Researchers have created ‘ghosts’ in a lab

They probably should have revealed this in time for Halloween, but Swiss scientists have found a way to create the experience of feeling a ghost-like presence. Researchers from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne asked study participants to perform a series of movements with their hands, while a robot was behind them, copying what they did and touching them on the back. Then they asked them to perform specific movements again, but with a delay before the robot copied and touched them.

Even though the participants didn’t know what the experiment was for and were aware of the robot, many of them reported ‘feeling a presence’, one reporting that four ghosts were in the room. Another participant was so freaked out that they asked to cut the experiment short. (There’s video of the whole spooky experience, if you’re brave enough.)

The scientists think that distorting people’s temporal and spatial perception is the key to making them believe in a supernatural presence, and that the feeling of a ghost being nearby is due to changes in sensorimotor brain signals, leading the brain to become confused about the information it’s processing, even thinking that movements coming from our own bodies come from someone/thing else. Of course, this doesn’t account for seeing a ghost, but they hypothesise that the brain is similarly confused.

The idea that apparatiions are cuased by the brain is strengthened by another study by the same team, led by Giulio Rognini. People with neurological conditions including epilepsy often report this kind of phenomenon, so the researchers looked at MRI scans of 12 such patients and found that three areas of the brain were affected: the insular cortex, parietal-frontal cortex, and temporo-parietal cortex, all of which are involved in movement and our awareness of our bodies relative to other people or objects.

They hope that in future, this knowledge could help them to understand how hallucinations occur in people with schizophrenia and other mental health conditions where there’s some degree of disconnect between the brain and reality.

And if it means no one has to sit through an episode of Most Haunted ever again, so much the better.

Image credit: Alain Herzog/EPFL.

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