Examining False Memories

(Josh Cohen) #1

People might be interested in this article:

What I’m Working On: Why you didn’t do that thing you’re sure you did

You almost never have control over the process of filling up or reconstructing your memories. Unbeknownst to you, the process operates probabilistically. Given your past experiences and knowledge, your memory system gives you the most likely thing that could have happened to help you fill any gaps at the time of retrieval. Most of the time the final product coincides with what actually happened, so it is true. But sometimes it does not, in which case we talk about false memories. I think most of our memories are reconstructed in this way, and many of them are false, we just don’t notice.

All of this made me think that when we imagine things, we also imagine how things could have occurred in the past. Say you were crossing the street and almost got hit by a car. You can’t help but imagine what would have happened if you did get hit by the car. We just slip into that kind of imagination.

Those two things are closely linked – the counter-factual ‘what-if’ imagination, and the way memory recollects things. My lab works a lot on that connection, between memory retrieval and imagining hypothetical scenarios.

(Simon Luisi) #2

In my opinion, once an event has occurred, it becomes fictional, and to me this is a fact.

To me facts are dependent upon understanding and not memory. So, there is no such thing as false memories in the sense that they represent false facts.

If I were to believe that I have false memories, I would lose self confidence and the whole point of memory training is to increase confidence and the concept of false memories does appear both unnecessary and counterproductive.


Dr. Steven Novella:

We never remember what things are, we remember what our brains think we saw in our limited field of perception. When driving a car for example, many people switch lanes and hit a motorcyclist. This is not because they didn’t check the other lane (apart from a few special individuals who feel like they own the roads), it is because they check the lane for other cars. So their brain happily commands the eyes to look in the mirror and then it analyzes the information, and then tells you that there are no cars driving on that lane. So you think you can safely switch lanes until you hear a loud crash. Your brain commands your eyes to look behind you again and you see a motorcyclist sliding over the asphalt. You saw him, he was perfectly in your field of vision when you checked your mirror, but your brain only answers the question you ask. If you ask if there are other cars driving there, it will tell you “nope, no cars” because a motorcycle is not a car.

that is one part of false memories.

Another is literally changing your memories. I believe it was Julia Shaw who researched this (my memory is also not flawless). She wanted to see if you can make someone believe they committed a crime. In just a few short conversations she managed to do just that, make people believe they committed a crime in the past, even if they never did anything close to any crime.

(Simon Luisi) #4


In the example of cars and motorcycles, there is no past involved as we don’t see what is actually before us, so I fail to see how this is relevant.

As far as getting people to believe anything, then if you really believe that that’s possible then you certainly would have a great future in marketing if you tried it. I happen to believe that some things are truly unbelievable. I just cross my fingers that things will stay that way for me and no one ever confronts me with a rabbit that talks.