Apparitional experience
In psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

 and parapsychology
The term parapsychology was coined in or around 1889 by philosopher Max Dessoir, and originates from para meaning "alongside", and psychology. The term was adopted by J.B. Rhine in the 1930s as a replacement for the term psychical research...

, an apparitional experience is an anomalous, quasi-perceptual experience.

It is characterized by the apparent perception of either a living being or an inanimate object without there being any material stimulus for such a perception. The person experiencing the apparition is awake, excluding dream
Dreams are successions of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep. The content and purpose of dreams are not definitively understood, though they have been a topic of scientific speculation, philosophical intrigue and religious...

 visions from consideration.

In scientific or academic discussion, the term apparitional experience is to be preferred to the term ghost
In traditional belief and fiction, a ghost is the soul or spirit of a deceased person or animal that can appear, in visible form or other manifestation, to the living. Descriptions of the apparition of ghosts vary widely from an invisible presence to translucent or barely visible wispy shapes, to...

in respect of the following points:
  1. The term ghost implies that some element of the human being survives death and, at least under certain circumstances, can make itself perceptible to living human beings. There are other competing explanations of apparitional experiences.
  2. Firsthand accounts of apparitional experiences differ in many respects from their fictional counterparts in literary or traditional ghost stories
    Ghost story
    A ghost story may be any piece of fiction, or drama, or an account of an experience, that includes a ghost, or simply takes as a premise the possibility of ghosts or characters' belief in them. Colloquially, the term can refer to any kind of scary story. In a narrower sense, the ghost story has...

     (see below).
  3. The content of apparitional experiences includes living beings, both human and animal, and even inanimate objects.

History of the concept

Attempts to apply modern scientific or investigative standards to the study of apparitional experiences began with the work of Edmund Gurney
Edmund Gurney
Edmund Gurney was an English psychologist and psychic researcher.-Early life:He was born at Hersham, near Walton-on-Thames. He was educated at Blackheath and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took a high place in the classical tripos and obtained a fellowship. His work for the tripos was...

, Frederick William Henry Myers and Frank Podmore
Frank Podmore
Frank Podmore was an English author, founding member of the Fabian Society, and writer on psychic matters.-Life:...

 , who were leading figures in the early years of the Society for Psychical Research
Society for Psychical Research
The Society for Psychical Research is a non-profit organisation in the United Kingdom. Its stated purpose is to understand "events and abilities commonly described as psychic or paranormal by promoting and supporting important research in this area" and to "examine allegedly paranormal phenomena...

. Their motive, as with most of the early work of the Society, was to provide evidence for human survival after death. For this reason they had a particular interest in what are known as ‘crisis cases’. These are cases in which a person has a quasi-perceptual experience of someone at a distance at the time of that person’s death or other crisis. If the temporal coincidence of the crisis and the distant apparitional experience cannot be explained by any conventional means, then the presumption is made that some as yet unknown form of communication, such as telepathy
Telepathy , is the induction of mental states from one mind to another. The term was coined in 1882 by the classical scholar Fredric W. H. Myers, a founder of the Society for Psychical Research, and has remained more popular than the more-correct expression thought-transference...

 (a term coined by Myers) has taken place.

While the extent to which the work of Gurney and his colleagues succeeded in providing evidence for either telepathy or survival of death is still controversial, the large collection of firsthand written accounts which resulted from their painstaking methods still constitutes a body of valuable data concerning the phenomenology of hallucinations in the sane
Hallucinations in the sane
A hallucination may occur in a person in a state of good mental and physical health, even in the apparent absence of a transient trigger factor such as fatigue, intoxication or sensory deprivation....


A notable later discussion of apparitional experiences was that of G N M Tyrrell, also a leading member of the Society for Psychical Research of his day. Tyrrell accepted the hallucinatory character of the experience, pointing out that it is virtually unknown for firsthand accounts to claim that apparitional figures leave any of the normal physical effects, such as footprints in snow, that one would expect of a real person. However, Tyrrell develops the idea that the apparition may be a way for the unconscious part of the mind to bring to consciousness information that has been paranormally acquired – in crisis cases, for example. He introduces an evocative metaphor of a mental ‘stage-carpenter’, behind the scenes in the unconscious part of the mind, and constructing the quasi-perceptual experience that eventually appears on the stage of consciousness, so that it embodies paranormal information in a symbolic way, a person drowning at a distance appearing soaked in water, for example.

The study and discussion of apparitions developed in a different direction in the 1970s, with the work of Celia Green
Celia Green
Celia Elizabeth Green is a British writer on philosophical skepticism, twentieth-century thought, and psychology.- Biography :...

 and Charles McCreery
Charles McCreery
Charles Anthony Selby McCreery is a British psychologist and author, best known for his collaboration with Celia Green on work on hallucinatory states in normal people.- Biography :...

