Friday, July 16, 2010

The Essential Science of Ghost Hunting: Two Sleep Anomalies Investigators Should Understand

By Robin M. Strom-Mackey
“What I came across were two completely normal occurrences of sleep that could explain a great number of the strange reports, and at the very least calm the nerves of quite a few clients along the way.“
She knew that the dark man was in the house. She could hear the front door opening and the quiet footsteps on the stairs. Any moment now the intruder would be in her room. She needed to get up, she needed to get the bat from under the bed or the phone off the dresser. She needed to hide. She could hear those footsteps getting closer and closer. Her heart was racing, her hands shaking, and then she saw the dark form in the doorway….

The next moment she was awake and still sure the intruder was there. The dream had felt so real. However, in a panic she found that she could not move, not one inch. What was wrong with her? Was there something or someone holding her down?

As fearful as this scenario was for me, I realized later that the experience I had was actually a very normal function of dreaming. I’ve come across numerous reports from people claiming they had experienced paranormal phenomenon during the night while they were asleep, and have actually experienced some strange phenomenon I myself couldn‘t account for, until doing some research into the science of sleep. What I came across were two completely normal occurrences of sleep that could explain a great number of the strange reports, and at the very least might calm the nerves a few clients along the way.
Hypnagogic Hallucinations

You’re settling in for the night, just drifting off to sleep and then suddenly you hear your name called. Realizing you’re all alone you wake up frenzied. You swear you just had a visitor from beyond call your name. However, it’s more likely you experienced a hypnagogic hallucination. These strange little “dream” sequences occur in the first stage of sleep (NREM 1). In other words, a sleeper is likely to experience them within the first 20 minutes of settling in for the night, which can cause the illusion that they are that much more real.

Indeed in the first stage of NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep) a subject isn’t even technically asleep. At this point they also are not technically dreaming, according to sleep researchers. Dreaming is a function of REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep). Sleepers don’t actually enter the REM state until 70-120 minutes after falling asleep. Whether technically asleep and dreaming or not, however, sleepers can experience these odd little dream states called hypnagogic hallucinations. These are in effect, “odd, but vividly realistic sensations,” or strange little hallucinations that can feel quite real to the sleeper (Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2010). For example, a sleeper might hear someone call their name, or have a sensation of falling, floating or flying, according to the authors. These can feel shockingly real, and can even cause the sleeper to jerk awake. While strange, these hallucinations are quite normal to the sleep cycle.
Sleep Paralysis

Another quite normal experience is sleep paralysis. This usually occurs later in the sleep cycle, normally during a REM period of sleep. As stated earlier REM (rapid eye movement sleep) is when a sleeper is technically dreaming. During this period the brain waves of sleepers accelerate to that of a waking person. The eyes of the sleeper move back and froth rapidly behind closed lids. Blood pressure and heart rate can fluctuate rapidly. Muscles often twitch uncontrollably. We are in effect locked effectively in the dream state actively participating in our own little fantasies. It is during REM while our minds are so actively engaged that our bodies go into a state of sleep paralysis. In other words, our bodies become immobile to the demands of our brains. There is undoubtedly a very sound physiological reason behind this phenomenon. If our bodies reacted to our brains while soundly asleep and dreaming we might end up flailing or falling, or otherwise hurting ourselves or others. Our brains therefore impose this paralysis on our bodies to protect us from ourselves. If, however, the sleeper is startled awake, as in the first scenario, she will awake to find herself quite unable to move. They will most likely remain paralyzed for a half a minute or more, before normal movement again becomes possible. It should be noted, too, that some subjects can experience sleep paralysis when first awakening in the morning. Again, this is a perfectly normal function of sleep, that can however, cause distress to the unaware.
Hockenbury, D.H., Hockenbury, S.E. (2010) Psychology; 5th Edition. Worth Publishers: New York, NY.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Part III: The Current Debate - The Electro Chemical Impulses of the Body

See Part I: The Current Debate: AC/DC Current under May 2010 heading
See Part II: The Current Debate: How Electricity Works at the Atomic Level under July 2010 heading

