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The Science of Bad Vibes: Can Some Places Really Hold Onto Negative Energy?

Our physical surroundings—plus a few tricks of the human mind—could literally give us the heebie-jeebies.

double exposure of bare trees and house
Patrick Chondon / EyeEmGetty Images
  • Our habitat may not be as neutral as we perceive it to be.
  • According to one theory, some places hold onto leftover traces of emotions from people who previously lived there.
  • In another theory, spots like tunnels, sewers, or geological faults wreck Earth’s natural vibration—and maybe even your health.

    Visitors to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland report feelings of tightness in their chests, nervousness in their hands, and feelings of depression—it’s almost like the place is haunted by tremendous amounts of bad energy. According to some scientists, there’s a high chance it’s one of many sites containing “negative energy.”

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    That means our habitat may not be as neutral as we perceive it to be, explaining the goosebumps and sick-to-your-stomach feeling you may experience in haunted houses or sites where horrific violence took place. There are three predominant theories for this phenomenon: the presence of emotional residue, or leftover evidence of past emotions that are still lurking around, “geopathic stress” emanating from Earth itself, and the power of our mind’s own expectations.

    The Emotional Residue Theory

    house where james gardyne shot his wife aldona
    This is the house in Wentworth Falls where James Gardyne shot his wife Aldona in the chest and then drove away to kill himself, March 25, 1980.
    Fairfax Media ArchivesGetty Images

    Emotions have the potential to “infect” or “brighten” their physical surroundings even after their source has physically moved to a new location, according to the emotional residue phenomenon. Though the theory likely originates from early beliefs in the contagious nature of magic, it has nevertheless become the focal point of several legitimate studies in the field of psychology.

    A possible explanation is that the human nervous system is able to pick up on chemical signals the body gives off through sweat and tears. Studies have found, for instance, that men’s libido declines in the presence of women’s tears and that these “chemosignals” persist in the surrounding environment. Some experiments have attempted to describe human responses to them.

    A Dutch study published in Psychological Science in 2012, for instance, found that chemosignals previously produced by men who felt fear or disgust “generated an interesting reaction” among women exposed to them. Scientists collected sweat from men while they attended either a fear-inducing or a disgust-inducing movie and exposesd women to it. The “fear sweat” sample produced fearful facial expressions while performing a visual task, while women who were exposed to chemosignals from the “disgust sweat” sample produced disgusted facial expressions during the same task.

    A second study by the same Dutch team, published in Psychological Science in 2015, found that exposure to body odor from people who reported feelings of happiness also produced feelings of happiness in the participants. Researchers recruited 12 men to provide the sweat samples for the study, who again watched a video clip intended to induce a particular emotional state: fear, happiness, and or neutral feelings.

    Thirty-six women were exposed to the sweat samples. Facial expression data revealed that women who were exposed to “fear sweat” had greater activity in the medial frontalis muscle, which is responsible for elevating your eyebrows, a common feature in expressions of fear. Women who were exposed to “happy sweat” sported smiles. In its conclusion, the paper mentions a “behavioral synchronization” between the sweat donor and the sweat smeller. In other words, happiness could spread through chemosignals.

    “I definitely believe that there is still lots to learn about how humans are influenced by our environments.”

    Responding to emotional cues is common in the animal kingdom, too. “There are multiple studies of non-human animals showing that they respond to environmental cues we are not perceiving (at least not consciously), for example by increasing their levels of stress hormones before storms, or reacting to earthquakes or tidal waves,” Brian Hellmuth, professor of environmental science and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston, tells Popular Mechanics.

    This may be an issue of sensitivity, or perhaps these animals have sensory abilities we lack, Hellmuth says. “While I don’t know of any Western science that demonstrates the influence of any ‘energy signature,’ I definitely believe that there is still lots to learn about how humans are influenced by our environments and especially the emotional, physical, and psychological impacts of environmental damage on humans.”

