The Supernatural, the Paranormal and Eyewitness Testimony

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 161, 2015 March)


Eyewitness testimony often plays a central role as purported evidence for the supernatural and the paranormal — from sightings of anomalous animals and objects such as the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot and flying saucers to encounters with what are perceived as apparitions and angels.

Although there is no doubt that, in most cases, the observer has seen something the question is: how reliable is such evidence? Are people good observers, how good are they at recalling events and are there any factors that can interfere with these abilities?

The purpose of this article is to investigate the reliability of eyewitness testimony, and the plan of the essay is as follows:

The first part examines the nature of memory and recall. The second part investigates illusions and hallucinations that can lead to erroneous conclusions about what has been perceived, and the third part enquires as to why people interpret their experience in terms of the supernatural and the paranormal.

Memories are not Videos

A common assumption many people have about memory is that it is similar in some way to a movie — that memories are fixed entities stored in the brain and can be recalled with the fidelity of a replayed DVD. This, however, is an erroneous assumption:

It is a feature of human memory that we do not store information exactly as it is presented to us. Rather, people extract from information the gist, or underlying meaning.

In other words, people store information in the way that makes the most sense to them. We make sense of information by trying to fit it into schemas, which are a way of organizing information.

Schemas are mental 'units' of knowledge that correspond to frequently encountered people, objects or situations. They allow us to make sense of what we encounter in order that we can predict what is going to happen and what we should do in any given situation. These schemas may, in part, be determined by social values and therefore prejudice.

Schemas are therefore capable of distorting unfamiliar or unconsciously 'unacceptable' information in order to 'fit in' with our existing knowledge or schemas. This can, therefore, result in unreliable eyewitness testimony. (1)

When people try and make sense of events, particularly anomalous phenomena, they often attempt to obtain congruence between what they remember of an event with what they think they know and comprehend about reality. As a consequence people's memories often undergo alteration so that the event integrates with their conceptual schema of the world.

The act of remembering is a reconstruction of an event rather than the retrieval of indelible information. This is evidenced by the fact that the memory of an eyewitness can be altered by the act of questioning, where aspects of a recalled event can be unconsciously combined with information provided by the questioner:

Many researchers have created false memories in normal individuals; what is more, many of these subjects are certain that the memories are real. In one well-known study, Loftus and her colleague Jacqueline Pickrell gave subjects written accounts of four events, three of which they had actually experienced. The fourth story was fiction; it centered on the subject being lost in a mall or another public place when he or she was between four and six years old.

A relative provided realistic details for the false story, such as a description of the mall at which the subject's parents shopped. After reading each story, subjects were asked to write down what else they remembered about the incident or to indicate that they did not remember it at all. Remarkably about one third of the subjects reported partially or fully remembering the false event. In two follow-up interviews, 25 percent still claimed that they remembered the untrue story, a figure consistent with the findings of similar studies. (2)

Even without another party introducing misinformation, a person's memory of events can be altered by the mere retelling of the event:

Those who have witnessed a crime would do best not to tell anyone about it. Contrary to what one might believe, a person's memory of an event is not improved by retelling the story. Instead, the risk of an incorrect account increases the more the story is retold and discussed.

"The most accurate witness statements come from people who have seen a crime and then write down what happened before they recount it or discuss it with anyone," says Farhan Sarwar.

However, it is quite unusual for witnesses to do this. On the contrary, many want to immediately discuss what they have seen. (3)

In addition to this 'Chinese whispers' effect, people rarely relate an incident in a neutral way. Because people often tailor the story to an audience, any bias on the part of the teller can distort the formation of memory and recall:

Experiments conducted by Barbara Tversky and Elizabeth Marsh corroborate the vulnerability of human memory to bias. In one group of studies, participants were given the "Roommate Story," a description of incidents involving his or her two fictitious roommates. The incidents were categorized as annoying, neutral, or socially "cool." Later, participants were asked to neutrally recount the incidents with one roommate, to write a letter of recommendation for one roommate's application to a fraternity or sorority, or to write a letter to the office of student housing requesting the removal of one of the roommates.

