It was a Christmas mystery that had many people scratching their heads - and others smiling appreciatively: a strange lone light coming from an upper floor in an abandoned Louisiana hospital.
According to an ABC News story, "Photos of a mysterious light spotted inside the window of a dark, abandoned New Orleans hospital have gone viral on Facebook after catching the attention of employees at Tulane Medical Center across the street. The photographs show a single glowing window among a sea of other darkened, broken windows at Charity Hospital, formerly part of Louisiana University Health Services."
A few days after Christmas a nurse at Tulane shared the photo, adding, "I park on the roof of my parking garage, and tonight as I was leaving work, I glanced over at the forgotten building, only to see the lights of a tiny Christmas tree! I wish the pictures did it justice. I don't know how it's lit. I don't know how it's even in there, but it made me smile just a little bit tonight!" That post was shared over 15,000 times.
Tulane anesthesiology technician Michael Arbon told ABC News that "he took photos of the light around 5:30 a.m. today after seeing other employees' photos circulating on Facebook. ‘It was pretty neat but also a little creepy,' Arbon said. ‘To me, and to the other lady who posted photos on Facebook, it looked like a nice, little Christmas tree in the dark, abandoned building.'" Other less romantic explanations included a homeless person or ghost hunters, but a Christmas tree was by far the most popular theory.
Perception and Priming The photo, however, doesn't show a Christmas tree, colors, or decorations - just a white light. This raises an interesting question: Why was the light widely interpreted as a Christmas tree, of all things? The answer lies in a psychological process called priming, and this incident reveals much about human perception and interpretation.
When presented with ambiguous stimuli - say, a cloud or unknown light in the sky - the human brain immediately attempts to make sense of it. As part of our moment-to-moment experience, our brains constantly analyze new information and changing conditions to understand what we're seeing and how to react.
But our thoughts unconsciously bias, or prime, our interpretations. We often see what we want or expect to see, not necessarily what is really there. That is the premise behind the Rorshach test: People tend to impose their own thoughts, perceptions, and expectations on a series of otherwise ambiguous ink blots.
If a person is obsessed with dark or suicidal thoughts he or she is more likely to interpret the forms as threatening or gloomy, for example, than someone who is not. During the Christmas season when lighted trees are often seen through people's windows it's not surprising that the light would be interpreted that way.
The imagined backstory to the light is even more revealing: the idea that someone placed a single lighted tree in an otherwise abandoned hospital building - a public shining beacon of thoughtfulness - seemed to suggest themes of generosity, hope and renewal.
Last week the mystery was finally solved when police discovered lights attached to 2-by-4-foot boards. Police are treating the incident as a break-in, though no vandalism was immediately apparent. The motives of whoever set up the lights remain unknown, and could be anything from burglary to squatters to ghost hunting.
There's no reason to suspect that the strange light was a prank or hoax intended to fool anyone, and if someone had wanted to actually put a lit Christmas tree in that window they presumably could have done so. Though not a Christmas tree, the mystery sheds light on human psychology and how we unconsciously create stories to explain the world around us.