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Anatomy of a Ghost: How Do Ghosts Manifest and Affect the Physical World?

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form...

-Heart Sutra

So being is born from non-being, and fulfillment is born from emptiness


 Here's a tough issue. Paranormal researchers have evidence that ghosts exist, and that they interact with the physical world-not just by manifesting as sometimes shadowy figures or disembodied voices, but by actually moving physical objects or touching people.

How do they do it?

This is a question that's been plaguing paranormal researchers for years, and with good reason. It's fine to say ghosts dwell on some plane of existence or vibratory rate that puts them beyond our everyday senses-but then, how do they interact with the world that is apparent to our senses?

 We can't just say "they're invisible". It would explain why we don't see them, but how do they move objects and make noises like knocks and raps? If they are made of some sort of physical substance that can bend light around them, or if they are simply transparent, why don't we bump into them? And if they are invisible and indiscernible physically because they are oscillating at a wavelength we can't see, like microwaves or gamma rays, it still doesn't explain how they can act on physical objects. When I turn on the microwave oven, the dish inside doesn't jump around from the microwaves pushing it.           

How ghosts can interact physically with our world is still a mystery, but it's possible to put together some workable theories. Let's look at what we do know.

 Paranormal investigators point to cold spots in a room as indications that spirits are trying to draw in thermal energy to help them manifest. They also believe anomalous EM fields indicate a spirit is trying to manifest (or maybe that the fields just indicate the spirit is there, depending on the range of the fluctuation and what's going on at the time.)

Let's look first at whether heat is a viable source of energy to help ghosts manifest and perform physical activity.

When any object absorbs heat energy, it means that object is in a less energetic state than whatever is providing the heat, be it a human or just the air in a room. If a spirit is in thermal equilibrium with the heat source-for example, a human-not only would it not benefit from drawing in heat energy, it would be impossible for there to be a heat transference. Heat doesn't pass between two objects of the same temperature.

On the other hand, if a spirit had a higher level of thermal energy, we might detect warm spots in the room, as well as a rise in temperature the closer we got to the spirit (because some of the thermal energy would radiate from the spirit into the room). 

So if spirits are drawing in heat, we can infer that they must intrinsically be at a less dynamic energy level than humans. In this sense, the old conception of ghosts just being "shades" or shadows of humans, pale reflections of what they were in life, might not be far off the bat.

Would drawing in heat give ghosts enough energy to manifest?

The answer is that it's unlikely to allow them to directly manifest. In order to give off its own light, an object has to be at least 770 degrees Kelvin, which is about 495 degrees Celsius or 925 degrees Fahrenheit. And, most of this "light" will be at wavelengths that would be too low for the human eye to see. Filament light bulbs are much hotter than this, yet most of their light is still in the infra-red range. A light bulb isn't really that hot unless you're up close to it, but that's because the filament is safely encased in glass.

If a ghost was radiating its own light, you might have to settle for observing it from a distance because it would be too hot for you to be in the same room with it. However, it's really unlikely the entity would be able suck enough thermal energy from most locales, short of a volcano, to achieve their own luminosity strictly through heat energy.

There are also certain chemical reactions which generate light, such as the biochemical reactions that allow lightning bugs and glow-worms to light up, but these don't really apply to ghosts.

Most objects don't radiate their own light. Instead, photons generated by an external source (the sun, light bulbs) bounce off them and are detected by our eyes. Depending on the wavelength of the photons, we see different colors, and depending on the pattern in which the photons are deflected, we perceive shapes.

This means that the ghost would either have to have some way for becoming semi-solid, and thereby deflecting photons, or would have to be able to distort electromagnetic fields around it enough to approximate some sort of shape and warp the trajectory of photons to deflect them.  In either case, it would seem impossible for mere thermal energy to accomplish the task.

So if the ghosts can't use heat to become visible, why would they draw it in from a room? Remember, the fact that they can draw in heat at all means they're at a lower energy level, so it's possible that they're engaging in behavior similar to a reptile sunning itself. Because reptiles don't have the same internal heat source that mammals do, they have to engage in this behavior after being in cold temperatures, because their metabolism slows down so much.

