6 Scientific Explanations for Ghosts

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A surprising number of people believe in ghosts. A 2017 survey by Chapman University found that 52 percent of Americans believe places can be haunted by spirits, an increase of approximately 11 percent since 2015. An earlier UK survey found that 52 percent of participants believed in the supernatural. But there may be a more scientific basis to things that go bump in the night than a restless afterlife.

Here are six logical explanations for that ghostly presence in your house.

1. ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS

For decades, a Canadian neuroscientist named Michael Persinger has been studying the effects of electromagnetic fields on people’s perceptions of ghosts, hypothesizing that pulsed magnetic fields, imperceptible on a conscious level, can make people feel as if there is a “presence” in the room with them by causing unusual activity patterns in the brain’s temporal lobes. Persinger has studied people in his lab wearing a so-called “God Helmet,” finding that certain patterns of weak magnetic fields over someone’s head for 15 to 30 minutes can create the perception that there’s an invisible presence in the room.

Some subsequent research has pushed back on this theory, arguing that people were responding to the suggestion that they would feel a ghostly presence, rather than to the electromagnetic field. However, Persinger counters that this experiment followed very different protocols than his own research [PDF]. Other scientists have also found that environments that have a reputation for being haunted often feature unusual magnetic fields.

2. INFRASOUND

Infrasound is sound at levels so low humans can’t hear it (though other animals, like elephants, can). Low frequency vibrations can cause distinct physiological discomfort. Scientists studying the effects of wind turbines and traffic noise near residences have found that low-frequency noise can cause disorientation [PDF], feelings of panic, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, and other effects that could easily be associated with being visited by a ghost [PDF]. For instance, in a 1998 paper on natural causes of hauntings [PDF], engineer Vic Tandy describes working for a medical equipment manufacturer, whose labs included a reportedly haunted room. Whenever Tandy worked in this particular lab, he felt depressed and uncomfortable, often hearing and seeing odd things—including an apparition that definitely looked like a ghost. Eventually, he discovered that the room was home to a 19 Hz standing wave coming from a fan, which was sending out the inaudible vibrations that caused the disorienting effects. Further studies also show links between infrasound and bizarre sensations like getting chills down the spine or feeling uneasy.

3. MOLD

Shane Rogers, an engineering professor at Clarkson University, has spent the past few months touring reportedly haunted locations looking for not-so-paranormal activity: mold growth. Preliminary research indicates that some molds can cause symptoms that sound pretty ghostly—like irrational fear and dementia. “I’ve watched a lot of ghost shows,” he tells Mental Floss. He began to wonder “if there’s some kind of link there, where we might be able to explain why people are having these feelings.” So far in the data collection process, “it’s hard to say whether that’s a contributing factor or not, but anecdotally we are seeing these [toxic molds] exist in places that are haunted," Rogers says.

4. CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING

In 1921, a doctor named W.H. Wilmer published an odd story about a haunted house in the American Journal of Ophthalmology. The family who lived in this haunted residence, called the H family in the medical literature, began experiencing weird phenomena when they moved into an old house—hearing furniture moving around and strange voices in the night, feeling the presence of invisible specters. They report being held down in bed by ghosts, feeling weak, and more. As it turned out, a faulty furnace was filling their house with carbon monoxide, causing aural and visual hallucinations. The furnace was fixed, and the H family went back to their lives, sans ghosts.

5. SOMEONE ELSE SAID IT WAS REAL.

In a 2014 study, Goldsmiths, University of London psychologists had participants watch a video of a “psychic” supposedly bending a metal key with his mind. In one condition, study subjects watched the video with a “participant” who was actually working with the researchers and professed to see the key bending. Those subjects were more likely to report that they saw the key bend than subjects who were paired with someone who asserted that the key didn’t bend or said nothing. “One person’s account can influence another person’s memory,” study co-author Christopher French tells Mental Floss. If someone else confidently asserts that they saw the ghost, it might influence a fellow eyewitness to believe they saw it, too.

