Why Do So Many People Assume They See and Hear Ghosts?


(Image by: Lionel Allorge / Wikimedia Commons)

Its the middle of the night, you are awoken by a noise, scratching, knocking or creaking maybe. For many people the first thing that comes to mind is not the wind, a squirrel in the attic, or the heater system. What do many people think of first? Ghosts! The human mind turns shadows into figures, noises into muffled voices, patterns into faces. The big question is why?

It is estimated that about 45% of Americans believe in the existence of sentient spirits (AKA ghosts). I love to hear stories from friends and family about ‘encounters’ with ghosts, primarily because currently I don’t believe any of these encounters are real. I would love to be proved wrong, but so far I don’t have enough evidence to support the existence of ghosts. It took me years to realize the real reason why people always think they see and hear ghosts.

The real reason people see and hear ghosts
Fearing unknown figures in the dark is a natural human instinct, and the reason why goes all the way back to the evolution of mankind. The reason why we assume that any noise at night is an unknown force invading our home is because thinking that way is always evolutionarily beneficial. Those of our ancestors who were always on guard, easily awoken and ready to fight or flea lived longer and passed on their DNA¬†more often then those who weren’t. The primary reason is because being invaded by a force that wanted to kill you and your family was a real possibility during the evolution of humans. Lions, poisonous snakes, and other humans, were real dangers during those times, and to some extent are still today. To prove my point notice the similarities of most encounters with ghosts. The person is usually alone, it’s usually late at night, its often dark, and many times the person doesn’t get a 100% clear confirmation of what they saw or heard. These are all circumstances when it would be evolutionarily beneficial to assume your being invaded by a powerful being with unknown powers, and you should be ready to flea or fight. To further show this point notice the familiarities that ghosts have with the real dangers of animals, or other humans. Spirits or ghosts often have some of these characteristics: sharp teeth or claws, animal like eyes, they look diseased, they have super strength, super stamina, super speed, might be able to fly, and most important of all a dangerous, sneaky or evil intent. There are also many people who encounter ‘nice’ ghosts, I address that in a paragraph below.

What ghosts and the spirit realm traditionally symbolize
Throughout history humans have taken everything unfamiliar to them and grouped it in a category called the spiritual realm or the paranormal. Some examples of things that were thrown in to this category throughout history are: animal swarms, diseases, electricity, sun and stars, human deformities, chemistry…. and the list goes on. We still have a tendency to put everything we don’t understand¬†in this category, but when we learn what it really is then we take it out of this category. If by some chance there are sentient beings from another world, that have the ability to interact with us. When we find out who and what they are we won’t call them ghosts, angels, or spirits we’ll just say they are visitors from Narnia or the future, another planet, a parallel universe or whatever the case may be.

Culture dictates the details of our encounters
The details of our encounters are dictated by cultural influences such as movies, books, drawings, and stories of others. There are many details to these stories and they seem to be different based on country or region. Japan has different encounters that northern Europe which has different encounters than Africa, and still different than north and south america. This also goes back to the fact that it is evolutionarily and culturally beneficial to learn about what dangers are lurking in your neck of the woods.

What about ‘nice’ ghosts like Casper
This concept is not as straight forward to me. I met a person online who swore she had a portal to another dimension in her living room and regularly communicated with more that 30 spirits, but when I asked for proof, of course none was given. Her fight or flight responses obviously were not kicking in, so I don’t see the evolutionary advantage. Many people have encounters like this, although probably not on this scale, the way I see it there are a few of possibilities. First possibility: People are actually communicating with spirits who don’t like cameras, can only be heard by one person, can’t touch or move anything physical, are tied to a time and place on earth even though the earth is moving through space at 1000 miles per hour, wear the same ghost clothes everyday, and often do the same thing everyday. I don’t think this is likely, the more likely alternative is that interacting with ‘ghosts’ helps people explore their inner thoughts without addressing them directly. A strong argument for this is that people often think they are interacting with deceased loved ones or at least deceased people with stories and troubles of their own, the person may even get satisfaction out of helping the ‘ghosts’ deal with their problems so they can move on.

How to not be afraid of the dark and ghosts
Even after reading this, most of us still will get afraid late at night, when we hear a noise or see a shadow. its human nature. The way to fight that fear is to remember what you actually fear is the traits of a man or beast, all mixed up in an imaginary scary thing. What will this thing actually do to you, its not going to actually do anything, and if it does, get it on video and you’ll be famous.

To prove my point here is a real story of a ‘ghost’ in my house
I live in 150 year old farm house in New England, some of the oldest farms in the country are here. Many people say there are ghosts in my house. They say it’s haunted, people have died here… yadda yadda. One night as me and my wife were going to bed I left the room and went down the hallway to get a drink. It was dark and quiet, with a little light from the other room. All the sudden I see something wiz by my face and smash into the wall. It was a water bottle from the counter. What was the first thing I thought of, It had to be a ghost, all the rumors were true and I just experienced it. With my mind racing I looked around the room, got my drink of water and returned to the bedroom. The smurk on my wife’s face gave it all away. Even though I was sure it was a water bottle from the counter and it was going in the other direction, I was wrong. My wife had opened the door quietly and thrown a water bottle at me as a joke (funny eh). The most amazing part was how much information my mind made up because I didn’t actually see the event in its entirety, like I thought I did. Whats even more amazing is the fact that my mind chose the least likely scenario to believe. It would be more likely that someone broke into my house, grabbed a water bottle and threw it at me.

Our instinct to believe we are in danger by an unknown force is strong for many people. Humans also have a tendency to put anything we aren’t sure of in a category of paranormal which includes ghosts. Our culture reinforces this idea over and over again until its solidly ingrained in our thoughts and becomes the first thing we think about when we hear or see anything unknown. Since this idea of ghosts living among us is so popular in our culture many people believe they are communicating with them, even though they are simply exploring their own thoughts. I can not prove that ghosts don’t exist. Actually I would like to prove that they do exist, but from my experience I think the most likely scenario has been explained in this article.