A fair amount of parapsychological research involves fieldwork and case studies, in which people's personal memories become an issue. In some cases, a subject recounts an episode that he or she remembers vividly, though it may have happened weeks, months, or even years or decades earlier. Usually this testimony is taken as essentially accurate unless there is some reason to suspect fabrication. In other cases, the researchers themselves must rely on their memory when writing up phenomena that they have witnessed (in a séance room, for instance) at some earlier time.
It seems only natural to assume that eyewitness accounts, especially when provided by disinterested parties, are generally reliable. And yet this may not be the case – a point addressed in detail in New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman's intriguing book Jesus Before the Gospels.
As the title indicates, the focus of the book is the way in which Jesus was remembered by various Christian communities in the early years of the religion's development. In the course of exploring this issue, Ehrman discusses modern findings on the nature and limitations of memory. He explains that our memories are often less accurate and dependable than we believe.
Remember when Donald Trump got in hot water for saying he had seen news footage of thousands of Muslims celebrating in New York City on 9/11? Even though no video was found to support Trump's assertion, he insisted he remembered it clearly. He probably did. A false memory can be every bit as convincing as a real one. One study makes this point via precisely the same phenomenon: people's vivid memories of news footage that never existed.
The study involves a cargo plane that crashed into an Amsterdam apartment building in 1992, killing dozens of people. Ten months after the event, survey respondents were asked if they remembered seeing news footage of the moment when the plane struck the building. More than half of them – 55% – said yes. In a later study, 66% of respondents remembered watching the footage. But there never had been any footage. The crash had not been caught on video.
These striking results obviously puzzled the researchers, in part because basic common sense should have told anyone that there could not have been a film. Remember, this is 1992, before cell phone cameras .… And yet, between half and two thirds of the people surveyed – most of them graduate students and professors – indicated they had seen the nonexistent film .…
Even more puzzling were the detailed answers that some of those interviewed [gave] about what they actually saw on the film – for example, whether the plane crashed into the building horizontally or vertically and whether the fire caused by the plane started at impact or only later .…
Obviously they were imagining [these details], based on logical inferences (the fire must have started right away) and on what they had been told by others (the plane crashed into the building as the plane was heading straight down). The psychologists argued that these people’s imaginations became so vivid, and were repeated so many times, that they eventually did not realize they were imagining something. They really thought they were remembering it. In fact they did remember it. But it was a false memory. Not just a false memory one of them had. A false memory most of them had.
Then there was a study done at Wesleyan University cheekily titled "Do You Remember Proposing Marriage to the Pepsi Machine?" In this study, forty students were escorted around campus and instructed to perform an action, or to imagine performing it, or to watch someone else perform it, or to imagine someone else performing it. Some of the actions were commonplace, while others were bizarre. In one case students were asked to propose marriage to a Pepsi machine.
Two weeks later the participants were interviewed and asked if the action had been imagined or performed. The conclusions were clear. Whether the action was normal or bizarre, participants who imagined it often remember doing it: “We found that imagining familiar or bizarre actions during a campus walk can lead to the subsequent false recollection of having performed these actions.” In this instance the researchers found that imagining the action vividly, but just one time, could produce the false memory. Moreover, imagining someone else performing the action led to just as many false memories as imagining doing it oneself.
In his book Remembering, British psychologist F.C. Bartlett summed up the rather unsettling scientific consensus about memory. Ehrman summarizes:
On the basis of a large number of studies, Bartlett showed that memories are not snapshots stored in some location in the brain later. The brain doesn’t work like that. Instead, when we experience something, bits and pieces of its memory are stored in different parts of the brain. Later, when we try to retrieve the memory, these bits and pieces are reassembled. The problem is that when we reassemble the pieces, there are some, often lots of them, that are missing. To complete the memory we unconsciously fill in the gaps, for example, with analogous recollections from similar experiences .…
The problem is that there is precisely no way to know when your mind is filling in the gaps and when it has retrieved the information from this or that part of the brain.
At every point of this memory process something can go wrong: at the point at which you perceive something (… you may not notice everything, for example); when you store it (as your mind decides which parts to stick away to access later: it may do a very partial job of that); and when you retrieve it (as your mind pieces it all back together: it may be missing lots of pieces and to make the memory seamless it fills in the gaps with other recollections).
The net result of Bartlett’s experiments is that when we remember something, we are not simply pulling up an entire recollection of the past from some part of our brain. We are actually constructing the memory from bits and pieces here and there, sometimes with more and sometimes with less filler. In the process of this construction project, which we are undertaking virtually all the time, errors can happen. There can be massive omissions, alterations, and inventions of memory.
Some people would argue that while this may be true of trivial memories that are easily forgotten, it cannot be true of powerful, vivid memories of dramatic events in our lives. These memories, at least, must be preserved with considerable accuracy. And in fact, this was the prevailing view at one time. But not anymore. Ehrman:
A very famous article published by psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulik in 1977 argued that when we experience a highly unexpected, emotional, and consequential event we have a special memory mechanism that stores indelibly on the brain. It is almost as if the mind says, “Take a picture of this!” And it does so. Brown and Kulik called these “flashbulb memories.” When you recall such memories, they claimed, your mind says “Now print!” and the memory flashes back, as clear as day and as accurately as when you first experienced it ....
There has been an intense research on flashbulb memories since Brown and Kulik first proposed the phenomenon, however, and their original view appears to be wrong. Yes, such memories are highly vivid. But just because a memory is especially vivid does not mean that it is especially accurate. Many of us have a hard time believing that, at least when it comes to our own vivid memories. But it’s true, and has been shown repeatedly .…
The day after the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, [psychologists Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch] gave 106 students in a psychology class at Emory University a questionnaire asking about their personal circumstances when they heard the news. A year and a half later, in the fall of 1988, they tracked down forty-four of the students and gave them the same questionnaire. A half year later, in spring 1989, they interviewed forty of these forty-four about the event.
The findings were startling but very telling. To begin with, seventy-five percent of those who took the second questionnaire were certain they had never taken the first one. That was obviously wrong. In terms of what was being asked, there were questions about where they were when they heard the news, what time of day was, what they were doing at the time, whom they learned it from, and so on – seven questions altogether. Twenty-five percent of the participants got every single answer wrong on the second questionnaire, another fifty percent got only two of the seven questions correct. Only three of the forty-four got all the answers right the second time, and even in those cases there were mistakes in some of the details. When the participants’ confidence in their answers was ranked in relation to their accuracy there was “no relation between confidence and accuracy at all” in forty-two of the forty-four instances.…
Instead, when confronted with evidence of what really took place, they consistently denied [what they were told] and said that their present memories were the correct ones. In the words of the researchers, “No one who had given an incorrect account in the interview even pretended that they now recalled what was stated on the original record. As far as we can tell, the original memories are just gone.”…
Or as a very recent study, by psychologists Jennifer Talarico and David Rubin, has shown, “[Flashbulb memories] are distinguished from ordinary memories by their vividness and the confidence with which they are held. There is little evidence that they are reliably different from ordinary autobiographical memories in accuracy, consistency, or longevity."
This last point may be of particular relevance to parapsychology, since the events described by case subjects are often remembered with extreme vividness and clarity – a fact that naturally leads investigators to assume that the memories are reliable. Sometimes, of course, such memories are reliable; if memory always failed, it would serve no useful purpose, which is hardly the case. But failure is common enough that the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and personal recollection cannot be assumed; and for that matter, false testimony should not be blithely taken as evidence of dishonesty or intent to deceive.
In terms of parapsychological fieldwork, the best results are probably obtained when a person's observations are noted while the event is in progress (for instance, by taking stenographic notes during a séance) or immediately afterward, or when some form of audio or video record of the event itself can be preserved. When dealing with personal recollections of experiences that happened some time earlier, no matter how vividly they may be described, researchers need to maintain at least a degree of skepticism. Even corroborating testimony from other witnesses may not be enough to establish the truth of the story; as we've seen, a majority of people remembered seeing news footage that never aired.
And even when a witness whose honesty seems to be beyond reproach insists on the truth of his or her story despite attempts to debunk it, researchers should still bear in mind that most of the students who were re-questioned about the Challenger disaster not only remembered it wrongly but would not change their minds or admit that their memories were in error even when confronted with the original questionnaires they had filled out.
It has often been remarked that psi is a tricksterish phenomenon – subtle, shape-shifting, hard to pin down. It may well be the case that memory itself is similarly nebulous, frustrating, and elusive.