Source: BPS Research Digest
A large proportion of the public – over a quarter according to a Gallup survey in the US – believe that humans have psychic abilities such as telepathy and clairvoyance, even though mainstream science says there is no evidence that these powers exist. It might be tempting for sceptics to put this down to a lack of general intelligence or education on the part of the believers, but in fact past research has failed to support this interpretation.
Now a paper in Memory and Cognition has looked for differences between believers and sceptics in specific mental abilities, rather than in overall intelligence or education. Across three studies – this was one of the most comprehensive investigations of its kind – the researchers at the University of Chicago found that believers in psychic powers had memory abilities equal to the sceptics, but they underperformed on tests of their analytical thinking skills.
Stephen Gray and David Gallo surveyed the psychic beliefs, “need for cognition” (how much people enjoy mental effort) and life satisfaction of over two thousand people online. For example, regarding psychic beliefs, one survey item asked participants whether they agreed or disagreed that “it is possible to gain information about the future before it happens, in ways that do not depend on rational prediction or normal sensory channels”. The strongest psychic believers and sceptics matched for years in education or academic performance (around 50 people in each group, in each of the three studies; aged 18 to 35) were then invited to complete a range of tests of their memory and analytical skills, either online or in person at the psych lab.
One of the major disconnects between those who practice effective skepticism and those who believe in paranormal possibilities (or are emotionally invested in unexplained mysteries) is over the topic of anecdotes and witnesses’ testimony.
If there is one fact that I wish we could all accept early in life, I would vote for drumming in the idea that memory is not like a tape recorder. If we learn this truth about the human mind, we could avoid so much trouble.
Memory is constructed. Pause a moment and let that sink in.
Memory is not objective, it is constructed by our own brains. It is not burned, or ingrained, or seared into it, as much as we would like to think that is the case. The truth is less precise, uncertain, and disturbing.
Most of us rely on our short- and long-term memories nearly every moment of the day. For the most part, our recollections are simple and good enough to get us through situations and day-to-day activities without much trouble, but false memories are ubiquitous.
I don’t trust my memory at all. I’ve seen it fail epically. That’s why I try to keep logs and records of what happened and when. I’ll take pictures of things I want to remember and write copious notes.
I’ve had a journal since I was 7. There have been times when I looked back on events and was dumbfounded at the dispute between what I thought had happened and what I wrote happened in my journal. For a moment, I doubt my journal! But that’s incorrect. My current memory had evolved into what I wanted it to be for my state right now. It had been reconstructed each time I accessed it in the intervening years.
I’d bet many of you think you have a great memory — that you can relate your observations clearly and accurately. But you’re wrong, too. Don’t feel bad about this! We are all imperfect when it comes to observing and remembering. Our brains are incredible things but they function mostly for self-preservation and propagation of the species, and only moderately well as an accurate memory collector.
Several paranormal subjects such as hauntings, UFO sightings, and Bigfoot reports rely solely on witnesses’ recollections. Sometimes years or decades pass, but the memory is still taken as credible and true because the people seem sincere. I’ve lost count of how many times the argument has been put to me that the eyewitness reports for Bigfoot are so compelling and voluminous that there must be something to them. Frequently, they present the really poor argument that if this was a court of law, Bigfoot would be ruled genuine. It’s more complicated than that.
Not only are our memories generally far from perfect, perception is poor too.
- Bigfoot Files: Science, Skepticism and the True Believers (illuminutti.com)
- Daily 2 Cents: Eerie Ground Zero Wailing – Who Believes in Bigfoot? – Probing Extraterrestrial Abduction (alternativenewsalert.com)
- Doodle Time #2: Forteana and Related Weirdness (turbolard.wordpress.com)
- Who Believes in Bigfoot? (psmag.com)
- Time for an exorcism? Demons are on the rise for Halloween (nbcnews.com)
- Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony (kmmichas.wordpress.com)