Carrie Poppy: Can Science Reveal The Truth Behind Ghost Stories? After visiting a bookstore, Carrie Poppy started feeling odd: pressure on her chest and auditory hallucinations. She thought it was a spirit – until she found another explanation for her symptoms.
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Carrie Poppy: Can Science Reveal The Truth Behind Ghost Stories?

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Carrie Poppy: Can Science Reveal The Truth Behind Ghost Stories?

Carrie Poppy: Can Science Reveal The Truth Behind Ghost Stories?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So for an episode about what's true and what's not, we thought we'd end the show with a ghost story.

CARRIE POPPY: I was living in Sherman Oaks, which is a suburb of LA.

RAZ: This is writer Carrie Poppy.

POPPY: In a tiny guesthouse off of someone else's home. And the guest house was clearly ramshackle.

RAZ: And it was there that Carrie experienced something that, at the time, she couldn't really explain.

POPPY: So it started because I went to an occult bookstore. And I was overwhelmed by this negative feeling - but at the time, I would have called a bad spiritual presence. And then later that day when I went home, I felt it again. And I thought, oh, this spirit has followed me home.

RAZ: What did it feel like?

POPPY: Well, at first it wasn't physical. It was just, you know, the feeling of being stared at, so to speak. But then it started to grow into a physical feeling. So I felt a pressure on my chest. I started to get auditory hallucinations.

RAZ: What were you hearing?

POPPY: I would hear this like whoosh (ph) like as if something was passing by me - maybe the sound of the ocean, you might say. And, yeah, and then just this this disquieting feeling that something was there.

RAZ: Did you think that something was there?

POPPY: Oh, I was convinced something was there.

RAZ: You thought there was a ghost in that house?

POPPY: I thought a demon was there.

RAZ: Carrie Poppy picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

POPPY: Every day, I'd come home. And, you guys, this feeling got so bad. I would sit there in bed at night. I would cry every night. And the feeling on my chest got worse and worse. It was physically painful. So finally, I got on the Internet and I Googled hauntings. And I came upon this forum of ghost hunters. But these were a special kind of ghost hunters.

They were skeptics. And I was like, OK, smart guys, this is what's happening to me. And if you have an explanation for me, I would love to hear it. And one of them said, OK, have you heard of carbon monoxide poisoning? And I said, yeah, like, gas poisoning? So carbon monoxide poisoning is when you have a gas leak leaking into your home.

And I looked it up, and the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include a pressure on your chest, auditory hallucinations, whoosh (ph), and an unexplained feeling of dread. So that night, I called the gas company. I said, I have an emergency. They came out. I said, I suspect a gas leak. They brought their carbon monoxide detector.

And the man said, it's a really good thing that you called us tonight because you could have been dead very soon.

RAZ: Wow. Amazing. This was a gas leak. It was a gas leak.

POPPY: Yeah. I was being slowly poisoned.

RAZ: I mean, it must have been both simultaneously terrifying that you were sucking in gas and also quite, you know, eye opening and liberating that it was not a ghost.

POPPY: Oh, yeah. And it was mostly the latter. (Laughter) I mean, truly because that has such an immediate solution. Get out of the house. That's it. The end. The world is full of demons. You don't have to live your whole life worried that you'll walk into another haunted house. Call the gas company if you feel this again. That's it. The world is so much simpler than you feared.

RAZ: And that whole ordeal actually inspired Carrie to become an investigative journalist. She now goes out and gathers evidence to explain outlandish claims and paranormal sightings.

POPPY: I mean, I'm most interested in why we believe the things we believe. And can they just be these little experiences that we take for granted that there's a other-worldly cause when there may be a totally earthly cause?

RAZ: Carrie also hosts a podcast.

POPPY: Called "Oh No, Ross And Carrie."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "OH NO, ROSS AND CARRIE")

POPPY: Hello, welcome to "Oh No, Ross And Carrie," the show where we don't just talk about fringe science, spirituality and claims of the paranormal but take part ourselves.

So we join fringe groups, we test kind of wacky treatments on ourselves and we explore all these questions that seem unusual and outside the bounds of science to see if they're actually true.

RAZ: So in the name of truth, Carrie has joined the Church of Scientology.

