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.