In the same way, ghosts may need to "warm up" before having any sort of interaction with the physical world. Under basic laws of physics, objects at rest stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. If the ghost's natural "rest state" is too low to allow it interaction with the physical world, it only makes sense that it would need to gain energy somehow in order to perform some action.

But overall, thermal energy seems to be an unlikely source of energy for ghosts trying to manifest. Actually affecting the physical environment is much more difficult. If our warmed-over ghost really wants to make itself known with physical activity, it would have to get even stronger.

Some paranormal investigators believe this could be done by siphoning EM energy from appropriate sources. A common theme in paranormal investigation is unusual battery drains that affect equipment. Investigators also report odd fluxes in the EM fields at the investigation site. Some investigators theorize that spirits are trying to take the energy to allow some sort of manifestation or activity.

Would accumulation of electromagnetic energy be enough to allow a non-corporeal being to influence the physical environment? Again, it's a questionable prospect. It is true than under the right circumstances, electromagnetic energy in the form of photons can have an influence on physical objects, even though photons themselves have no mass. The radiometer invented by William Crookes gives an interesting illustration of how photons can indirectly cause an object to move, but it only works because it's a near-vacuum environment and the actual mechanism involved is thermal reaction to the photons, not the light itself.  Not much help in the case of paranormal physical activity: we don't live in a vacuum, and the objects moved in paranormal phenomena are a lot heavier than the paper fan in a radiometer!

Assuming a ghost could accumulate significant amounts of photons from available EM fields, would it be able to use them to affect the environment?  Even if the ghost was able to send out a blast of photons, it would not really have an effect on solid objects. Photons have no mass, so the impact would not be strong enough to account for raps or knocks, nor would such an event be able to cause the apparent controlled movement seen in some cases.

In one episode of the television show Ghost Hunters, a picture frame was seen to move twice in jerky motions across a dresser. In another, a chair was dragged across the floor of an old lighthouse. A blast of particles, if they affected the objects at all, would most likely have simply knocked them over.

If a small object like a picture frame is made of metal, there is always the possibility that some sort of magnetic field could have caused the motion, so if a ghost is capable of accumulating EM energy perhaps it can manipulate those fields to move an object. But the strength of the field required to do that would be a lot higher than you would encounter in a normal environment, and one would have to ask where the ghost got that much EM energy without draining all the electricity from the house (and, more importantly, the batteries powering the camera that caught the Ghost Hunters event on tape!). If ghosts had their own independently generated magnetic field strong enough to move objects like picture frames, it would be easy to track them... metal objects like paper clips, nails and pins would stick to them and reveal their presence and movement.

Also, we have to remember that many of the objects which are apparently affected by ghostly activity, such as, doors, furniture, etc. do not contain significant amounts of metal. So, magnetic fields would not really have any influence on them.  That rules out magnetic fields, at least as a singular source for ghostly interaction with the physical world.

The one area where EMF siphoning could come into play (finally!) is some episodes of manifestation. If a ghost is able to accumulate enough static electric charge, it might be able to generate a very basic shape (perhaps even with some details, such as rough facial features) by drawing dust to itself. Static is what makes TV screens and computer monitors get dusty so quickly. There's plenty of dust even in the most immaculate homes.

 Many descriptions of ghostly manifestations discuss vaguely human shapes, often monochromatic and, most importantly, semi-transparent. An entity whose shape is loosely outlined and roughly filled in with dust would appear to be one color, and would not be solid.  Yet our brain could insist on finding some way to try to interpret it as solid. The best way for it to do that is to interpret the image as semi-transparent.  

This does not really provide a satisfactory explanation, though, of much more vivid manifestations. And certainly a cloud of floating dust cannot knock loudly in answer to questions or move a chair.

So do we have to chalk those up to truly supernatural antics? Not yet, because science has one more trick up its sleeve.

Enter the Higgs field.

This is still in the realm of theoretical physics, but researchers hope that new generations of particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider in Europe will allow them to finally isolate Higgs particles, which make up this field.  (UPDATE: This article was originally written in 2008. Four years later, scientists announced that preliminary results from experiments at the LHC did indeed confirm the existence of the Higgs boson)

Basically, the Higgs field is believed to be the thing that gives all matter its mass. This is under one set of theories, anyway. Other theories such as string theory have different explanations for how particles get their particular characteristics, but those are a little difficult to get into here.

