A sensed presence

9th March 2022. Reading Time: 15 minutes General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know. 1324 page views. 1 comments.

Our brain is programmed to protect us. Physically, it puts us into fight or flight mode to avoid potentially getting hurt. Psychologically, it can make us think we are having a paranormal experience to give us comfort or help us through a difficult situation. It is called a sensed presence.

One of the more common experiences people have when it comes to spirits and the paranormal is a person just sensing that they aren't alone. They don't necessarily see or hear anything, but they feel it. How many times have you been on an investigation and you just 'feel' like there is something or someone around? Maybe in a time of need, you feel what seems like a comforting presence to get through whatever it is you are going through .... almost like someone is watching over you or taking care of you. I know myself there have been so many different occasions where I have thought that I wasn't alone. I didn't see or hear anything to indicate as such, but I just felt it. I felt that there was a presence with me. While it very well could be something paranormal and perhaps we are being visited by something supernatural, there is also an explanation in psychology that can explain these feelings when they occur in extreme circumstances, which is referred to as a sensed presence.

What is sensed presence?

A sensed presence is something that happens to a person that has become isolated or is in an unfamiliar environment. They are usually in some ways experiencing a large amount of stress and could even be in a life or death situation. There are occurrences where people are either stranded or trapped in a location, or in what they feel is a hopeless situation. They feel at the time, that they have someone there with them to help them through the situation. Almost like a guardian angel. A perfect example which I have seen used to describe this phenomenon is from the movie 'Gravity'. Sandra Bullock's character is stuck alone in space. She turns off the oxygen supply in her compartment to complete what she feels is inevitable - death. She suddenly gets a visitation by George Clooney's character who has died earlier in the movie. He talks her through the situation. Even though she realised it was a hallucination, she followed his advice and ultimately survived the situation. While this is quite an extreme example and most of us probably won't get stuck out in space, you get the idea. While it is not known exactly what causes a sensed presence experience to occur, research indicates that low temperatures seem to be a common feature.

Possible explanations for a sensed presence include the motion of boats, atmospheric or geomagnetic activity, and altered sensations and states of consciousness induced by changes in brain chemistry triggered by stress, lack of oxygen, monotonous stimulation, or a buildup of hormones. There is in fact exciting new evidence from a research group led by Olaf Blanke demonstrating that it is the precise stimulation of specific brain regions that tricks people into feeling the "presence" of a ghostly apparition.

Psychology Today

A sensed presence experience can range from a person just feeling like there is someone nearby, to having a full hallucination of seeing or talking to the person that isn't really there.

My own possible sensed presence experience

When I was in hospital around 6 years ago, I had a 9cm cyst on my pancreas that needed to be removed and I lost my spleen in the process. As you can imagine, it was an extremely scary, painful and stressful time for me. On top of the surgery alone, I also had to wait a few days to get the biopsy results to make sure that what they removed wasn't cancer (thankfully it wasn't). I remember vividly being in a room where I was about to have an endoscopy for a biopsy 2 weeks before the surgery was planned so that the surgeon could get a gauge on what he needed to do. I was petrified as a day earlier, I was completely unaware of what had been happening in my body so it was a bit of a shock. I was scared I could have cancer. I was scared that something would go wrong during surgery. I was scared of the surgery itself because it was no walk in the park and I knew it was going to be a long recovery. Most of all, I was scared for my kids. They were only 1 and 2 years old at the time, They were babies who didn't know what was going on and part of me was scared that I wouldn't make it home. As I lay on the table, I was shaking and crying and waiting to be knocked out for what was really just a simple 5-minute procedure. In the corner of the room, I felt like my grandfather who had passed away years earlier was standing there just watching and keeping an eye on things. I didn't just feel it, I actually saw him there standing in the corner. I'm not the kind of person that normally sees spirits. I can honestly say to this day I have never seen what people describe as a full-bodied apparition. At the time while laying on the operating table, I actually knew that what I was seeing was all in my head and that he wasn't really there, but it still gave me comfort thinking that he was there looking out for me. Maybe he really was there looking after me, or maybe this was the perfect situation to experience sensed presence. In my mind, of course, I like to think it was him, but it easily shows us how much our brains do for us. In the same way, it can induce a sensed presence, it can also protect us in many ways.

