More Options

Exploring Mind, Memory, and the Psychology of Belief

Special Report

Thomas G. Genoni Jr.

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 19.2, March / April 1995

Part II: Perception, Memory and the Courtroom

Our coverage of the 1994 CSICOP conference in Seattle, Washington, June 23-26, begun in our last issue, continues.

How We Fool Ourselves: Anomalies of Perception and Interpretation

Introducing the session focusing on how we fool ourselves, Barry Beyerstein, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia, emphasized that “so- called simple perceptions are anything but simple” and that what we see is not always the true nature of reality. Perception is a creative act that involves not only the purely sensory apparatus of the brain but also such things as memory, emotion, and our hopes and fears. Often we fill in our observations of reality with the way we think things should be, based on our expectations. And when these misperceptions become part of our memory, Beyerstein concluded, they can affect new perceptions and interpretations.

Jerry Andrus

Jerry Andrus

The idea that “so-called simple perceptions are anything but simple” was dramatically illustrated by magician and inventor Jerry Andrus. Based on the concept that perceptions are easily altered by expectations, Andrus has created many optical illusions and magic tricks that fool the observer. “Each person paints their picture of reality with a brush dipped in the pigments of the past,” he said. With a simple demonstration using what appeared to be a deck of cards (but which he revealed was really a thick piece of Plexiglas), Andrus illustrated how the assumptions we make about reality, based on years of ordinary, day-to-day experiences, often lead us to “see” things that do not exist. In another example of playing with expectations, Andrus removed the glasses he had been wearing since the beginning of his talk, admitting: “They contain no glass. I wear contacts.” Accompanied by abundant laughter and applause, Andrus continued his performance with a number of large optical illusions that he manipulated to produce further false perceptions.

Andrus also read a short commentary, “How Sees the Mind?” It poetically described the “rubber rulers” of perception that humans stretch to fit their subjective measure of reality. "What we should be using, wherever possible, are the objective rulers of science that resist being stretched or shrunk to fit what we want it to be. These rulers may not be perfect, but unlike ours, are made not of rubber, but of the laws of the universe.”

Susan Blackmore, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, described some of the research she has conducted on out-of-body and near-death experiences. Blackmore contends that these phenomena reveal a great deal about the way our minds operate. She explained that when humans approach death, the brain releases endorphins, which can produce a morphinelike pleasure and a random firing of neurons. These physiological occurrences may result in the often reported tunnel images, bright lights, and many other bizarre “out-of-body” effects.

Blackmore also posed questions about the nature of the self, which constructs a reality based on perception. As the body shuts down, the mind is rapidly unable to sustain a model of “I” based on its usual conception of reality. The out-of-body experience, Blackmore suggests, may be “a crude attempt by the brain to hang on to the idea of self.”

Elizabeth Loftus

Elizabeth Loftus

Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, in Seattle, is a well-known expert on eyewitness testimony, and her recent work examining the malleability of memory has provided many insights into the repressed memory debate. (See her article “Remembering Dangerously” in this issue.) In some of her studies, Loftus said, she succeeded in altering her subjects’ memories of some details of scenes they had witnessed, through the use of misleading questioning, misinformation, and suggestion. Another study, using a series of crime scenarios, revealed an even larger frequency of false memories in her test groups. But could a memory of an entire event that never happened be created using these tactics?

Loftus attempted to create in the mind of a teenage subject named Chris the memory of being separated from his family in a mall ten years previously and being found by an older man. Chris entered this alleged incident in a daily journal and, gradually, he vividly “remembered” and even expanded upon the episode that Loftus had originally described to him.

Regarding therapists and patients in clinical environments, Loftus said: “I believe there is evidence that, in some cases, a significant amount of suggestion may be going on. . . . Could this kind of suggestion act in a way that is similar to the suggestion we see here?” Loftus has examined evidence gathered by private investigators and others who secretly taped their sessions with a therapist. In one instance, a therapist diagnosed "incest survivor” at the first meeting. Loftus has received many disturbing letters from families who have been torn apart after a member of the family “recovered” abuse memories during therapy sessions. Loftus concluded: “I think that this kind of activity and practice dilutes and trivializes the experience of true abuse survivors and increases their suffering.”

In addition to the scheduled speakers, James Randi and his assistant, Jose Alvarez, played a videotaped segment of an Australian “60 Minutes” TV segment. As the host of the show explained, a channeler named Jose had been making a name for himself by demonstrating his apparent ability to channel an ancient spirit named Carlos. Appearing with his sleazy manager on numerous TV talk-shows, Jose would enter a strange trance and begin to slouch over. Just as his heart rate would slow to a near-death level (always being monitored by a competent physician), the exuberant spirit of Carlos would dramatically emerge to offer his words of wisdom. The Carlos mania culminated in an appearance to a near-capacity crowd at the Sydney Opera House.

As you may have guessed, Carlos is not an ancient spirit. Carlos is a product of James Randi’s imagination, with a few tricks and some clever acting by his good friend Jose Alvarez. After Jose would enter his trance and slow his pulse (by taping a small ball under his biceps and then gently squeezing), Randi would send the astounding words of Carlos to a tiny speaker in Jose’s ear via a remote mike. It may not have been surprising that the Australian public was so eager to listen, but the ease with which Jose (and Carlos) was able to get such attention, publicity, and access to the press was disturbing.

