Most of us remember profound events in our lives, whether it's seeing Bugs Bunny at Disney World or watching footage of the 2005 terrorist attacks in London. We even recall mundane things, like playing with Play-Doh in preschool.
The only problem is, none of these memories is possible: Bugs Bunny is not a Disney character, video footage of the bombing doesn't exist and the brains of children under the age of three aren't yet capable of storing long-term memories [source: Ridgway].
Yet the mere suggestion that having these memories is normal, if not expected, likely had you probing your memory for some recollection. Suggestion and expectation are just two factors that can contribute to the creation of such so-called false memories. These erroneous recollections may involve the confusion of key details, like time and place, or they may be made up entirely.
Memory is constantly being shaped by our feelings, knowledge and beliefs, so the memories we pull out often look nothing like the individual pieces we put in. It may even be that accuracy isn't memory's primary goal. Rather, since memory is often used as a tool that guides future actions, reconstructing it like we do may enable us to make better decisions [source: Dingfelder].
Many of the brain processes responsible for memory inaccuracies can actually help us to store greater quantities of information, but that ability comes at a price. Though memory is what makes it possible for you to know how to whip up a quick batch of eggs and get to work in the morning, it can go wrong in any number of ways. Let's look at five ways our brains form false memories.
Like the Play-Doh from preschool, memory has a tendency to become more manipulated as more people come into contact with it. Let's say you've just witnessed a crime. Later, you talk to other witnesses and read the news coverage about it. The police ask you leading questions. Each of these acts has the potential to alter the information you initially stored in your brain. If another witness mentions the criminal's blue jacket, you may very well work that jacket into your own recollection. Likewise, a suggestive question such as "Did you see the man's gun?" could make you believe you observed him brandishing such a weapon even if you didn't [source: Loftus].
Using various forms of misinformation, researchers have succeeded in implanting false memories into people's minds about everything from getting lost in the mall as a child to having been the victim of a vicious animal attack [source: Loftus]. In such cases, corroboration from others can make the misinformation even more powerful. In one study, completely innocent subjects confessed to breaking a computer and even offered up supporting details to the incident when a peer claimed to have seen them do it [source: Loftus].
Not all false memories are due to external factors like suggestion: Some we manage all by ourselves. Misattribution errors, or source misattributions, happen when you mix up details from two separate events and combine them into one cohesive memory. Remembering that your Uncle Joe told a funny joke last night when in fact it was your brother is a case of source misattribution. According to some theories of memory, misattribution errors are a result of failed memory binding -- the binding together of the individual parts of a memory into one cohesive unit [source: Schacter]. In the case of the funny joke, your recollection of the joke wasn't appropriately tied to your recollection of your brother.
One particularly powerful form of misattribution is imagination. Referred to as imagination inflation, simply imagining a childhood event can increase one's confidence that it really occurred [source: Loftus].
In a similar vein, watching another person do something can make people believe that they, too, performed the same task [source: Association for Psychological Science]. In these cases, people misattribute their familiarity with the imagined or observed task as evidence that they performed it. You've experienced a version of this if you've ever thought about taking out the trash and then wondered later if you actually did it.
3. Fuzzy Tracing
If asked to recall the first and last sentences on the previous page, you'd probably come up empty-handed. But if quizzed on the page's main idea, you'd (hopefully) pass with flying colors. This is the idea behind a theory of memory known as fuzzy trace theory. It holds that people record experiences in two different ways: as verbatim traces, based on what actually happened, and as gist traces, based on their interpretation of what happened. While remembering something in terms of its overall picture using gist traces (as opposed to the nitty-gritty specifics of verbatim traces) can be useful in freeing up valuable brain space, a person's impression of what an event meant doesn't always jibe with what actually happened; this is where false memories creep in [source: National Science Foundation].
As evidence of fuzzy trace theory, when subjects are presented with a list of semantically related words like candy, lollipop, cookie, sugar and tea, many claim to have also heard the word "sweet" [source: Schacter]. The fact that they remember the list in terms of its general meaning as opposed to its individual components leads them to form an inaccurate memory.
Because children aren't as adept at extracting meaning from events as adults, their memories are sometimes more accurate. In general, children lean more on the part of the brain that records details, while adults tend to rely more on the part responsible for storing an event's overall meaning, leaving them more open to the intrusion of false memories [source: National Science Foundation].
As anyone who has tried to recall the specifics of a particularly nasty quarrel can attest, emotions can wreak havoc on memory. Although it's well known that strong emotions often create especially vivid memories, those memories aren't always accurate [source: Dingfelder].
While studies indicate that all emotions can enhance a person's ability to remember details, negative ones appear to do so to an even greater degree [source: Kensinger]. Happiness tends to cause individuals to record events in broad terms, paying less attention to details, and thus leaving them more likely to commit false memory errors. Anger has the opposite effect, leading people to focus in on events narrowly but remember more specifics [source: Dingfelder].
In one scenario, researchers tested students' ability to recall details after watching the televised verdict of the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Overall, those students who were pleased with the verdict remembered more, but also claimed that more events happened that didn't. The students disappointed in the verdict remembered less, but made fewer errors [source: Dingfelder].
A person's state of mind can also affect the types of memories they're able to recall. Like the rose-colored glasses effect, people who are happy are more likely to remember positive memories, while sad people seem able to think only of bad ones [source: Rupp]. If you've ever struggled to pull yourself out of a bad mood with memories of better times, you've likely stumbled on this trick of selective memory.
If you tend to remember all the cheerleaders from high school as having blonde hair and the football players as being dumb jocks, you may be a victim of inference-based memory error, or bias. These types of false memories often occur in memory reconstruction: Put simply, when we pull out memories with holes in them, we simply patch them up with things that seem to fit. While these makeshift reconstructions are sometimes accurate, they're more often distorted by our current knowledge, feelings and beliefs rather than being true representations.
False memories due to bias usually result from a desire to reduce psychological discomfort by having one's thoughts and memories remain consistent [source: Schacter]. As a result, people tend to rely on inference in a wide variety of situations. Along with the stereotype bias alluded to in the first paragraph, studies show that people also infer they've seen an event's cause when they've really only seen its effect. People will also remember that they felt a particular way in the past that coincides with how they feel in the present, or even that they were worse off many years ago to make themselves feel better about where they are now [source: UniSci].
Upon completing a study skills course, for instance, students remembered their initial study skills as being lower and their later test grades as higher than did students not taking the course [source: Koriat]. In another study, people presented with a list of names supposedly belonging to criminals recently in the media were almost twice as likely to "remember" seeing stereotypically black names as they were other names [source: Schacter].
For more information on memory and the mind, check out the links on the next page.
Lots More Information
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- Association for Psychological Science. "False Memories of Self-Performance Result from Watching Others' Actions." ScienceDaily. Sept. 14, 2010. (Nov. 15, 2010) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100914131006.htm
- Brainerd, C. J. et al. "Developmental Reversals in False Memory: A Review of Data and Theory." Psychological Bulletin. 2008. (Nov. 18, 2010) http://www.childabuselaw.info/lawnews/BrainerdReynaCeciDevelopmentalReversals.pdf
- Dingfelder, Sadie F. "Feelings' sway over memory." Monitor on Psychology. September 2005. (Nov. 15, 2010) http://www.apa.org/monitor/sep05/feelings.aspx
- Dingfelder, Sadie F. "Memory of moods can be inaccurate." Monitor on Psychology. September 2005. (Nov. 15, 2010) http://www.apa.org/monitor/sep05/moods.aspx
- Kensinger, Elizabeth A. "Negative Emotion Enhances Memory Accuracy." Current Directions in Psychological Science. August 2007. (Nov. 15, 2010) http://www2.bc.edu/~kensinel/Kensinger_CD07.pdf
- Koriat, Asher et al. "Toward a Psychology of Memory Accuracy." Annual Review of Psychology. 2000. (Nov. 15, 2010) http://www.camden.rutgers.edu/~bwhitlow/Courses/Learning/humanmemory.pdf
- Loftus, Elizabeth F. "Creating False Memories." Scientific American. September 1997. (Nov. 18, 2010) http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm
- Loftus, Elizabeth F. "Make-Believe Memories." American Psychologist. November 2003. (Nov. 18, 2010) http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/AmerPsychAward+ArticlePDF03%20%282%29.pdf
- National Science Foundation. "Memory on Trial." March 6, 2008. (Nov. 15, 2010) http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=111230
- Ridgway, Andy. "As far as I can remember." Focus. 2010. (Nov. 18, 2010) http://www.bbcfocusmagazine.com/feature/psychology/far-i-can-remember
- Roediger, Henry L. III and Elizabeth J. Marsh. "False Memory." Scholarpedia. Aug. 4, 2009. (Nov. 15, 2010) http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/False_memory
- Rupp, Rebecca. "Committed to Memory." Crown Publishers. 1998.
- Schacter, Daniel L. "The Seven Sins of Memory." Houghton Mifflin. 2001.
- UniSci. "Seeing An Effect, People Believe They Saw Its Cause." Daily University Science News. July 2, 2001. (Nov. 15, 2010)http://www.unisci.com/stories/20013/0702014.htm