Paranormal or a trick of the eye?

12th March 2021. Reading Time: 8 minutes General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know. 2003 page views. 0 comments.

We can't always trust what we see. Here are some common tricks of the eye which are often mistaken as something paranormal.

We can't always trust what we see.  As paranormal investigators, we often feel we are seeing shadow figures or items moving on their own.  While there could be something paranormal happening, there are also some common tricks of the eye that can cause a person to see something that isn't really there.


Often we are presented with photos that contain some sort of ghostly-looking face in some mist or a grainy doorway.  Some people can see it and others can't.  People will circle the area to emphasize the face or figure they are seeing.  This is what you hear most investigators refer to as ‘Matrixing’ or ‘Pareidolia’. In a nutshell, your brain is trying to make sense of what it is looking at, so it makes you think you are looking at something you can familiarize yourself with. Think about it. How many times do you look into the clouds and think you see a man riding a horse or you look in the shower and on your steamy window you see a face or even a weird smiley face appearing on the brickwork of your house? This is the perfect example of Pareidolia.

Source: Daily Motion

This phenomenon is a form of apophenia which is where the brain tries to make sense out of patterns of data. It is thought that this psychological phenomenon was a form of survival that we have inherited from our ancestors.

"As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper."

Carl Sagan

The Demon Haunted World 1995

If a baby did not recognize its parents, it would interact and smile less. It is thought that the brain was 'wired' to recognize the faces to be able to form bonds with its parents. When your child sees your face, it often lights up with a smile, even from those early weeks. The brain was trained to recognize faces.

For more on pareidolia, check out my articles: Pareidolia why we see things that aren't there and The problem with Pareidolia

Peripheral Drift Vision

Commonly, people will often report a sighting of a shadow person lurking in the shadows of a dark corner or a doorway.  One explanation could be what is called peripheral drift vision.  Look at the following image.  While it looks like the wheels are moving they really aren't.  It is an optical illusion caused by the smart placement of black white and grey lines which are designed to create this illusion.

Image Source: Akiyoshi Kitaoka (Kitaoka and Ashida 2003)

One of the general themes with shadow people particularly in my sightings has been that they have always been in very low light conditions, sometimes in complete darkness. It makes sense because we as investigators, generally investigate in the dark. My own sightings tend to be in doorways and I often hear people saying they can see figures moving in doorways during an investigation. A doorway always tends to be a bit darker as well. Because we are in the dark, you are obviously looking at blackness. A bit of light coming through say a window may cause some white and grey areas. When you are focusing on the doorway for a certain amount of time, small changes in light could cause our eyes to start playing tricks on us. It certainly would be possible that the figure we are seeing moving in the doorway could in fact just be a trick of the eye. We now know about peripheral drift vision and we know about pareidolia. Mix these two components together and we have the perfect combination to create a shadow person. In fact, this concept is actually used widely in virtual reality experiences to help track movement and give a more authentic experience to the player.

To read more about Shadow People and other possible explanations, check out my article Shadow People

Blind Spots

Another explanation for a shadow person sighting could be when you are seeing something out of the corner of your eye.  Many sightings do occur when a person feels like they are seeing something just out of their line of sight or 'out of the corner of their eye'.  This happens because of what is called a 'Blind Spot'.  A blind spot is a gap in your vision. The easiest comparison to make is to think of your blind spot when you are driving. It is that spot that you can’t see in any of your mirrors and you will only see it if you physically turn your head. How frustrating is it when a car sits in your blind spot? You know there is a car there, but you can't see it without turning your head.  Our eyes can obviously see a lot of things all at the same time. While we focus on one main thing other items may become a little blurry.  Even though they may not be in focus, we can still see them. It is for this same reason you can also see things out of the corner of your eye. It is how you know that someone is walking in your direction or if a ball is coming your way.  It is really easy to look out of the corner of your eye and mistake a coat stand for a shadow person or any sort of object.  Things that you see out of the corner of your eye may not be paranormal, they could be a result of a blind spot.

Image Source:

It is not just exclusive to shadow people, often just seeing something slightly out of the corner of your eye can make you think someone is standing there when they are not.  It may induce the feeling of being watched or that you are not alone. 


Light is something that has a huge effect on the way we experience things on a paranormal investigation.  Often we are investigating with the lights off and using flashlights or lanterns.  The problem here is that the rods in our eyes are sensitive to light. They don't interpret colour, only light.  If our eyes are exposed to bright light, the cones and rods become overexposed, and often we will see a large flash of light, much like you see on an overexposed photograph. This can also cause a person to see what is called an afterimage.

When you stare at a black image for a prolonged period of time and then look at a white piece of paper, you can see the image floating down.  It just shows us what happens when our eyes are trying to adjust.  It can make us see things that are not there.  Try it!  Stare at the white dot on the left image for 30 seconds. Now move your line of sight to the black dot on the right.  You will see a 'lady in white' slowly float down.

Source: Stuff Paranormal Investigators Need to Know Volume 1

While the cones reset really quickly, it takes the rods a lot longer to reset and adjust to the change in light.  As we get older, our eyes degenerate.  We all have varying levels of eyesight and different types of light have different luminosity which means that the time it can take to adjust to the dark is different for each person based on the health and condition of their eyes plus the type of light.  It is different for example going from a Sunny room to a dark room as opposed to having a fluorescent light on which is then switched off.

To read more about this process and how using red light can assist, check out my article Dark Adaptation and Red Light


Also known as the autokinetic effect, this phenomenon occurs when a small stationary source of light which is surrounded by a dark environment appears to be moving. It actually isn't moving, but there are scenarios where we believe it is moving. It is thought that because it is surrounded by darkness, there is no reference point for our brains to use. The jury is out as to whether it is more a fault of the eye or the brain. While some believe it has to do with how the brain perceives the information, others believe it is more to do with involuntary eye movements.

Image by LLIFS

While it is commonly associated with things like stars in the sky moving or even seeing what seems to be moving lights in the sky, on a paranormal investigation, often people think they can see a light fixture swinging, a ceiling fan spinning, or even a door that looks like it is slowly opening or closing.  Upon inspection, they realize it hasn't moved at all.  

To read more on this, check out my article The Autokinetic Effect

There is very much a common theme with these visual misperceptions.  A lot of them occur in the dark or when there are significant or fast changes in light.  There is no hard and fast rule that says you must investigate the paranormal in the dark.  Of course, it makes it spooky but you can still do what you need to do with the lights on.  Some people do like to have the lights off as a form of sensory deprivation as they feel it helps them on a psychic level.  Everyone does things differently, however, we need to at least be aware of the things that can make us see things that are not really there.  These are very small examples of a long list of things that can cause us to misinterpret things when it comes to the paranormal.  It is not saying that what you have experienced is not paranormal, however, it is a possible explanation that should always be considered.

If you would like to know more about these as well as cognitive bias' and medical conditions that can also make you think something paranormal is happening, check out my book Stuff Paranormal Investigators Need To Know Volume 1: What the eyes see and the ears hear the mind believes - available worldwide via Amazon and Book Depository.

Featured Image: Photo by Subin from Pexels

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