Carl Sagan’s Keynote Address

Introduced to the standing-room-only audience by CSICOP Chairman Paul Kurtz as a “Leonardo man of thought and action” because of his broad range of scientific study and knowledge, Carl Sagan, the astronomer and author, focused his keynote address on the importance of scientific understanding. Stressing the predictive power of science and the significant role it plays in so many aspects of our culture, Sagan affirmed our responsibility to educate society about its function. “We have a civilization based on science and technology and have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology,” he said. He also warned that it “is a clear prescription for disaster” if the circumstances are not changed.

Sagan praised the role of CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer in exposing unfounded scientific claims but cautioned skeptics against establishing an “us versus them” mentality by ridiculing and belittling paranormal believers. He also encouraged compassion for those who succumb to the tricks of pseudoscientific con-artists simply because they are not well versed in science, magic, and skepticism.

Sagan also discussed the rigid standards of scientific scrutiny, the complex struggle of inquiry, the great rewards of discovery, and the vigorous and uncompromising role of experimental testing in evaluating ideas. “And though it is no fun to be on the receiving end of skeptical questioning,” Sagan concluded, “it is the affordable price we pay for having such a powerful tool as science.” Sagan’s keynote address was published in the January-February SI as “Wonder and Skepticism.”

Memory: How Reliable Is It?

Carol Tavris, a psychologist and author from Los Angeles, opened the session called “Memory: How Reliable Is It?” by answering: “Not very.” Tavris has recently examined the “pop- psych” books about recovered memory. She found there was “no overlap” between what the books were promoting and what the academic researchers were discovering. Tavris metaphorically described memory as a putting together of tattered pieces that were initially experienced as seamless.

Stephen Ceci, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, and the session’s first speaker, was praised by Tavris for his extensive research on memory. Ceci cited some common types of memory errors and their interesting though sometimes sad results. He provided examples to illustrate how remembrances of contemporaneous events can frequently be mixed together, how experiences can occasionally be remembered in a self-serving way, and how highly emotional or aroused states can cause false recollections.

Ceci also described various studies in which the memories of numerous children were altered by repeated suggestive questioning. He pointed out that, according to national averages, children in court cases will often receive three and a half to eleven formal interviews prior to testifying. The number of informal, and possibly highly suggestive, discussions with worried parents and therapists is unknown. Given the fact that between 18 and 28 percent of children testifying in criminal and civil court cases are of preschool age, Ceci believes the use of children’s memories in the courts is potentially very dangerous.

“Suggestive techniques work very well if there’s something to elicit,” Ceci concluded. “The problem is the price you pay if there isn't something there.”

Richard Ofshe, professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, compared the proliferation of recovered- memory therapists to the grim lobotomy operations that occurred at the rate of five thousand a year during the thirties, forties, and fifties. “We are in the midst of a crisis,” Ofshe said. "[Therapists] are subjecting people to the closest thing to the experience of rape and brutalization that can ever be done without actually touching them.” He pointed out that some of these harmful persuasion techniques are being used not only by recovered-memory therapists but also in past-life therapy, alien- abduction therapy, and during police interrogations that, in some cases, have led to sincerely believed false confessions of crimes, including murder.

Ofshe said that prior to 1980 “no human society has ever noted this supposed ability to remove from consciousness vast amounts of information.” He said that while there is no evidence for the existence of recovered memories, there is data establishing the dangers of hypnotherapy as well as the ease with which therapists can produce false memories.

Loren Pankratz, a clinical psychologist from Portland, Oregon, added a historical anecdote. Pankratz told the story of a con-artist named Davey to illustrate the perpetual unreliability of human perception. In the late 1880s, Davey was able to deceive even the best critical minds using the spirit "channeling” method of slate writing. The technique was widely popular for many years and, among those practicing it, Davey was respected as genuine and trustworthy. Research that later exposed slate writing as fakery and dismissed the anecdotal evidence of Davey’s power as “worthless” prompted one stubborn believer to say that “Davey is actually a medium who is deceiving the public and himself.”

With a degree of irony, Pankratz concluded: “Back in those old times it was really hard to convince some people that memory just isn't very reliable.”

CSICOP and the Law

At a luncheon talk, Brenton VerPloeg, an attorney with the Miami law firm of Shutts and Bowen, provided a preview of the afternoon session on science in the courtroom by pointing out the difficulty of trying scientific cases in a society with widespread scientific illiteracy. He also discussed the various aspects of his representation of CSICOP and Prometheus Books in a number of court cases involving Uri Geller. At one point in a recent libel case initiated by Geller, VerPloeg said he attempted to require Geller to prove his powers by filing a motion for "compulsory psychic examination.” Geller, however, did not take the opportunity to demonstrate his abilities.