. They were not primarily interested in the question of whether apparitions could shed any light on the existence or otherwise of telepathy, or in the survival question; instead they were concerned to analyse a large number of cases with a view to providing a taxonomy
Taxonomy is the science of identifying and naming species, and arranging them into a classification. The field of taxonomy, sometimes referred to as "biological taxonomy", revolves around the description and use of taxonomic units, known as taxa...

 of the different types of experience, viewed simply as a type of anomalous perceptual experience or hallucination
A hallucination, in the broadest sense of the word, is a perception in the absence of a stimulus. In a stricter sense, hallucinations are defined as perceptions in a conscious and awake state in the absence of external stimuli which have qualities of real perception, in that they are vivid,...


One of the points that was highlighted by their work was point (2) listed above, namely that ‘real-life’ accounts of apparitional experiences differ markedly from the traditional or literary ghost story. These are some of the more notable differences, at least as indicated by their own collection of 1800 firsthand accounts:
  • Subjects of apparitional experiences are by no means always frightened by the experience; indeed they may find them soothing or reassuring at times of crisis or ongoing stress in their lives.
  • Spontaneous apparitional experiences tend to happen in humdrum or everyday surroundings, and under conditions of low central nervous system arousal, most often in the subject’s own home - while doing housework, for example. By contrast, subjects who visit reputedly haunted locations in hopes of ‘seeing a ghost’ are more often than not disappointed.
  • Apparitions tend to be reported as appearing solid and not transparent; indeed they may be so realistic in a variety of ways as to deceive the percipient as to their hallucinatory nature; in some cases the subject only achieves insight after the experience has ended.
  • It is unusual for an apparitional figure to engage in any verbal interaction with the percipient; this is consistent with the finding that the majority of such experiences only involve one sense (most commonly the visual).

Psychological theories of perception

Apparitional experiences have relevance to psychological theories of perception
Perception is the process of attaining awareness or understanding of the environment by organizing and interpreting sensory information. All perception involves signals in the nervous system, which in turn result from physical stimulation of the sense organs...

, and in particular to the distinction between top-down and bottom-up approaches (cf. article on Top-down and bottom-up design
Top-down and bottom-up design
Top–down and bottom–up are strategies of information processing and knowledge ordering, mostly involving software, but also other humanistic and scientific theories . In practice, they can be seen as a style of thinking and teaching...

). Top-down theories, such as that of Richard Langton Gregory, who conceives of perception as a process whereby the brain makes a series of hypotheses about the external world, stress the importance of central factors such as memory and expectation in determining the phenomenological content of perception; while the bottom-up approach, exemplified by the work of James J. Gibson, emphasises the role of the external sensory stimulus.

Apparitional experiences would seem to lend support to the importance of central factors, since they represent a form of quasi-perceptual experience in which the role of external stimuli is minimal or possibly non-existent, while the experience nevertheless continues to be phenomenologically indistinguishable from normal perception, at least in some cases.

The concept of schizotypy

The interest of apparitional experiences to psychology has acquired an added dimension in recent years with the development of the concept of schizotypy
Schizotypy is a psychological concept which describes a continuum of personality characteristics and experiences ranging from normal dissociative, imaginative states to more extreme states related to psychosis and in particular, schizophrenia...

 or psychosis-proneness. This is conceived of as a dimension of personality, continuously distributed throughout the normal population, and analogous to the dimensions of extraversion or neuroticism
Neuroticism is a fundamental personality trait in the study of psychology. It is an enduring tendency to experience negative emotional states. Individuals who score high on neuroticism are more likely than the average to experience such feelings as anxiety, anger, guilt, and depressed mood...

. As long as mental illness is regarded under the disease model, according to which a person either does or does not ‘have’ schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by a disintegration of thought processes and of emotional responsiveness. It most commonly manifests itself as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, or disorganized speech and thinking, and it is accompanied by significant social...

 or manic depression, just as a person either does or does not have syphilis or tuberculosis, then to talk of the occurrence of an apparitional or hallucinatory experience in a normal person is either an oxymoron
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms...

, or to be taken as an indication of latent or incipient psychosis
Psychosis means abnormal condition of the mind, and is a generic psychiatric term for a mental state often described as involving a "loss of contact with reality"...

. If, on the contrary, a dimensional view of the matter is taken, it becomes easier to conceive of how normal people, more or less high on the putative schizotypy dimension, might be more or less prone to anomalous perceptual experiences, without their ever tipping over into psychosis.

