Ghostly Spectacles

By Phil Plait | June 7, 2005 8:34 pm

Note added June 9, 2005: This entry was featured in the 10th Skeptics’ Circle hosted by Skeptico. As usual, there’s great stuff there.

So I’m sitting in my home office at night, slogging away at my blog (hmm… “blogslogging”? I may have coined a new word here). Even though it is fully dark outside, the window shade is up because earlier I wanted to let in the dying sunlight and cool twilight air, and I simply hadn’t gotten up to close it yet. My wife is in the living room reading, and the Little Astronomer is asleep, so I have a sense of being alone. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see something move outside.

I hate that feeling. The cold wave that goes through me, the feeling of being, well, almost naked, defenseless. I move just my eyes to the window, and see the fence, the neighbor’s house (too damn close, I hate California sometimes), the front left corner of my recycling bin, the top of a snapdragon growing in a pot along the fence. I also see the reflection of my office in the darkened window, a Universe where in-and-out is reversed. But in both realities everything is static. There is no motion, no hint of anything having changed position.

I turn my eyes again to my lovely prose, and just as I start to type, I see motion again. This time I move my head, and this time, as before, there’s nothing there.

As a kid, my brain went through many years of training as a creduloid, someone who believes just about anything, simply because someone told me so. UFOs, astral projection, the Bermuda Triangle– at some point, I believed in it. Over time I figured out how to ask for evidence, how to evaluate it, and how to form an opinion based on that evaluation. I’ve had a long time to make that procedure second nature.

So my skeptical brain kicks into gear easily and smoothly. Nothing’s moving out there, my brain reasons. So either something moved in here (unlikely; there is nothing in here that can move), or it’s an illusion (likely; I’ve been fooled before). OK, assume it’s an illusion. Can I test it? I need to try to repeat it.

I position myself just as I was when I saw the apparition, and start typing. Suddenly, I see it again! A motion, out of the corner of my right eye. This time, though, I don’t move. I sit very still, and then slowly start moving my head, left to right, up and down, just a little bit.

Sure enough, after a few seconds, I know exactly what has happened. The ceiling light above and behind me reflects in my glasses. The light bounces off my glasses and illuminates my right eye. My eye reflects in my glasses and then back into my own right eye. In other words, the motion I see is the motion of my own eye, as seen by my own eye. My glasses act as a mirror, but not a very good one, so the outlines of my pupil and iris are not terribly distinct. And the geometry of the situation is pretty finicky; if I move my eye even a little bit the reflection disappears.

That’s why I see nothing when I turn my head, and even when I just move my eyes. If the angles aren’t just so, the reflection doesn’t manifest itself.

I laugh. My immediate thought, skeptic that I am, is to wonder if this accounts for some sightings of ghosts. I know for a cold, hard, fact that most people are not trained to think critically. Polls show a lot of people believe in ghosts. And a lot of people wear glasses. What is the size of the population who live in the intersection of those three characteristics?

I’d love to see statistics. Have any ghost researchers done that study? It’s easy enough: take the number of people who have seen ghosts, and get the ratio of those who wear glasses to those who don’t. If that ratio is significantly higher than for the rest of the population, then I think we can explain quite a few “ghost sightings”.

But having seen the quality of a lot of ghost hunters on TV, in magazines, and from reading about paranormal/psychic fairs, I can just guess they probably have little or no interest in finding out that ratio. Boo hoo.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Cool stuff

Comments (27)

  1. Gryfin210

    Or maybe Hoagland, Lieder or Kaysing is going through your recycling. If that turns out to be the case, just spray some Wack-B-Gone around your property, which should keep those pesky troll infestations to a minimum.

    Yes, like you, Phil, I used to believe just about everything before I learned to think. I remember that I actually saw a “ghost” myself at a Hotel in Gettysurg, PA. I am now (and even then, somewhat) certain that I was building ghosts out of Neurons in my mind, and I needed a story to tell my friends, so for most of that night, a Union Soldier stood at the foot of my bed (serves me right for buying that Confederate Soldier’s cap at the gift shop).

  2. Petros

    I like your critical thinking. Ghosts will exist for ever in peoples’ minds though.

  3. Petros

    Your critical thinking always inspires me!

  4. dre

    I have worn glasses for twenty years now, and I will attest to their ghostly infestation. For the last six or eight years I’ve worn haute-fashionable wide, rectangular horn-rims, and they reach just wide enough to find several ghosts a day, not just re-re-reflected eyeball ghosts, but direct reflections of distant objects, even in bright daylight. I’m accustomed to it now, but sometimes on the highway, ghost-cars disrupt my lane-changing, and that can be a little alarming.

    Optics in general can be kinda counterintuitive, but when you’re not even THINKING about optics, your mind can play crazy tricks on you.

    Does anybody remember the cheesy TV ads from the 80s for the rear-view sunglasses? It featured “unpaid testimonials” from pedestrians on the boardwalk in Venice Beach or somewhere, and folks were checking out the hotpants on passers-by with their trick shades. “I’ve got to have a pair of these!”

