False Memory Propensity in People Reporting
Recovered Memories of Past Lives
Cynthia A. Meyersburg and Ryan Bogdan
David A. Gallo
University of Chicago
Richard J. McNally
Are elevated rates of false recall and recognition in the Deeseâ€“Roedigerâ€“McDermott (DRM) paradigm
associated with false autobiographical memories in everyday life? To investigate this issue, the authors
recruited participants who reported improbable memories of past lives and compared their DRM
performance with that of control participants who reported having lived only one life (i.e., their current
one). Relative to control participants, those reporting memories of past lives exhibited significantly
higher false recall and recognition rates in the DRM paradigm, and they scored higher on measures of
magical ideation and absorption as well. The groups did not differ on correct recall, recognition, or
intelligence. False memory propensity in the DRM paradigm may tap proneness for developing false
memories outside the laboratory.
Keywords: recovered memory, false memory, past lives, Deeseâ€“Roedigerâ€“McDermott (DRM) paradigm
The debate concerning reports of repressed and recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) has been the most contentious in the recent history of psychology (McNally, 2003). This
controversy, however, has inspired research into mechanisms potentially operative in either inhibition of genuine memories (e.g.,
McNally, Clancy, Barrett, & Parker, 2004) or formation of false
memories (e.g., Porter, Yuille, & Lehman, 1999).
To study false memory in the laboratory, psychologists often use
a paradigm pioneered by Deese (1959) and revived and modified
by Roediger and McDermott (1995). One version of this Deeseâ€“
Roedigerâ€“McDermott (DRM) paradigm requires participants to
listen to word lists comprising items, called associates, concerning
a common theme (e.g., bed, rest, tired). Items on each list converge on a critical item: a word that captures the gist of the list (i.e.,
sleep) but that is not presented to participants. If participants
produce a critical item on a recall test or endorse it on a recognition
test as previously presented, then they have developed a false
memory of encountering the critical item during the study phase of
People vary in their propensity to fall prey to this memory
illusion. In one study, women who reported having recovered
memories of CSA exhibited a higher rate of false recognition of
critical items than did other women, including those who reported
never having forgotten their abuse (Clancy, Schacter, McNally, &
Pitman, 2000). In another study, participants reporting recovered
memories of CSA exhibited higher false recognition and false
recall rates relative to participants reporting either no abuse history
or never having forgotten their abuse (Geraerts, Smeets, Jelicic,
van Heerden, & Merckelbach, 2005). These effects occurred for
neutral word lists and lists comprising trauma-related words.
The heightened DRM false memory effects exhibited by
recovered-memory groups are controversial. To the extent that
DRM performance reflects a propensity to form false memories
more generally, these findings are consistent with the hypothesis
that some recovered memories of abuse also are false. However,
many factors contribute to individual differences in the DRM task
(Gallo, 2006). Merely because people falsely remember DRM
critical items does not mean that their CSA memories are false.
Subsequently, Geraerts et al. (2007) distinguished two groups
who report recovered memories of CSA. One group comprises
adults who report spontaneously recalling their CSA after encountering reminders in everyday life. The other group reports gradually recalling their memories, usually during psychotherapy featuring hypnosis, guided imagery, and other methods designed to
help patients recover presumably repressed memories of CSA.
Geraerts et al. (2007) found that the CSA memories of the first
group were corroborated at a rate (37%) statistically indistinguishable from that of people who report never having forgotten their
abuse (45%), whereas none of the recovered memories in the
Cynthia A. Meyersburg, Ryan Bogdan, and Richard J. McNally, Department of Psychology, Harvard University; David A. Gallo, Department
of Psychology, University of Chicago.
This research was supported by a grant from the Stimson Fund at
Harvard University awarded to Cynthia A. Meyersburg. We thank Andrew
Lederman, J. P. Sharp, Evan Calvert, and John Henry Flood for transcribing the audiotaped interviews with the past-life participants.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Richard
J. McNally, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland
Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail: [email protected]
Journal of Abnormal Psychology Â© 2009 American Psychological Association
2009, Vol. 118, No. 2, 399â€“404 0021-843X/09/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0015371
second group could be corroborated. Strikingly, Geraerts et al.
(2009) subsequently reported heightened DRM false memory effects in participants who had recovered their memories during
suggestive psychotherapy. Those who spontaneously recovered
their memories after encountering reminders outside of psychotherapy did not exhibit heightened DRM false memory effects.