Influencing Beliefs in the Courtroom: Rules of Law, Expert Testimony, and Science

Peter Huber

Peter Huber

Peter Huber, author of Galileo’s Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom, and a member of the Manhattan Institute, opened the session on courtroom science, testimony, and law by citing numerous cases illustrating the problems of determining what qualifies as authentic expert testimony and valid scientific evidence. “How many times are we going to let juries vote on psychic powers?” Huber asked. He said that despite often weak scientific evidence in cases involving dubious claims, the promise of large settlements often brings them into the judicial system. For instance, many suits have been brought against Merrell Pharmaceuticals by women who believed that Bendectin, a drug the company had produced in the 1970s, caused birth defects—in spite of studies of the drug that have consistently produced evidence to the contrary.

Huber discussed how the courts have historically set standards for scientific evidence and addressed broader conceptions of setting such standards. One philosophy is to “let it all in.” This would allow new ideas and discoveries the chance to prove their legitimacy without necessarily first having been widely accepted by the scientific community. On the other hand, "letting it all in” might permit juries to legitimize a wide variety of frivolous claims. Huber said: “There is a real possibility for mischief when false claims of causality are peddled in the courts, and I think we all have a stake in trying to make sure those risks are minimized.” Despite his criticism of the court system and past methods of evidence screening, Huber said he has been heartened by recent trends.

Barry Beyerstein, of the Brain Behavior Laboratory at Simon Fraser University, followed with a discussion of graphology. He explained that graphology often appears to work because, as with astrology, subjects read their interpretations and expectations into what are only vague descriptions. By examining the size, shape, style, and proportion of the various loops and angles within handwritten samples, he said, graphologists claim they can ascertain a wide variety of personality traits—from how sexy you are to whether you are a potential pedophile. Beyerstein noted that, despite the lack of scientific evidence establishing graphology as a useful tool, graphologists advise police departments, credit unions, marriage counselors, and employers—and based on this evidence they make important decisions that can profoundly affect people’s lives.

In the criminal-justice system, graphologists have attempted to gain acceptance by aligning themselves with legitimate questioned-document examiners. Beyerstein pointed out that unlike graphologists, these examiners analyze evidence to determine the historical authenticity of a given document, not to look for character traits. Some courts, however, have used graphologists to select jurors, to counsel parole boards, and even to decide the guilt or innocence of defendants. Beyerstein cited one case in which a Denver judge, apparently believing that a change in writing style would produce a change in behavior, made imposing a lighter sentence contingent upon the defendant’s signing up for “graphotherapy.”

Gerald M. Rosen, a clinical associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington and moderator of the session, told of a court case involving post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) victims to illustrate how bias effects can operate, particularly among scientists involved with the judicial system. In his research, Rosen compared the information from survivors of a recent Alaskan fishing-boat accident with the data from a similar San Fran- cisco marine accident in 1957, noting that the former occurred after PTSD was established as a genuine disorder. Rosen found that the reported symptoms and diagnoses in the two cases varied substantially. For instance, among the 27 individuals from the San Francisco incident, only 56 percent reported sleep disturbances, while 100 percent of the 20 in the Alaskan accident reported this symptom. Information Rosen had gathered from the original interviews and his own follow-up interviews of the Alaskan victims also revealed interesting facts. One plaintiff admitted that some victims had been coached on symptoms and that others had been instructed to see a doctor because “it would be worth their while.”

Rosen believes that there are a number of problems with the way PTSD is being diagnosed, especially in the atmosphere of a court case. Primarily, the litigation can present incentives for victims to exaggerate their ailments. Rosen also said that the criteria for diagnosis of PTSD consist mostly of a list of symptoms, and it is difficult for clinicians to separate actual symptoms from faked ones. Rosen concluded: “Mainstream scientists are still subject to significant bias effects. And when this comes into the courtroom, it can lead to severely compromised results.”

Timothy Moore, associate professor of psychology at Glendon College, York University, in Toronto, addressed the problem of “junk science” by discussing his participation in a case involving the heavy-metal band Judas Priest. In the summer of 1990, the band was brought to a Reno, Nevada, court on charges that it had included subliminal messages in its recordings—messages that the plaintiffs said prompted two teenage boys to commit suicide. The defense denied that the band had ever used such messages and further contended that subliminal stimuli are not capable of compelling any behaviors, let alone suicidal ones. However, as Moore pointed out, “The pursuit of isolated, distant, and mysterious causes for various mishaps results in a search for distant and mysterious experts.” One of these fringe experts, Wilson Key, has long been a supporter of the subliminal phenomenon and has claimed to have found subliminal messages in paintings by Michelangelo, in Howard Johnson’s menus, and on both sides of Nabisco crackers.

Despite the pseudoscientific testimony in support of the plaintiffs, the judge eventually ruled in favor of the defense, and justice would seem to have prevailed. Nevertheless, the decision was not made with a clear understanding of the subliminal phenomenon, Moore said, and the pendulum might have drifted to the side of junk science. He concluded by urging greater scientific literacy on the part of the judicial system.

Thomas G. Genoni Jr.

Tom Genoni is the CSICOP West Coast Bureau Chief at the Center for Inquiry—West in Los Angeles, California. He interviewed Art Bell by phone in March.