Researchers have demonstrated just how easy it is to trick the mind into remembering something that didn’t happen. They also used two very simple techniques to reverse those false memories, in a feat that paves the way for a deeper understanding of how memory works.
Our brains are far from perfectly functioning recorders of our life events.
The human memory system is fallible and malleable, so much so that it is possible—and even quite common—for people to possess false memories. Memory glitches can lead to all sorts of wider social implications, especially in the legal and forensic field. But now, for the first time ever, scientists have evidence showing they can reverse false memories, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The same way that you can suggest false memories, you can reverse them by giving people a different framing,” the lead researcher of the paper, Aileen Oeberst, head of the Department of Media Psychology at the University of Hagen, told Gizmodo. “It’s interesting, scary even.”
Short-term memory allows us to be present in the moment, while long-term memory helps piece together our identity through the recollection of our past experiences, among other things. Yet, especially the farther back we go, the more our recollection gets murky. For example, when you think back to your childhood, you are reconstructing your past while also being affected by the current circumstances: who is asking, why, and how, Oeberst explained.
“As the field of memory research has developed, it’s become very clear that our memories are not ‘recordings’ of the past that can be played back but rather are reconstructions, closer to imaginings informed by seeds of true experiences,” Christopher Madan, a memory researcher at the University of Nottingham who was not involved in the new study, told Gizmodo.
“When people describe a memory, they will say that they are ‘absolutely certain’ of it. But this certainty can be an illusion. We suffer from the illusion of believing that our memories are accurate and pure,” Lisa Son, professor of Psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, told Gizmodo. “This is despite the fact that we, in fact, forget all the time.”
Indeed, our minds are able to fabricate memories of entire events just by piecing together bits of stories, photographs, and anecdotes somebody else shares. These so-called false memories have been a hot topic of research for a while now, and there’s growing evidence that they could be a widespread phenomenon, according to a 2016 analysis of the field.
Building off of that, Oeberst’s lab recently implanted false memories in 52 people by using suggestive interviewing techniques. First, they had the participants’ parents privately answer a questionnaire and come up with some real childhood memories and two plausible, but fake, ones—all negative in nature, such as how their pet died or when they lost their toy. Then they had researchers ask the participants to recall these made-up events in a detailed manner, including specifics about what happened. For example, “Your parents told us that when you were 12 years old during a holiday in Italy with your family you got lost. Can you tell me more about it?”
The test subjects met their interviewer three times, once every two weeks, and by the third session most participants believed these anecdotes were true, and over half (56%) developed and recollected actual false memories—a significantly higher percentage than most studies in this area of research.
These findings reveal the depth of false memory and fit closely with prior research in the field, according to Robert Nash, a psychologist at Aston University who was not involved in the study. “Such as the fact that some of the false memories arose almost immediately, even in the first interview, the fact that they increased in richness and frequency with each successive interview, and the fact that more suggestive techniques led to much higher levels of false remembering and believing,” Nash told Gizmodo…