Vividly remembering something that never really happened is more common than you think.
Our memories aren’t as reliable as we’d like to think they are, even for those with exceptional abilities to remember specific dates and times photographically. False memories (apparent recollections of events that actually did not occur) can affect anyone in magnitudes that range from falsely recalling an unimportant event at a party back in high school to wrongly remembering a case of murder or sexual assault.
How do these memories form and why do we so adamantly believe they are real? Psychology and neuroscience have answers, but other inconsistencies embedded in the phenomenon remain a mystery.
According to a study at Northwestern University, when we remember something, we actually remember the last time we recalled the memory as opposed to remembering the actual event. Each time we remember something, the memory can be affected and altered by our thoughts, perceptions, and emotions. Slight changes in the memory of an event each time it is recalled can eventually snowball into a completely false memory, one that we will firmly believe to be true as it evolved in our own minds. Memories are stored with the formation of particular proteins in the brain and these proteins can be reformed or modified each time the memory is recalled.
The formation of false memories relies heavily on visual images. Further research done at Northwestern University showed that many images subjects were asked to imagine in their heads were later mistaken as actually having been seen. A vividly imagined event can leave a memory trace similar to an event that was actually experienced. The study determined that the areas in the brain that showed the greatest response during the “remembering” of the false memories were the areas in the prefrontal cortices. The memory trace itself is chemical.
Neuroscientists say that many daily memories are reconstructed to false ones because our view of the world is constantly changing. If there are gaps in our recollection of an event, our memory ultimately fills them in with current knowledge as well as beliefs or expectations. For example, a student with expectations that he will fail the math section on the SAT may “remember” a math test he failed as a child when it was really a different subject. Strong emotions associated with a past event also play a role in false memories.
Smoking marijuana can induce false memories. A recent study published in March 2015 revealed that frequent cannabis use puts people at a higher risk for forming false memories than non-users. Long-term use of the drug disrupts the memory and reality monitoring mechanisms that allow us to distinguish between actual and imaginative events.
Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist and expert on the human memory and its malleability, has done extensive research on the false memory phenomenon. In one of her studies, she convinced a fifth of the participants that they had a memory of being lost in a mall as a child simply through a series of suggestions and implications. While this may seem like a more common childhood experience that could easily be mistaken, other studies have convinced subjects that, as children, they almost drown, were attacked by a vicious animal, or that they witnessed a demonic possession.
In her TED talk, Loftus discusses a legal case she worked on in which a rape victim initially identifies a man’s picture as being the closest to the looks of her rapist, and later proceeds to accuse him as the actual rapist in court, claiming she is 100 percent sure it’s him. He was convicted of the crime and did jail time before an investigative journalist looked into the case and eventually identified the real rapist. This raises the issue of relying on witness accounts as concrete evidence for conviction in the court of law.
When it comes down to it, memories are simply a series of sensory and emotional recollections of a past event that are blurred by imagination, ambiguities, current beliefs and knowledge, and time. Numerous studies have proven that even those with the sharpest, exceptional memories aren’t immune to memory distortion. It’s reasonable to assume that we’ve all unknowingly experienced the strange phenomenon of false memories throughout our lives.