Remember That? No You Don’t. Study Shows False Memories Afflict Us All

Even people with extraordinary memories sometimes make things up without realizing it

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Correction appended 11/20/13, 10:18 AM

It’s easy enough to explain why we remember things: multiple regions of the brain — particularly the hippocampus — are devoted to the job. It’s easy to understand why we forget stuff too: there’s only so much any busy brain can handle. What’s trickier is what happens in between: when we clearly remember things that simply never happened.

The phenomenon of false memories is common to everybody — the party you’re certain you attended in high school, say, when you were actually home with the flu, but so many people have told you about it over the years that it’s made its way into your own memory cache. False memories can sometimes be a mere curiosity, but other times they have real implications. Innocent people have gone to jail when well-intentioned eyewitnesses testify to events that actually unfolded an entirely different way.

What’s long been a puzzle to memory scientists is whether some people may be more susceptible to false memories than others — and, by extension, whether some people with exceptionally good memories may be immune to them. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences answers both questions with a decisive no. False memories afflict everyone — even people with the best memories of all.

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To conduct the study, a team led by psychologist Lawrence Patihis of the University of California, Irvine, recruited a sample group of people all of approximately the same age and divided them into two subgroups: those with ordinary memory and those with what is known as highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). You’ve met people like that before, and they can be downright eerie. They’re the ones who can tell you the exact date on which particular events happened — whether in their own lives or in the news — as well as all manner of minute additional details surrounding the event that most people would forget the second they happened.

To screen for HSAM, the researchers had all the subjects take a quiz that asked such questions as “[On what date] did an Iraqi journalist hurl two shoes at President Bush?” or “What public event occurred on Oct. 11, 2002?” Those who excelled on that part of the screening would move to a second stage, in which they were given random, computer-generated dates and asked to say the day of the week on which it fell, and to recall both a personal experience that occurred that day and a public event that could be verified with a search engine.

“It was a Monday,” said one person asked about Oct. 19, 1987. “That was the day of the big stock-market crash and the cellist Jacqueline du Pré died that day.” That’s some pretty specific recall. Ultimately, 20 subjects qualified for the HSAM group and another 38 went into the ordinary-memory category. Both groups were then tested for their ability to resist developing false memories during a series of exercises designed to implant them.

(MORE: This is Your Brain on Fairness)

In one, for example, the investigators spoke with the subjects about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and mentioned in passing the footage that had been captured of United Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania — footage, of course, that does not exist. In both groups — HSAM subjects and those with normal memories — about 1 in 5 people “remembered” seeing this footage when asked about it later.

“It just seemed like something was falling out of the sky,” said one of the HSAM participants. “I was just, you know, kind of stunned by watching it, you know, go down.”

Word recall was also hazy. The scientists showed participants word lists, then removed the lists and tested the subjects on words that had and hadn’t been included. The lists all contained so-called lures — words that would make subjects think of other, related ones. The words pillow, duvet and nap, for example, might lead to a false memory of seeing the word sleep. All of the participants in both groups fell for the lures, with at least eight such errors per person—though some tallied as many as 20. Both groups also performed unreliably when shown photographs and fed lures intended to make them think they’d seen details in the pictures they hadn’t. Here too, the HSAM subjects cooked up as many fake images as the ordinary folks.

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“What I love about the study is how it communicates something that memory-distortion researchers have suspected for some time, that perhaps no one is immune to memory distortion,” said Patihis.

What the study doesn’t do, Patihis admits, is explain why HSAM people exist at all. Their prodigious recall is a matter of scientific fact, and one of the goals of the new work was to see if an innate resistance to manufactured memories might be one of the reasons. But on that score, the researchers came up empty.

“It rules something out,” Patihis said. “[HSAM individuals] probably reconstruct memories in the same way that ordinary people do. So now we have to think about how else we could explain it.” He and others will continue to look for that secret sauce that elevates superior recall over the ordinary kind. But for now, memory still appears to be fragile, malleable and prone to errors — for all of us.

VIDEO: The Woman With No Memory

(An earlier version of this story said that 70% of the subjects had word-lure mistakes. In fact, 100% of them had a minimum of eight mistakes each.)

12 comments
ElyseSteinZois
ElyseSteinZois

When I was a little girl my aunt used to read a poem to me about a fairy who bought a goldfish. I remember part of the verse but not all of it.  I tried to find it online but couldn't do it.  After finally stumbling on it, almost by chance, I realized that I had been looking for the wrong title all this time.  I thought I clearly remembered the title, but I guess not.

smurphy937
smurphy937

Say, if the UC Irvine researchers showed that people with extraordinary autobiographical memories get average scores on memory tests----does this mean that Irvine students who get average scores on their psych exams can claim false memories?  "Hey, I read the book. But my average score shows it must have created some false memories for me."      

rakeshverma293
rakeshverma293

flash memories always remembers that what was we are before todays...