    The Geopathic Stress Theory

    large fissure in the earth
    Grotagja fault in Iceland.
    bartvddGetty Images

    But maybe the environment doesn’t even need to be damaged to wreak havoc on humans. In 1929, German baron and medical researcher Gustav Freiherr von Pohl conducted a study in the Bavarian town of Vilsbiburg, concluding that certain geological faults (fractures between two pieces of rock) of “Earth-radiated energy” were linked with cancer. All the people who had died of cancer in Vilsbiburg since record-keeping began had slept in beds along these “geopathic” stress lines, leading von Pohl to the unfounded claim that cancer was a disease of location and to the genesis of the term “geopathic stress.”

    According to geopathy advocates, Earth emits energies that can cause ill health in humans—the very definition of geopathic stress. Tunnels, sewers, geological faults, pipes, mineral deposits, utility lines, and underground water are all supposedly points where a “certain energy vibration” from Earth gets distorted. Geopathic stress proponents say you should avoid spending too much time in/on/around these distortion points, or you will experience fatigue, headaches, insomnia, and overall very negative feelings. (Some of the most hardcore advocates say that even machinery can break down when placed in geopathic stress zones.)

    The good news is that no serious scientific research has explicitly linked fault lines with cancer, bad vibrations since the German aristocrat’s days. However, because there are so many environmental factors that affect our bodies, it’s impossible to isolate the direct effects Earth has on us, according to Jorge Sanjurjo-Sánchez, an associate professor at the University Institute in Geology Isidro Parga Pondal and the University of A Coruña in Spain.

    And if Earth’s radiation or vibration does have direct health effects on us, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Sanjurjo-Sánchez explains, because Earth could nurture us much like a real mother. “Low doses of gamma radiation from the ground, a form of radiation more powerful than X-rays, might even be beneficial,” he tells Popular Mechanics, citing the elevated lifespans in places like the Greek island of Ikaria, where this phenomenon occurs. Apparently, places do have their own powers.

    The Power of Expectation

    Still, our own associations and expectations could be even more powerful than emotional residue or geopathic stress.

    If we expect something to feel a certain way—say, happy or sad—that can strongly influence our perceptions; such is the power of expectations. If you have positive or negative associations when it comes to certain landscape features, for instance, this could have an impact on how you feel and function beneath your ability to understand it.

    “Studies in which participants predicted the mood of a character based on the emotions of a person who previously lived in their apartment, or chose a room based on a sign on a door, reinforce an old point in psychology, which is that we quickly and automatically form associations, and those can influence attitudes and behavior,” John Coley, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, tells Popular Mechanics.

    “Research from my lab shows that people who grow up in urban environments tend to associate themselves with features of the built environment, whereas those who grow up in rural environments tend to associate themselves with features of the natural environment,” Coley says. Moving from the city to the countryside or vice versa could therefore cause stress.

    “If I grow up in the country and then move to New York, outwardly I might love the hustle and bustle and the constant buzz of energy, but deep down, the sense that this isn’t me, even if I’m not aware of it, might take a toll,” he says. So the abandoned house across the street may not actually be haunted, even if it makes your chest tight when you near it; perhaps you simply are from a neighborhood where there are few blighted or neglected properties.

    Putting It All Together

    Over 60 million people have visited Auschwitz by now. The place is hailed as the “epitome of dark tourism,” a hotly criticized type of travel that involves visiting places historically connected to death, tragedy, and the macabre. There’s even an entire Netflix series called “Dark Tourist” that takes viewers to places like the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and a lake in Kazakhstan formed from a nuclear blast.

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    Whether you’re visiting a place like the National September 11 Memorial Museum in Manhattan or a former concentration camp, immersing ourselves in tragedy can give us significant time to reflect on past history—and our own humanity. So next time you get the heebie-jeebies in a place, know that there’s at least a possibility that the place is charged with emotion ... but don’t lose sight of the power of your own mind to concoct those bad vibes.

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