6. WE WANT TO BELIEVE.

"There is a motivational side to belief in ghosts,” French explains. “We all want to believe in life after death. The idea of our mortality is one we are not generally comfortable with.” Confirmation bias holds powerful sway over our perceptions. “We find it much easier to believe evidence for something we want to believe anyway,” he says.

10 Saccharine Facts About Sweetest Day

Peter Purdy, BIPs/Getty Images
Peter Purdy, BIPs/Getty Images

Unless you live in certain parts of the United States, there's a good chance you've never heard of Sweetest Day. For others, however, it's a century-old celebration. Here's what you need to know about the semi-obscure holiday.

1. THERE'S A REASON IT'S THE THIRD SATURDAY IN OCTOBER.

This image of newsboy Emil Frick was first published in The Cleveland Press on October 8, 1921.
This image of newsboy Emil Frick was first published in The Cleveland Press on October 8, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the holiday was founded in 1916, trick-or-treating hadn't become popular yet, so though Halloween existed, there was no autumn boost to the candy industry like there is now. That's why the National Confectioners Association invented a mid-season marketing gimmick to help increase sales before Christmas. Naturally, they tried to spin it otherwise, writing that the spirit of the day should be "interpreted as a spirit of good will, appreciation, and good fellowship."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY KNOWN AS "CANDY DAY."

A Sweetest Day advertisement first published in The Cleveland Press on October 6, 1921.
A Sweetest Day advertisement first published in The Cleveland Press on October 6, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though the National Confectioners Association wanted the celebration to appear as if it was about more than just candy sales, the name they gave the holiday belied their efforts. It didn't become the slightly more subtle "Sweetest Day" until the 1920s.

3. HERBERT HOOVER WAS NOT PLEASED ABOUT IT.

In 1918, Herbert Hoover was the director of the United States Food Administration, and was closely associated with relief efforts Europe. Here, he is standing with his wife and daughter by a poster giving thanks to America for its help in providing food.
In 1918, Herbert Hoover was the director of the United States Food Administration, and was closely associated with relief efforts Europe. Here, he is standing with his wife and daughter by a poster giving thanks to America for its help in providing food.
A. R. Coster, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Of course the year the holiday was founded, 1916, was smack in the middle of World War I. By the time the second annual day rolled around, Herbert Hoover, who was then the director of the U.S. Food Administration, reminded the National Confectioners Association that their consumerism creation wasn't exactly in the best interests of America's wartime efforts to conserve sugar.

In 1917, an industry bulletin called The International Confectioner noted, "As Mr. Hoover had requested everyone, everywhere, to cut down as much as possible on their usings of sugar, he considered that Candy Day was an effort on the part of our industry in the very opposite direction."

4. CELEBRITIES AND CAUSE MARKETING FINALLY DID THE TRICK.

Actress Theda Bara giving candy to orphans in 1921.
Actress Theda Bara giving candy to orphans in 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once it was safe to increase sugar production again, marketing efforts kicked back into high gear. In 1921, Cleveland Candy Day organizers got the bright idea to tie the promotion into charity, giving sweets to orphanages and the elderly. Actresses Theda Bara and Ann Pennington went to Cleveland to help distribute thousands of boxes of candy, which helped further popularize the celebration.

5. THERE'S ANOTHER TALE ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF THE HOLIDAY.

A 1922 ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
A 1922 ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

According to Hallmark, Sweetest Day came about because a candy company employee named Herbert Kingston simply wanted to spread joy to others and "bring happiness to the lives of those who often were forgotten." But The Atlantic calls this happy little story a complete fabrication, so take it with a grain of salt.

6. HALLMARK WAS LATE TO THE PARTY.

A man mailing a letter in 1960s New York.
Keystone, Getty Images

Though it's often referred to as a "Hallmark Holiday," Hallmark didn't actually get in on those sweet Sweetest Day profits until the 1960s—nearly 50 years after it was founded.

