Natural Explanations for Supernatural Phenomena

Natural oddities such as ball lightning and “will o’ the wisp,” imagination, and simple misinterpretation are often mistaken for paranormal occurrences. Here is an interesting bit sent in by a reader:

From: “Hilli” (
Date: Monday, February 11, 2002 6:29 AM

Dear Obiwan,

My name is Hilli and I recently graduated from UCLA with a bachelor degree in neuroscience. I have been reading some of the stories that people have submitted to your page. Having been a scientifically-minded person all my life, I couldn’t help reacting to some of the situations that the writers have described by asking myself how such things have happened. For example, some writers have described smelling strange scents when supposed apparitions were about; I am familiar with the mechanism by which the brain interprets scent–molecules diffuse into the tectorial membane in the nasal cavity and activate connections in the brain which are interpreted as scents. So in order for the writer to have experienced a scent, this neural pathway in the brain would have to be activated by something.

Certain relatively-common neural disordes are characterized by such connections becoming activated in the brain without external sensory stimuli, and are expressed in the patient in the form of images, scents, sounds, and so on. Often these sensory experiences are aided by the patient’s memories–for example, a memory of a relative will influence visual stimuli, and the patient will report having seen the relative. These sensations are very real and not mere illusions–they are as real to the patient as images of objects that are in the patient’s actual visual field.

I can’t help wondering whether a lot of the experiences that people discuss in the stories they submit to your webpage are manifestations of such neural mechanisms. I have worked with patients, myself, who have experienced such sensory experiences as part of the symptoms of their condition. I think this information is worthwhile to mention on your website for those who are not familiar with neuroscience and neuropathology.

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