Part III The Current Debate: The Electro-Chemical Impulses of the Body
By Robin M. Strom-Mackey
"Thus the body utilizes DC power, electro-magnetic energy that moves in a straight line and not in waves – like AC power. "
Electricity in our bodies is different from the household current you use when you run your television or charge your cell phone. Electrical impulses in the body are a much more complicated electro-chemical reaction which utilizes ions versus electrons in order to send its signals.
Neural Impulses in our body run along our millions of nerve cells directing everything from digestion to muscle movement. The gray matter in your skull (and the white matter, for that matter) is clusters of nerve cells which send electro-chemical impulses from one part of the brain to another. Other nerve cells run down our spinal column and nerve cells run all the way out to our feet and hands, (the nerve cell that runs to your big toe is literally around 4 feet long) creating a two-way communication system from all parts of our body to our brain and back. As you do your Algebra homework, or try to figure out this article you’re using your nerve cells, also called neurons, which are processing information and sending out directions constantly.
Unlike the electrical current that is running through your computer, which utilizes electrons to do its dirty work, the body uses ions to send its signals from neuron to neuron. Ions, as you recall are the entire atom of an element that has either gained or lost an electron. Because of this loss or gain of an electron, or two, the entire atom is either positively or negatively charged. In the case of our bodies these ions are what creates the electrical-chemical impulses that keep our brain functioning and our bodies moving. These ions move about in and out of nerve cells, also called a neuron. As these ions move in and out of the cell they change the electrical charge of the cell. If you recall from your time as a youngster playing with magnets, the positive end of the magnet will attract the negative end of another. But try to put two positives together, or two negatives, and they repulse or push away from one another. This concept is essential to the way electricity functions both in your body and out. Essentially the body uses the positive ions (mainly sodium and potassium ions) to generate its electric charge. When at rest, the neuron body is slightly negative due to the large amounts of potassium (K-) ions in the cell – which are negatively charged. The space outside the neuron cell body is surrounded by sodium ions (Na+)  and the space is positively charged. When the nerve cell is stimulated enough, channels open along the outer walls of the cell. The sodium ions, which are positive, rush into the cell because they’re attracted to the negative charge of the potassium ions (K-).
A nerve impulse depends on an electro-chemical reaction to occur to actually start a nerve impulse. If a stimulus is strong enough at the receiving end of a neuron, called a dendrite, a neuron will send a neural impulse called an action potential. When the stimulus reaches the threshold, (i.e. when it’s a strong enough stimulus to warrant action) channels, in effect doorways, along the neuron cell body open up and sodium ions begin to flood into the cell body. During an action potential the cell body becomes positively charged and the area outside the cell body becomes negatively charged. The action potential moves along the neuron cell body to the end. Once the impulse has passed, the neuron resets itself, essentially pushing the sodium ions back out and pulling potassium ions back into the cell until it reaches its initial resting state. Once a neuron fires it cannot fire again until it has reset itself –which is known as the refractory period. An action potential runs in a straight line and in only one direction – it does not double back on itself. Once started it does not stop until it reaches the end of the neuron at the axon terminal. Thus the body utilizes DC power, electro-magnetic energy that moves in a straight line and not in waves – like AC power.
A neuron - The branches off the green neuran body are the dendrites, the receiving end of the neuron. A stimulus detected here generates an action potential which moves through the cell body and down the long axon (shown in red) out the axon terminals at the bottom.
Now neuron cells don’t actually connect to one another. At the end of the neuron – the axon terminal - the action potential stops because it’s hit the end of the road. Between the axon of one neuron and the dendrite of the next neuron cell is a small empty fluid filled area that must be breached in order for the action potential to continue on its merry way to the next neuron cell. This fluid filled cleft is called a synapse or synaptic cleft. As the action potential hits the end of the axon, small pouches which hold chemicals, referred to as neurotransmitters, are motivated to spill their chemicals out of the neuron cell body and into the synaptic cleft. As these chemical atoms spill out they drift through the cleft over to the dendrite of the next neuron, where they attach to docking stations – called receptor sites - on the dendrite, causing this neuron to begin the action potential in the new neuron.
Neurotransmitters, by the way are very much like keys and receptor sites on the dendrite of the next neuron like a locked door. You need the correct key (chemical) to open the door. Remember the last time you forgot which key was to which lock, so you had to try all the different keys. Some may seem to fit as they slip them into the lock, but try to turn the knob and it just won’t work. Neurotransmitters work exactly the same way. Just the right chemical key and the dendrite is excited, sodium ions begin to flood in and an action potential is generated in the next neuron. Try the wrong key (neurotransmitter) and the neuron doesn’t fire. As complicated a process as this appears to be, a neuron can do all this in a fraction of a second.
You may be asking at this point why our neurons don’t use electricity versus this complicated electro-chemical process. The answer is that we do actually have some neurons that fire with electrical impulses – and yes it sends impulses faster. But 99% of our neurons use the action potential impulse, and movement of ions in and out of the neuron cell bodies to move impulses along.
Hockenbury,D.H., Hockenbury, S.E., (2010) Psychology 5th Edition. Worth Publishers: NY, New York.
Malone, L.J, Dolter, T.O. (2010). Basic Concepts of Chemistry; Eighth Edition. Wiley and Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, NJ
Marieb, E.N., Hoehn, K. (2009) Human Anatomy and Physiology; Eighth Edition. Pearson Education, Inc.: San Francisco, CA.