In our limited physical existence, we cannot perceive the Higgs field, which (theoretically) permeates the entire universe. The models involving this unusual field predict it is the same strength everywhere.  

The reason this field is so important is that mathematically, it is the only way to explain why certain particles known as intermediate vector bosons have mass when they should be massless like photons. (The IVBs were supposed to be direct counterparts to photons in formulas meant to show parallels between electromagnetism and the phenomenon called the weak force, which is involved in some forms of radioactive decay. If complete parallels are found, the formulas explaining such forces are said to be unified, which is a highly desirable thing in physics.)

This is all complex, and the really important thing to understand is that thanks to the Higgs field, particles that mathematically should be massless may have a way for gaining mass.

Aha. Mass. The property that makes physical things... well, physical. As near as we've been able to observe, ghosts have no mass, which is why it's been so problematic to explain how they can interact with the physical world.  

So here's a possible mechanism to explain it. If ghosts are coherent, intelligent collections of energy, they may be in a state that allows them to access the Higgs field. What we cannot perceive in our limited physical state may be readily apparent to -and more importantly, capable of being manipulated by-spiritual beings. This would provide an exciting new window into physics, because it would open up the possibility that under certain circumstances, particles like photons which don't normally interact with the Higgs field may be able to have such interactions, and so gain mass.

How does this relate to ghosts? Remember that entities like ghosts are believed to be able to either generate their own anomalous EM fields, or to interact with EM fields to produce unusual fluctuations and power drains of batteries. One way they could affect EM fields in this way is if they are made of photons... the particles that carry the electromagnetic force. Doing this would allow photons to gain enough energy to oscillate at visible light wavelengths... thus allowing manifestations.

Yet photons have no mass, so we're still left with the problem of how ghosts could directly affect physical objects.

But suppose ghosts have a way to generate an interaction with the Higgs field, allowing a portion of themselves to gain mass to initiate physical activity such as knocks, object movement, etc. Let's also suppose some of this interaction bleeds over into the immediate environment. If the photons in ambient EM fields and batteries suddenly gain mass, they're no longer photons. Boom. No energy for the equipment. Also, EMF fields that would normally be steady will fluctuate, because the number of photons in the field will be fluctuating based on how much interaction there is with the Higgs field.

Of course if we're just concerned about the concept of ghosts having no intrinsic mass, we don't have to limit ourselves to photons. Neutrinos are also essentially massless (although recent data indicates they may in fact have some small mass, yet still behave as massless entities).  There is also a particle called a graviton, which is responsible for the gravitational force in some theories, and is believed to be massless.

But neither neutrinos nor gravitons interact with electromagnetic fields... so this rules them out if we consider ghosts capable of affecting EM fields in an area.

It's always possible there is another sort of massless particle that can interact with electromagnetic fields but is not commonly found in the physical world as we know it. Perhaps this particle naturally exists in large quantities on the plane in which ghosts exist, and it allows them to maintain a cohesive energy structure. We might call it a phantreme-for "phantom extreme" particle.

There is one more point to this speculation which touches on the deepest spiritual beliefs of many traditions. It would be extremely enlightening to find out ghosts are made of massless particles.

The heavier a particle is, the more intrinsic energy it has and the faster it decays. This is why sub-atomic particles such as pions and kaons are not very common: they are only produced at very high energies not found in everyday life here on earth. They are very heavy, as particles go, and they quickly decay into particles that are less heavy, less energetic, and therefore more stable.

As near as we know, massless particles such as photons are the most stable particles of all. In other words, they never decay.

Therefore, if ghosts are made of some form of massless particles, they truly could be eternal beings. 

A final thought: it's still unclear whether ghosts are trapped in this world, or dwell in some sort of intermediate state between this world and another, or whether they actually exist mostly in that different world and only occasionally come into ours. We cannot rule out that the entities we call ghosts, demons, angels and elementals may be comprised of some hybrid material capable of switching between pure energy and physical matter. That is not at all beyond the realm of physics. After all, E=mc²... energy and mass are essentially the same.  

We simply may have to accept that while there are good theories, there is no firm explanation, under our current understanding of the universe, to tell us where ghosts come from, where they dwell, and how these entities can become solid enough to affect the physical world we live in.

         copyright 2008 by Morgan St. Knight

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