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Remember a Previous Life? Maybe You Have a Bad Memory

Familiarity with an idea makes some people more likely to forget where it came from—and confuse fact with fiction



© iStockphoto/Alex Nikada

Do you sometimes have memories of a mysterious past life? Recall odd experiences such as being abducted by aliens? Wonder where these memories come from and if, in fact, you were really once whisked off in a flying saucer by ETs?

Seems the answer may be simpler than you think—or remember. A new study shows that people with memories of past lives are more likely than others to misremember the source of any given piece of information.

Study author Maarten Peters of Maastricht University in the Netherlands tested patients of "reincarnation therapists," who use hypnosis to help their patients remember "past lives," which the clients believe are at the root of their current problems.

Subjects were given a memory test known as the false fame paradigm, in which they were asked to recite a list of unfamiliar names. The next day, they were shown a list that included those names, new names, and the names of famous people. The results: subjects who claimed to have memories of previous lives were more likely than those without such recollections to misidentify more of the previously recited names as belonging to famous people.

In other words, people who believe they had previous lives are committing a source-monitoring error, or an error in judgment about the original source of a memory. (In this case, they are misremembering the source—themselves—of nonfamous names.) This is important because source-monitoring mistakes are the first in a sequence of events that psychologists believe lead to false memories.

"Once familiarity of an event is achieved, this can relatively easily be converted into a belief that the event did take place," Peters says. "A next possible step is that individuals interpret their thoughts and fantasies about the fictitious event as real memories."

Jim Tucker, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia Medical Center, points out, however, that people who are seeking reincarnation therapy are more likely to have psychological problems or to be susceptible to hypnosis, either of which could explain the new findings.

"If someone wants to look at the characteristics of people who have purported past-life memories under hypnosis versus those who don't," he says, "the way to design the study would be to recruit subjects [first] and then hypnotize them."

An earlier study by Susan Clancy of Harvard University showed that people with memories of being abducted by aliens had similar problems with poor recall.

"I think the most important finding here is that these people are highly motivated to seek and endorse some way to explain why they are suffering from psychological distress," Clancy notes. "There are plenty of people out there who think they might have been abducted by aliens—you'll see, ask 20 of your friends—but they don't go so far as to create false memories."

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