Now this is a deeply interesting and maybe a little controversial subject but certainly one I feel needs to be addressed in this series, I can already imagine the back lash I am going to get for this post so I will start with a little disclaimer –
This post is not calling anyone a liar, the issue with false memories is that someone who experiences them are completely unaware that it has happened and it’s not something an investigator can pick up on except in certain circumstances ………..people who experience the paranormal truly believe they have experienced something paranormal, this will tend to be based on their own perspective and/or belief system……yes sometimes individuals seek attention or aim to gain in some way through lying but that is not what this post is about!
Hopefully that’s clear now so we will move on………
What is experienced?
False memories are an incredible phenomena that involve the details of a situation being ‘blurred’, be incorrectly remembered, gain additional non-existent information or even appear out of nowhere, it is also quite easy to implant a false memory but we will look at that in more detail later.
They have a major effect on witness statements and individuals recalling information from a situation, we tend to miss details or the brain will infill them based on a number of observed factors for example: Illness, Tiredness, Hyper Arousal (fear or panic), poor viewing conditions (eg Darkness or dim lighting), certain drug use and of course the two that really stand out within the paranormal community –
The need to believe and the expectation for something to happen!
For example, arriving at an event, investigation or séance – some who might attend are 100% believer’s and know something is going to happen no matter what but even the sceptics who arrive tend to at least want something to happen also. Now I understand that this can happen within residential properties so I will add the new house effect to this series at a later date.
False Memories are an important factor to the paranormal investigator because we collect a lot of witness statements and observe a lot of ‘strange‘ behaviour or happenings this means we should be separately documenting everything, most of this series should easily point to the fact that the body or mind is not a tool for investigating the paranormal as we are somewhat flawed in our design!
So what is happening?
False Memories as mentioned previously are caused by a great deal of factors, the literature on this subject is vast and a lot of years of research has been done to find out the exact causes, try Googling Chris French or Elizabeth Loftus for example, the only issue is these vary under many different circumstances, for example if someone is scared which in all fairness once on an event and all of a sudden all hell breaks loose because Jan’s been touched on the back by a ghost at the same time that Rob’s had his jeans tugged by the old mortuary monk, it’s only natural to feel fear and panic at this point as most of us have a ‘swarm mentality’ (another post for another time).
As we feel this hyper arousal from the situation our brain, or the adrenal cortex to be a little more precise, releases a lovely little hormone called Cortisol and also a little dab of epinephrine (adrenaline) for good measure, this can have 2 effects on our memory:
It allows us to clearly remember very detailed images of the situation (the flash bulb effect) which unfortunately although detailed is not always accurate but it is a requirement for the brain to learn from the scary situation in order to avoid the encounter again so the memory is created regardless.
2. In circumstances of very high trauma it can damage or even completely inhibit memory recall of the situation
Now I could go into every perceived cause but this series is about bringing the paranormal examples to the scientific examples, the expectation for something to happen is usually enough to get the old blood pumping enough to kick start the adrenal cortex, add that to the usual lights off style of investigation and also the fact mostly its done throughout the night we have a pretty good cocktail for individuals to fall into a trap with false memories. (Tiredness, low light, paranormal belief, a want for something to happen and hyper arousal)!!!
This may be a good point to just recap that this is not saying an individual is lying, the individual will not have any idea that this has happened!
This of course can be counteracted by the use of a camera to be able to look back and visualise without doubt what actually occurred! (Look forward to the upcoming investigating series in 2017)
Ok so now we have in place the idea of the false memory but what if we suddenly gain more information that wasn’t actually there in the first place?
Within the field of psychiatry false memories are known as confabulation and it is basically the brains way of filling gaps of information once we recall a memory, this happens on an unconscious level, this can happen when 2 pieces of information contradict each other, when a witness is asked again and again to describe a memory or even during hypnotism to dig out repressed memories!
Describing the memory again and again forces the brain to attempt to pull information from the memory, this is basically filled with whatever would normally occur to the individual based on previous beliefs or situations, if someone has a deep belief in the paranormal or spirituality then those gaps could be filled by information involving it or if the individual, in this case, the investigator starts asking closed or multiple choice questions.
