This article is part of the SSPR Blog's ongoing look at physiological and psychological factors that may be misperceived as paranormal phenomena. 

Many cases of reported paranormal phenomena can be explained by common biochemical or psychological events. One such factor is the way human beings store memories in their brains. 

Brain scientists have found that the way we store and retrieve memories makes it easy for us to misperceive or misremember events. The brain doesn't store memories in entire blocks. In other words, our memories aren't stored in our brains like movies or stories. Instead, the brain chops the memory up into small pieces of information (think of it like bits and bytes of computer data) and stores them in various locations. Whenever we recall a life event, the brain must pull the different packets of information from separate areas and splice the entire memory back together. This is a fallible process that can often lead to faulty recall, particularly when put through all of the filters we have in place such as self-perception, self-justification, and ego. What typically happens is that memories begin to shift over time to fit into our self-image and ideas about what we believe should have happened. 

Another quirk of your brain is it can store memories of which you have absolutely no recall. However, occasionally the information can rise to the surface even if you don't remember ever having learned the information in the first place. Carl Jung believed this phenomena, called cryptomnesia, occurs in order to prevent the brain overload.

Some of the most common cases of cryptomnesia in the paranormal are past life recall. For example, many believe one of the most famous cases of past life recall, the Bridey Murphy case, was actually merely a case of unrecalled facts rising to the surface of the subject's mind.

Another famous case of likely cryptomnesia surrounds Helen Keller, who wrote The Frost King as an 11-year-old. After the story was published in Keller's school's alumni paper, it was discovered the work was remarkably similar to Margaret Canby's Birdie and His Fairy Friends. While Keller had no conscious recollection of ever reading or hearing the story, it is unlikely she set out to plagiarize someone else's work. Many experts feel the most reasonable explanation is that Helen Keller had heard or read the story at some point in her young life, and the memories arose and became the unconscious basis for The Frost King.

While cryptomnesia is a common explanation for reincarnation cases, it may also play a role in paranormal phenomena. For instance, some suggest that psychic mediums may receive some information from forgotten facts that have risen to the surface. An example of this might be a psychic sharing information in a haunted location about a specific spirit, when in actuality he or she read an obituary in the paper for that location and promptly forgot it. While this may, indeed, explain some psychic phenomena and past life recall, it doesn't necessarily account for all of it. 

Many researchers are using scientific studies to test psychic ability and past life recall. The work of Dr. Gary E. Schwartz at the University of Arizona is particularly fascinating. He has tested some of the top psychic mediums in the country under controlled scientific conditions and discovered they seem to be accessing information from an unknown source. Other researchers, like Dr. Raymond Moody and Dr. Michael Newton also have research findings that indicate past life recall, psychic information, near-death experiences, and similar phenomena involve something more than quirks of the human brain.

What does this all mean for paranormal research? Memory - even eyewitness memory - is notoriously unreliable. One must always consider cyrptomnesia and faulty recall when evaluating potential causes of paranormal activity. While it isn't always the explanation for certain phenomena, in some cases it just might be.

Enjoy Karen's blogs? Read her new book, Dancing with the Afterlife: A Paranormal Memoir.