Ajax
Ajax

People have poor memories and make lousy witnesses. Why is this news? Anyone who watches CSI and Law and Order knows this. Thank God for giving us video cameras and DVRs.

JWR
JWR

The false memory plays to even a wider view in as far as what we remember especially from our childhood.  It's long been known that what we think or how things unfolded never did or at the very least where not what really happen.

When you hear people say how they can remember back to when they where 5,6 and even 10 yeah some can, doesn't mean their memories are accurate to what actually happen or didn't happen.

The trick I think is to hang on to those 'precise' moments in our memories that are truly hard wired and accept that all the rest is possibly a 50/50 occurrence.  Some want certain memories to be there for a variety of reasons.

Steve42
Steve42

So what does this mean for all of human history?!? Can we even trust so-called "recorded" accounts (written ones, not video/audio) since the author may merely be recording his or her false memories.  This has tremendous implications and calls into question the validity of everything we accept as doctrinal including famous historical figures, events, religious texts, etc. Is this just one more example of the fact that, despite our sense of confidence, humans really don't have a good handle on reality?

boldandworthy
boldandworthy

I wonder why Time didn't balance this article with those from opposing view points? Did the study have limitations? 

HenkVandenbergh
HenkVandenbergh

Aha! Those false memories. So that's how I imagined that I can keep the insurance plan that I like.

Thank you for explaining this to me.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

Considering the techniques used in questioning people one can no longer expect to rely on the memory of an "eye witness" as an unassailable piece of evidence.

Any cursory examination of trials of times gone by, which had an "eye witness" as the primary evidence that led to a conviction, which ended up convicting the WRONG PERSON will prove that this isn't anything new.  I never trust an "eye witness", especially if they've repeated the story often.  Because by then, you know for a fact, it's not quite what happened.

I did an experiment in critical thinking and logic class in college.  In the middle of a presentation I was giving on logic and observation, I had a friend dressed in a gorilla suit run in, throw an orange up in the air, catch it in a frying pan and shout, "Death to all gnomes!" then run out.  I was having the presentation taped and told them it was to improve my presentations for Public Speaking, but it was specifically to catch the action I had arranged.

Once my friend ran out, I had everyone stop and write down what they saw and heard.  I didn't let anyone talk to anyone else.  They wrote it all down and then I had them each read it out loud.

No one got it 100% right.  None caught all the words at all. Two thirds heard "death".  Most heard "homes" instead of "gnomes".  More than half the class got the type of animal wrong.  No one saw an orange (most thought it was a tennis ball.  A nerf ball came in a close second).  One person thought the frying pan was a catcher's mitt.  Others swore they saw regular baseball mitts.  Several didn't even notice anything being thrown or caught.  

The closest someone got was "death", "gnomes", a frying pan catching something and a gorilla.

EVERYONE was convinced what they saw was what happened.  I then played the video and shocked the hell out of them all.

And that had NO FALSE MEMORIES TO BEGIN WITH.  This is what they thought they saw in the beginning.  Nothing added.  Nothing changed.  One story told once and everyone sincere in believing that what they reported was what happened.

Yeah, next time someone confidently points to someone and says, "He did it!", unless there's a Perry Mason moment and the person the accusing finger is pointing at confesses, or there is compelling physical evidence to prove it, there is AUTOMATICALLY reasonable doubt that the witness is wrong.

billyjacck
billyjacck

@smurphy937 None of it makes sense.  Just more tricks from Lizzie the Illusionist.  Really, that is all she is, and all she will ever be.  But even her days as magician are numbered.  Very soon no one will be paying to have her perform.  At least not in any courtrooms.  The cross exams with all the literature will be getting too brutal.  She tide her credibility to the nonexistence of repression.  Repression is becoming commonly accepted as a biomechanical process occurring within the brain.  Now confirmed on fMRI. 

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627307009828
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0062358
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19301997
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19783409
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685044/
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3501708/#!po=56.6667

Of course, this is for humans and repression might not occur in lizard brains.

billyjacck
billyjacck

Great description of traumatic memories.  Freudian slip of pen, maybe?  Yes, precise is right. And traumatic memories are "truly hard wired" into our brains.  The only way to avoid them is to disrupt memory access retrieval aka repress them.  Read the fMRI studies and you will become appreciative of what an incredible organ the human brain is. 

As for those precious memories, for some of us those are fairly accurate, but best to take lots of photos just in case.