An anthropology professor at Trent Durham searches for scientific explanations about the seemingly universal human tendency to identify supernatural occurrences in the world around us. Almost everyone has had an experience that seems to defy all natural explanations. Perhaps it was a dark shape in a forest, a beautiful butterfly that seemed to embody the spirit of a loved one, or strange things happening in the night. These experiences can be unsettling, beautiful, reassuring, terrifying or all of these at once. Dr. Roger Lohmann, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Trent University Durham GTA, has spent his career researching hauntings, and the supernatural to try and understand their causes, and similarities between supernatural experiences around the world.
To understand why we tend to categorize experiences as supernatural, Professor Lohmann has integrated his research with the Asbano people of New Guinea with further study of hauntings in Oceania and around the world, as well as reflecting on his own supernatural experience. His research suggests three causes for supernatural experiences.
Causes of Supernatural Experiences
The first is errors in perception or misjudging information from our senses. “We are wired to be alert to living presences, so a breeze moving leaves, a shadow, an unseen rustling – without another explanation, we can see these things as evidence of a spirit or monster,” explains Dr. Lohmann.
Next, the cultures that surround us prime our expectations about our experiences and can give us structures and categories to explain something we otherwise may struggle to define. “We learn from the people around us what kinds of things to expect in the world,” says Dr. Lohmann. Visiting place that is known as haunted can prime us to find all sorts of supporting evidence for that ‘fact’.
Finally, Dr. Lohmann explores the relation between dreams and the interplay between dreaming and waking. “Dreams turn into virtual reality things we have heard about in waking life, including things that don't actually exist. On top of that, while dreaming we ordinarily accept what is happening as true. In many cultural traditions, dreams are taken seriously, as if they were perceptions of the real world.” These three aspects of the human experience work together to shape our tendency to experience the unexplained as supernatural.
“We now have a good understanding of why hauntings and other supernatural experiences occur and what they actually are: misperceptions and illusions that are by-products of our evolved and culturally shaped sensation,” says Dr. Lohmann. “One of the things we know is that there is a pan-human susceptibility to being beguiled by supernatural explanations, especially when these appear as if they were backed up by our own apparently mystical experiences. This tendency or potential can be enhanced or mitigated depending on the cultural learning that surrounds us.”
For those who are interested in continuing to explore topics related to the supernatural, hauntings and more, Prof. Lohmann, who is the editor of Haunted Pacific, a book published on hauntings in Oceania, has taught Anthropology classes at Trent Durham on Dreams and Dreaming, the Anthropology of Religion, and Hauntings. Discussion in topics that interest students is key to these courses, facilitating deep and critical engagement with the material. “There remains plenty to discover about particular experiences that people consider supernatural. They continue to recur in different forms around the world, even where scientific education is strong. Why?” asks Prof. Lohmann.
Learn more about the Anthropology program at Trent Durham.