If some uncorroborated recovered memories of abuse were
false, then having elevated DRM effects in the uncorroborated
group suggests that false memory propensity in the laboratory can
predict false memory proneness in everyday life. However, an
inability to corroborate a CSA memory does not mean that it is
false. Indeed, many CSA victims never told others about their
abuse, making subsequent corroboration difficult. Without independent evidence that the DRM task relates to false autobiographical memories, the relationship between DRM effects and recovered autobiographical memories is theoretically ambiguous.
False Autobiographical Memories
Do people with extremely improbable autobiographical memories exhibit markedly high false memory rates on the DRM task?
To test this hypothesis, Clancy, McNally, Schacter, Lenzenweger,
and Pitman (2002) recruited participants who report abduction by
space aliens. Relative to control participants who denied ever
having been abducted by aliens, the â€œabducteesâ€ exhibited markedly higher false memory performance on recall and recognition
tests. These results further suggest that the DRM paradigm taps a
propensity to form â€œmemoriesâ€ of autobiographical events that
never occurred. Given the theoretical and clinical importance of
these findings, further work on the DRM task and false autobiographical memories is needed.
In the current study, we extend this line of research to another
group of individuals who report improbable memories: people who
recover memories from previous lives. From a purely scientific
standpoint, memories of past lives are a more compelling instance
of false autobiographical memory than memories of space alien
abduction. Although highly improbable, alien abduction is, in
principle, possible. In contrast, it is difficult to understand how
memories once embodied in the brain of a person now dead have
migrated and resurfaced in the brain of a person now living.
Current science provides no mechanism that could mediate this
phenomenon. Furthermore, alleged recollections of past lives often
are inconsistent with verifiable facts from the historical period
when the person supposedly had lived (Spanos, Menary, Gabora,
DuBreuil, & Dewhirst, 1991).
According to one sociocognitive model of false memories (Mills
& Lynn, 2000), certain personality traits foster reports of implausible memories. High levels of absorption (i.e., rich imaginative
capabilities) and magical ideation (i.e., endorsement of unconventional modes of thinking) may make one vulnerable to developing
false autobiographical memories. High scores on these measures
may lead one to confuse the products of oneâ€™s imagination with
genuine memories (Spanos et al., 1991). If people with this profile
undergo hypnosis or related procedures to recover memories, they
may be especially likely to generate imagery confusable with
memories. Finally, exposure to the cultural lore of past lives (Mills
& Lynn, 2000), alien abduction (Clancy, 2005), and so forth may
shape the content of false memories. Other variables may influence
content, too. For example, episodes of sleep paralysis accompanied
by hypnopompic hallucinations of intruders in oneâ€™s bedroom are
common among alien abductees (McNally & Clancy, 2005b) but
less so among people who report recovered memories of CSA
(McNally & Clancy, 2005a) or past lives (see below).
The primary goal of the present study was to investigate whether
individuals reporting memories of past lives are especially susceptible to false memories in the DRM paradigm. If they exhibit
higher false recall and recognition rates relative to control participants who report having lived only one life, then this would
provide further support for the hypothesis that the DRM task taps
false memory proneness outside the laboratory. Moreover, we also
compared the groups on absorption, magical ideation, and intelligence. We predicted that, consistent with the sociocognitive model
of false memory, the past-life group would score higher than the
control group on measures of absorption and magical ideation but
not differ on intelligence.
We recruited past-life participants in three ways. Two were
referred to us by past-life regression therapists in the Boston area;
11 responded to our advertisement on Craigslist, an Internet bulletin board (http://boston.craigslist.org); and 2 had heard about our
study from other participants. The advertisement read,
Participate in a fun and interesting study at Harvard! Have you
regained memories from your past life or lives? If so, then a Harvard
Psychology Department memory researcher would like to speak with
you! (If you have not, and are interested in being in the study, there
also are some opportunities to participate as a study â€œcontrolâ€).
The past-life group consisted of 15 individuals (13 women) who
reported experiences that they interpreted as memories from one or
more past lives. These included deÂ´ja` vu episodes, vivid sensory
â€œflashbacksâ€ (e.g., of selling newspapers as a youngster in 19th
century Boston), out-of-body experiences, daydreams, physical
pain attributed to injury during a past life, memories surfacing
during hypnosis or meditation, vivid or recurrent dreams (e.g., of
being a member of a British royal family), and images recovered
during a childhood near-death experience. Some participants reported more than one of these experiences. These count as â€œrecovered memoriesâ€ in that participants said that they were unaware
of having lived previous lives until they had these experiences.
None mentioned experiencing sleep paralysis. Six participants had
undergone hypnotic past-life regression, whereas the others had
not. Previous lives included a Viking, a Druid priestess, a space
alien, the Pharaohâ€™s scribe, and a polar bear.
