Field of Science

What kind of person sees ghosts?

The human mind is naturally attuned to try to spot hidden agents. In fact, we're too good at it, because we tend to interpret all sorts of random environmental noise as actually being caused by someone.

It's widely thought that this tendency contributes to religious belief, and yet it's also the case that many religious people don't claim to have seen any spiritual agents directly at work - and many no-religious people see ghosts from time to time.

Kirsten Barnes and Nicholas Gibson, at the University of Cambridge, surveyed 583 people (mostly women, 50% atheist/agnostic) who were in their survey data. Most were from Britain, some from Australia and Canada, and others from all over.

They asked them whether they had ever had a spiritual, religious, supernatural or paranormal experience. For those that had, they asked to describe the experience - what happened, where they were, how they felt at the time, etc. And they asked them to complete a battery of personality tests.

They found that those who had had some kind of supernatural experience were also more likely to have had other unusual experiences (meaning ones where the person sensed or felt odd, but not necessarily supernatural), and were less neurotic (although this link was weak and may have been spurious).

Intriguingly, given the study I covered in my previous post, people who had had a spiritual, religious, supernatural or paranormal experience in the past also scored higher on empathy and trust.

However, when they looked solely at experiences that involved a supernatural agent, this link disappeared. This suggests that the link between empathy and religion is not down to the ability to "read minds".

Whet do they mean by supernatural agent? Well, here's a couple of verbatim examples given by participants:

“I went to the prayer room where I really had a physical sense of God’s presence—I remember reaching out my hand to feel it”
“In a house I used to live in, I was usually visited by a being that took the form of a pre-teen girl. She was lithe, pale skinned and had straight, dark colored hair”

They found that, relative to other kinds of supernatural experiences, non-religious, supernatural agents (AKA ghosts) were more often seen when the environment was secluded, dark, quiet, and threatening. Those who had seen ghosts also reported being anxious or upset at the time. That wasn't the case for religious supernatural agents.

The authors found that people who see ghosts are inclined to magical thinking, which may explain the link. Or it could be that people with no religious framework are more likely to report these experiences as threatening. Or it might simply be that people remembered the experience as threatening, and only later came to remember their surroundings at the time as being threatening.

What this suggests is that anxiety and distress combine to make it more likely that people will see ghosts, but that this relationship doesn't hold for religious experiences.

It';s interesting to contrast this with other research showing that anxiety and uncertainty can make people see things that aren't there, and also that religion is more popular in environments that are threatening or dangerous.

Maybe turning to religion is one way to reduce the distress caused by supernatural experiences that are caused by threatening environments!
Barnes, K., & Gibson, N. (2013). Supernatural Agency: Individual Difference Predictors and Situational Correlates International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 23 (1), 42-62 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2013.739066

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. It think it is much more likely that what happens is that people have the experience of a supernatural presence and interpret it on the basis of whatever cues are available including how they feel. Most of the people in the sample would have a Christian background and would not usually associate the feeling of threat with the presence of a religious entity.

    1. after my husband died I saw in the dark at the dinner table a man and I know I did see him it could of been my dead husband I have seen ghost before in day time and at night all my life i think nothing of it because the good lord is watching over me I have talked to the good lord many times and he has Angels who watch over us who believe in him and yes I do believe in Ghost too.

    2. I'm only 13 years old and I see goats on a regular bases for ex.; the to little kids that died in the may tornado, my real grandfather who I never met these are normal things ever since I was born. Can I help you with anything else?

    3. im 13 and ive seen them they scare me but im getting used to it

  2. Thanks you inspired me to write a post based on this review. My post begins: "When I was a believer, I was shocked to slowly discover that most other believers shared none of my paranormal experiences ..."

    In my blog I verify how, confirming the study finding, that as a "Supernatural-Experiencer"(SE), I have had many unusual experience outside of supernatural ones. I think I score average on empathy and trust.

    But you lost me when you said:

    "However, when they looked solely at experiences that involved a supernatural agent, this link disappeared. This suggests that the link between empathy and religion is not down to the ability to "read minds"."

    I have had both ghost experiences and supernatural presence experiences - and indeed they are very different. And yes, I am a ghost experiencer and I think my mind is more inclined to magical thinking that many folks I meet -- even though I don't believe in the supernatural. But I never viewed these experiences as threatening even when I wasn't religious --- just fascinating.