Physics: Electric Current Through Various Media Downloaded July 2, 2010 from Wikipedia at

2010 heading

Part II: The Current Debate

See Part I: The Current Debate under the May 2010 heading
See Part III: The Current Debate -The Electro Chemical Impulses of the Body under the July 2010 heading

Part II: The Current Debate
How Electricity Works at the Atomic LevelBy Robin Strom-Mackey

I started this project with a couple of different, seemingly simple goals in mind. To figure out how electricity works so that I could figure out what EMF detector to buy; so that I could more effectively hunt ghosts! Oh sure, it sounds simple. Little did I know that my simple premise would take me on a monumental quest through the pursuit of so many disciplines in order, only now, to start being able to connect the dots. The obvious place to start this search was in Ghost Hunting manuals, but while they offered a recommendation or two about models, not one of my fellow, yellow-bellied authors provided any real explanation as to how they worked, or why one model might be preferable over another. Since then I’ve perused chemistry textbooks to figure out how the atom works; Anatomy and Physiology texts to find out how electrical impulses worked in the body; Psychology texts, where I learned for the first time about how closely related all electro-magnetic energy really was; technology sites where I studied how household current works and why it’s different from DC current, which is the current in your cell phone battery or flashlight.

In this second article in my series I’ll explain the composition of the atom, how the atom works to create electricity, and how electricity actually works in the human body. In other words, this article is likely not only to excite your inner geek, but to have her braying Handel’s Messiah. So strap on the thinking caps, ghost hunters, because we’re goin in!

Ah, the Atom
I know, at this point you’re wondering, "if I’m not a chemist or biologist, why would I possibly care about the makeup of the atom?" (Or maybe you’re wondering, what in the bloody, blue blazes an atom even is?) The reason I discuss the atom at all, is because it all  starts from here. I will be brief and make this as painless as possible. So here goes. A working definition of an atom is that an atom is the smallest unit of an element that displays the properties of that element. So, for example, an atom of aluminum would be the smallest unit of aluminum you could have that would still display the properties of aluminum.
All matter is composed of atoms, and until recently, they were believed to be the smallest particles of matter. (Quantum physicists now believe the atom can be broken down further, but that’s a discussion for a different day.) Atoms are so tiny that you really can’t see them even with the strongest microscope. The atom itself is comprised of three particles, protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons are fairly large, (by atomic standards – which is to say that they’re really tiny) and fairly heavy and all protons have a positive charge. Neutrons are also rather heavy and all neutrons have a neutral charge – or no charge at all. Now the protons and the neutrons are fond of one another, and they reside in close proximity at the center of the atom which is called the nucleus.

Think of a baseball in the center of a football field. That baseball is the nucleus of the atom, residing in the center of the atom with all that space around it. And that space is inhabited by another type of particle, the electron. Electrons are small, light weight particles with a negative charge. They literally whir around the rest of the football field, pinging and poinging all over. Remember how magnets work, the positive end of the magnet is attracted to the negative end of another. Atoms work like magnets. The positive protons at the nucleus are what attract and hold the negative electrons which otherwise would just dance off into space.

Atoms prefer having a balanced charge. In order to be balanced the protons and the electrons are equal in number. For example, hydrogen, the lightest element, has one proton and therefore one electron; the positive proton being balanced by the negative electron. But, if everything were this simple and balanced we wouldn’t have electro-magnetic energy at all, nor would life be possible. So what happens to disturb the balance?
Well, it comes down to those pesky electrons. The electrons dancing around in the football field of our atom reside in what are called electron shells. The shells hold a certain number of atoms only, and according to how many electrons are in the electron shell (or cloud) determines how balanced an element truly is. Think of an apartment building with floors as an example of shells. The first floor (shell) has only one apartment and can house only two residents (electrons). Thus the first electron shell, the one closest to the nucleus, can hold up to 2 electrons. The second shell (or second floor of our atomic apartment building) can hold up to, and no more than 8 electrons.

Atoms are balanced when they have the maximum number of electrons in their electron shells, 2 in their innermost shell, 8 in their second shell or third shell. Therefore, hydrogen is extremely unbalanced because it only has one electron in its electron shell, instead of two. But helium, which has 2 protons and therefore 2 electrons, is extremely stable. In fact helium with its outer shell of 2 electrons won’t react with any other type of element – period. It’s one stable dude.

