The element of surprise

6th February 2022. Reading Time: 11 minutes General, Paranormal Investigation. 1022 page views. 0 comments.

We often talk about how our expectations can cause us to 'make things happen' but what happens when we introduce the element of surprise? How does our body react to surprise and how does fear affect our perception of the paranormal?

Raise your hand if you feel you have been touched by a ghost or a spirit?  How did you react?  Were you scared?  Was it unexpected?  Were you calm and asking for interaction?  I was watching an un-named paranormal reality show for my usual Sunday guilty pleasure entertainment, and the person on camera felt that they had been touched.  They screamed in surprise and were quite shaken (It was not Zak Bagans or any of the Ghost Adventures Crew).  Obviously, it was something that was not expected and they were by themselves so it wasn't a real person making it all the harder for them to explain.  It was actually the first time I had seen this particular person react in such a way as they are normally quite a calm person (on the show).  I then started to think back to paranormal investigations when people feel they are being touched by a spirit.  In most of the cases I have seen, they certainly don't react this way.  Of course, they don't have to up the anty for entertainment, but being scared does seem like a genuine and natural reaction if some unseen force touches you out of the blue!  So why don't we react that way when on an investigation?  Is it because when we are on a paranormal investigation we are inviting spirit interaction?  Often a person will calmly say (and often with a smile) something is touching my shoulder or someone is trying to hold my hand.  They may even hold their hand out asking for more interaction.  Sometimes people may flinch or turn around, but they don't seem all that shocked or scared.  Is it because there is an element of expectation involved?  It is like a tale of two paranormal experiences - the same but completely different.  It made me wonder about the element of surprise and how it could affect the way we react and even interpret paranormal experiences.

What is a surprise?

Surprise is a sudden feeling that is brought on by something unexpected.  It is considered to be one of the 7 emotions and also one of the shortest.  The feeling then morphs into either excitement, fear, happiness, sadness or even nothing at all if it was nothing we consider to be significant.  The first thing that comes to mind is something that has never been done for me!  A Surprise party!  Everyone hides and the person the party is being thrown for walks in and you hope someone hasn't told them in advance.  Everyone yells 'SUPRISE' and either they jump in shock, followed by emotions of happiness, tears and even humble anger at the person for throwing the party and keeping a secret from them, or they try their best to make it look like they are surprised.  You can ALWAYS tell when someone knows about the surprise in advance.  It is a difficult response to fake.  Maybe that is why it is so easy to recognise when someone on a paranormal investigation is not so 'surprised' that they are being touched by a ghost!

Image Source: Zazzle

The best definition I have read about a surprise is that it violates our predictions about the World.  So much of that sentence can be tied into the paranormal in many ways, but perhaps that is an article for another time.  Put simply though, if we are going into a paranormal investigation, it is almost like we are heading to our own surprise party.  We are going with the intention in some way shape or form to encounter something paranormal - or at the very least try to research it.  So when a person feels they have been touched or grabbed, it is almost like the reaction when someone knows about their own surprise party.  It is not so much of a surprise, so they don't react as such.  Most people that are attending a paranormal investigation, believe in some form of the paranormal.  When a person who does not believe in the paranormal attends an investigation and they feel like they are being touched, they often react with more fear.  That is because the experience has violated their prediction about the World. They start to question their beliefs and I know myself it is an absolutely terrifying feeling to have everything you have known and believed turned upside down all in a small moment. 

One of the other emotions that a surprise can evoke is that of fear.  This is when the tables truly turn.  On a more basic level, we have a prediction of how an outing is going to go or how something is going to pan out.  If we are sitting at home on the couch and no one is home, we certainly don't expect to hear noises or maybe even see a shadow.  This moment we haven't predicted can cause us to feel fear.

When surprise turns to fear

Fear itself is a complicated emotion.  It is something that we associate with in a negative way because that is how our body reacts, yet we actively go out to seek fear.  It is why people go sky diving or even just watch scary movies.  It may even be why some people like to go on a paranormal investigation.  Check out my article Why we like to be scared

Fear can attach itself to phobias like being scared of spiders, and it pops up when we least expect it.  It evokes what we often label as flight or flight mode which causes our body to go through a series of physiological changes

Breathing rate increases, heart rate follows suit, peripheral blood vessels — in the skin, for instance — constrict, central blood vessels around vital organs dilate to flood them with oxygen and nutrients, and muscles are pumped with blood, ready to react.

Muscles — including those at the base of each hair — also become tighter, causing piloerection, which is colloquially called goosebumps. When a human’s hair stands on end, it makes little difference to their appearance, but for more hirsute animals, it makes them seem larger and more formidable.

Metabolically, levels of glucose in the blood spike, providing a ready store of energy if the need for action arises. Similarly, levels of calcium and white blood cells in the bloodstream see an increase.