To determine eligibility, we screened potential participants over
the telephone. Eligible individuals had to report having memories
from a previous life. Mere belief that one had lived before was
insufficient. There were 13 Caucasians, 1 African American, and
1 southwest Asian. Their mean age and years of education were
42.9 years (SD 13.4) and 16.1 (SD 1.6), respectively. The
mean number of past lives per past-life participant was 4.4 (SD
4.5). One outlier reported 20 past lives; excluding her would have
reduced the mean to 3.3 (SD 2.0).
The control group consisted of 15 individuals (13 women) who
did not believe they had recovered memories from any previous
400 BRIEF REPORTS
life. In addition to recruiting control participants through the
Craigslist ad, we also recruited several control participants through
another Craigslist ad that did not mention past lives. During a
phone screening, these participants denied believing they had
recollected events from a previous life. Although none of them
reported memories from past lives, they varied with regard to their
belief in reincarnation. Three believed in reincarnation, 7 did not,
3 were unsure, and 2 did not say. There were 13 Caucasians, 1
African American, and 1 southwest Asian. Their mean age and
years of education were 42 years (SD 11.4) and 16.7 (SD 2.1),
All participants provided written informed consent, used English as their primary language, completed a demographic questionnaire, and received a $20 honorarium for participating.
Participants completed the Tellegen Absorption Scale (TAS), a
34-item trueâ€“false questionnaire tapping the tendency to become
absorbed in fantasy and imaginative experiences, which is correlated (r .43) with hypnotic susceptibility (Tellegen & Atkinson,
1974). Control participants in our previous research had a mean
score of 14.1 on the TAS (SD 7.6; McNally, Perlman, Ristuccia,
& Clancy, 2006).
The participants completed the Magical Ideation Scale (MIS), a
30-item truefalse questionnaire assessing beliefs in unusual
modes of causation, such as acquiring knowledge via extrasensory
perception (Eckblad & Chapman, 1983). A facet of schizotypy
(Lenzenweger, 1999), magical ideation is also strongly related to
fantasy proneness (Spanos et al., 1991). Normative data for the
MIS include a mean of 8.56 for men (SD 5.24) and 9.69 for
women (SD 5.93; Eckblad & Chapman, 1983).
Participants completed the Shipley Institute of Living Scale, a
measure of general intelligence that correlates .74 with the fullscale WAIS-R (Zachary, 1991).
The DRM tasks (Recall, Recognition I, and Recognition II)
incorporated word lists drawn from Roediger, Watson, McDermott, and Gallo (2001). The words were presented via audiotape
and read by a woman who spoke each word with 1 s elapsing
The Recall Test involved 20 DRM word lists, each consisting of
15 words. For each list, all 15 words were semantically associated
with a nonpresented critical word that captured the theme of the
list. Recognition Test I involved an additional 15 DRM word
listsâ€”lists not used in the Recall Test but constructed in the same
way. In Recognition Test II, we retested participants on the 20
DRM word lists used in the Recall Test. In previous research
(Clancy et al., 2002), we had participants perform successive recall
and recognition tests for the same material, hence confounding
recognition performance with a previous recall test. In the current
study, Recognition Test II was likewise confounded with the
Recall Test. Recognition Test I permitted assessment of false
memory propensity on a (new) recognition test that was unconfounded by a prior recall test for the same material.
Recognition Test I consisted of 66 total words: 15 critical items,
30 list items, and 21 distracter items (nonpresented words unrelated to the theme of the list). List items consisted of the third and
seventh associates from the 15 encoded recognition lists. Distracters consisted of critical items and the third and seventh associates
from 7 DRM lists that were not presented during encoding (Roediger et al., 2001).
Recognition Test II consisted of 90 total words: 20 critical
items, 40 list items, and 30 distracter items. The critical items and
list items were from the 20 lists encoded for the recall task. The list
items consisted of the third and seventh associates from the previously encoded recall lists, with the exception of two items. In
one case, Associate 6 substituted for Associate 7, and in the other
case, Associate 8 substituted for Associate 7. Half of the distracters
consisted of words drawn from other DRM lists (critical items and
the third and seventh associates from five lists), and the other half
consisted of five sets of three related words, chosen to mimic DRM
critical items and associates (e.g., Australia, koala, continent). All
participants received identical recognition tests with items presented in the same random order.
Cynthia A. Meyersburg interviewed participants, conducted the
DRM procedure, and administered the questionnaires. Before testing each participant individually, she told each of them that
the purpose of this experiment is to test your memory for words. You
will be presented with 20 sets of words over the tape player. It is
important that you concentrate and listen carefully to each word in the
list, because at the end of each list, when I hit the pause button, you
will write down as many of the words of that list as you can remember
onto the page in your booklet. You will be given a maximum of one
minute to recall each list. During this time you may write down the
words you remember in any order, but only write down those words
that you are certain you heard. In other words, do not guess. Any
Participants wrote the words they recalled in a booklet.
After finishing the 20-list DRM recall test, each participant
completed the TAS and then the MIS. Each participant then heard
15 new word lists, one after another without a break, and then did
Recognition Test I, an untimed, self-paced pencil-and-paper task
requiring participants to circle only those words that they were
confident they had heard.
After completing Recognition Test I, participants completed
Recognition Test II, also self-paced. Once again, the experimenter
asked participants to circle only those words that they were confident they had heard and explicitly told participants not to guess.
Finally, participants completed the Shipley Institute of Living
Data Reduction and Analyses
For the Recall Test, Recognition Test I, and Recognition Test II,
we computed the percentage of critical items that participants
â€œrememberedâ€ having heard and the percentage of presented
words that participants correctly said they had remembered hearing. We were missing data for 3 participants. One control participant was excluded from the Recognition II data analysis because
she did not complete the second page of this test. Another control
participantâ€™s cell phone rang during the experiment; we excluded
her data for one recall list and the Recognition Test II data
BRIEF REPORTS 401
analysis. Finally, the tape player malfunctioned during one recall
list for a past-life participant; we excluded her data from this recall
list and the Recognition Test II data analysis.
For directional predictions regarding false recall, false recognition, absorption, and magical ideation, we used one-tailed t tests.
The other tests are two-tailed. We also report effect size r.
As shown in Figure 1, relative to the control group (M .30,
SD .20), the past-life group (M .44, SD .24) falsely recalled
a greater proportion of critical items, t(28) 1.74, p .046,
prep .88, r .31 (see Figure 1A). The groups did not differ on
correct recall (for the past-life group, M .54, SD .07; for the
control group, M .57, SD .08), t(28) 1 (see Figure 1B).
Relative to the control group (M 2.60, SD 1.88), the past-life
group (M 4.27, SD 3.86) exhibited a trend for a greater
number of other nonlist word intrusions, t(28) 1.50, p .072,
prep .85, r .27.
Recognition Test I. Relative to the control group (M .42,
SD .21), the past-life group (M .52, SD .15) tended to
endorse a greater proportion of critical items, t(28) 1.53, p
.069, prep .85, r .28. The groups did not differ significantly in
the proportion of either unrelated distracters endorsed (for the
past-life group, M .05, SD .07; for the control group, M .05,
SD .06) or hit rate (for the past-life group, M .45, SD .12;
for the control group, M .49, SD .12), ts(28) 1.
Recognition Test II. The past-life group (M .76, SD .18)
endorsed a greater proportion of critical items than did the control
group (M .48, SD .24), t(25) 3.35, p .001, prep .98, r
.56. Relative to the control group (M .60, SD .12), the
past-life group (M .67, SD .10) fell short of having a higher
hit rate, t(25) 1.64, p .11, prep .90, r .31. The groups did
not differ in the proportion of unrelated distracters endorsed (for
the past-life group, M .04, SD .05; for the control group, M
.03, SD .04), t(26) 1.
The false memory effect was less robust in Recognition Test I
than in Recognition Test II. To increase statistical power, we
pooled the data from both recognition tests (Figure 2). The pastlife group endorsed a greater percentage of critical items than did
the control group, t(25) 3.17, p .002, prep .98, r .54 (see
Figure 2A), whereas the groups did not differ in either hit rate (see
Figure 2B) or in the proportion of distracters endorsed (for the
past-life group, M .05, SD .05; for the control group, M .04,
SD .04), ts(26) 1.
Relative to the control group, the past-life group had higher
scores on the TAS (M 24.5, SD 6.8, vs. M 16.8, SD 7.4),
t(28) 2.97, p .003, prep .97, r .49, and the MIS (M
13.0, SD 6.4, vs. M 6.7, SD 6.0), t(28) 2.80, p .01,
prep .95, r .47. On the Shipley Institute of Living Scale, the
scores of the past-life group did not differ from the scores of the
control group (M 65.7, SD 7.0, vs. M 66.6, SD 7.0),
t(28) 1. Combining both groups and scoring control participants
as reporting only one life, we found that scores on the MIS,
r(27) .40, p .02, prep .95, and the TAS, r(27) .42, p
.01, prep .97, were associated with the number of past lives
reported even after we excluded the participant who reported 20
past lives (one-tailed tests).