  3. Konrad, possibly - and they do say that you probably wouldn't get these kinds of findings in other parts of the world. It's not clear from the paper to what extent the non-religious have religious experiences (and if so, whether they are similarly benign relative to religious people's religious experiences). Also, you might expect a non-religious person to perhaps have frightening religious apparitions (e.g. if they felt guilt over leaving religion).

  4. Sabio - yes but you are probably quite an exception :) In that you are able to stand outside these experiences and understand them.

  5. Did you just call me "weird" -- I represent that accusation!
    I actually think there may be many like me -- but I may be naive. :-)

    1. I don't think he called you weird just a medium like me I'm only 13
      years old and see ghosts on a normal bases and feel what others see.

    2. I am now 52 and I have been seeing them and hearing them call my name since I was a child. Its less now. I
      have just ignored them and I just have blocked them out. I used to see children running across the hall way. Young lost and confused teenagers. The ghost or ghosts have push an empty box under neath my bed. They just love following me so I just kept praying for the lord to remove them out of my sight. The last one this year was a bad growl near my face. I ignored it but forgot to pray. The second time my son heard the growl in my room and my son talked loud enough to wake me up. He said it seemed that it was growling over me. So I prayed the saint michael. And, psalms 92. & psalms 23. I haven't heard or seen anything anymore. This has been in october 2013. When my dad passed away I saw him and dream about him for three days. Its scary.

  6. My husband claims he saw a ghost in our kitchen..Went to a psychic a few weeks ago and received a bad reading concerning my husband..Have been praying to try and release it..My mother who passed on came to me a few years ago and touched my shoulder, so I do believe in spirits..He said he looked up saw a white image and then it was gone..Any insight on this?

  7. i seen something i couldnt explain for the third time in my life the other night,a blurry figure cross the road in front of me then disappear.. while i was driving..?
    ive seen two other unexplainable things too,when i was thirteen and eight years ago, im now forty two,ghosts DO exist.

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  9. I Bern seeing One ghost or something in my friends basement it was loocking on Me then it just disaperd

  10. Clairvoyants often see ghosts/spirits/entities. I am not a religious person, and see spirits and feel them (clairsentience) and communicate thru clairsentience. I don't find it scary, but I find it difficult to focus in this dimension because i am so intrigued by what I see and the communications. This is rather new to me and came after the passing of a loved one, and so I can not seem to stop communication in that I want to be in touch with who I 'lost' but of course do not really know who it is.

  11. This was a interesting article. I pretty much stumbled on it, but here's what I personally think. I'm in my mid 20's and I've been seeing spirits since I was born. Now I know personally, no one in my family believes in anything outside of God pretty much. I was read stories as a child, poetry, and Cat in the Hat books, but nothing that could've influenced me to believe in what I experienced. I grew up being able to sense things and it got stronger as I got older. My experiences include seeing humanoid spirits, shadows, the fae, phantom animals, energy patterns like fog, mist, or etheric shapes. In my teens I had a problem being around electrical items. Ghosts when I see them sometimes I'm not sure that their actually a ghost at first. Some look very solid and entirely real. If you didn't know better you'd think they were living; until something about them is glanced. Their off in a way that isn't their too still or they just vanish. They aren't my favorite people. They scare me... lol I can sometimes hear spirits. (Clair-audiance) Or smell/taste odd things that aren't there. (Clair-gustance) In my teens the spiritual activity was very active and they would mess w/ me every chance they got. I seriously got use to seeing a tall figure of a white lady roam around my home. Other spirits would come and go as they pleased. And some would stay to mock, speak, prank, or amuse themselves w/ a human who could see and kinda understand them. Those were trying years for me. I got use to waking up and feeling figures on my bed or speaking to me in my sleep. Some would sing songs that could put a individual in a trance or lull someone to sleep.(permanently) It was a crazy part of my life, but I'm glad I experienced it all. In conjunction I gained and lost other abilities like slight telekinesis, I was able to spontaneously read minds at times, and other times like an on/off switch it had to be dealt w/ if it stayed on too long. I'm okay w/ animals we seem to have a sort of understanding...I respect them and they'll leave me alone. And lastly having lucid dreams, astral travel, and visions that would hit me. I often had seizures when they happened. I kept all of this too myself mostly and told very little to my family. They don't/won't believe me and think I'm strange. I believe in God just as much, but I also know that other beings are out there. I'm not able to turn a blind eye and just live in neat little package within our religion. I've seen too much to ignore and it can't be unseen.