Fear can change our perception

Being caught off guard or being 'surprised' is one of the key triggers of fear because it is simply something you don't expect.  If you are home alone for example and you suddenly hear loud footsteps in your hallway, that is a justifiable reason to feel a little scared.  You may even jump in surprise.  The next thing you could do is jump to a conclusion that is fed by fear.  If you can't see something, often our body will go into a state of fear or fight or flight because it is our primal instinct to do so.  Our brain sees an invisible threat.  We tend to associate unseen things with the paranormal.  So if you are somewhere and suddenly you hear something unexpected that you cannot see the source of, your primal instinct is to feel fear.  It can even make you feel like you are not alone.  While the noise can be as simple as a door closing or someone around a corner you cannot see, your brain doesn't know that and causes you to become scared of what it cannot see.  You may even flee from the scene to get away from the unseen thing that made the noise.  Again the paranormal is what we associate with something we cannot see, so it makes sense that we think there is something paranormal happening.  Which I guess in a way is true to a degree, because our brain has determined it is not normal!  

So if we go to the above scenario of someone feeling like they have been touched out of nowhere, it is not surprising they are going to act in fear if it is completely unexpected.  Not only were they not expecting to feel a hand on their shoulder, but they also can't see a person that supposedly touched their shoulder.  It can be simple as a tree branch brushing against your back, but the surprise element and the fear can cause your perception to become confused  

Fear decreases our sensory perception.

Fear decreases our sensory perception.  It is something I find interesting because paranormal investigators straight off the bat are often using different kinds of sensory deprivation tactics (including switching off lights).  Sensory deprivation itself can cause fear and then in turn our sensory perception is then potentially decreased.  Sensory deprivation is often used when testing PSI abilities - particularly telepathy with many believing that by being able to tune outside influence out, you can 'tune in' to what you are looking for.  Sensory deprivation itself can induce a feeling of fear simply because you are removing one of your senses and your brain is trying to make sense of it.  By taking away one of our senses, it is thought that our other senses are enhanced which again is why it is such a popular method with paranormal investigators.  A study, however, indicates that our sense of touch is not heightened in this state, it is in fact possibly desensitised.

Emotions and sensory perceptions are closely intertwined. Of the five senses, sight has been by far the most extensively studied sense in emotion research. Relatively less is known about how emotions influence the other four senses. Touch is essential for nonverbal communication in both humans and other animals. The current investigation tested competing hypotheses about the effect of fear on tactile perception. One hypothesis based on evolutionary considerations predicts that fear enhances sensory perception, including tactile sensitivity. A competing hypothesis based on research on peripheral psychophysiology predicts that fear should decrease tactile sensitivity. Two experiments that induced negative emotional states and measured two-point discrimination ability at the fingertip found that fear reduces tactile sensitivity relative to anger or a neutral control condition (Studies 1 and 2). These findings did not appear to be driven by participants’ naïve beliefs about the influence of emotions on touch (Study 3). The results represent the first evidence of the causal impact of emotional states on tactile sensitivity, are consistent with prior evidence for the peripheral physiological effects of fear, and offer novel empirical grounds for developing and advancing theories of emotional influences on sensory perception.

The effects of negative emotions on sensory perception: fear but not anger decreases tactile sensitivity
Nicholas J. Kelley* and Brandon J. Schmeichel
Department of Psychology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA

The above study indicates that fear can decrease our tactile sensitivity which refers to our sense of touch.   So if we are in a state of sensory deprivation (even just walking around without the lights on) some people may have a small element of fear bubbling inside.  It is the unknown of being in a dark building not knowing what could happen.  What we know is that this could cause our sense of touch could actually be desensitised.  We maybe don't feel things as prominently or strongly as we normally would.  Bumping into something or brushing against a chair feels quite light.  Even just the way our clothes feel against our body when we move could feel different and make us feel like something is lightly touching our leg.  Perhaps this is why people are not necessarily scared when they feel this.  The touch itself is desensitised and they are looking for something paranormal.  Much to their delight, they believe they are experiencing it.  The question is, are they?  

I have been in this situation myself when I have calmly thought something paranormal was touching me.  Why was I not scared?  Is it because I was looking for it?  Was my expectation making me think something paranormal was happening when it wasn't?  Was it something paranormal but because I was inviting paranormal interaction I wasn't 'surprised'?  Was the fact the lights turned off mean I feeling something physical in a different way?  Is it just because I have been investigating the paranormal for many years and I don't get caught up in the 'hype' or overstating emotion as they do on TV?  Maybe I am thinking too much about it but I thought it was something worth exploring.


The effects of negative emotions on sensory perception: fear but not anger decreases tactile sensitivity
Nicholas J. Kelley* and Brandon J. Schmeichel
Department of Psychology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA

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