Fight or Flight

When your brain feels like you are in some sort of danger where it feels that you are at risk of harm or attack, it goes into what is called 'hyper arousal' or 'acute stress response'. It is otherwise referred to as fight or flight mode. When your brain identifies a threat, it releases epinephrine, (otherwise known as adrenaline) which prepares your body to either run for your life or to stay and confront and fight the threat in front of you.  This release of adrenaline allows the body to release extra glucose into the bloodstream raising our blood sugar level for a burst of energy.  It allows the bronchial passages to expand meaning we can get more air.  Our pupils dilate creating what is referred to as tunnel vision meaning you focus in on a particular area however you cannot see out of the corner of your eye - only what is in front of you. We all have different fears and different tolerance levels which is why this mode is extremely personal. What may set one person off, may not bother another person at all. It all comes down to our brains. Some people will stand and confront the fear ready to fight and your body has the adrenaline ready with extra energy and strength to help you do so. Others will instinctively run away, and again they have the extra energy and lots of oxygen to help them do that. It all happens within a split second and it is an automatic response your brain makes on your behalf.  It is not a conscious decision, it is a reaction.  It is something that is triggered when the brain feels you are at threat. It may be a very real physical threat or it could even be imaginary.  So while you are not seeing it, maybe you are feeling it.  Either way, your body is reacting.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

While this has been researched by having people put in situations such as freefalling from a significant height onto a safety net, it has also been replicated by using visuals such as a circle on a screen to demonstrate that it doesn't need to be a real physical threat.

We used prospective duration judgments within and across sensory modalities to examine the effect of stimulus predictability and feature change on the perception of duration. First, we found robust distortions of perceived duration in auditory, visual and auditory-visual presentations despite the predictability of the feature changes in the stimuli. For example, a looming disc embedded in a series of steady discs led to time dilation, whereas a steady disc embedded in a series of looming discs led to time compression. Second, we addressed whether visual (auditory) inputs could alter the perception of duration of auditory (visual) inputs. When participants were presented with incongruent audio-visual stimuli, the perceived duration of auditory events could be shortened or lengthened by the presence of conflicting visual information; however, the perceived duration of visual events was seldom distorted by the presence of auditory information and was never perceived shorter than their actual durations.

These results support the existence of multisensory interactions in the perception of duration and, importantly, suggest that vision can modify auditory temporal perception in a pure timing task. Insofar as distortions in subjective duration can neither be accounted for by the unpredictability of an auditory, visual or auditory-visual event, we propose that it is the intrinsic features of the stimulus that critically affect subjective time distortions.

Distortions of Subjective Time Perception Within and Across Senses
van Wassenhove V, Buonomano DV, Shimojo S, Shams L (2008) Distortions of Subjective Time Perception Within and Across Senses. PLOS ONE 3(1): e1437.

It is also important to remember that what goes up must come down.  After the episode is finished, your body does what is called an adrenaline dump which can cause a person to become confused and extremely tired.  A lot of these traits may seem familiar. Many of them are also seen on a paranormal investigation or reported from a person who has had what they believe is a paranormal experience. The fight or flight response itself is mentioned quite a lot when it comes to paranormal investigating. As this is a personal psychological response, it can be triggered by phobias. If for example, someone is afraid of heights, going to the top of a tall building and looking down could trigger this response. In the same way, if someone has a fear of the dark, being in a dark room could suddenly trigger a response.  It is also important to note that how we react to things also influences others. If you are at an investigation for example and say a gush of wind has caused a window to make a loud bang. Someone hears the bang and their response kicks in and they start freaking out, others could possibly follow suit. All of a sudden the gush of wind that has caused the window to banged can easily be misinterpreted as a massive paranormal experience that caused the whole team to run outside. You are dealing with the unknown and there are a lot of potential situations in an investigation that can easily trigger this response. Someone may be caught completely off guard and not know what is happening to them. To some, they may even feel like perhaps something paranormal is causing them to feel that way because again it is something unknown to them. 

What is quite interesting, is that studies indicate that a lot of reported paranormal experiences seem to happen in conditions that would likely trigger the fight or flight response.  In a 2013 study, researchers explored the differences between people who had experienced what they believed was paranormal compared to those who hadn't.  They concluded that those who had experienced something paranormal were more likely to experience it in threatening or ambiguous environments making them the perfect candidate for a sensed presence experience.

Barrett (2004) proposed that belief in God, ghosts, and other supernatural agents is cross-culturally ubiquitous because of a cognitive Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device with the propensity to find agents in the environment. However, supernatural agency experiences are not reported by all religious believers. A survey explored individual differences between those reporting never having had a spiritual, religious, supernatural, or paranormal (SRSP) experience (n = 284) and those who reported at least one (n = 299). SRSP experiences were associated with a distinct psychological profile, including higher scores on measures of positive schizotypy, thinner mental boundaries, and empathy; however, the difference in psychological profile was not specific to agentic SRSP experience. Experiences of nonreligious supernatural agency (n = 80) were more likely than other types of SRSP experiences to have occurred in a threatening and ambiguous environment and to be accompanied by increased negative affect, thus providing initial support for Barrett's hypothesis that the threshold for agency detection is lowered under such conditions.

