PRODUCTIVE LIFE COACHING: FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME
By ZAINUB JADA
People often think of memory as a video recorder, accurately documenting and storing everything that happens with perfect accuracy and clarity. In reality, memory is very prone to fallacy. People can feel completely confident that their memory is accurate, but this confidence is no guarantee that a particular memory is correct.
Imagine walking past a person in the street and seeing them clearly for only a split second. Once they are out of view, you might note that they were carrying a satchel. But what colour was it?
“Green,” you might think, “Yes, it was green.”
But then self-doubt sets in:
“Or was it the person’s coat that was green – wasn’t the bag blue? Yes, it was an eggshell blue. I remember now,” you may ruminate.
Once you have suggested to yourself this alternative, a false memory may develop, and your recollection of events can become skewed.
A recollection that seems real in your mind but is fabricated in part or whole
– Mental experiences that people believe are accurate representations of past events
– A fabricated or distorted recollection of an event. Such memories may be entirely false and imaginary. In other cases, they may contain elements of facts that have been distorted by interfering information or other memory distortions.
– False memory differs from simple memory errors. While we are all prone to memory fallibility, false memory is more than a simple mistake; it involves a level of certitude in the validity of the memory.
Everyone experiences memory failures from time to time, and false memories are unique because they represent a distinct recollection of something that did not actually happen. It is not about forgetting or mixing up details of things that we experienced; it is about remembering things that we never experienced in the first place.
– believing you started the washing machine before you left for work, only to come home and find you didn’t
– believing you were grounded for the first time for not washing dishes when you were 12, but your mom tells you it was because you were disrespectful to her, and it wasn’t the first time
– trivial details like believing you put your keys on the table when you got home to much more serious believing you saw someone at the scene of a crime
Most false memories aren’t malicious or even intentionally hurtful. They’re shifts or reconstructions of memory that don’t align with the true events.
However, some false memories can have significant consequences, including in court or legal settings where false memories may convict someone wrongfully.
WHAT CAUSES FALSE MEMORIES
Memories are complex. While you might imagine memory as a black or white element, the truth is memories are subject to change, malleable, and often unreliable.
Events are moved from your brain’s temporary memory to permanent storage while you sleep. The transition, however, isn’t absolute as elements of the memory may be lost, and this is where false memories can begin.
WAYS IN WHICH FALSE MEMORIES ARE CREATED
False memories are created in several ways, and each of these affects what changes about the memory or how it’s stored.
It may be hard to know which of these issues caused your false memories, but knowing can ultimately help you understand why false memories are so common.
Through her research, memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has demonstrated that it is possible to induce false memories through suggestions. She has also shown that these memories can become stronger and more vivid as time goes on.
People are remarkably susceptible to suggestion, creating memories of events and things that didn’t really happen to us.
Inference is a powerful force. You may create new false memories with someone else’s prompting or by the questions they ask.
For example, someone may ask you if the bank robber was wearing a red mask, and you say yes, and then quickly correct yourself to say it was black. In actuality, the robber wasn’t wearing a mask, but by the suggestion, they planted a memory that wasn’t real.
You can be fed improper or false information about an event and be convinced that it actually did occur. You can create a new memory or combine real memories with artificial ones.
Your brain is like a computer, storing what you give it. If you give it bad information, it stores bad information. The gaps left in your story could be filled in later with your own created recollections.
You may combine elements of different events into a singular one in your memory.
When you recall the memory, you recall events that happened. But the timeline is jumbled or confused with the assortment of events that now form a singular memory in your mind.
The emotions of a moment may significantly impact how and what’s stored as a memory. Recent research by Trusted Source suggests that negative emotions lead to more false memories than positive or neutral ones.
THE POTENTIAL IMPACT OF FALSE MEMORIES
While we are all familiar with the fallibility of memory (who hasn’t forgotten an important bit of information), many people do not realize just how common false memory really is.
Most of the time, these false memories are fairly inconsequential, a memory that you brought the keys in the house and hung them up in the kitchen, when in reality, you left them out in the car, for example.
In other instances, false memories can have serious implications. Researchers have found that false memories are one of the leading causes of false convictions, usually through the false identification of a suspect or false recollections during police interrogations.
WHO IS AFFECTED BY FALSE MEMORIES?
Loftus’s ground-breaking research has shown just how easily and readily false memories can form.
In one study, participants watched a recording of a car accident and were then asked some questions about what they saw. Some participants were asked, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” whilst others were asked the same question, but the words ‘smashed into’ were replaced with ‘hit.’
When the participants were given a memory test about the accident a week later, those who had been asked the ‘smashed into’ question were more likely to have a false memory of seeing broken glass in the film.
Memory isn’t permanent. Indeed, it’s pliable and often ever-changing. Certain people or events may make you more likely to develop false memories. These include:
If you witness a crime or an accident, your testimony is important but not conclusive. That’s because experts and law enforcement officials know memories and recollections can and do change, whether through suggestion or the passage of time.
Any gaps in events may be filled in by your memory, turning a reliable recall into a faulty one.
Research by Trusted Source suggests people who have a history of trauma, depression, or stress may be more likely to produce false memories. Negative events may produce more false memories than positive or neutral ones.
Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may have a memory deficit or poor memory confidence.
They may be more likely to create false memories because they don’t have confidence in their own memories. This often leads to the repetitive or compulsive behaviours associated with this disorder.
As both you and your memory age, details about that memory may be lost. The gist of a memory becomes stronger while the details fade away.
For example, you may remember you went to the beach on your very first holiday, but you don’t remember the hotel’s name, what the weather was like, or even the city you stayed in.
THE INFLUENCE OF TIME
Loftus has suggested that false memories form more readily when enough time has passed that the original memory has faded. For example, in eyewitness testimony, the length of time between the incident and being interviewed about the event plays a role in how suggestible people are to false memory.
If interviewed immediately after an event, people are less likely to be influenced by misinformation when the details are still vivid. If, however, an interview is delayed for a period of time, people are more likely to be affected by potential false information.
IN A NUTSHELL
While it might be difficult for many people to believe, everyone has false memories. Our memories are generally not as reliable as we think, and false memories can form quite easily, even among people who typically have excellent memories.
False memories may seem quite real and even highly emotional. Your confidence makes them feel more tangible, but it doesn’t guarantee authenticity.
Likewise, the presence of false memories doesn’t mean your memory is bad or that you’re developing a type of memory disorder, like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
For better or worse, false memories are an element of being human and not having an impermeable brain.