When later asked to recount the original story, participants who had written biased letters recalled more of the annoying or "cool" incidents associated with their letters. They also included more elaborations consistent with their bias. These participants made judgements based upon the annoying or social events they discussed in their letters. Neutral participants made few elaborations, and they also made fewer errors in their retelling, such as attributing events to the wrong roommate. The study also showed that participants writing biased letters recalled more biased information for the character they wrote about, whereas the other roommate was viewed neutrally. (4)

Although it is obvious that verbal misinformation can lead to the creation of distorted memories, what is not so obvious, but has been proved by experiments, is that body language can influence false memory formation:

Dr Daniel Gurney from the University of Hertfordshire interviewed 90 people about the contents of a video they had watched. During the interviews, researchers deliberately performed misleading hand gestures to suggest inaccurate information about the detail in the video. These hand gestures included chin stroking to suggest someone had a beard, although the man in the video did not have a beard.

Dr Gurney and his team found that the interviewees were three times more likely to recall seeing a beard when one was gestured to them, than those interviewees who were not gestured to.

Other hand gestures used in the research included touching a ring finger (to suggest a ring), grasping a wrist (to suggest a watch) and pretending to pull on gloves. All of these gestures implied details that did not actually appear in the video, and the results were similar to those with the misinformation about the beard.

Dr Gurney said: "A lot of research has shown that eyewitnesses can be influenced by misleading questions, but this research shows that gestures can also mislead, and sometimes without eyewitnesses even realizing it. For those professionals in the police, legal and other sensitive areas of work where questioning and recall of detail is important, we need to make sure the significance of hand gestures is fully taken on board." (5)

Finally, that there is a significant problem with eyewitness testimony is borne out by the number of false convictions based on this evidence:

Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in nearly 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.

While eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury, 30 years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable. Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder; we neither record events exactly as we see them, nor recall them like a tape that has been rewound. Instead, witness memory is like any other evidence at a crime scene; it must be preserved carefully and retrieved methodically, or it can be contaminated. (6)

Illusions and Hallucinations

The previous section of this article explored the problems associated with recall and false memory. In addition to these pitfalls there is also the issue of illusion, which is a faulty observation arising from a misperception of reality, such as mistaking a vague sound for a human voice:

The psychological phenomenon that causes some people to see or hear a vague or random image or sound as something significant is known as pareidolia ...

There are a number of theories as to the cause of this phenomenon. Experts say pareidolia provides a psychological determination for many delusions that involve the senses. They believe pareidolia could be behind numerous sightings of UFOs, Elvis and the Loch Ness Monster and the hearing of disturbing messages on records when they are played backwards.

Pareidolia often has religious overtones. A study in Finland found that people who are religious or believe strongly in the supernatural are more likely to see faces in lifeless objects and landscapes. (7)

Why do we experience illusions? It is important to remember that although our senses convey information to the brain, it is the brain that constructs our experience of reality and that errors can creep in during this process:

"The brain is always constructing things, which is helping you survive. Some of these constructions can be fiction," said Mark Changizi, a neurobiologist and assistant professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Changizi came up with a theory to help explain why we see illusions. He argued that illusions are due to the brain's attempt to "see" the future. They occur during the slight time lag after light reaches the retina in your eye, but before your brain translates it into a visual perception.

According to Changizi, author of "The Vision Revolution," when the brain attempts to generate a perception, it basically is taking a guess at the near future by trying to fast-forward a tenth of a second. As a result of this "neural delay," you might not be perceiving an image as it actually is, but as you expect it might soon be.

"Illusions occur when the brain attempts to perceive the future, and those perceptions don't match reality," he said.  Although there is no single reason illusions take place, Martinez-Conde offered another possible explanation.

The brain is a limited structure with limited resources, including its number of neurons, wires, and neuronal connections, she suggested. "So in some cases, illusions may be due to the brain's need to take shortcuts." Simply put, the brain might need to quickly give more importance to some features in a visual scene than others. (8)

In the case of illusions the observer misinterprets an external stimulus. In the case of hallucinations, however, there is no external stimulus, and although hallucinations are often associated with mental illness healthy people can experience them as well:

Hallucinations are perceptions in the absence of an external stimulus and are accompanied by a compelling sense of their reality. They are a diagnostic feature of schizophrenia, occurring in an estimated 60%-70% of people with this disorder, with auditory hallucinations being the most common. However, hallucinations are not only associated with illness but can also occur in healthy individuals. For example, data from 6 community survey studies in various countries indicate that 7%-30% of children and adolescents report experiencing hallucinations. In the context of grief after the death of a spouse, one-third to one-half of bereaved spouses report hallucinations of the deceased. Transcultural influences may also affect the distinction between reality and imagination as well as the normalcy of visualizing images and ideas. (9)

