False memories

Do you ever look back on an event you remember only to find out it never happened at all? This is called a false memory. What if your first paranormal experience ended up being a false or exaggerated memory? Would it change your beliefs?
Sarah Chumacero
6th May 2018.
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Memories are the foundation that we base all of our past experiences on. We remember things from our childhood, happy times, traumatic times and then the spooky times. Quite a lot of people in the paranormal field are driven by their first encounter with the paranormal. Often it is experienced as a teen or a child. With many of us investigators middle aged and above, it is safe to say that quite a few years have passed since that very first encounter. How accurate is your recollection of that memory? If you were to find out that your recollection of your first paranormal encounter was incorrect or even something that could now be easily debunked, would it change your belief?

A false memory is either a distorted recollection of a past event or it is a completely fabricated one. It can range from getting a very small detail wrong to remembering a whole event that never actually happened. It commonly occurs with the hint of a suggestion. The brain seemingly takes care of the rest. Have you ever told someone a story of something that has happened to you and then weeks later they then tell you the story as if it happened to them? They are not ‘stealing’ your story, their brain has genuinely tricked them into thinking it has happened to them and has even implanted a false memory into their recollection. Much like a dream, they can picture every moment that never happened. A perfect example of course is what is called the Mandela Effect. People recalled the event of Nelson Mandela dying (long before he actually passed away) and it started an internet phenomena. Here is an article detailing the Mandela Effect and the Misinformation Effect experiment which highlights false memories in more detail.

Knowing that false memories exist, it challenges us to look back at our past. I can think of many examples where I have remembered an event down to minuet details, only to find out that it didn’t happen at all. We rely on our memory banks to almost act like a video recorder as such, but it fails us. Sadly, it is not as reliable as our ‘facebook memories’ that pop up in our feed which often surprise because they highlight just how wrong some of my memories are. No matter how ‘aware’ you are of this phenomena, no one is exempt. It is part of who we are as humans. As human’s we can be very unreliable. In fact one of the serious implications of false memories is that it can lead to false convictions in the justice system. A recollection of a certain event can potentially be tarnished or may not have happened at all. If you are led a certain way when they are asking you questions, they can ‘fill in blanks’ and suddenly you are remembering small details that weren’t there before. How many times do you hear in crime shows - "Objection - leading the witness". Having never been in court before I can only assume they really do say that!

Where does this leave our past paranormal experiences? I had an interesting conversation a few months ago with someone who identified as a sceptic. They used to be quite the believer in the paranormal. When they started studying psychology, they learnt about false memories. One of the assignments was to look into some past events and investigate if the recollection of the event was correct or if it was a false memory. One of the events they used for this assignment was the paranormal experience that got them interested in the paranormal. After contacting family members and piecing things together, the paranormal experience they thought they had when they were younger in fact never happened. It was a few years later after the supposed paranormal event when they came across their first paranormal book that they came up with the fake paranormal memory they had which was what turned out to be the catalyst for looking into the field further. This person felt a bit cheated by their very own brain and had them questioning everything they knew. After further research, they decided that they didn’t believe in the paranormal anymore, mainly due to the fact that their first paranormal experience turned out to have never happened and the psychology behind why we can't always trust our brain.

It makes me think of the question which is one I have asked before, "if you could debunk your first paranormal experience, would it change your beliefs?" For me, I know I probably could debunk my first experience if I really wanted to look at it from a logical perspective, but I don’t want to. What I consider to be my first paranormal experience came much later in life that a lot of other people. I was 21 years old. My grandfather had died a couple of months beforehand. We were very close and it was the first time I had experienced death. His death was somewhat unexpected, and it hit hard. I couldn’t process the fact that he was here one day and not the next. I missed him terribly and I felt lucky that I at least got to say goodbye. In fact I was by his side with my hand on his chest when he took his final breath. This is how close we were. He always made a big deal about me turning 21 years old. When the time came, my family bought me a big bunch of balloons to celebrate my birthday. They were sitting in the corner of the kitchen for days – they were helium. One night I got up and walked past them to goto the toilet which was past the kitchen and down past the laundry. When I came out of the toilet, it seemed like the balloons had somehow made the journey all the way through the winding doorways and followed me and were waiting for me as I came out. I immediately felt like he was with me and that it was his way of wishing me happy birthday. Sure I can come up with a few ways of how it could happen rationally. I have told this story so many times that it may have even changed over the years. I even called into a radio station once when they asked people to call in with their 'spooky stories'. My friends all remember this story well because it always gave people chills .... but in a nice way. In my heart, I felt that in that moment he was there with me and I never want to lose the feeling that I am not alone. For that reason, I will never attempt to debunk this moment because I don't care.

We can debunk things, we can look at our false memories, but we can’t change the feeling we have inside. It is that feeling that drives me to investigate the paranormal, not an experience. I like the feeling that I am not alone, and if it means I hang onto a false memory here and there then that is OK for me, because I am not trying to prove anything to anyone ….. but myself.

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