Supernatural Agency: Individual Difference Predictors and Situational Correlates
Kirsten Barnes &Nicholas J. S. Gibson (2013)

Grief Hallucinations

Another common situation where a sensed presence could occur is when a person is experiencing significant levels of grief. Often people will isolate themselves and cut themselves off from the world while they deal with their grief. In this period of isolation and stress, they may experience a visitation from their loved ones. It of course is up for debate as to if they really are having a visitation or not, but it seems that this interaction is often an important part of the recovery process and allows the person to move on. It may allow them to say the things they wish they could have said and get some sort of closure, especially if the person passed suddenly. I know that I am often contacted by people who are grieving that are desperate to talk to or see a loved one that has passed. Often they will ask me what equipment they can buy or what they can do to talk to them again. It is almost something that they become obsessed with and are unable to move on without doing so. Maybe this is the brain's way of helping us through a situation.

Grief is described as a process and not a state.  It is not something you can just snap out of, and in some ways, it is something that never really goes away completely.  We all have our own ways of coping and dealing with things.  One of the biggest things we have to try and navigate is how we are possibly going to continue without this person in our life?  Beyond that, it is then finding meaningful ways to continue to honour your relationship with this person in a different way.  There is no set time on how long it should take a person to grieve as everyone's circumstances are different, as so are their relationships.  Our brains are often helpful during this process because they can help us find comfort in ways it knows we need.  Sometimes this comes to us in the form of grief hallucinations.  Now there is debate as to whether a person is receiving a real visitation from a spirit or if they are causing their own hallucination but either way, it doesn't seem to really matter because it is noted to be a very important part of the healing process.

In the study: Bereavement among elderly people: grief reactions, post-bereavement hallucinations and quality of life by A Grimby (1993), it seems that when you have a strong emotional relationship such as a domestic partnership, in 80 percent of cases, within one month of their spouse's death, the experiencer had a hallucination that involved their partner.  What is significant in this study was that the subjects were all in their early 70s.  Their partnerships were often ones that had lasted for the majority of their lives.  In these circumstances, while there is a strong feeling of grief, you also have attached feelings of loneliness and a loss of what was essentially the other half of you.

Ratings of grief reactions, post-bereavement hallucinations and illusions and quality of life were made during the first year after the death of a spouse among 14 men and 36 women in their early seventies. In both sexes, the reactions were generally moderate or mild and characterized by loneliness, low mood, fatigue, anxiety and cognitive dysfunctioning. Feeling lonely was the most persistent problem during the year. Post-bereavement hallucinations or illusions were very frequent and considered helpful. Half of the subjects felt the presence of the deceased (illusions); about one third reported seeing, hearing and talking to the deceased (hallucinations). Former marital harmony was found to make a person more prone to loneliness, crying and hallucinations or illusions. The quality of life was significantly lower among the bereaved than among married people and those who never married, but equalled that found among divorcees.

Bereavement among elderly people: grief reactions, post-bereavement hallucinations and quality of life by A Grimby (1993)

Whether or not a person really has had a visitation, or they are experiencing some sort of psychological phenomena like a sensed presence, it is important to acknowledge that the experience itself will be completely real to the person. In any case, if it is something that helps them through a situation or gives them comfort, does it really matter if they really did have a visitation or not? I think sometimes, things should be left alone and a person should be allowed to cherish an experience that has helped them or given them comfort. In our search for the 'truth', we can often forget the impact such events can have emotionally and also on a person's wellbeing. Maybe spirits know when we need them and are there for us on some kind of spiritual level. Maybe our brain just makes us think they are there to give us the same comfort. At the end of the day, in situations like this, does it really matter?


Bereavement among elderly people: grief reactions, post-bereavement hallucinations and quality of life by A Grimby (1993)



Supernatural Agency: Individual Difference Predictors and Situational Correlates
Kirsten Barnes &Nicholas J. S. Gibson (2013)

Cover Image: Photo by Lennart Wittstock from Pexels

Distortions of Subjective Time Perception Within and Across Senses
van Wassenhove V, Buonomano DV, Shimojo S, Shams L (2008) Distortions of Subjective Time Perception Within and Across Senses. PLOS ONE 3(1): e1437.

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  • Joseph Kapusta 2 years ago

    Good observations & analysis. IMHO, I would add an investigative methodology to employ at times to counter subjective tendencies is to have purpose of intention that there are no other influences present, although this in itself would constitute being subjective. However, I do find this negates overreacting to the environment I am in.