Anthropomorphism, Suggestibility and Apophenia

People can misconstrue reality, but why would they misconstrue it in a way that leads them to the conclusion they have encountered paranormal phenomena? Part of the reason is that paranormal beliefs are prevalent in all societies and ages, arising as they do from our disposition to see agents and purpose operating in nature as a result of anthropomorphic thinking:

Ordinary social cognitions seem to play a significant role in anthropomorphic thinking. For example, by the age of five, children from every culture develop the understanding that other humans have thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are different from their own. Humans may perceive the mental states of nonhumans using this same cognitive process. In this respect, anthropomorphism is a natural phenomenon that piggybacks on other social cognitions.

Some anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have argued that humans have evolved to beware of a camouflaged predator in the bush, to identify human forms and faces, or to perceive the intentions of potential friends or foe. These self¬-protective adaptations may cause us to be over-vigilant in our detection of agency. Thus, in a better-safe-than-sorry strategy, humans often and easily attribute intentionality or causality to invisible agents (Boyer, 2001). After viewing a horror movie, we may be more inclined to imagine a ghost or a burglar, rather than a tree branch tapping on the window at night. (10)

In addition to anthropomorphic thinking, suggestion and the tendency to find patterns and connections between events also appears to play a part in the misinterpretation of mundane events as paranormal phenomena:

People are highly social creatures, and this means they're also highly suggestible. If you see another person behaving fearfully, for example, you're more likely to feel fear, even if there's no obvious threat.

Suggestibility can fuel myths about ghosts and haunted houses, particularly in an environment that seems creepy. If you stay at an ostensibly haunted house, you're primed to see ghosts because you've been told you might. This means you might interpret a strange noise as a sign that a ghost is present, particularly if other people seem frightened by the noise. Old and abandoned houses and locations that have a scary story — such as a hotel where someone was killed, or a home where someone committed suicide — can further prime your mind to "see" ghosts, even when you might otherwise explain away unusual apparitions and sounds ...

The human mind is incredibly adept at building connections. This is the reason we're able to master complex math, build seemingly intelligent machines, and remember vast quantities of information. But this connection-building tendency can also cause people to believe things that aren't true. Apophenia is the tendency to see connections between unconnected events. This tendency can cause you to interpret mundane experiences as supernatural. For example, if you dream about your grandmother and then hear her favourite song on the radio, you might conclude that she's communicating with you.

Pareidolia, a related phenomenon, occurs when people "complete" incomplete images. There are mundane examples of this in everyday life. Anyone who has noted that the front of a car looks like a face is engaging in pareidolia. Pareidolia, however, can also cause people to see ghostly images. Your mind, for example, might perceive a cloud of dust as a face. Combined with high suggestibility, apophenia and pareidolia can cause you to see things that aren't there. And while the two behaviours can be associated with some mental health conditions, they're normal cognitive processing mechanisms that everyone engages in from time to time. (11)


Although eyewitness testimony is not useless it is not completely reliable either. Many factors can contribute to the distortion of memory, from the forgetting of vital facts to the inclusion of false data.

Bias, the emotional state of the witness, the number of times the event was recounted and the role the questioners played are just some of the factors that can influence recall and must be taken into account when investigating mundane events such as crimes. The need for at least equal rigor, if not more, is obvious when investigating extraordinary claims where preconceptions, the desire to believe and the tendency of humans to see things that aren't there can interfere with rational thought and dispassionate objectivity.


(1) Eyewitness Testimony:

(2) Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts:

(3) Eyewitnesses are not as reliable as one might believe:

(4) The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony:

(5) Influencing others through gestures: Pitfalls for eyewitnesses:

(6) Eyewitness Misidentification:

(7) Pareidolia: Seeing Faces in Unusual Places:

(8) Optical Illusions: When Your Brain Can't Believe Your Eyes:

(9) On the neurobiology of hallucinations:

(10) The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, Volume 1:

(11) Psychological Explanations for Seemingly Paranormal Phenomena: