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A university academic and scientist is celebrating 20 years of research into unusual experiences at a Cumbrian castle with a reputation for ghostly occurrences.
Dr Jason Braithwaite, 41, who lectures in Cognitive Psychology and Brain Science at the University of Birmingham, has been conducting studies at Muncaster Castle, near Ravenglass, since 1992 to try to understand and explain why some people have anomalous experiences in such environments. Many visitors to Muncaster Castle have reported strange sightings, or unexplained feelings, over many years, which has led to the Castle gaining a strong reputation for being ‘haunted’.
However, Dr Braithwaite, who is originally from the nearby West Cumbrian village of Bootle, is a renowned sceptic of ghosts and has been working for the last 20 years to find more rational scientific explanations for the reported phenomenon, and work towards what he calls, a “Science of the strange experience”.
“As I grew up in the area I was obviously aware of the legends, myths and stories surrounding the Castle and so, as a young student, I set about gathering all the information on these I could,” he said. “Then in 1992 we started running experiments at the Castle to test psychological theories.
“Back then I investigated a lot of locations but over the years we have concentrated our efforts at Muncaster as the Pennington family were highly supportive and welcoming of our scientific approach.
“Muncaster is a great location to field-test scientific ideas and theories ‘in the wild’ so to speak. The welcoming nature of the Pennington family has made it a great place to do our research and long may it continue.”
Dr Braithwaite, who works with a small team of volunteers, said that the people who are reporting seeing things at the Castle are from a wide-ranging background. “We are interested in what it is about the Castle that makes people believe what they say they are experiencing.
“Over the years we have made a number of interesting discoveries, such as that women seem to report more experiences than men. We have noticed that large numbers of imposing portraits in a small room can induce feelings of “being watched” – though the observer is often unaware of the role of the portraits in the effect.
“Our findings suggest people who are more susceptible to the power of suggestion report more unusual experiences. Also, rooms painted in cold-looking colours, such as the Castle’s infamous Tapestry Room, can trick the brain and make people ‘feel’ colder over a certain time period – this has been measured psychologically and physiologically.
“We also discovered the Tapestry Room door used to open on its own due to the combined effects of not closing properly in its frame and air moving up the large chimney ‘sucking’ it open. Darker spaces make people feel more uncomfortable and are associated with more unusual experiences.”
Interestingly the long-term approach over the last 20 years has revealed that the types of things people have reported seeing, or experiencing, has changed over time. Jason feels this could be influenced by what people are watching on television and at the cinema.
“Before the ghost-hunting shows appeared on TV, guests would report seeing figures and people, now they are reporting seeing nebulous shapes and ‘corner of the eye’ abstract perceptions,” he said. “The cultural and historical impact of Hollywood is clear to see,” he added.
The research at Muncaster Castle represents the longest study of its type ever conducted in the world. Dr Braithwaite has published his research in scientific journals and Muncaster has been host to two international scientific conferences investigating anomalous experiences.
His work differs from most because he is a sceptic and is looking to produce scientific explanations.
Dr Braithwaite is also heavily involved in promoting science in the public domain, and can often be found at science festivals or events at the Castle.
“Anomalous experiences provide a perfect vehicle for engaging young minds and the general public with fascinating science,” he says.
“One of our biggest struggles is to protect the integrity of our work,” he said. “We control and direct the research at the Castle and we do not endorse or support pseudoscientific approaches, such as psychics, mediums and nonsense TV paranormal shows. I am a sceptic and our work is serious science.”
Jason said he hopes his work at Muncaster will continue for most of his life and that technological advances will help improve their understanding into why people think they are having strange experiences at the Castle. As they are volunteers however, they can struggle to pay for equipment and are currently seeking £16k for new instruments to measure physiological differences in the body.
“We give our time up freely as volunteers but in order to progress we need to be at the cutting edge of technology,” he said.
For more information about Muncaster Castle visit www.muncaster.co.uk and to find out about Dr Braithwaite’s work go to http://birmingham.academia.edu/DrJasonJBraithwaite