief-based factors can directly affect our findings, too- we can quite easily form an unconscious bias if we're not aware..or self-aware!
THE ENVIRONMENT- AND I'M NOT TALKING ABOUT THE WEATHER!
I have Brandon Massullo's book to again thank for this consideration- a vitally important one, I think! After reading his book I began looking into the the work of another great researcher, Dr. Michael Persinger, whose work has also provided me with a great deal of food for thought.
As we're well aware, we live in a world where we are constantly surrounded by electromagnetic fields (EMF's). The effects of EMF's on our perceptions, and indeed of some on our health and well-being, have been well-documented. A great deal of Persinger's research was conducted around the effects of EMF's, and the effects that those of varying strengths may have on our feeling that there's something strange or paranormal going on.
Michael Persinger was a neurophysicist, perhaps best known for his experiments with the "God Helmet" (or "Koren Helmet") in the late 1980's. His work is possibly partly responsible for the correlation between paranormal experiences and EMF's, and is possibly the reason so many investigators now regularly use what was once an electrician's tool as part of their equipment kit..but there's a lot more to his work than that..
Persinger's initial research with the God Helmet showed that when a complex (fluctuating), weak magnetic field of between 10-50 milligauss (mG) is applied to the right hemisphere of the brain, after about 20 to 40 minutes of this close to 80% of the experimental subjects reported having an experience similar to a paranormal one. Persinger and Koren took their experiments out of the laboratory, and conducted magnetic field measurements over a 24-hour period in a house reported by its occupants, an adult couple, to be haunted. The occupants had reported feelings of fear, nightmares, apparitions, and hearing whispers and sounds of breathing.
Average background readings in the house were between 1 mG and 10 mG. In the area near the couple's bed though, where most of the reports of experiences occurred, fluctuations varying between 10 mG and 50 mG that lasted between a few seconds and tens of seconds- therefore, weak and complex fields- were noted.
Monitoring the fields in the area, Persinger and Koren found that a notable fluctuation occurred at around 3 a.m, coinciding with the time the female occupant reported sensing a presence.
They concluded that the complex fields were due to faulty wiring in the house, and stated:
"This case suggests that transient, complex temporal patterns of power-frequency magnetic fields generated by less than optimal grounding in dwellings and telluric currents may be sufficient to evoke experiences in the brains of sensitive individuals. Cultural labels, applied by the experients, then affect the explanations and expectancies for these experiences."
If we were to investigate at a location where there are complex fields present in that 10-50 mG range, say due to faulty wiring, what might happen after a decent amount of time of our being there, due to the effects of those fields, and also our own beliefs, values, and expectations- our "cultural labels"?
OUR MEDICAL CONDITIONS, AND THEIR EFFECTS
I can actually start this section with something both relevant to the topic, and also to me personally. I was recently diagnosed with a form of vertigo called BPV (Benign Positional Vertigo) and, whilst the effects of this can be controlled to a degree there will always be the possibility of further attacks occurring. When I had the first onset of the illness, I was actually in the middle of an investigation and, unaware at the time that I was suffering from vertigo, I actually wondered if my extreme dizziness was perhaps some form of paranormal experience!
Of course I know the real cause of that dizziness now, and can pretty much rule any dizziness out as not paranormal in origin if it occurs again whilst I'm investigating. There are other illnesses and conditions that can affect our perceptions whilst on investigations, too.
For instance, sufferers of fibromyalgia report being able to affect electrical equipment- people have reported equipment behaving oddly in paranormal experiences, too. Those who have Temporal lobe Epilepsy frequently report unexplained experiences, often linked to spontaneous seizures. I've done a little reading in an online forum for epilepsy sufferers about their reported paranormal experiences, and I also read a rather interesting research paper written by Persinger in which he states:
"That patients who display complex partial seizures with foci within the temporal lobes, particularly the amygdala and hippocampus, report more frequent paranormal-like experiences has been known for decades. Distortions in subjective time, the sensed presence of another sentient being, out-of-body experiences, and even religious reveries have occurred during spontaneous seizures."
A condition called post-nasal drip, caused by mucus build up in the nasal passages, can cause a strange taste in the mouth, and the perception of unusual smells- also something commonly reported in paranormal experiences.
Certain toxins present in some environments which over short exposure may have little to no effect on us, but over longer exposure- like repeated investigations- may have an effect on our well-being and thus also on our perceptions, are also to be considered.
In older locations, there's the possibility of things such as lead-based paint being present.
Lead was removed from paint in Australia in 1970, and in America in 1978, but is quite often present in paint in places built before then, if they've not been repainted. If the paint is peeling or chipping, and microscopic dust particles containing traces of lead paint are inhaled over extended periods of time, this can cause lead poisoning, which has symptoms such as fatigue, abdominal and joint pain, memory loss, nausea, and mood swings. If we repeatedly investigate at older locations where lead paint is present, and we start to experience these things, there may be a non-paranormal explanation for this!
Certain types of molds which can be present in some locations can also have an effect on us and our health, and thus our perceptions. If we spend extended periods of time investigating at locations where there is water damage to the timbers in the building or its walls and wallpaper, and its ceilings and floors, or there's decaying fabric or carpet, or rotting wood for instance, we could unknowingly be inhaling tiny spores of mold.
Some types of mold can have an effect on our health if we are repeatedly exposed to them, and can cause symptoms such as tremors, vertigo, muscle cramps, joint pain, temperature fluctuation, headaches, nausea, and a metallic taste in the mouth. Some of those sound a bit like some factors in reports of paranormal experiences too, funnily enough!
Again, these are all reported factors in paranormal experiences, and again any sufferer of a condition must be aware that what might be going on might not be paranormal, but could be merely a side-effect of that condition.
There are many other conditions that could affect our perception and the way we translate event-related information on investigations, but I could probably write an entire book chapter on them!
The main thing is to be aware that sometimes there are many things- psychological, environmental, medical- that can cause us to feel we've experienced something paranormal. If we don't stop to consider such things, we may misjudge a situation, or jump to the wrong conclusion. Investigation starts with "I" in both respects, as we must investigate ourselves too!
Feel free to share any thoughts you have in comments- I'd love to hear them!