7. MOST SWEETEST DAY CARDS ARE ROMANTICALLY INCLINED.

This front-page Sweetest Day cartoon was published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 8, 1921.
This front-page Sweetest Day cartoon was published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 8, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite the fact that Sweetest Day started as a way to hawk candy to the downtrodden, it's now just another Valentine's Day for many people. Hallmark makes more than 70 Sweetest Day cards—and 80 percent of them are romantic.

8. FOR SOME, IT'S MORE POPULAR THAN MOTHER'S DAY.

A little boy gives his mother some flowers
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

According to Retail Confectioners International, some retailers say their sales for Sweetest Day are better than their sales for Mother's Day. (Sorry, mom.)

9. THESE DAYS, SWEETEST DAY ISN'T JUST ABOUT THE CANDY.

Two women laughing together.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

Though those commemorating the holiday can certainly buy candy, that's just one of the ways people can express their appreciation for anyone who might not otherwise have a special day (a favorite aunt, a next-door neighbor, the pet sitter). Various ways to celebrate Sweetest Day include flowers, cards, gifts, or simply just doing good deeds for others.

10. NEVER HEARD OF SWEETEST DAY? YOU'RE NOT ALONE.

An ice cream vendor in New York hands a young girl an ice cream in the 1920s.
Elizabeth R. Hibbs, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sweetest Day never gained as much ground nationally as it did in the Great Lakes region. The main states that celebrate sweetness on the third Saturday of October are Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, though it has also spread to areas of New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, and California. The biggest Sweetest Day cities are Detroit, Buffalo, and of course, Cleveland.

This story first ran in 2016.

Today is National Necktie Day in Croatia—Birthplace of the Necktie

Srdjan Stevanovic, Getty Images
Srdjan Stevanovic, Getty Images

If you're wearing a necktie to work today, you can thank (or blame) the Croatians for this stylish invention. The necktie's predecessor, a short knotted garment called the cravat, is a source of pride in this Western Balkan nation—so much so that they celebrate Cravat Day each year on October 18.

It's unclear when exactly the necktie was invented, but Croatian soldiers wore red cravats as part of their uniform during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). According to The Atlantic, Croatian mercenaries carried it to Western Europe that same century, and the French borrowed the idea and dubbed it the cravate. It became even more stylish when Louis XIV of France started wearing a lace cravat in 1646 at the tender age of 7, according to The Dubrovnik Times. The English eventually helped spread the accessory around the world, and it morphed into the elongated form we're most familiar with today.

In 1997, a nonprofit organization called the Academia Cravatica was founded to promote the cravat as a symbol of Croatian ingenuity. "By spreading the truth about the cravat, we improve Croatia's image in the international public," the organization states. "The fact that Croats invented the Cravat makes us proud to be Croats." (According to Time Out, Croatia also invented the first MP3 player, the zeppelin, the parachute, and fingerprint identification.)

The cravat is also tied up with national identity. The words Croat and cravat are etymologically linked, and were once different spellings of the same word. One sample sentence by David Hume in 1752 reads, "The troops are filled with Cravates and Tartars, Hussars, and Cossacs."

The holiday isn't normally a big to-do, but the county's capital city, Zagreb, occasionally gets pretty festive. In 2003, when the holiday first debuted in Croatia, the Academia Cravatica wrapped an oversized red necktie around Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheater. It took two years to prepare and five days to install—and at 2650 feet long, it ended up being the largest necktie in the world, as recognized by Guinness World Records.

Cravat Day was formally declared a holiday by Croatian Parliament in 2008, and it's been a hallmark of Croatian culture ever since. A few events were planned in Zagreb today, including a march featuring the "city's famous Cravat Regiment." So if you happen to be in the Croatian capital, now you know why more than 50 historic statues are looking dapper in their red cravats.

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