    I just grew up being terrified and thinking I was cursed. Than I just got used to it. Sometimes it seemed that the spirit world was a lot closer, than our reality at times. If you read folklore and/or mythology you can glean certain knowledge from these things. The world may seems different on the surface, but underneath it's the same, as it always been. Now at days I find it amazing and can kinda appreciate just how much of a gift it is. There are entities and realms around us just waiting to be discovered, but we'll never know if we keep these blinders on. Though I kinda wish I was a person born w/ my blinders on...This world is a pretty enchanting place. The key is to be open, but cautious. Don't be ashamed to discriminate. Practice questioning everything. People would be surprise at how much spirits can actually influence an individual. They can and will affect you.

  12. I cant really say If I had any supernatural experiences that would qualify to be supernatural in my life. For instance, after my grandfather passed away which I lived with him and now the only one living in the house with no pets after his death. I kept hearing a whistle once a day for about three days straight after his passing. I thought my brain must of been playing tricks on. But after the third day hearing the exact same whistle I knew something weird was going on. Not to sure what caused it. Maybe it was my grandfather letting me there something more in the after death. Or maybe the whistle was all in my head? What is your view on this Dr.?

  13. I have had numerous supernatural experiences throughout my life, I believe I have caught glimpses of these beings from another dimension only for a short time and usually through periferal vision and not head on but through the corner of my eye. I once seen a man hanging by a rope which scared me tremendously. It was in an old building I used to work in and upon investigation, apparently a man did actually hang himself in that room. Another was in an old house that I lived in with my son. I kept seeing an older petite woman, mostly in a night dress with her hair down which was very long, down to her knees practically. I became friendly with an older woman who lived next door, who I visited for tea now and again. I shared with her my experience and she asked me to descirbe the woman, which I did. She told me that a european couple used to reside in that house until the woman died and her husband then sold the house. She told me that I had described the woman exactly how she looked and that she most commonly wore her very long hair up in a bun on top of her head during the day and that she was exactly how I described. After that, I ended up leaving that house, because inexplicably the gas somehow got turned up to dangerous levels twice, which only solidified the feeling that she did not want us in her house. Apparently, if we had not had a window open, we would not be alive to tell the tale!!! I also seen my Father a couple of times after he passed. There have been other experiences throughout my life also, but most of them, unable to obtain any proof. I have also heard what I felt were angels singing in a choir of voices, sometimes when I am going through a particularly stressful time, so I feel they are letting themselves be heard so I will know I am not alone, that they are there to protect us all. There are many other instances, too numerous to name, some are disturbing and others are not. I have come to except that periodically I may see them or feel their presence. I have come to see that I am quite intuitive and actually worked as a psychic for years, until recently. Given a choice, I would choose NOT to see them, but for whatever reason, I do. It is like a curse as well as a blessing, because I have been able to help others with this gift. Due to my intuition or psychic flashes, it has saved my life more than once. I can trace it back to a near death experience I had as a child, when I had a vision of a beautiful lady who was stretching her arms out to me when I nearly drowned. The water felt like velvet and I wanted to go to her, I felt her love. My Father pulled me out of the water and saved me. It was an experience I will never forget and I know, not just think, there is other dimensions and there is an afterlife. Sometimes the veil is thinner than other times, which is why certain people can see them or feel their presence. This is what I believe.

  14. There are Six Realms for beings existing in the universe, described well in Buddhism.
    People who is greedy will be a ghost after death, no matter what religion he believe.
    People who is good will go to heaven after death, no matter what religion he believe.
    There are lots of heavens in the universe, not only one.

  15. I am 43 and have seen what I think are spirits. Yesterday morning around 7 am. This is around the 6th time seeing them and they are always black shadows.

    1. He could be a "Shadow Man" like I once saw. He's been seen by many. Look him up on the net.

  16. Now im 26, i see ghost almost entire of my life..

    I can communicate with them and i can see what happen in past and i can see what other person do even we're miles away..

    Am i still normal?


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