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Feb 20 2013

How false memories can get created

I remember the first time that I realized that I had a false memory. It concerned an event that I remembered from when I was about six years old. There was a fire a few houses away and my father decided to pack us in the car and drive us away for safety in case it should spread and engulf our home. When I asked my mother and older sister many years later about this incident, they both said that such a sequence never happened. But the images are still quite strong in my mind.

Ever since then, I have been wary of accepting at face value the recollections of people, especially of events that occurred when they were children. Some may recall a couple of decades ago a spate of cases involving child abuse at day care centers in which many people went to jail based on the testimony of children which sometimes turned out to be caused by false memories that had resulted from the interrogators’ questioning.

This article by Steven Ross Pomeroy says that you can implant quite a large fraction of adults with false memories if one follows four specific steps. It suggests that you can try it as a prank on your friends but I am leery of convincing people of things that are false, even if it is supposed to be in fun.

Of course, false memories can get created in many different ways, most of the time spontaneously and subtly, so it is good to be aware that we are all susceptible to it. That might prevent us from dogmatically asserting that something happened in the past when there is no corroborating evidence or even if evidence exists that actually contradicts it.

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  1. 1
    sunny

    You may be interested in an article by Oliver Sacks on the same topic: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/feb/21/speak-memory/

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    I once had a rather memorable dream in which I had an intense make-out session with an old friend. Somehow, the dream (alcohol was involved!) got mixed up with my reality and for several months I mistook it for what had actually happened. I discovered that my reality had gotten mixed up because in my dreams she had a tattoo on her hips and months later she made a disparaging remark about someone’s ink and concluded “I’d never get a tattoo!” which led me into a few moments of bug-eyed topsy-turvy as I tried to figure out the reality of everything. I wound up explaining the whole story to her, and fortunately she concluded I was just being a harmless doofus. It was very confusing.

  3. 3
    ollie

    In my case, I “remembered” a glorious track workout (running) in which I did 8 x 400 meters, each in under 75 seconds. Then I realized that I should have been running much faster times in races…based on that.

    Eventually I found my old training log, turned it that page and….I did 8 x 400; the first 7 were what you would expect (over 80 seconds) and the last one was 78 seconds. That was my fastest by 4 seconds or so.

    Unfortunately my memory of finishing next to dead last at a marathon the next year was…accurate. :-)

  4. 4
    ESC_key

    I also have a false memory that probably came to me first in a dream. My parents told me that I loved the garbage truck when I was very little , and when it would come once a week to pick up the trash, my mom would pick me up to watch it through the window. It actually took me replaying the “memory” several times in my head before I realized that:
    1) Everything in the memory was just too perfect, too dreamlike–from the weather to the way the breeze gently moved the flowing curtains and my mother’s hair–for it to be a real memory, and
    2) I was probably way too small for my infant brain to have retained that much detail.
    I figure the fact that my parents told me the story was what caused me to dream about it later on, and then somehow I convinced myself that the dream was a real memory. Looking back on it now I’m surprised I fell for it so easily, but then I remember how much I like the “memory” and realize I probably shouldn’t be.

  5. 5
    ttch

    Even our real memories of extraordinary events get mixed up over time without anyone’s meddling. See this article, “Flashbulb Memories”, originally in Skeptic.

  6. 6
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    I fractured my skull and also suffered brain damage many years ago. Onr of the results was severe memory loss. I found that i re-created a realistic and convincing and false memory for blank periods- for example, I have memories of events in one city when I actually lived in another at the time and when I thought I recalled bits of a language I knew, it turned out to be another language.

  7. 7
    Frank

    One of my coworkers recently told a new employee at my firm (whom he had known since University) about me getting stuck in the office elevator, about eight years ago, around the time we had both started at the firm. I have no memory of anyone–especially me–getting stuck in the elevator. And he would have no reason to fabricate a lie.

    Why did he remember something that (apparently) didn’t happen, when there was no reason for anyone to try to implant the false memory? It makes me appreciate the fallibility of my own memory and the complexity of the human brain.

  8. 8
    Mano Singham

    Thanks for the link. Very interesting article.

  9. 9
    Mano Singham

    Thanks for the link. That was a good article.

  10. 10
    Marcus Ranum

    That article reminded me of another memory I have which I later discovered was wrong. I remembered the Kennedy assassination, fairly clearly. One day I said something about that to my father who pointed out that I was 1 year old. He asked me where I was at the time and I remembered that I was watching TV. No, he said, I was sound asleep. What I remembered was probably seeing endless images of the event years later.

  11. 11
    Carlos Cabanita

    In a precious little book I once owned, and which title I can’t even now remember, Jean Piaget describes a false memory of an highjacking while he was yet at the pram with his nanny in a park. The story was from the constant retelling during his childhood. Later he met the nanny and she confessed that what happened was a secret meeting with a lover.
    Then, in a dozen pages, he builds a model of the way our memory works, by constantly reworking our memories every time we think about them and storing the slightly modified versions, and proceeds to completely demolish psychoanalysis…

  12. 12
    Mano Singham

    It is interesting that by that model, the most unreliable memories are the ones we remember and re-tell the most because they have been the most modified. It is also interesting that it was Piaget who said that. This is the current way that memory is believed to work and I had thought that it was a relatively new model.

  13. 13
    jaytheostrich

    Heck, I have very little memory of my childhood, and I basically just assume about half of the stuff I do remember is possibly false. I have a lot of weird dreams where I recognize places I have never seen before as familiar homes and places, that upon waking I realize are nothing like the real locations.

  1. 14
    The older I get the faster I used to be…false memories « blueollie

    [...] This post by Mano Singham reminded me of one of my favorite “false memories”. [...]

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