This can be surprisingly more common than you might think, published in 2014 is a brilliant experiment repeated from Professor Richard Wiseman in 2005 with an additional twist, that was conducted by Chris French and Krissy Wilson of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where 180 undergraduates and staff from Goldsmiths college were shown a video, (1 of 2 videos containing the same footage with one slight variant between the two) the video showed a ‘psychic’ with various instruments (Spoons, keys etc) the ‘Psychic’ then bent a key using sleight of hand and placed the key down on the table, the second video was identical but included the “psychic” claiming that the key was still bending.
the subjects watched the videos in pairs although some included a ‘stooge’ to aid the experiment, this was to show how an outside influence after the fact affects the memories of the other participants.
See the published write up of the experiment here – Wilson and French 2014
The experiment showed that when we witness something the memory can be manipulated via verbal cues not just during the experience and also after depending on the point of view of others around us, on top of this the experiment also showed that people with a belief in the paranormal were also more likely to continue to believe they witnessed the key continue to bend.
What an investigator should do?
So as an investigator false memories should take consideration, as mentioned at the beginning of this post this is not calling anyone a liar, someone who experiences a false memory will be completely unaware of it, if someone has what they perceive to be a paranormal experience in a high percentage of cases that person truly believes that is what has happened, it’s up to the investigator to find out if that’s the case.
The research shows the following criteria seems to correlate with a susceptibility to false memories:
Fantasy Proneness, disassociativity, hypnotic susceptibility and absorption which funnily enough is the same criteria as susceptibility for paranormal belief and the tendency to report paranormal experiences.
First to second interview will tend to pull out these details of a false memory if one is present, in fact it may also cause false memories, so ensure that closed questions aren’t asked, but also be aware that giving too much freedom for the witness to go over situation that can cause them to try to remember details that in fact didn’t occur.
Another point which investigators forget is that they themselves can also be prone to false memory (we are all human after all) that is why it is imperative as an investigator to document what they can at each stage of the investigation.
The investigator should always ensure that they record (with permission) the whole interview using either a camera or Dictaphone, this isn’t to capture any paranormal occurrence or EVP that might occur this is to ensure that the whole interview is recorded for later review.
Check over the details, do they add up? in one sentence does the witness claim to be located in the hallway looking into the kitchen when the apparent phenomena occurred and another they were actually in the kitchen, these details that seem to collide can tend to indicate a false memory.
Check these details after the fact, transcribe the interview and highlight the main factors, location, who was present, what time, day or night etc etc do they match up? do they change significantly this could be a case of false memory and even a badly conducted deception in some cases.
Once this is complete the investigator can move forward with the investigation, if an investigator feels that they may be compromised is someway (eg absorbing into the witnesses own belief system, experiencing a paranormal occurrence alongside the witness or feeling that the witness has an inappropriate interest in them) then it is in the best interests of the investigator to gain the help from a fellow investigator, hand the case over to another investigator or even close the case in some more serious circumstances.
What an investigator should NOT do?
As mentioned multiple times before, A FALSE MEMORY IS NOT LYING, so its not in the investigators best interests to openly say to a witness especially in the first instance that you feel what they have experienced is a false memory they will instantly take that as an accusation of dishonesty!
also ensure that you do not feed information to the witness that could evolve a memory, for example, we as investigators tend to know more than most when it comes to the ‘paranormal’ explanations so if someone has experienced walking into a kitchen and the cupboard being open it should not then be referred to as Poltergeist activity.
We are in a fragile position of authority we must not validate claims to the witness at any point, this is the issue with a lot of teams out there that instantly start talking about paranormal occurrences which in turn immediately solidifies the witness’ pre conceived belief that an experience is indeed paranormal.
Questions should be open and only in the interest of the investigation, do not start asking closed questions which include details that you assume has happen e.g.
Witness – “I saw a shadow walk down the stairs towards me”
Investigator – “Did you hear the footsteps of the shadow?”
Witness – “Yes”
This can create the idea that the shadow was heard walking down the steps also,
Try this instead:
Witness – “I saw a shadow walk down the stairs towards me”
Investigator – “What sounds did you hear whilst this happened?”
Witness – “I didn’t hear anything it was completely silent”
This helped to not include any details that never actually occurred, if the witness heard footsteps they would include it in the answer, if the details didn’t come from the witness initially then they should not be included in the investigation.
Thanks for reading.
I invite any corrections to research that may have updated since the time of the original post and I will update once I have confirmed the research is valid.
Anomalystic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience – C.French & A.Stone