POPPY: I actually audited Ross and he audited me.

RAZ: She overdosed on homeopathic pills.

POPPY: And absolutely nothing happened because there's nothing in homeopathy.

RAZ: Carrie went through an exorcism.

POPPY: It went on for a good 15 minutes. And by the end of it, they said, you're the hardest exorcism case we've ever had.

RAZ: And she hunted for ghosts on the Queen Mary.

POPPY: We did get one recording of an EVP, an electronic voice phenomenon, that sounded like a voice saying go eat French fries - not too impressed by that.

RAZ: I mean, you know this as well as I do. Like, a lot of people believe in ghosts or in paranormal things, and we don't necessarily think that they're crazy or outlandish. It's one of those things that is still kind of a little bit acceptable, right?

POPPY: Oh, yeah.

RAZ: Yeah.

POPPY: I mean, 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses for, example. That's huge.

RAZ: Yeah, do you have an idea of why so many people do believe that?

POPPY: Believe in ghosts and haunted houses?

RAZ: Yeah

POPPY: Yeah, I mean, Carl Sagan would tell you that it's because we're always looking for agents. So we were evolved to look for anything that would threaten us when we didn't have homes, when we weren't protected from our natural predators. Now that we don't really need this trick so much, our brain still is trying to do it for us, right?

And so that's why we see Jesus in toast, that's why we think we see a face on the front of a neon car. It looks like the car is smiling at us. It's because our brains are always looking for faces and always looking for personalities where there aren't any. And, yeah, it's the same thing happening here. It's looking for something that isn't there.

RAZ: I mean, when you come across people in your research who, you know, who are convinced that they're living among ghosts or some kind of, you know, perceived paranormal event is real, do you ever try to say, let me explain the science of this to you?

POPPY: Absolutely. So my idea is that there's outer truth. This is the sort of objective reality. So if you and I get in a car collision and we get out of our cars and we're screaming at each other and you say, I had the right of way. And I say, no I had the right of way. We're still talking about our beliefs. We're talking about what we believe just happened. But it's an outer reality.

One of us is right. And some people are talking about their religious or paranormal beliefs in this sense. They're really saying there are ghosts or Jesus rose from the dead. And I have evidence of this. And I am willing to talk to you on a scientific basis. I want to engage with you on that level. And if that's the level they want to talk on, game on. But sometimes people talk about their beliefs on this inner-truth level.

And these people say things like, I believe Jesus rose from the dead. And, Carrie, if you don't believe that, that's OK. If that reality doesn't click for you, that's fine. I'm not trying to foist it on you. That's an inner truth for them. That's something that just has this real purpose and meaningfulness for them.

And I think a lot of unbelievers like me make this mistake of trying to force them then to discuss it on the outer-truth level. And I think that's a mistake. So if it's this sort of inner world that they're living in where they don't want to have that engagement, they want it to be personal, then I try to leave it there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

POPPY: I've done over 70 investigations like this with my co-host Ross. And I would love to tell you that 9 times out of 10, science wins. It saves the day. It's all explained. That's not true. The truth is, 10 times out of 10, science wins. It saves the day.

(APPLAUSE)

POPPY: And that doesn't mean there's no such thing as a mystery. Of course there are mysteries. But a mystery is a mystery. It is not a ghost. Now, I believe in looking for the truth, being open-minded and being willing to be wrong and to change your whole world view. It is awe-inspiring. I still get excited about ghost stories every single time.

I still consider that every group I join might be right. And I hope I never lose that hope. Let's all never lose that hope because searching for what's out there helps us understand what's in here. And also, please have a carbon monoxide detector in your home.

(LAUGHTER)

POPPY: Thank you.

RAZ: Carrie Poppy, she hosts the podcast "Oh No, Ross And Carrie." You can see her full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TRUTH MARCHES ON")

AL GREEN: (Singing) The truth marches on, on and on and on. The truth marches on, on and on and on.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show Truth and Lies this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah, Casey Herman and Rachel Faulkner with help from Thomas Lu and Daniel Shukhin.

Our intern is Tony Liu. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. If you want to let us know what you think about the show, you can write us at TEDRadioHour@npr.org. You can also follow us on Twitter. It's @TEDRadioHour. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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