The Ubyssey sat down with a professional paranormal investigator and a graduate student who specializes in the cognitive mechanisms behind paranormal beliefs to learn more about the science of spooky situations — just in time for Halloween.
Jason Hewlett, a lead investigator for the Vancouver Paranormal Society, examines potential hauntings to help people “put their mind at ease” in the face of unexplainable phenomena.
“Nine times out of ten it’s something completely natural,” Hewlett said when addressing the supposed paranormal. “Quite often, [it] could be a draft, carbon monoxide … so many other things. Even a branch repeatedly banging against the house or pipes settling or the house settling. They can cause these things that make people think they’re being haunted when they’re not.”
In the midst of the pandemic, Hewlett has found no shortage of investigation inquiries.
“I think maybe because of the times we’re living in people are even more consciously aware of this kind of thing,” said Hewlett.
The question remains why certain people may be more likely to contact the Vancouver Paranormal Society, fearing a temperamental spirit in their midst.
According to Cindel White, a UBC postdoctoral candidate who specializes in social personality psychology, there are many factors which may make someone more likely to believe in the paranormal.
She explained that those who tend to think a lot about other people’s mental states and intentions — and consider themselves adept at understanding these mental states — have a tendency to see purpose in life events. These individuals may be more likely to perceive events as paranormal.
What’s more is that certain cognitive biases, systematic errors in perceiving information, can also be involved.
Anthropomorphism, the perception of human traits in nonhuman things, has also been linked to a tendency to hold paranormal beliefs. As well, the theory of dualism, which argues that the mind is not bound by what we understand about the brain, could be a possible basis for seeing ghosts.
These cognitive mechanisms, along with cultural factors, might be why someone is more likely to think ‘ghost’ when they observe something strange going on in their home.
They also highlight an important quality to have as a leader in paranormal investigating: skepticism.
“You need a certain level of skepticism … because otherwise everything is paranormal,” Hewlett said. He explained that being skeptical and looking at things through an unbiased lens are critical in his investigations.
So what should students do if they suspect something spooky is in their midst?
Hewlett stressed that students shouldn’t be tempted to pursue their own ghost hunting ventures, as that may put students at risk for legal trouble or injury. He advised the use of professional paranormal investigators for the task and cautioned that inquirers should avoid enlisting anyone asking for money. The Vancouver Paranormal Society is a non-profit group.
When asked what he had to say to skeptics, Hewlett brought up his journalistic experience, saying that as a journalist, “you’re not supposed to [have] a conclusion about something until you get all your facts.”
He went on to reminisce about a podcast interview where he was the guest directly after renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Hewlett recalls that the physicist expressed admiration for paranormal investigators, asking, “How awesome would that be to find out there’s a whole other layer to life that we just haven’t thought of [yet]?”
“I think it’s one of those things in life that we will never have all the answers to … nobody knows what happens when we die,” Hewlett said.
Though skeptical of the existence of ghosts, White still acknowledged the fun of them. “I also really love ghosts. I just don’t necessarily believe they’re real,” she said.
This Halloween at UBC, considering both perspectives might help students feel prepared should anything spooky cross their path — whether it be assessing your cognitive background or arranging a visit with the Vancouver Paranormal Society. Because let’s face it, during midterm season, our courses are scary enough without having to worry about things that go bump in the night.