The ease with which seances can create false memories of supernatural events in the minds of believers has been revealed by a study.
In an experiment, up to a third of people who attended a fake seance later “remembered” seeing a table levitate – even though infra-red cameras recorded that it remained grounded to the floor.
Although the volunteers knew that the seance was set up by university scientists, a fifth reported a strange, ghostly presence during the session. Pyschologists who conducted the experiments said the results, which are reported in the British Journal of Psychology, showed how seance rituals – such as the holding of hands and the darkened room – can create false memories.
Although many of the tricks used by fake mediums and spiritualists have been exposed by magicians seances remain popular today.
The researchers, from Hertfordshire University and Liverpool Hope University College, recreated a classic Victorian “dark room” seance in which participants gather around a table with a medium and hold hands.
The table, and several objects on it, are covered with luminous paint and are the only things visible once the lights have been switched off. The 350 volunteers were a mixture of sceptics and believers.
An actor posing as a medium told the group to try to move three objects on the table with the power of their minds. In each seance two objects, such as a ball or maraca, were moved using trickery – by a man with a big stick standing outside the group. A third object, usually a handbell, remained stationary throughout.
The actor then asked the group to move the table with their minds. The table remained stationary, but the actor suggested it was moving.
Two weeks later, when asked to recall the seance, 11 and 31 per cent of participants wrongly insisted that the table had moved.