False Memories

Sceptics say that memories of a paranormal experience, which sometimes can only be recalled with the help of hypnosis are false—that the events the subject recalls did not happen but were implanted by the hypnotist, either intentionally or by accident. Such memories can be as rich in detail as real ones, and people who recall them are convinced that they are real. In fact, they are so convinced that when subjected to a polygraph, or “lie detector,” test, the results indicate that they are telling the truth when they are asked to describe the memory. Such people are said to be suffering from false-memory syndrome.

Most accusations by sceptics regarding false-memory syndrome relate to accounts of alien abduction. For example, sceptics have often criticized alien abduction expert David M. Jacobs, who has conducted more than 850 hypnosis sessions with abductees, of creating similarities among abduction stories by the way in which he talks to his patients during sessions. They have suggested that Jacobs asks leading questions, encouraging his patients to give the answers that he wants to hear.

Jacobs, however, insists that his sessions are conducted so as to prevent the creation of false memories. He also argues that it is possible to tell the difference between a false memory and a real one. He says that there are five differences between real abduction accounts and the kinds of stories typically recovered as a result of false-memory syndrome. In recounting these differences, he says that

(1) people who produce false memories under hypnosis focus only on childhood experiences, whereas true abduction memories often involve recent events;

(2) abductees remember certain things under hypnosis that can be corroborated by other witnesses, such as hearing a noise that others heard as well;

(3) abductees sometimes remember their experiences without the aid of hypnosis;

(4) abductees have been shown to be missing during the time they claim to have been abducted, whereas this type of physical corroboration often does not exist with false memories; and

(5) on rare occasions, more than one person is abducted at the same time, and these multiple witnesses provide similar stories of the incident.

Jacobs believes that competent hypnotists are able to ensure that false-memory syndrome does not occur. However, skeptics question Jacobs’s qualifications, noting that he is not a psychologist. Moreover, psychologists say that it is not possible to distinguish a false memory from a real one.


  • Alien Abduction Experiences
  • Hypnosis
  • David M. Jacobs

    The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning