Memory Like Wine? Not So Much: New Study Simply Reaffirms
    By Kim Wombles | July 1st 2011 01:52 PM | 25 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Instructor of English and psychology and mother to three on the autism spectrum.

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    An article on Science 2.0 addresses a new study  on just how easy it is to create false memories. According to the article, researchers "show a unique pattern of brain activity when false memories are formed – one that hints at a surprising connection between our social selves and memory." The conclusion of the article is that "social reinforcement could act on the amygdala to persuade our brains to replace a strong memory with a false one." (video on study available here.)

    We're all familiar with how people present at the same event can recall it in different ways, and most of us can probably recall a politician denying he's said something, even though he's played a tape showing exactly that. How many times have you been in a situation where someone completely changes his story? Anyone who's seen the Casey Anthony trial and the news coverage since Caylee's disappearance is well aware of how stories change. 

    What's not always clear is whether people are aware they are changing their stories, whether they believe their versions, or if it's deliberate deception. This new study seems to show a distinct difference between really believing the false memories and a slip-up.

    In today's internet age, with so many of us sharing our stories online on blog comments, comments to news articles, and other places where we may not be able to delete our comment later on, we leave a trail of crumbs for others to see whether there is consistency in a story or distinct shifts. One can even occasionally see where a person has taken on someone else's story as his or her own without apparent intent to do so. It provides a unique opportunity for those interested in the way memory works, to keep an eye on forums and groups with a particular agenda, to follow member's postings and chart the changes to the stories. Often a clear, distinct shift occurs that makes the newcomer more firmly entrenched in the group's beliefs. The polarization plays out on internet screens and remains years later.

    I've been using the following piece (along with a fictionalized story of a family's journey to rewriting their beliefs regarding the reasons for their child's autism) since the spring semester of 2010 to get students to consider the malleability of memory and how important it is to realize we rewrite our memories unintentionally, changing past events or beliefs to align with current ones.  When we hold our memories with a grain of salt, it's easier to look past other's changed recollections.


    Memory, like wine, gets better with time, right? It turns out that our brains are masters at fooling us. We think we’re running things. We think we’re in charge of what we do, who we are, what we think. We reside behind our eyes, and forgive me for going all power ranger on you, we are the power rangers in their zords or megazord, running the machine and fighting the bad guys. Perhaps not quite that far, but it’s not a bad analogy. We think we take in all of our surroundings, that we are attending to all the information around us, but like Psych shows us, we aren’t all Shawn Spencers. We miss most of the stuff going on around us and our brain fills in the rest for us as we go, giving us a seemingly seemless narrative existence that makes sense and satisfies our need for order and explanation.

    Memory is, indeed, nothing like fine wine. Skinner and Fernandez (2009) note that faulty memories increase as we age and that the detail of a faulty memory can be quite vivid and detailed. Seriously, it seems real to us. We have all these details in our head; we know it viscerally to be true. How can it not be? How can we possibly be wrong?

    The truth is how can we not be wrong? 

    Toglia, Neuschatz, and Goodwin (1999) note that “it is not uncommon for them to include
    details that never happened” (234). In fact, these are “abundant in the eyewitness literature” (234). Man, are we ever screwed. We think we know things that it’s emphatically clear based on numerous studies that we do not in fact know at all. Every semester, every psychology class I teach I spend a class trying to hammer this into my students’ heads: we most emphatically do not remember things accurately. In fact, we change our memory of an event just by pulling it out of storage, dusting it off, and thinking about it. We tuck it away with the new spin all over it, forever altered. Toglia et al. found that the confidence level with which subjects held the false memories to be accurate and true was high and it would appear that true and false memories are encoded similarly. We believe the stories our brains tell us and it never occurs to us, unless we know the science behind it or have spent enough time with older folks, that we might not remember the truth.

    It’s bad enough to learn that our hard-earned memories may be factually wrong, although it should help understand why people remember the same event so differently. To then find out that people who suffer from clinical depression are even more likely to remember things incorrectly really ices the cake (Zai-Ting&Mau-Sun, 2009). Do we have a glimpse here, not only of the dangers of group polarization when people join various forums and groups dealing with little-understood disorder like autism or a condition like mitochondrial dysfunction, but also a window into how these parents in their various autism groups end up altering their life histories and their child’s, as well? Need we look any further than the Cedillo’s and the video footage of their daughter before the supposed vaccines that caused her autism to see that people rewrite memories? 

    Hyman and Pentland (1996) refer to these false memories as “memory construction” and note that there are some decided advantages in people in a community coming together and hashing out an agreed upon memory of past events. Therapy, they note, involves the rewriting of memories so as to make the event less traumatic.

    While there may be definite social advantages to rewriting memories (say, like for fitting into a particular group) and while it is undoubtedly unintentional in most, there are decided disadvantages to doing this, especially when the rewritten memories can cause parents to take a course of action that it is not merited based on the reality of the situation. Even worse, though, in today’s internet world where one’s word and one’s reality is placed potentially permanently for the world to see, is that when the rewrite is substantive and ongoing, it looks like lying.


    Hyman, I. E. and Pentland, J. (1996). The role of mental imagery in the creation of false
    childhood memories. Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 101±117.

    Skinner, E.,& Fernandes, M. (2009). Illusory Recollection in Older Adults and Younger Adults Under Divided Attention. Psychology&Aging, 24(1), 211-216. doi:10.1037/a0014177.

    Toglia, M., Neuschatz, J.,&Goodwin, K. (1999). Recall Accuracy and Illusory Memories: When More is Less. Memory, 7(2), 233-256. doi:10.1080/096582199388039.

    Zai-Ting, Y., & Mau-Sun, H. (2009). Effects of depressive disorder on false memory for emotional information. Depression & Anxiety (1091-4269), 26(5), 456-463. doi:10.1002/da.20453. 


    Good article Kim. I keep seeing all these parents say my kid started having a seizure within hours of multiple vaccinations. They blame the vaccines when it has nothing to do with it. They're just depressed. It's like saying that the congresswomen who fell down after getting shot in the head fell because of the bullet going through her skull. Like Kim says,she was just depressed. Here memory failed her. It had nothing to do with the shot (s).

    Nice. Equate a gunshot with a vaccination. Good imagery to go with the strawman argument as well.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Gerhard Adam
    Well, you see there is one MAJOR difference in your stories.   Of course, your story of the gunshot is somewhat ridiculous since there is obvious ancillary evidence to support the relationship of the gunshot to the injury, while the comparison to vaccines produces no such correlation.

    More importantly, while you claim that parents make these claims within "hours of multiple vaccinations", it appears that when one examines this more closely it is more commonly weeks or even months before the tenuous relationship is made.  So while you might think your point is made more effective by simply being a smart-ass, you have simply demonstrated that you have virtually no standard regarding what constitutes evidence and think that drawing dissimilar comparisons to external events, somehow justifies making claims for whatever you like.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Nice, Kim. I'm in possession of some of those false memories. Even though I know they are false, it is hard to dismiss them because of the rich detail present. Well, I've been told that I don't remember the event correctly. Whether that is indeed the case or not is up for grabs.

    Do you know of any studies that try to find out when and why we create these falsehoods? Also of interest to me, how can I be sure that it is my memory that has been falsified and not the memory of the one who is pointing out my error?

    It's a well-known phenomenon and has been used for a hundred years - the study is just affirming it again.     There is a reason even eye-witness testimony is unreliable.    People have confirmation bias and often believe either what they want to believe or they want to be liked by someone who wants them to believe.
    Dr. Levanthal is right. All the legitimate science shows gun shots to the head do not cause injury. You folks don't understand the scientific process. It just happens that gun shots to the head occur at about the time that falling down syndrome (FDS) develops. We have some exciting medications to manage these symptoms.

    Gerhard Adam
    Who knew that so many doctors were comedians and smart-asses.  Wow, your credentials are well represented and you two are a real credit to your profession. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    This is probably one of the most difficult and persistent myths that we indulge in as human beings.  The idea that somehow "we" are "in charge" of what our brains do (of course, never quite explaining where that "we" originates if not in our brains).  As a result, we believe all manner of things because it is the one thing we've conditioned ourselves to trust absolutely.  Therefore when our memory is challenged, our very world and identity are equally challenged and this usually results in extreme resistance.

    Yet, this is precisely the problem we have when we discuss concepts like "free will" and our sense of "self", because as I've posted elsewhere ... what are we if not our memories (i.e. our history).  Without that, we literally don't have an identity and yet we discover that our memories are often only  half-true and that much of what we may even hold dear, never actually happened.  More to the point, this is precisely what the purpose of the scientific method is for ... to avoid the intrinsic bias and spin that accompanies our perceptions, so that when we gather evidence, it isn't simply colored by our desires and is repeatable.  So when people begin by claiming that their anecdotes should be acceptable as evidence (even just for their own experience), it is easy to see why any objective analysis must reject such a claim regardless of the sincerity of the poster.  Our minds are simply not reliable enough to provide such evidence.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Dang it, Gerhard. As an amateur rationalist, this thread, and your comment in particular, gave me fits last night.

    I’ve gotten to this point: Some (one for sure) of my memories are false. Some (how many?) are verifiably true, like the memory that an S.A.E. three-eighths, grade eight, bolt can be tightened by turning the head clockwise. Those that cannot be verified, (my memories of events that occurred in the jungles of South Viet Nam, for instance, cannot be verified because the time and place can’t be replicated and the other parties involved are long dead), must be marked an ‘unreliable’.

    I’m left with this: Some of my memories are true, some are partially true, and some are completely false.

    Where does this leave my ‘life history’? Since my history is, almost certainly, only recorded between my ears, much of it must be marked as untrustworthy and ‘unreliable’.


    Curiosity, why do I follow thee? You take me places I’d rather not be.

    I’ll end this drivel with a happier thought: Perhaps the most despicable of my memories are, indeed, false.

    Gerhard Adam
    Where does this leave my ‘life history’? Since my history is, almost certainly, only recorded between my ears, much of it must be marked as untrustworthy and ‘unreliable’.
    I think where it leaves us, is with the clear warning that we shouldn't necessarily take ourselves too seriously.  This is one reason why we always have to be careful with knee-jerk emotional responses to events and to always question our convictions to see what is motivating them.  Basically it comes down to always being wary about being "too sure" about something, when perhaps we need to take a break and analyze our thoughts.

    I'm not sure that our "life history" is as important as we often make it out to be, but rather we should be focusing on our "life future" and what we can be.  Too much historical baggage isn't good either and often we need to simply be able to let it go.  After all, what is a memory except a story we tell ourselves about our own experiences.  If it is helpful, then there's no  harm, and if it doesn't help, perhaps we need to abandon it.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Good answer.  Now tell me what he meant by "As an amateur rationalist..."   

    There are professional rationalists?  Okay, bad enough, but people do it instead for fun?   Are they people who couldn't get into empiricist school??  Help me, great swami...
    Gerhard Adam
    I suspect that an amateur rationalist is one that would ideally like to rely on experience, but for whom history indicates that it might not be prudent to go pro (just yet).  :)

    Sorry, Frank ... couldn't resist.
    Mundus vult decipi

    A 'pro' gets paid for whatever 'it' is that they are pro at. But your explanation works just as well.

    Alright. I'll buy that. I'll have to reconcile and evaluate some more.

    The point of mentioning 'rational' at all was to remind myself that I always try to ask myself what I believe and why I believe it. Biases and prejudices are generally eliminated at that point. If, over the years, I have built a solid model of 'something', then it will take some more solid evidence that my model needs to be updated or discarded. Therefore, when I feel comfortable within a topic, I tend to believe myself more than someone else, until and unless I prove myself wrong.

    Now I have to reevaluate some of my models based on the knowledge that some of my memories are false.

    As always, I appreciate your attention to my needs and I thank you for your time.

    Apologies, Kim, for derailing your article.

    Derail away, Frank--it was one of the nicest derailings I've read. ;)
    Just a note that even when we are aware of the various biases and heuristics we're victim to, and we try to plan for them, we aren't always successfully able to weed them out. They operate at a subconscious (not the Freudian subconscious, of course) level, and we're not always able to recognize that they are affecting us. Think the anchoring effect--even when you know about it, your estimates will still skew. Some things we simply cannot consciously override. 

    That means leaving ourselves open enough to be ready to see when one of the biases or heuristics is getting in the way. Same thing with memories. Being able to overwrite our memories plays an adaptive role; cognitive therapy wouldn't be of much use if we couldn't take out traumatic memories and shape them into a more acceptable form that allows us to function better.

    Here's how I handle the realization that I might not remember everything from my past accurately: I don't worry about it. If they're malleable, then, when someone asks about my past, I can rely on specifics that are known (ah, but research showing 9/11 victims changed their memories about that day)--okay, make that generalities: I know I was in the Army reserves, that's a given, but I don't remember the exact date I joined, or even the exact date I went to basic training or left, so I don't struggle to generate specifics--they're likely to be wrong anyway. I don't dwell on it-- it's gone. My family and I remember events differently. Okay. That's fine. When you know memory is malleable, you don't have to get all bent out of shape when you remember it differently than someone else. You shrug and move on, no biggie.

    The biggest battles occur with people who are certain of the infallibility of their memories. They are positive of their experiences and therefore unyielding. And research clearly shows that in the general, they are bound to be absolutely wrong somewhere in there. :)

    Accepting what science shows us about how we create the narratives of our lives, that it is a tapestry ever being rewoven, lets us adopt, if we choose, a "Don't worry, be happy" philosophy. I like that. It totally frees me to concentrate on the here and now and how to shape the tomorrow I want. 
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    You're very kind, Kim.

    Reweaving the tapestry of our lives. I like that. I have much work to do.

    :) Most days, that's what I like best about living: there's much work to be done in understanding how the world works, in what makes us who we are (and the ever fun why do people do some truly dumb things).
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Gerhard Adam
    As was mentioned earlier, I think its important to consider that a group of people don't necessarily "see" any event the same way.  One could argue about whether it is memory that's defective, or whether we simply experience events differently which may give rise to a broader diversity in recall.

    After all, we tend to extract meaning and significance based on what's important to us anyway, so it's entirely possible that we tend to reconstruct memory gaps in a similar fashion.  Of course, we will also tend to rationalize what we've experienced in accordance with our belief systems, so that may further skew the specific details of any given memory.

    I'm not as concerned about recalling specific memories, as much as I'm concerned about the more subtle influence of all the sensory input we are exposed to (i.e. movies, television, etc.) which also tends to become part of our visual experience so that we may often superimpose these details onto our memories, and thereby suffer the illusion that we know (or experienced) more than we have.  No matter how much we try, we are still drawn into these pseudo-experiences and they become increasingly difficult to differentiate from reality even when we know them to be false.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Add into that whole vortex that are dreams can be extremely vivid and feel real, and we have this massive set of problems in distinguish what's "real" and what's not.
    I tell my psychology students that they need to realize that even though we are sharing a 90 minute block of time together twice a week, we are not experiencing the same event. It seems like we should be, but we are each attending to different stimuli, filtering it through our unique brains, thinking about different things, relating to the material in different ways, listening to my lecture differently, and some of us are sleeping, some of us trying to text unobtrusively, others rudely, and we're all going to walk out of the room when it's done with a different subjective experience. We're not even going to agree on details in the room itself, like how many rows of desks, how many in each row, how many pictures on the wall, what they were of, the color of the walls, what the floor is of, etc. Our shared realities are socially constructed. Our pasts are constantly reinvented, and our presents often close enough to agree we're sharing some key details, but if discussed in great length, we can see the differences, but since in discussing things, we begin to alter our recall and make our experiences mesh with each other (often without awareness), we begin the process of actively creating what is moving from the present to the past. It's either terrifying to realize that or cool, depending on how you were used to viewing reality.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    >>... we begin the process of actively creating what is moving from the present to the past. <<
    I wonder if there were some prehistoric reasons for us to do this. I can't think of any survival issues that be affected by creating a fictional memory.

    Or is it just the nature of the human beast?

    While I have your attention, there is another area of human memory that I'd like to know about. Does science have a notion about the way that memories are stored? It seems likely that as stimuli are perceived the memory process begins (although if one was in an intentional learning situation, the process could be started and waiting for the stimulus). That would imply a serial process. And, from the discussions above, there exists a feedback mechanism, whereby the memory can be altered.

    Do we know if the memories are layered? Like a basic set of information that is overlaid with subsequent details. Layers like those of the onion, growing over time, adding ever more detail.

    How are memories connected to each other? Or, how are they kept apart from one another? Forgetting for a while that we have the ability to construct partitions, boxes, cells, and walled off areas for certain memories, how does one memory keep from being invaded by another?

