Can false memories be influenced by psi?

Susan Blackmore, Nicholas Rose, and Kerry Gray.

Paper presented at the 22nd International Conference of
the Society for Psychical Research. York, September 1998.


Last year we reported an experiment in which false memories for pictures were induced in a group setting, and a clairvoyance task was incorporated into the design. The results suggested that concealed target pictures could encourage people to think they had actually seen pictures when in fact they had only imagined them. To test this further we have carried out two replications, one exact replication and one with variations. This experiment is a variation on the previous one, using individual instead of group testing.

Participants were thirty people, not including psychology students, who were recruited from around the campus of the University of the West of England. They were each tested on three separate occasions over a period of about two weeks. During session 1, 24 stimuli were shown on a computer screen for 10 seconds each, with a one second inter-stimulus interval. Twelve familiar household objects were chosen. Half were shown as pictures with the name of the object underneath; for the other half only the name was shown and participants were asked to imagine the object. The objects seen and imagined were reversed for half the participants. Of the six words with pictures, two were shown once, two three times and two five times. The names-only slides were shown just once.

During this presentation an envelope containing three pictures stood in front of the computer. These three pictures corresponded to half of the objects which that particular participant had been asked to imagine, and constituted the clairvoyance targets.

The envelopes were prepared by SB and an independent assistant, wrapped in opaque black card and sealed inside two envelopes. SB had nothing further to do with the experiment until testing was complete. The set of envelopes was kept locked up by KG. After viewing the presentation the participant filled in the Belief in the Paranormal Scale and answered a series of questions concerning details of each of the objects seen or imagined.

Approximately a week later the participants returned for session 2. and answered another set of questions about the objects (no reminder was given that some were actually seen and some only imagined). KG ran sessions 1. and 2.

Another week later they returned for session 3. in which they answered a third set of questions about the objects and then completed a final questionnaire which asked them to identify which objects they thought they had actually seen and which they had only imagined. They were then debriefed and the purpose of the experiment explained. The final session was run by NR who had had no possible access to the targets. Data from this session was entered into the computer by NR and kept separate from the rest of the data until both sets had been independently copied and could be brought together for checking..

If participants said they had seen a picture when they had actually imagined it this was counted as a false memory. The number of false memories for pictures corresponding to clairvoyance targets was compared with those not corresponding to targets.

We made two predictions. First, if confusions between reality and imagination are psi-conducive because people falsely interpret normal events as paranormal then we would expect a positive correlation between belief in the paranormal and the number of false memories, or between belief in the paranormal and confidence in the false memories. Second, if confusions between reality and imagination are actually psi-conducive then we would expect more false memories on the target than non-target objects.

We failed to obtain reliable ESP results because of a computer error in displaying the pictures. False memories were successfully obtained but there was no correlation between these and belief in the paranormal.

We wish to thank the Perrott-Warrick for financial support.