Sunday, 31 January 2016

Ghost Brain: Why we THINK we see things

I used to have an excellent memory. Never forgot anything. Now I forget things several times and you’ll be lucky if I remember your name. Thankfully, the Daily Mail has informed me these brain changes are age-related. Panic over! But it did remind me (get it?) that memory is both fallible and (re)constructed. This has implications for how we perceive anomalous experiences and recount them to others. 

There are many cognitive mechanisms and biases (short cuts) we use to processes the available information to understand the world in a ‘good-enough-fit’ model. Our ancestors wouldn’t have lasted very long if they’d contemplated everything before reacting. Here’s a small selection of the salient ones in relation to paranormal phenomena:

Confirmation Bias – tendency to favour and recall information that confirms our existing beliefs and not searching for enough alternative evidence. I think this is why I always feel ‘dirty’ reading the Daily Mail.

Hindsight Bias – “I knew it all along!”. The sense that an event was predictable despite having no basis for predicting it. Memory becomes reconstructed, i.e. forget contrary evidence. We tend to remember the hits not the misses. 

Pareidolia – seeing something significant (i.e. a pattern) in random information. This can be both visual and auditory. Common examples include Faces in Places and Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). 

Agency Detection Bias – tendency to falsely believe phenomena are explainable in terms of an active conscious agent. Closely linked to anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits, emotions, intentions to non-human objects and entities, e.g. weather, animals. Animals of course have emotions, intentions but dressing them up, giving them birthday parties and marriage ceremonies says more about us than them.

Type 1 Error – a false positive (incorrect rejection of the null hypothesis). It’s safer in evolutionary terms to assume a perceived threat is real than false (Type 2 error, false negative/incorrect acceptance of the null hypothesis). 

False Memory – recall of memories that did not occur. Most of us have experienced this in some small way but it has had big implications for criminal cases. 

So it’s worth being critical of our own perceptions and the testimony of others. How many times have we heard people say “I know what I saw!”. Can we fully know what we’ve seen? Paranormal experiences are usually in ambiguous conditions, i.e. night time, peripheral vision, fleeting etc. I often qualify my evidence with “This may be a false memory or a dream but…”. This may be extreme but it appears we can’t always trust our own perception.

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