  5. Michelle Rochon

    I wear glasses as well, and if there’s one thing that annoys me with this, it’s the reflection… Sure, you get used to it. Sure, there is stuff to prevent reflection. But the treatment wears off after a while and you start seeing IT.
    YOUR EYE! There is nothing more annoying than seeing your own eye, staring back at you. :P

    But many many times, I have seen things from the corner of my eye… But hey, it was never anything special. Always logical.

  6. Zamboni Schwartz

    This is why gosh invented magnesium flouride optical coatings, like you find on telescope optics.

  7. Zamboni Schwartz

    Interesting side note:

    You know what Percival Lowell was seeing when he drew the “canals” on mars? The reflections of the veins in his own eye. That was before antireflection coatings were applied to astronomical optics.

  8. Kebsis

    ‘ghostly spectacles’

    ‘harmonal concordance’

    I bow to the BA, master of all puns!

  9. DragonIV

    See, I have the fancy coating on my newly acquired glasses (was in glasses denial for a few years there), so I’ve only one year of experience with them.

    Last night, while sitting on the couch doing more work at home (whoever told me homework ended once you left school LIED!!!) on my less than trusty laptop, I happen to catch a movement out of the corner of my eye. Hmmm…aw, probably just the ceiling fan and shadows again. That gets me all the time with these silly glasses.

    Only problem was, this movement proceeded to crawl from the corner of my eye to my forearm–once my arm hairs confirmed the presence of the intruder, I gave it another look-see. Heheheh…just an inchworm, now trying to do its best impression of a branch to avoid my notice.

    See, some of these actually turn out to be real. Oddly enough, they also tend to turn out to be rather mundane.

  10. Keegan

    One night I saw something move out of the corner of my eye while reading in my bedroom. I was aware of how sometimes reflections appear in my glasses, so I assumed it was just that. Then it happened a second time, accompanied by a sort of thumping sound, but there were people downstairs working and making lots of noise in the kitchen, so I assumed it was just coincidence that they made an unusual noise just as I saw the movement. A little later, after there was no one working in the kitchen, I saw the movement and heard the noise again. This time, I looked in the direction of the movement and started; right outside my bedroom window was the hugest racoon I’ve ever seen. It was really weird, they don’t usually approach bright windows light that during the night time.

  11. I unfortunately have seen people believe that out of focus dust illuminated by a camera’s flash in a darkened room were ghosts. Soon to be a major national trend in ghostspotting!

  12. CR

    Out-of-focus dust illuminated by camera flash… “Soon to be a major national trend in ghostspotting!”
    It already is, I’m afraid. I’ve seen examples of it in some new age magazines (during my work at a printing company).
    I’ve also noticed a similar effect when taking a flash photo during a lightly misting rain, though I can’t post an example (I’m one of those “old school” guys who still uses film instead of a digital camera).

  13. CR

    Oh, boy… after reading this yesterday, and then even after reading the post from Kebsis about puns, I only just now caught the pun about “ghostly spectacles.” I don’t know what made me groan louder, the pun, or the fact that I completely missed it for so long!

  14. Irishman

    My ghost photo experience… a group of friends were having a party and hanging out. We decided to snap some digital photos of people, to remember the event and all. Looking at the pictures we all could see these filmy, wavy streaks around the room. It was very odd. If finally dawned on us it was the cigarette smoke being illuminated by the flash. It wasn’t particularly perceptible to the naked eye in the less than brightly lit room, but the flash really made it stand out.

    I have also noticed ghostly spectacle events. Even with the anti-glare coatings. They’re not perfect, and glasses are more prone to getting things like grease from fingerprints, moisture from sweat, etc.

  15. DennyMo

    “As a kid, my brain went through many years of training as a creduloid, someone who believes just about anything, simply because someone told me so. UFOs, astral projection, the Bermuda Triangle– at some point, I believed in it. ”
    WHAT?!? You mean my school library had books in their collection that were wrong?!? Sacrilege. Oh, wait, that’s your point, isn’t it…

  16. I imagine that the flash is so close to the axis of the lens that not only do we have problems with red-eye, we also get zero phase angle enhancement of albedo?

  17. Nigel Depledge

    I, too have experienced this kind of phenomenon, although not in quite the same way. I am very myopic (I take a -13 dioptre lens for my left eye), so most of the specs I have used have concavo-convex lenses with thick edges (I currently have small frames with high-RI plastic lenses, so they are the slenderest specs I’ve ever had). Consequently, I have often seen reflections of light sources off the inner edge of my lenses. It is sometimes a bit spooky, but I’ve got used to it over the years.

    I also love your pun on ghostly spectacles. It’s a classic. Keep ‘em coming, please.

  18. Edward

    Momentary spectacle indeed whenever it happens to me. Have seen parts of my eye, headlights of cars behind me, table lamps, etc. I really hate it when I’m alone and I mistake those reflections for something else.