    Last, but certainly not least, how is it that the slightest, most subtle, thing like a whiff of perfume, can create an avalanche of memories?

    ((Don’t you just love it when the lay numbskulls crawl out from under their rock, acting like they actually understand something you’ve said?))

    Gerhard Adam
    I can't think of any survival issues that be affected by creating a fictional memory.
    Well, that raises an interesting and important question.  We tend to assume that memory creation is a conscious effort, however we have to consider how much data is processed in our brains which never achieves conscious awareness.  This indicates that our brain is processing information and storing (or constructing) memories for events (or filling in the blanks) in ways which we will never be aware of.  Often what we consider a "gut feel" or "instinctive" feelings are subtle cues or information that we have unconsciously processed without ever being subject to conscious evaluation.

    Of course, this presents a real conflict in considering what data do we consider valid?  Is it only data that we have had a chance to ponder and/or rationalize?  If we haven't evaluated the data, what status does it assume when it held in memory?  What kinds of translation errors (or interpretation errors) may occur in transferring between short and longer term memory?

    If I recall, much of memory storage is heavily bound to emotional processing, so that various sensory triggers and emotions are associated with memories.  There have been some interesting cases of people with brain damage that recall information but have no emotional connection to it and consequently they distrust the data (i.e. a woman that believes her husband is an imposter rather than her real husband - Capgras Syndrome)
    Mundus vult decipi
    That is interesting. Primarily because I've always assumed that the majority of my memories were made by subconscious (or unconscious) processes.

    Your middle paragraph contains the really, really, interesting questions. The answers to which we may never have a chance to know.

    I hadn't heard of the Cagras Syndrome. Thanks for the link.

    Gerhard Adam
    That is interesting. Primarily because I've always assumed that the majority of my memories were made by subconscious (or unconscious) processes.
    I understand, and I guess I should've been more clear.  I didn't actually mean the processes themselves, but rather that we tend to think that we remember those things of which we are more conscious.  In other words, we experience a particular event and while we're thinking about it, or enjoying it, we think that that is the data that we are going to remember, whereas we don't know how many other details may be included of which we aren't consciously aware.  In fact, we may never be consciously aware of it (except perhaps under hypnosis or some other process) and yet it will affect how that memory is interpreted by us in the future.

    An interesting book on some of these considerations is "The Gift of Fear" by Gavin de Becker.  Consider this statement by the author (in light of what we're discussing).
    "Like every creature on earth, we have an extraordinary defense resource: We don’t have the sharpest claws and strongest jaws--but we do have the biggest brains, and intuition is the most impressive process of these brains. It might be hard to accept its importance because intuition is often described as emotional, unreasonable, or inexplicable. Husbands chide their wives about "feminine intuition" and don’t take it seriously....

    In fact, Americans worship logic, even when it’s wrong, and deny intuition, even when it’s right. Men, of course, have their own version of intuition, not so light and inconsequential, they tell themselves, as that feminine stuff. Theirs is more viscerally named a "gut feeling," but whatever name we use, it isn’t just a feeling. It is a process more extraordinary and ultimately more logical in the natural order than the most fantastic computer calculation. It is our most complex cognitive process and, at the same time, the simplest."
    Mundus vult decipi
    Intuition is an interesting phenom. I've come to rely on those feelings, mine and those of others, a lot. The human brain is a mysterious, and complicated, thing. The 'gut feeling' and intuition sensations are some of the reasons I have trouble believing that advanced AI or trans humanism will equal what we have now.

    That link is a good one. The other book in the review section, 'Just 2 Seconds', sounds equally interesting. I can already hear it, "what, more books"?

    Your comments always inspire me to continue my quest for understanding. Thanks.

    Gerhard Adam
    ...I have trouble believing that advanced AI or trans humanism will equal what we have now.
    I agree.  The question I always ask when someone tells me about some feat that a computer (or AI) can accomplish, I always ask .... "but does it care that it won?"  Without that aspect of it, then the computer's achievement is no more significant than arguing that my car can beat me in a foot race.
    Your comments always inspire me to continue my quest for understanding. Thanks.
    Thanks for that comment, because ultimately the whole point is that we all continue to learn from each other in this process.
    Mundus vult decipi