Past-life participants who had undergone hypnosis (n 6) had
higher MIS scores than did other past-life participants (n 9; M
18.5, SD 4.8, vs. M 9.3, SD 4.5), t(13) 3.79, p .002,
prep .99, two-tailed, r .72. Likewise, past-life participants who
had undergone hypnosis had marginally higher TAS scores than
did the other past-life participants (M 28.7, SD 5.0, vs. M
21.8, SD 6.7), t(13) 2.15, p .05, prep .92, two-tailed, r
.51. Perhaps people scoring high on these measures are especially
keen to undergo hypnosis to recover memories of past lives.
Combining the data from both the past-life and control groups,
we found that MIS, r(27) .44, p .02, prep .95, and TAS
scores, r(27) .38, p .05, prep .92, were associated with false
recognition of critical items. Two-tailed tests indicated that MIS
scores were uncorrelated with either correct recognition, r(27)
.09, p .65, prep .63, or unrelated distracter endorsement rates,
r(27) .11, p .60, prep .64. Two-tailed tests indicated that
TAS scores were also uncorrelated with either hit rate, r(27) .26,
p .20, prep .82, or unrelated distracter endorsement rate,
r(27) .06, p .76, prep .59. None of the corresponding
analyses correlating false recall with MIS and TAS scores were
significant ( ps .23â€“.54).
Individuals who report memories of past lives exhibited greater
false recall and false recognition rates in the DRM paradigm
relative to individuals who report having lived only one life. These
findings are consistent with a study showing that past-life participants are more likely to exhibit another form of false memory in
the laboratoryâ€”the â€œfalse fameâ€ effect (Jacoby, Kelley, Brown, &
Jasechko, 1989)â€”than are control participants (Peters, HorselenFigure 1. Recall performance, reported in percentages. A: False recall of
critical items. B: Correct recall. Error bars represent standard errors of the
402 BRIEF REPORTS
berg, Jelicic, & Merckelbach, 2007). Moreover, the psychometric
data are consistent with the sociocognitive view that elevated
absorption and magical ideation are associated with reports of past
lives (Mills & Lynn, 2000). Taken together, these findings suggest
that people with false memories of past lives are less able to
discriminate between imagined and real events, both inside and
outside the laboratory.
The cause of these elevated DRM false memories is unknown.
Similarly elevated DRM false memory effects occur among people
with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Bremner, Shobe, &
Kihlstrom, 2000; Brennen, Dybdahl, & KapidzË‡icÂ´, 2007; Zoellner,
Foa, Brigidi, & Przeworski, 2000). However, memory differences
between participants with PTSD and control participants are not
confined to false memory effects: Participants with PTSD have
shown poorer memory for words that were presented (Bremner et
al., 2000; Brennen et al., 2007). In contrast, past-life participants
and alien abductees (Clancy et al., 2002) differ from control
participants only in terms of false memory propensity in the DRM
Unfortunately, we did not assess the participants for PTSD.
Without conducting a clinical interview, we cannot rule out the
possibility that our past-life participants suffered from undiagnosed PTSD and that this illness accounts for the DRM false
memory effect. Of course, other variables that influence DRM
susceptibility (e.g., diminished working memory capacity) may be
responsible for elevated DRM false memory effects in both pastlife participants and participants with PTSD.
Even if false memory propensity in the DRM paradigm is
associated with false memories outside the laboratory, one would
not want to rely solely on DRM data, in the courtroom or elsewhere, to determine whether a personâ€™s memories are true or false.
However, other indicators, such as context of recovery and corroborating evidence, can help determine if a memory is true or
false (McNally & Geraerts, in press).
Related to this point, Pezdek and Lam (2007) objected to calling
recall or recognition of critical items in the DRM paradigm â€œfalse
memories.â€ They argued that this paradigm does not concern
recollection of an entirely false event. Others disagree (e.g., Wade
et al., 2007), arguing that there is no clear-cut line between falsely
recalling details of an episode versus falsely recalling an entire
This debate, however, is irrelevant to our main question: Is false
memory propensity, measured by the DRM task, associated with
false autobiographical memories outside the laboratory? The relevance of the DRM paradigm does not presuppose equivalence
between the laboratory phenomenon and false autobiographical
memories in everyday life. Analogously, abnormalities detected
during a cardiac stress test are not themselves heart attacks, but
they predict risk for heart attacks. Likewise, elevated false memory
rates in the DRM paradigm may identify individuals likely to
develop false memories outside the laboratory.
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Received May 29, 2008
Revision received November 26, 2008
Accepted December 2, 2008
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