Ever have the feeling that you’re not alone? That there’s someone else in the room, the house?
You may not be crazy at all (which is what we all worry about). In fact, it’s a more prevalent experience than you might imagine, say neuroscientists studying the phenomenon.
According to new research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), “tales of ghosts, wraiths, and other apparitions have been reported in virtually all cultures. The strange sensation that somebody is nearby when no one is actually present and cannot be seen (feeling of a presence, FoP) is a fascinating feat of the human mind, and this apparition is often covered in the literature of divinity, occultism, and fiction.”
In other words, it’s “all in our heads.” But for documented neuro-scientific reasons.
The EPFL researchers performed lesion analysis in neurological FoP patients, supported by an analysis of associated neurological deficits.
“Our data show that the FoP is an illusory own-body perception with well-defined characteristics that is associated with sensorimotor loss and caused by lesions in three distinct brain regions: temporoparietal, insular, and especially frontoparietal cortex,” noted the researchers.
In sum, the data show that “the illusion of feeling another person nearby is caused by misperceiving the source and identity of sensorimotor (tactile, proprioceptive, and motor) signals of one’s own body.”
It makes sense. When scientists at the EPFL analyzed MRIs of 12 patients with brain disorders who reported experiencing these apparitions, they discovered that disturbances in parts of the brain that deal with movement and the position of the body could lead to FoP experiences.
“Our findings reveal the neural mechanisms of the FoP, highlight the subtle balance of brain mechanisms that generate the experience of “self” and “other,” and advance the understanding of the brain mechanisms responsible for hallucinations,” the abstract explains. “The feeling of not being alone, or of being watched is real. It’s what happens when your brain gets confused with the information it’s getting from your senses.”
But it seems so real! Indeed, admit researchers. Because even though an invisible presence isn’t really there, “the brain creates a ‘ghost’ to help it reconcile the sensory input.”
The researchers, who recreated the eerie sensation during their study, say “ghosts” may be triggered by intense physical stress or emotional shock, as well as by neurological and psychiatric disorders.