I want to tell you about false memories. Or at least I think I do… Hmm.
Many of us think of our eyes, ears, and memory as cameras, microphones, and a hard drive. But we’re biological beings, and we are massively flawed. Many of our most surprising flaws are neurological in origin, and these happen to be my favorite to discus.
For the time being I want to explain the idea of false memories. Our brains, with or without our knowledge, distort and falsify our memories, meaning they are altered in some significant way from what actually happened. This can happen to memories we’ve just formed, or ones that we’ve had for some time. It is due largely in part by our ability to rewrite the narrative of our lives.
Perhaps one has a crazy night, and drinks far too much alcohol resulting in a blackout of memory. Their friends later tell them they drunkenly hit on a long time friend, telling him/her they secretly always loved them. Then you remember the story a few weeks later, and imagine what that conversation might have been like. Then maybe a few months later the two of you are deep in love and you hear the story as he/she remembers it. Then years down the line, you recall the story to your kids or grandkids certain of every detail. This same thing can happen in a very rapid amount of time, and to each and every one of us.
Some are more susceptible to this phenomenon, but none are immune. Just knowing it happens, doesn’t affect your ability to recognize and correct your own ability to falsify your own memories. That is to say, knowing you do, doesn’t stop you from doing it; and doesn’t even mean you’ll be aware the next time it happens.
In addition, ones memories can be implanted by others. You could remember with perfect clarity, something that never happened at all. This was done with several children not long ago, and happens to this very day in the form of false confessions. This recent article discusses the idea of false confessions further.
A very common memory a lot of people share, is being lost in a grocery store or supermarket and frantically looking for their parents. Although it’s difficult to asses actual figures, this is believed to be a socially implanted memory that the vast majority of people have never actually experienced.
Which begs the question… How many of your memories are fact, fiction, and somewhere in between?
* Loftus EF, Coan J., Pickrell, JE. Manufacturing false memories using bits of reality. In Reder, L., ed. Implicit Memory and Metacognition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, in press.
* Ceci, S. J., Loftus, E. F., Leichtman, M. and Bruck, M. (1994). The possible role of source misattributions in the creation of false beliefs among preschoolers. The International Journal of Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis, 42, 304±320.
* Ceci, S. J. and Bruck, M. (1993). Suggestibility of the child witness: A historical review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 403±439.
False–memory Creation in Children and Adults: Theory, Research, and Implications (textbook) by Taylor & Francis Group
The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse by Elizabeth Loftus
- FalseMemory: http://www.mom-psych.com/Images/FalseMemory.jpg