Green and McCreery’s identification of a class of what they called ‘reassuring apparitions’ is of particular interest in this regard, as it suggests that the experiencing of hallucinations may even have an adaptive effect in certain subjects, making them better able to cope with adverse life events. This would fit with the model of schizotypy as essentially a normal dimension of personality, and might help to explain why the proneness to anomalous perceptual experiences has apparently not been ‘weeded out’ by the process of natural selection
Natural selection
Natural selection is the nonrandom process by which biologic traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential reproduction of their bearers. It is a key mechanism of evolution....


Direct realism

Apparitional experiences also have implications for the philosophy of perception
Philosophy of perception
The philosophy of perception is concerned with the nature of perceptual experience and the status of perceptual data, in particular how they relate to beliefs about, or knowledge of, the world. Any explicit account of perception requires a commitment to one of a variety of ontological or...

. The occurrence of hallucinations, that is, perceptual experiences 'having the character of sense perception, but without relevant or adequate sensory stimulation […]' , have long been one of the standard objections to the philosophical theory of direct realism. According to this theory we are in some sense in direct contact with the external world when we seem to be perceiving it, and not merely in direct contact with some mediating representation in our mind, such as a sense-datum or an image, which may or may not correspond to external reality. The psychologist J.J. Gibson, referred to above, became an advocate of the philosophical theory of direct realism.

Hallucinatory experiences reported by sane people do not pose any new problem in principle for the theory of direct realism, other than that posed already by the more widely discussed hallucinations reported by people in a state of psychosis or under other abnormal conditions such as sensory deprivation
Sensory deprivation
Sensory deprivation or perceptual isolation is the deliberate reduction or removal of stimuli from one or more of the senses. Simple devices such as blindfolds or hoods and earmuffs can cut off sight and hearing respectively, while more complex devices can also cut off the sense of smell, touch,...

. However, they do pose the problem in a particularly stark way, for the following reasons:
  • Scepticism about the status of verbal reports:

In the case of hallucinations reported to have occurred in pathological or abnormal states there is some scope for uncertainty about the accuracy, or even the meaning, of the percipient’s verbal report. Horowitz, for example, summarising his experience of questioning chronic schizophrenic patients about their visual experiences during painting sessions, wrote:

'It was necessary to persist beyond initial verbal descriptions of their hallucinations, and insist that the patient describe and draw what he had seen. Initial descriptions of "vicious snakes" might then be drawn and redescribed as wavy lines. "Two armies struggling over my soul" arose from the subjective experience of seeing moving sets of dots. "Spiders" might be reduced, when the patient stated and drew what he actually saw, to a few radiating lines. In drawings of their hallucinations patients could often distinguish between those forms which duplicated what they saw with their eyes from those forms which were what they "made out of it".'

Such difficulties of interpretation are much less obvious in the case of written reports by ostensibly normal subjects, in good health and not medicated at the time of the experience.
  • Extreme realism of the experience:

As mentioned above, at least some of the apparitional experiences reported by normal subjects appear to mimic normal perception to such a degree that the subject is deceived into thinking that what they are experiencing actually is normal perception. Similar close mimicking of normal perception is reported by some of the subjects of a lucid dream and out-of-body experiences, which therefore pose similar problems for the theory of direct realism.


Apparitional experiences appear prima facie
Prima facie
Prima facie is a Latin expression meaning on its first encounter, first blush, or at first sight. The literal translation would be "at first face", from the feminine form of primus and facies , both in the ablative case. It is used in modern legal English to signify that on first examination, a...

more compatible with the philosophical theory of representationalism
Direct and indirect realism
The question of direct or "naïve" realism, as opposed to indirect or "representational" realism, arises in the philosophy of perception and of mind out of the debate over the nature of conscious experience; the epistemological question of whether the world we see around us is the real world itself...

. According to this theory, the immediate objects of experience when we are perceiving the world normally are representations of the world, rather than the world itself. These representations have been variously called sense-data or images. In the case of an apparitional experience one might say that the subject is aware of sense-data or images which happen not to correspond to, or represent, the external world in the normal way.

The philosophical implications of hallucinatory experiences in the sane are discussed by McCreery. He argues that they provide empirical support for the theory of representationalism rather than direct realism.

See also

  • Bilocation
    Bilocation, or sometimes multilocation, is a term used to describe the ability/instances in which an individual or object is said to be, or appears to be, located in two distinct places at the same instant in time...

  • Doppelgänger
    In fiction and folklore, a doppelgänger is a paranormal double of a living person, typically representing evil or misfortune...

  • Etiäinen
    In Finnish folklore, an Etiäinen is a spirit sent forth by a shaman or by a person in great distress in order to receive information. The spirit appears as directed by the summoner in order to contact a person with whom the sender has a strong emotional bond. The spirit manifests itself by...

  • List of parapsychology topics
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