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Do Blind People See Ghosts?

Can you "see" a ghost without seeing?

smithsonian.com

Image: Lorenzo

Tommy Edison, who’s been blind since birth and who answers people’s questions about his experience, recently took on the question of ghosts. Do blind people believe in them? Do they feel their presence? Can you “see” a ghost without seeing?

Edison himself has never felt a ghost. “I know all the sounds this house makes,” he says, and never before has he heard something astray.

But this isn’t the final answer on this question. Many people with vision loss do hallucinate faces, according to this Guardian article:

Dominic Ffytche of the Institute of Psychiatry in London told the British Association that 60% of patients suffering from common forms of vision loss had reported hallucinations involving faces.

“You would think it would be of a familiar face, perhaps a relative or someone famous. But they are not. They are often described as being grotesque,” he said. “About 40% of people with eye disease hallucinate figures in costumes. These could be Edwardian costumes, knights in shining armour, military uniforms, Napoleonic uniforms, first world war uniforms.”

This happens, Ffytche told the Guardian, even in patients who have had both eyes removed. Which means that it’s not that a damaged eye is sending confusing signals. Instead, the brain is firing and creating these sorts of illusions. Ffytche thinks that understanding why and how could explain how sighted people “see” ghosts as well.

In 1887, the journal Chambers took on the same question:

To suggest, therefore, that there is anything paradoxical in the query heading these remarks would be absurd; for not only is a blind man the best qualified to see a ghost, but he sees nothing else: we are all ghosts to him; all the world, and all the men and women, merely shadows, with whom, however, he is on the most familiar terms; his every-day companions, his intimates, his bosom friends.

On Quora, a few people offered some personal anecdotes:

I went blind as an adult and I had only been blind about 5 or 6 months. My husband and 1 moved into an apartment which to this day I swear was haunted. He worked nights and after he would go to work the TV or radio would come on by themselves. I would go and turn them off and they would just come back on again. Sometimes, the stations would switch on me and when I put them back they would change again. This was all before remotes so it was not a neighbor changing my channels.

Being blind doesn’t seem to make much of a difference: some people believe in ghosts, and others don’t. Sight is certainly not required for a ghostly hallucination. Plus, people who “see” ghosts don’t actually see them in the first place—they simply sense their presence. Which just goes to show that that if you’re scared, closing your eyes probably won’t help.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Fakahatchee Ghosts
Wittgenstein’s Ghost

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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