This carbon atom has 2 electrons in its innermost shell (first floor), but only 4 in its outer shell (second floor), thus it isn't stable (i.e. the super is looking to rent those other four apartments).

So what happens to atoms of elements that aren’t quite  stable? Well, those electrons whirring about their football field in an unbalanced number can do a couple of different things. If the electrons of an unbalanced element, such as hydrogen, meets up with another element that is unbalanced such as oxygen with its outer rings of 2 and 6, (remember oxygen really wants 8 electrons in its second shell, so it’s looking for two more electrons) they might agree to share an electron between them.

Now oxygen would have 7 electrons in its outer ring, so it’s still not happy - until it finds yet another hydrogen atom with whom to share an electron. Voila, we have a water molecule, where the oxygen atom is balanced with 8 in its second shell and the two hydrogen atoms are happy and balanced as well with 2 electrons a piece in their first shells. This is what is referred to as a covalent bond. Covalent bonds are very strong bonds, because the elements involved are all completely balanced. Water is an extremely balanced compound, those hydrogen and oxygen atoms just love to hang around together in the form of H2O. - which is short hand for saying 1 oxygen and 2 hydrogen atoms.
But sometimes this balancing act doesn’t go as well as that. Sometimes an atom with a positive charge will seduce an electron completely away from its nucleus. An ion, by the way, is an atom that has lost or gained an electron or electrons. It can go both ways. An atom can lose an electron or two in which case the atom takes on a positive charge – because now the protons outnumber the electrons.

Atoms can also acquire more electrons, so that the electrons outnumber the protons, in which case an atom would take on a negative charge. Atoms that are positively or negatively charged tend to be attracted to one another. They will hang in close proximity forming an ionic bond. But just like the dating couple that just can’t quite make it work, ionic bonds are loose bonds that can be dissolved pretty easily under the right circumstances.
Electrons are flighty creatures and can be induced to flit from one atom to another, to another to another. This is what we refer to as electricity. Electricity is defined as “the flow of electrons through a conductor (Malone & Dolter, 2010).” Metals make terrific conductors, in other words it’s not too difficult to get the electrons to move along from atom to atom via a metal element. Think of the wires in your house, encased by the outer plastic layer (plastic does not conduct electricity) is a metal wire.
As George Gamow put in his science-popularizing book, One, Two, Three...Infinity (1947), "The metallic substances differ from all other materials by the fact that the outer shells of their atoms are bound rather loosely, and often let one of their electrons go free. Thus the interior of a metal is filled up with a large number of unattached electrons that travel aimlessly around like a crowd of displaced persons. When a metal wire is subjected to electric force applied on its opposite ends, these free electrons rush in the direction of the force, thus forming what we call an electric current (Wikipedia, 2010)."
So when these wandering, feckless electrons are given a push they move from one metal atom to another, to another…down the wire. At the end of their journey into whatever device the wire runs, these tiny electrons expend their energy by lighting a light bulb or running the dryer. In order for electricity to work there needs to be a non-interrupted track (circuit) through which the electrons flow and they need a push to get going. If you for instance break the flow, say you flip off the light switch, the circuit is interrupted.

Electrons will stop flowing when an interruption occurs. In the case of a battery, the push comes from electrons moving away from the negative pole of the battery toward the positive pole of the battery. When all the electrons have been pushed through, the battery is dead. In the case of the electricity in your house, the push comes through by way of the electric generator – which was discussed in Article I. Your household electricity is running along the circuit to the ground wire, which is its positive pole. Remember our negative electrons are always seeking out more positive company with whom to hang.

Now a word to the wise. I've grossly condensed and simplified my atomic explanation of how electrons flow to create electricity because most of us are ghost hunters, not electrical engineers (although I ghost hunted for awhile with an electrical engineer (who would in all honestly probably break out in hives at my simplistic explanations). But there it is in an atomic shell, electricity is nothing but feckless electrons movin on down the road.

Hockenbury,D.H., Hockenbury, S.E., (2010) Psychology 5th Edition. Worth Publishers: NY, New York.
Malone, L.J, Dolter, T.O. (2010). Basic Concepts of Chemistry; Eighth Edition. Wiley and Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, NJ
Marieb, E.N., Hoehn, K. (2009) Human Anatomy and Physiology; Eighth Edition. Pearson Education, Inc.: San Francisco, CA.
Physics: Electric Current Through Various Media Downloaded July 2, 2010 from Wikipedia at