The 'Sensed Presence'

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.
Sarah Chumacero
28th June 2019.
Stuff paranormal investigators need to know, General, Paranormal Theories.
336 page views.

One of the more common experiences people have when it comes to spirits and the paranormal, is that they feel they are not 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 your 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 which 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 phenomena 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 inevitable. She suddenly gets a visitation by George Clooney's character who has died earlier. He talks her through the situation. Even though she realised it was a hallucination, she followed his advice and ultimately survived. While this is quite an extreme circumstance, you get the idea. While it is not known exactly what causes a 'sensed presence' experience to occur, research indicates that low temperatures seem are a common denominator.

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 lied 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 'sees' spirits. I can honestly say I have never seen what people describe as a full bodied apparition. At the time, I actually knew that what I was seeing was all in my head and that he wasn't really there, but it 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 'sense 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 or harm or attack, it goes into what is called 'hyper arousal' or 'acute stress response'. It is otherwise known as 'fight or flight mode'. The brain begins to release different hormones that prepare your body to either run for your life or to stay and confront and fight the threat. It was first described in the 1920's by Walter Cannon who was an American physiologist. What is interesting with this is that it is triggered when the brain feels you are at threat. It may be a very real physical threat or it could be imaginary. 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 wonderful little 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 every reacts differently. The fight or flight response 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 important to know our bodies and how we react to things. 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. It is just another thing to be mindful of because again, our brains are pretty powerful tools

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 flight or flight response.

A recent study by Kirsten Barnes and Nicholas Gibson (2013) explored the differences between individuals who have never had a paranormal experience and those who have. They confirmed that experiences of supernatural phenomena are most likely to occur in threatening or ambiguous environments, and they also found that those who had paranormal experiences scored higher on scales measuring empathy and a tendency to become deeply absorbed in one’s own subjective experience. Most likely, the experience of the sensed presence is the result of many of these factors interacting at once.

Psychology Today


Another common situation when a 'sense presence' could potentially 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 have what is like a visitation from their loved one. 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.

Whether or not a person really has had a visitation, or they are experience 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 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?

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