The Haunted Brain

Paranormal belief systems are associated with personality characteristics, and some paranormal phenomena have their basis in psychopathology

Not our houses but our brains are haunted. Neuroscience will one day provide explanations for what most people call ‘paranormal’ phenomena. These are more accurately described as anomalous psychological experiences and are broadly defined as those experiences which cannot be accounted for using conventional scientific explanations. Paranormal phenomena are altered states of consciousness brought about by changes in the electrochemical activity of the brain, and as will become clear below, some of the subjective experiences of these individuals can be explained in neuroscientific terms. It will eventually
be shown that all paranormal experiences are neurogenic in nature – that is, they originate in the brain and its activity.

Some of these phenomena, such as hauntings, can be explained by patterns of brain activity; others, such as ‘automatic writing’, can be explained by certain neuropsychiatric conditions. Paranormal belief systems are associated with personality characteristics, and some paranormal phenomena have their basis in psychopathology. Belief in paranormal phenomena is an example of ‘magical thinking,’ or non-scientific causal
reasoning. Magical thinking has several elements, such as believing in the interconnectedness of all things through forces that transcend the physical world, investing symbolic objects with special powers, and making causal connections between seemingly unrelated events.

Telekinesis, telepathy

People who have paranormal experiences may also be prone to visual and auditory hallucinations. Schizophrenics, and, to a far lesser extent, ‘normal’ people, experience auditory hallucinations. These
‘voices’ are known to be generated by the brain, but those who experience them deny that they originate from there, even though neuroimaging studies have shown that the voices are generated by activity in the neuronal circuits normally associated with speech production. It is well documented that patients with temporal lobe epilepsy often report having paranormal or religious experiences. In fact, both kinds of experiences can be evoked experimentally by magnetic stimulation of the temporoparietal region. These regions, which are involved in awareness of the ‘self’, trigger the experience of a sensed presence when stimulated.

Michael Persinger, a professor of neuroscience at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada, was the first to suggest that electromagnetism can affect brain activity and has evoked spiritual and paranormal experiences in people in this way. Persinger believes that brain activity can explain anything that might be described as a paranormal experience, including
apparitions, aliens, near-death experiences and past-life sensations.

It seems very plausible, then, that claims of ghost sightings can be explained in terms of magnetism. A ‘haunted house’ may be in an area with a particularly strong geomagnetic field, or one which is prone to large fluctuations in its geomagnetic field. This would alter the temporal lobe activity of people entering the area, evoking in them the experience of a sensed presence, or a ‘ghost’.

The alien hand syndrome is also demonstrated by split-brain patients. These are epileptics who have had commissurotomies (severing of the corpus callosum) to prevent the spread of epilepsy from one hemisphere of the brain to the another. The commissurotomy is a drastic procedure that was used in patients with severe, untreatable epilepsy.


As our understanding of brain function increases, the neurosciences will provide explanations for more of these phenomena, and advances in consciousness studies, combined with quantum physics, may one day explain others. A paranormal experience, like a religious one, is an altered state of consciousness. To gain an understanding of these altered state of consciousness is to better understand the nature of consciousness itself.

Source: Mo Costandi 

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