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Selective Memory at Work When Patients ‘Predict’ Own Death

News & Comment

Terence Hines

Volume 33.3, May / June 2009

Can medical patients predict their own deaths using some fancy type of “insight” that is more accurate than the medical tests and expertise of physicians? The answer is yes, according to an article by Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, a Long Island, New York, cardiologist. The article “The Instincts to Trust Are Usually the Patient’s” appeared in the January 6, 2009, New York Times Science Times section (D6). Jauhar describes just two instances in his practice where patients who were not expected to die said that they expected to die and, some time later, did exactly that, thus suggesting to Jauhar that patients “have a sixth sense about their own deaths.” In the first case, an “elderly” gentleman with congestive heart failure was admitted to the hospital. At one point he said, “I am going to die here.” Initially, his case was “relatively mild. But then he became sicker.” He died several days later. The second case was that of a woman who “told us calmly on morning rounds that she had a feeling she was going to die that day.” Later that day she did die.

Neither of these cases seems particularly surprising. Both patients were already in the hospital and not for trivial reasons. Both must have been anxious. Undoubtedly many patients in such situations express anxiety and fear of death, even when they are not expected to die. When, as expected, they do not die, it’s no big deal and isn’t remembered. But when such a patient does die, it’s a notable event and is remembered.

This type of selective memory is an important cause of belief in many nonexistent phenomena. Another from the medical arena is the belief that more babies are born when the moon is full. This is simply false. There have never been any well-done studies that support such a belief. So from whence did the belief spring? Selective memory on the part of maternity-room personnel. When there happens to be a lot of births during a full moon, it is noted and remembered. Neither slow nights when the moon was full nor busy nights when it wasn’t are taken into account as evidence against the relationship. Selective memory also plays an important role in the belief in such things as astrology, biorhythm theory, prophetic dreams, and the like.

But memory is not only selective, it is constructive. The physician who believes in the prophetic abilities of patients to foretell their own deaths will be very likely to misremember patients’ comments as more prophetic than they actually were. Any claim that is based only on such selective memories should be viewed with great suspicion.

Terence Hines

Terence Hines is professor of psychology at Pace University and author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. He is a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Fellow.