  19. VisionEngineer

    I saw a guy on the Science Channel that was researching supposedly haunted locations. He found a high incidence of strong electromagnetic fields in many of the sites. These fields were supposedly due to the way the particular building had been wired. In some older buildings in England where ghosts have been reported he also found strong magnetic fields that were theorized to be generated from the granite and limestone of the building. The guy’s theory is that magnetic fields could stimulate neurons in the brain and that the brain would try to interpret these signals in some familiar way such as common visual patterns and sounds. It’s an interesting idea, but something that I think needs more research to verify. Maybe it could be part of the puzzle of ghost sightings. If you couple this possible effect with peoples’ preconcieved notions, being alone and maybe scared, and being in a dim location then you may have a recipe for ghost sightings.

  20. EB

    With regard to ghostspotting and illuminated out-of-focus dust:

    Camera-flash light reflected off shiny objects (glass desk, picture frame glass, window, etc.) sometimes shows up on walls and appears ghostly to the uncritical eye. I’ve seen a few of these pictures show up on ghost picture websites.

    Does anyone else have any funny camera-goofs to share?

  21. CR

    Well, I once partly exposed a roll of film while loading it, so that the first couple of frames looked like orange, blobby messes when I got the prints back from the processor. In fact, some of the people in the shots appeared to be on fire (as did the backgrounds and everything else). So, did I photograph “proof” of spontaneous human combustion? :-)

  22. CR

    Of course, I’m sure everyone’s done this at least once: you try to take a photo through glass, but not only do you stand directly in front of the glass (instead of standing at an angle off to one side, to avoid photgraphing your own reflection), you use the flash as well. The effect of your reflection looking like your head is going supernova is fairly funny (and disappointing at the same time).

  23. Hi, very interesting about the glasses, which I wear, too, and I often get that phenomenom.. Now, there is a very well known woman, who lives in a country area of England, (I think,)who brags to everyone, that they have very active ghosts in their place,; and these are not “illusions” or scary stuff; they act exactly like people,and they see them exactly, walking around,and are not any accident,or illusion; they act just like they[re living with the people there,and are annoyed,and make a racket,and try to get them to leave. If that were recorded,and got a good picture,and recording, witnessed, of this, I believe that this type of ghost sighting is a lot more realistic,and has more evidence. (If you can actaully get the evidence, which I kind of doubt; I doubt the whole thing.)

    Rather,there is no mistaking what they look like; real people, who are actaully ghosts, very very clear and active. (Although I doubt the whole thing completely.) THAT is the only kind of ghost sighting anyone should even consider to investigate; visible, witnessed, accurate, and recorded sightings, with no “moodiness” or “eirryness” . This English bunch of ghosts are not eirry at all. Not at all!! They are supposed to be more like unwelcome relatives, who make plentyof real noise,and show up clearly. (If you want to even believe in that kind of ghost, at all.) Any other type of “haunting”, yes, I would not even consider.

    Traditionally, real “ghosts” are often seen as real people, very solid, clear, standing in front of you, making real noises, very real noises,and making a profound prescense in the house they are “haunting”. People in the house, think they are real, solid people, until they find out they’re ghosts, tradtionally,and this is how they appear.

    Those are the very old,tradtional instances of “ghosts” haunting a house,and those you can read ancient or more contemporary sightings of. (I’m not saying they’re real,or that they’re not, but they are a heck of a lot more than sighing wind, or creaking doors, or shining glasses.) Read up on old instances of ghost sightings, those are the instances that people usually take seriously; not all this other stuff, that’s so phony.

    Now, I’m not saying they’;re real ghosts, just that this is the tradtional, better viewpoint of witnessed(well witnessed) “ghost” sightings, and if you want to take ANY ‘ghosts’ seriously, then, look into those old fashioned sightings, where the ghost looks just as solid as a real person. (ok, ok, I am just providing information, I am not saying theyre real or not.) That is up to you. But, they don’;t appear as clunking, wind singing, or unseeable imagery. Those “ghost-hunters” are full of crap.

    All these movies that have “noises” “creepiness” and atmospheric “ghostliness” are not even like tradtional ghost sightings, from old houses in tradtional writings!!Phooey!!And, we were not there,so we can ‘t say they were real ghosts!!! Too hard to prove what it was, that looked like a real person, hanginging out in someone’s house, refusing to leave the place. (maybe someone’s motherinlaw.) Real, good evidence of real “ghosts” is just too hard to establish. Yep. Even Houdini, who went to psychic perveyors,and tried to talk to his dead mother, for years, found out all the psychics were fake. All of them. He WANTED to believe they were real, and yet, in investigation, he found out they were all phony. sigh. So much for that.

  24. [... There are plenty of people who bring down ghost stories with a swift swing of the skeptical hammer. ...]

  25. Great post! I really am getting heavily into this subject. Do you happen to know where I could find any connected forums? Thanks :)

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