Intro to Psychology of the Paranormal
Updated: Apr 2, 2021
There is a certain motto that I think is necessary to understand when studying paranormal claims, and that is: you don’t know what you don’t know.
It’s important to approach paranormal research with humility. The very context of paranormal activity means that a reported phenomenon is already outside the scope of traditional scientific inquiry, i.e. it is not within the “norm” of our daily lives. Paranormal claims are called as such because they don’t seem to abide by the well-proven natural laws of our physical universe.
In this blog, I’m going to cover some basic psychological principles below that paranormal researchers should know about and understand. This is not meant to substitute for in-class learning or accredited education, it is simply meant to provide a basic understanding of how the brain may perceive information and delve into some of the most common events seen in the paranormal field.
Autokinetic Effect (Autokinesis)
The autokinetic effect most commonly occurs when clients believe they are visually seeing orbs or witnessing UFO sightings in the night sky. When a client sees a mysterious light in the darkness, the light will appear to be moving, although, it is not. This phenomenon of visual perception takes place because the perception of motion is always relative to a reference point, i.e. our brains pick a stationary object in the surrounding environment and perceive how fast or far something is moving based on its relativity to that particular point. However, in darkness, we can’t see the surrounding environment, so no reference point can be made. The result is a light that appears to be moving to our naked eye.
Confirmation bias is the big one. It is defined as: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
This is by far the most common event that paranormal investigators fall victim to. When investigating paranormal claims, it’s vital to go into the case with no preconceived notions and to follow the evidence throughout the duration of the case. Instead, many investigators start out with the assumption that it will be one way or another: malevolent, demonic, benign, etc. and this mindset alters the evidence and destroys any validity of actual gathered evidence. For example, if an investigator believes that there is a demonic presence in the home based on the client’s claims and their own subjective experiences, then any responses from EVP or Spirit Box will automatically be assumed to be from a demonic entity. But that’s not how it works. Our brains are easily duped and our personal feelings, experiences, or even visions need to be taken with a grain of salt until the evidence points toward that phenomenon being the conclusion. It’s all too common to hear from clients that someone told them their home is oppressed by demons and they’re in danger – despite there being absolutely no evidence of that.
Point being, as an investigator, you should not be searching for an answer that backs up your existing beliefs. Let the evidence tell you what’s going on. Just because you might be Christian, it doesn’t mean that a client having negative experiences is being afflicted by a demon (and one from Christian mythology nonetheless).
This also rings true for clients though. Unfortunately, many people want to hear what they want to hear and any deviation from that may result in them not following your advice or lashing out at you - but that’s part of the job. It would be unethical to not give people the unbiased truth – whether they need medical or psychiatric assistance or if there is in fact, no paranormal activity occurring at all. The value of understanding confirmation bias cannot be overstated.
Pareidolia is another extremely common occurrence in the paranormal field. It is the tendency for humans to incorrectly perceive a stimulus as an object, pattern, or meaning. This false perception can occur with any of the five senses, most commonly affecting our visual and auditory centers as visual- or auditory pareidolia.
Visual pareidolia is commonly referred to as “matrixing” in the paranormal field. This phenomenon most often occurs when paranormal investigators take still photographs or record videos, and while looking through their footage, they discover what appear to be faces staring back at them. Many will use this as evidence of ghosts or shadow people, but I’m here to tell you that is probably not the case.
See, over time and through evolution, the human brain adapted to rapidly detect the presence of other people in our surrounding environments so we could make inferences about their qualities such as personal identity, emotional state, and direction of attention (Palmer & Clifford, 2020). The importance of this ability to survival cannot be overstated: it helps us with recognizing threats and dangers. We use it every day to detect body language and “feel out” situations or people.
However, without getting into the actual neurophysiology of the mechanisms behind facial recognition, it’s also important to know that this phenomenon is backed by peer-reviewed research. It seems that we process “pareidolia faces” using the same visual mechanisms of the brain that we do for real ones. That would explain why we seem to be so positive that what we’re looking at is a real thing staring back at us, whether ghost, demon, or otherwise. After all, if I can see it, it must be something, right?
