Hearing, seeing or sensing the presence of a deceased loved one is surprisingly common. A recent review of research on this topic found that that between 30 and 60% of people who have been widowed experience what some scientists call ‘bereavement hallucinations’. In most cases, these experiences are comforting and consoling, rather than distressing.
It’s hard to say exactly how many people hear voices in this context, as different studies report different statistics. A study of elderly widows and widowers in Wales found that 13% had heard their dead partner’s voice, 14% had seen them and 3% had felt their touch. The most common experience of all was feeling the continued presence of the deceased, with 39% of the participants reporting this experience. Higher rates have been found in Japan, a culture in which religious rituals emphasize ties with the departed.
Scientists aren’t sure exactly why these experiences occur. One possible explanation is related to the idea of the brain as a ‘prediction machine’. In normal perception, there is often too much sensory information to take in, so our brains take shortcuts or ‘fill in the gaps’ based on past experiences and what we have learned to expect about the world. In the case of bereavement, a person whose presence you have been monitoring for a long time, in some cases for decades, is suddenly not there any more. But your brain keeps on expecting their presence and filling in the gap that they have left.
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Simon McCarthy-Jones (2017). Sensing the dead is perfectly normal and often helpful. The Independent.