Under the Hood

The False Memory Trap: How Our Brains Are Constantly Distorting The Past

Memory is complex and robust and expansive. It's also incredibly unreliable. me and the sysop, CC BY-ND 2.0

Of the many stunning feats the human brain achieves on a daily basis, memory is definitely one of the strangest. As we chip away at the future, just as ready to accept the passage of time as we are to leave it behind, the stenographer in our heads is rushing to keep pace. Even decades after an incident, which we’ve come to deem memorable by no other virtue than its longevity upstairs, we can recall distinct colors and smells as if the scene were all around us again.

In this sense, our memories are as powerful as they are ethereal. We can’t explain how we remember, just that we do. We hold on to facts, figures, names, and dates with surprising ease — semantic memories, as they are known in psychology. But power does not discriminate. As deftly as our memories divine the name of our second grade teacher (Mrs. Kleiman), they can just as easily turn on us. They can weave brilliant tapestries of half-truths and white lies whose authenticity we not only believe but insist upon.

Exhibit A

Inquiries into false memory have been around for at least 30 years. In the wake of research that found scientists can delete certain memories in full — mostly those to do with fear-learning — academics are peeling back the layers on an equally surprising, and unsettling, phenomenon: Memories can run in the opposite direction. People can be convinced that pure fiction is actually a vital and vivid part of their past.

Consider a 2012 study of over 800 military personnel who were subjected to the enormous stress of prisoner-of-war camps as part of Survival School training. When the people behind the study asked the soldiers to describe what their interrogation room looked like, many of them included details that were either partially wrong or totally fabricated. And when asked what their interrogator looked like, 84 percent of the people who were intentionally steered away from the correct answer agreed with the errors.

Then there is the evidence that suggests psychiatrists, police officers, friends, and family are all capable of, and may be in the position to, alter people’s accounts of how a scenario unfolded just by how they communicate. Body language is one example. Anchoring a gesture to certain facts and then breaking the association with misinformation may still lead to the acceptance of the lie as a false memory, just because of the way the information was received.

The same goes for how people are questioned. A new study finds that leading questions and light prompting can trigger even the most lucid of false nostalgia. Sixty college students were recruited to answer questions about an event that took place when they were in their early teens. What the students didn’t know was their parents had supplied the researchers with information about the event, including what didn’t happen. The science stayed faithful. Peppering in real details into the events, the team also threw in fake ones. The students bit. Of the 30 who were told about a crime they committed as a child, 21 had developed false memories. Of those told about an assault, 11 fessed up to things that never happened.

“I think the realism in their memories came from piecing together actual memories into a narrative that didn’t actually happen,” said lead researcher Dr. Julia Shaw. That’s what makes them so potent. It’s easy to recall the broad strokes of a memory, but another thing entirely to recreate the minute details. When someone else supplies you with the template, instead of the whole script of what allegedly happened, you’ll put your own spin on it because, as Shaw says, “it feels far more real.”

Where Do They Go?

It’d be convenient if our memories acted like video recorders, as some claiming to have photographic memories have tried to boast. But science knows the story isn’t so simple. For one, photographic memories have never been verified in a lab setting. Past that, there has been a mountain of psychological research devoted to understanding how memories form and what exactly is going on when we go hunting for them.

You can slice memories a few different ways. If we divide them into short-term and long-term memories, we see the effects of encoding. The childhood memories you have of tripping over your shoelaces and busting your two front teeth are pretty much there forever — they’ve been encoded, like cement after it has set. Most of these long-term memories are episodic in nature. They relate to experiences, not fact-based information like in semantic memories, which tend to stick to the short-term. These get processed differently than long-term memories, more like a rogue set of initials carved in the wet cement. Assuming you have an attentive construction worker, only a small percentage of short-term memories will make it to the hardening process.

Recalling these memories involves a process called retrieval, which is far less reliable than encoding, Shaw says. “In fact, every process is inherently unreliable in some way. It’s just a question of how close to an accurate representation of reality we can get.” However, as the students in her study showed, that doesn’t stop some people from trying. “In real memory we also access little pieces from here and there. It’s just in this case participants put them together in a not-real manner.”

Sometimes these failures are minor. The students had nothing on the line, after all, save for a little embarrassment. Other times the outcomes rely exclusively on people getting their memories right. Such is the case in the criminal justice system, which is growing despondent with eye witness testimony over repeated errors about who was seen doing what and where. The ability to remember all 50 state capitals is of little help when a person’s life is on the line. Memory is powerful, for better or for worse.

A Final Departure

Thirty years after people began studying it, science’s understanding of false memory is only beginning to bleed into the mainstream. Police body cameras are perhaps the first sign a change is underway. Without the hassle of conflicting testimony and emotion-fueled recollections, officers can consult the one eye witness who has indisputable proof. Conveniently, it’s attached to their uniform.

Cameras are the first step. As technology improves even further, the way we serve justice is likely to head in the same direction. Our memories may be well-developed to handle social studies tests and fond stories of yesteryear, but they are ill-suited to juggle the complexities of life as a whole, especially when someone else’s hangs in the balance. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we can leave feats of memory confined to the world of rousing party tricks. For everything else that we consider important, we’d do well to give our brains a break.