Well, no. Our brains like symmetry and for things to make sense. Our realities are based off perception, so the brain is the filter through which we can interpret information. There are 6 Gestalt Principles which explain how our brains do this:
1. Law of Proximity: elements close to one another tend to be perceived as a unit.
2. Law of Pragnanz: objects in the environment will appear as simple as possible.
3. Law of Similarity: similar things appear to be grouped together.
4. Law of Good Continuation: elements that appear to follow a similar pathway tend to be grouped together.
5. Law of Subjective Contours: we can perceive optical illusions.
6. Law of Closure: an incomplete figure will be perceived as a whole.
Look at the picture. Do you see how easily our brains are deceived? For example, why do you see a diamond (or square) in the Law of Closure picture when none of the lines are connected to one another?
Showing you this information is only to prove that many extra steps need to be taken before classifying a photograph or video as evidence of the paranormal. If the image is blurry or taken with a low-quality camera, forget it. Your brain will take that and play tricks all day long. If you look hard enough at any image or video, or blow it up enough, you’re going to see all kinds of stuff that isn’t really there.
Now, auditory pareidolia is the perception of intelligible words from a random noise or jumbling of sounds. This is most seen as Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) in the paranormal field. When coupled with the power of suggestion, EVP recordings become even less impressive. As an example, if I played an audio recording for you and told you what you are supposed to hear, you will hear what I suggested. If someone else told you it says something different, you’ll then begin to hear what they suggested instead.
The best way to avoid the power of suggestion is to simply play the recordings and listen for what you believe you’re hearing and write down all possibilities - because there’s simply no way to guarantee what you’re hearing is legitimately what you’re hearing. Have each team member listen and record their opinions separately, then compare notes at the end. It’s also vital to make sure that you are minimizing contamination while you’re recording audio sessions. Try to control the environment as much as possible. Again, if someone is talking during a supposed EVP, forget it. It’s probably useless and should almost always be considered pareidolia. Now, if your recorder is sitting by itself in a basement, no one is in the house, and you capture a full sentence being said, that may be a different story and should be investigated further.
Another unusual example of auditory pareidolia is exploding head syndrome which occurs when a person is falling asleep or on the verge of waking up. Many people will report hearing a loud crash such as a cymbal or gun shot during this time. There is no known consensus for why this phenomenon occurs, but it’s important to know it does exist and it happens frequently to a lot of people.
The final psychological concept I want to briefly discuss is apophenia. Apophenia is defined as the tendency to perceive meaningful connections in seemingly unrelated things. According to Ian, 2019:
“If someone sees an image of Jesus Christ on their toast, that is pareidolia, but if they then go on to believe that it is God’s way of giving them a message, then that is apophenia again. In paranormal circles, the same thing can happen when a loved one passes and the bereaved family member or friend could start to connect random events as signs of their passed over father or friend etc. as giving them signs or messages that they are ok, or need to pass on a message to them.”
As human beings, we love to make connections, even where none exists. Apophenia is largely responsible for all the claims of synchronicities in our every day lives. I would say, as a faithful yet scientific person myself, that true messages from deceased loved ones do not happen frequently. There is usually a moment in time that can be definitively stated as "impossible to be coincidence" and that is probably a true message or visitation. Seeing repeating angel numbers (such as 333, etc.) on your Instagram post likes are seemingly meaningless unless coupled with actual meaningful and deeply personal happenings. Otherwise, it's just probability and the math will debunk your synchronicity on the spot.
The paranormal field deals closely with the mysteries of death, religion, and philosophy – and can be impacted by science, culture, and mere interpretation. Hopefully, with this introduction of basic psychological principles, you can continue your paranormal research with a more-thorough approach. Change is made through individuals and if every paranormal researcher who reads this begins to change the ways in which they are classifying paranormal evidence, then the field will move forward, and we may actually get one step closer to finding the truth.
Ian. (2019). Pareidolia and Apophenia Explained. Owlcation.com.
Palmer J. C. & Clifford C. W. G. (2020). Face Pareidolia Recruits Mechanisms for Detecting
Human Social Attention. Psychological Science 31 (8): 1001-1012; DOI: