The Danger of False Memory - A Psychological Review
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
― Marcel Proust
So much of our identities as individuals - our interests, our knowledge, even our world view - can be attributed to our memories. Many memories we keep as precious possessions, pulling them off the shelves of our minds during moments when we need strength, or guidance, or even just a reason to smile. To put it simply, our memories define us. Perhaps this is why it is so disturbing a realization that remembering is no exact science. On the contrary, memories are fragile, subject to corrosion, embellishment, and even manipulation. False memories - inaccurate memories that we believe to be real - present themselves in various forms and have the potential to cause serious real-life problems.
Have you ever shared a childhood memory with your parents, only to be informed that you were merely an infant at the time and must be “remembering” the story as it was told to you? Most likely they’re correct – this mishap, called “source amnesia”, or “source misattribution”, is quite common. When a person cannot remember the source of a particular fact or event, they may mistakenly attribute it to the wrong origin.
Similarly, it’s possible that we forget having read or heard original thoughts from another person, and incorrectly believe that we’ve come up with them ourselves. This phenomenon is known as “cryptomnesia”, and can be quite embarrassing for the unwitting plagiarizer. (Gluck, 97)
In the Lab
Sir Frederick Bartlett studied the role of schemas in memory in an experiment conducted in 1932, in which participants were told a series of stories. When asked to recall these stories after some time had passed, participants embellished the original stories with details that fit into their schemas.
When recounting the story of a battle, for example, some participants insisted that there were “many wounded”, when in fact the story mentioned no such thing. Because their schema of battle involves injury, they imagined this to be part of the story as well. (Griggs, 178)
Filling in the Blanks
Inaccuracy in recall goes beyond the mere source – we are quite capable of distorting the content of our memories as well. Memories are not formed instantaneously; rather, there is a stage of malleability called the consolidation period. Some researchers believe that memories are similarly vulnerable during recall, allowing for small losses and alterations to take place each time the memory is reactivated, producing significant discrepancies over time. (Gluck, 406)
As memories deteriorate, we find ourselves filling in the blanks with what we assume happened, and these assumptions aren’t always correct. In order to make sense of the world, our minds create schemas, or frameworks of knowledge about events in life. These schemas help us predict the usual process of various things, such as dining at a restaurant (the hostess seats you, your server takes the order, you eat your meal, a bill is presented, etc.). If a detail becomes foggy, your schema steps in to fill in the blanks.
So memories aren't perfect, but how is that dangerous?
In the Lab
Professor Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of Washington is known for her extensive research into the influence of suggestion on human memory. In one of her experiments, Dr. Loftus showed participants a video of a car accident involving an intersection with a stop sign. It was then suggested to the half of the participants that the intersection had a yield sign. When later asked to recall the details of the video, the participants that experienced suggestion were more likely to “remember” a yield sign, while the other half of the participants remembered accurately. (Loftus, 71)
What happens when such embellishments are aided by the power of suggestion? Is it possible for false memories to be planted? In a word, yes. Acts as simple as prompting a person to imagine an event taking place can encourage them to believe it actually happened. If we imagine events, we can later confuse them with reality in a phenomenon similar to source amnesia. (Gluck, 98)
Now apply this knowledge to a real-life situation, such as the questioning of an eyewitness in a court case. The possibilities are unnerving.
When the case went to court and became public, Beth's father lost his position as a clergyman in his church. False or otherwise, serious accusations produce life-long consequences.
Beyond simple suggestion, there are other factors that can strongly affect the reconstruction of memory, especially when the memory is “recovered” from the past. Perhaps the most common way such “memories” are obtained is through hypnotherapy.
Consider the story of Beth Rutherford, who began seeing a church counselor for stress-related symptoms at the age of 22. Convinced that the symptoms were similar to those exhibited by sexual abuse in children, the counselor practiced hypnosis with Beth and encouraged her to imagine in detail having been abused as a child. (Gluck, 393) Over time, Beth began to “regain” detailed and gruesome memories of childhood that included rape by her father. When Beth was examined for evidence, it was discovered that she was still a virgin. (Loftus, 70) The horrible “memories” that Beth had dredged up in therapy were completely fictitious.
Another Example of Questionable Testimony
Authority Steps In
These cases haven't gone unnoticed. The American Medical Association has since stated that “recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse are of uncertain authenticity, should be subject to verification and are fraught with the problem of potential mis-implication.” (Merskey, 258)
A Physiological Solution?
Is there a way to distinguish between false memories and reality? Possibly. Experiments involving the creation of false memories in participants have been closely studied for clues. FMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that monitors brain activity) conducted during the recollection stage of these experiments reveal that most areas of the brain involved in memory are equally active during the remembrance of the correct words and the incorrect theme words . . . with the exception of the parahippocampal gyrus, a portion of the medial temporal lobes. This area is more active during presentation of the correct words than the false theme words. (intl.pnas.org) This study suggests a physiological solution to the issue of false memory, though a real-life application has yet to be attempted.
The Moral of the Story
Physiological clues may someday provide the answer for distinguishing between falsehoods and true recollection. Until that day comes, we can probably all agree that despite what we may believe, memory should never be taken for granted.
Gluck, Mark A. Learning and Memory: From Brain to Behavior. New York: Worth Publishers, 2008.
Griggs, Richard A. Psychology, A Concise Introduction. New York: Worth Publishers, 2009.
Justman, Stewart. Fool’s Paradise. Chicago: Ivan R. Lee, 2005.
Loftus, Elizabeth F. “Creating False Memories.” Scientific American, September 1997: 70-75.
Merskey, Harold. “Prevention and Management of False Memory Syndrome.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment: Journal of Continuing Professional Development, 1998: 253-260
Can medial temporal lobe regions distinguish true from false? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 25 October 2000. Web. 19 November 2011. <http://intl.pnas.org>
© 2012 Allison