Memory – What Every Parnormal Investigator Needs to Know

When we look into our minds to pull out some information, we tend to experience one of two results. We find the information, or we don’t. If we don’t we may well criticise our poor memory but that’s about as far as that goes. If we do find what we are looking for – a piece of information; a tale to entertain our companions; a fact; what happened at work today; what happened in the supermarket or the pub yesterday… then we happily report what we find as a Truth.

Whatever it is, if we find it we don’t question it, we accept it and treat it as though we had a camcorder in our brain looking through our eyes and recording not only sights and sounds, but also emotional states.

Unfortunately research does not support this idea.


Watergate Hotel

Neisser’s (1981) analysis of John Dean’s Testimony – Watergate Trial

According to Dean:

“When I arrived at the Oval Office, I found Haldeman and the President. The President asked me to sit down. Both men appeared to be in very good spirits, and my reception was warm and cordial. The President then told me that Bob (Haldeman) had kept him posted on my handling of the Watergate case. The president told me that I had done a good job and he appreciated how difficult a task it had been and the President was pleased the case had stopped with Liddy”

A comparison of this statement with the transcripts of the tape-recording Nixon secretly made of the meeting revealed the following discrepancies:

  • Nixon did not ask Dean to sit down.
  • Nixon did not say Haldeman had ‘kept him posted’
  • No compliment was paid by Nixon on the job Dean had done
  • Nixon did not say that he ‘appreciated how difficult a task it had been’
  • There was no reference made to Liddy and the case by Nixon

The researcher suggested that the memory errors that occurred here may in part be due to social expectations of what Dean would normally have experienced. Gaps in memory that are filled in with what we might normally expect to have happened. But the interesting point is that after we fill in the gaps, they become part of the memory and next time we recall it those gaps are ready-filled with things we clearly remember that never happened.

Eye-Witness Testimony and Interview Style.

People like Paranormal investigators have to be especially careful when eliciting accurate information about events that may well have been quite exciting/scary. The very words you use when you question someone about an event they remember can change their memory of that event forever.

Loftus & Palmer (1974), in a psychological experiment tested the effect of changing a single word in a question about the speed of vehicles in a 30 second videotape of two cars colliding. The video was shown to selected volunteers who were divided into groups of 50. One group was asked ‘How fast were the cars going when they hit?’. For others the word ‘hit’ was replaced by either smashed, collided, bumped, and contacted.

The average speed estimated by each group, after watching the video and being asked the ‘loaded’ question, varied significantly depending on the word used.

  • Hit = 34.0 mph
  • Smashed = 40.8mph
  • Collided = 39.3 mph
  • Bumped = 38.1 mph
  • Contacted = 31.8 mph

So it can be seen clearly that the more emotive the word the higher the speed was estimated to be.

Seven Days Later
One week after watching this video the participants were recalled and, without seeing the video clip again, were asked if they remembered seeing any broken glass (there was no broken glass in the film).

Of the 50 asked about ‘smashing’ cars 16 reported seeing broken glass.Of the 50 asked about ‘hitting’ cars 7 reported seeing broken glass. So during the week between the original viewing and the question about the glass, the memories of some people had actually changed – just because of one word in one sentence asked a week earlier.

In another experiment by Loftus (1975)

Participants again witnessed a short video of a car travelling through the countryside. Half were asked question 1: ‘How fast was the white sports car going while travelling along the country road?’. The other half were asked question 2:  ‘How fast was the car going when it passed the barn while travelling along the country road?’. There was no barn in the video.

One week later all were questioned again. They were asked ‘Did you see a barn on the video?’. Of those who were originally asked question 2, 17% remembered seeing a barn. Of those who were originally asked question 1, 3% remembered seeing a barn.

Loftus & Zanni (1975)

Again participants were shown a short video showing a car accident. They were then questioned about what they had seen.

Some were asked whether they had seen a broken headlight, others were asked whether they had seen the broken headlight. Those asked about the broken headlight were far more likely to report having seen one than those asked about a broken headlight.

This research into how volatile memory is is quite interesting, but from a personal perspective when we look into our own minds we believe what we see – because we remember it clearly. Other people may not have good memories, but each individual trusts their own memory – when it remembers clearly.

The good news is that research also shows that it tends to be the minor details that are affected. The main parts of an event, particularly if high arousal levels accompany the event, are not so easily affected. However, this is not always the case.

How can we ever trust an ‘Eye Witness’?

Australian eyewitness expert Donald Thomson appeared on a live TV discussion about the unreliability of eyewitness memory. He was later arrested, placed in a line-up and identified by a victim as the man who had raped her. The police charged Thomson although the rape had occurred at the time he was on TV. They dismissed his alibi that he was in plain view of a TV audience and in the company of the other discussants, including an assistant commissioner of police. The policeman taking his statement sneered, “Yes, I suppose you’ve got Jesus Christ, and the Queen of England, too.” Eventually, the investigators discovered that the rapist had attacked the woman as she was watching TV – the very program on which Thompson had appeared. Authorities eventually cleared Thomson. The woman had confused the rapist’s face with the face the she had seen on TV. (Baddeley, 2004).[1]

This is a classic case of a common phenomenon – memory source confusion. An event memory may incorporate information subsequently gained from other witnesses or read in the newspaper, information drawn from general knowledge, information of another event or even information of an imagined event. People may inadvertently combine memory of two different events or confuse mental images with real events. This “misinformation effect” occurs because people are often poor at determining the source of information – another example of semantic memory intruding into biographical memory.

…and now for the Good News
I’ve shown how easy it is to create false memories by the choice of words so it’s nice to know that research by Memon & Vartoukian (1996) showed that repeated questioning using open questions tended to improve recall. Accuracy deteriorated when using frequent closed questions (those requiring yes or no answers).

‘Describe your experience?’ is an open question.

‘Did it have any lights?’ is a suggestive, closed question.

‘How big was it?’ Seems innocent enough, but when you consider ‘How small was it?’ as an equally valid question, then you begin to see how even apparently open, non-suggestive questions can be subtly loaded. ‘Could you give me some indication of its size?’ is a possible way to extract that particular piece of information without affecting accurate recall.

Colour is another area where memory is not as good as we think it is. Although humans can distinguish thousands (some say millions) of physically present colours, one study suggests that they can identify only 17 in memory.

Colour is a particular good example of memory’s low resolution. While there are thousands of colours, research shows that what people perceive are only 11 basic colour categories: white, black, red, green, blue, yellow, brown, orange, purple, pink and grey. Memory will easily distinguish between colours of different categories (red vs. blue) but will have a very difficult time distinguish shades within a category (blue-green vs. blue-violet.)

Memory is a reconstruction, not a video.

There are two main sources of additional information:

  • pre-existing schemas
  • other memories

Schemas are little programs that control our behaviours, they are implanted during childhood as we learn to navigate our world safely. Other memories that may get mixed up may have a similar emotional content or some other factor that connects them.

Memory biases toward expected events – so if you are in a location that is well-known for ‘spooky’ goings on then the first interpretation of any auditory, kinaesthetic, or visual (especially those caught on camera) phenomena is likely to be biased towards the paranormal rather than the mundane and become more so with each re-telling of the event. After all, a spirit trying to communicate is a much more exciting story to tell than the plumbing needs some attention.

Michael Hadfield


[1] http://www.visualexpert.com/Resources/eyewitnessmemory.html

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~ by eximiusparanormal on October 11, 2009.

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