The mysteries of the mind: A closer look at the phenomenon of false memories

“The advantage of bad memory is that one enjoys several times, the same good things for the first time.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Human beings have evolved significantly over millions of years and are now termed to be the most rational, emotional and creative beings compared to all others and have been allegedly placed at the top of this hierarchical society of living organisms.

What makes us so distinct in comparison to our other counterparts is nothing else but our capability to perform complex cognitive tasks with significant ease.

false memories

Memory is a rather fascinating yet intriguing human faculty and without a doubt it has been under great scrutiny since the past many years.

People associate a sense of who they are and their interpersonal relationships with their memory and use it prominently in the arenas of problem solving and decision making. But what if this impeccable part of our day to day lives is not as flawless and reliable as we consider it to be?

What if all the decisions we took so confidently were not influenced by a concrete experience but by one originated in our own heads?

What if you were unconsciously making memories of the things you never consciously experienced and what if even the flawless human memory was embedded with a certain uncontrolled flaws?

In the year 1974, Elizabeth Loftus and Palmer renowned psychologists, showed different videos of a car collision to different participants.

Some saw a video of the car crashing at 20mph, others a collision at 30mph and the rest a video of a crash at 40mph. The participants were then asked the speed of the collision as a survey question.

The question was identical for each participant except for the verb mentioned when describing the crash. Some verbs suggested that the crash was a minor collision, others referred to it as a full-blown crash.

The experiment results showed that the verb used to describe the crash had more effect on the speed estimated by the participants than the actual speed of the car that was witnessed in the video.

In a second experiment, participants were shown similar videos of a car crash and later questioned about what they had witnessed. The question asked the subject whether or not they remember seeing any broken glass following the collision, and again, the verb describing the collision was altered to suggest varying degrees of severity.

The researchers found that the more serious the accident seemed in the wordings of the question, the more likely participants were to recall having seen a broken glass around the car. Both these studies suggest that the farming of questions had a significant impact upon the recollection of the memory of a particular event even if it had been stored and processed earlier.

So, what’s going on? How can a similar event be perceived differently by a different set of people experiencing it at the same time? In fact, Loftus found in a later experiment that even a minor switching of ‘a’ and ‘the’ in a question can influence respondents’ recollection of an object/event.

This phenomenon is known as False Memories which can be induced by powerful imagination of events that did not take place at all. This talks about deviations from factual reality which is an inevitable result of our memory.

Human beings are active beings and constantly reconstruct their memory, as a result we all have different insights, opinions and mind sets. Based upon this idea we even perceive reality differently from each other and as a result store and retrieve it in different forms.

People often think of memory as a video recorder, where everything is stored in exactly the same way in which it was experienced. In reality, this isn’t the case and memory is very well prone to fallacy.

We can better understand this by having a closer look at another experiment conducted by Loftus and her team in 1997.

James Coan (subject) was asked to produce four booklets containing recollections of events from childhood and gave each to a family member. The stories in the booklets were true except for the one given to Coan’s brother – a description of him being lost in a shopping mall as a child.

Each family member was asked to read through the booklets and familiarise themselves with its contents, after which they were asked to recall the stories they had read. It was found that Coan’s brother recalled the story with additional details invented by him, and was unable to identify this as being a falsified story.

As it is clearly evident from the above mentioned experiments that false memories could be triggered by even the smallest of details, it isn’t all that bad as you may consider it to be.

Psychologists are now significantly using the science of fake/false memories to cure various phobias and personality attributes of a person. At times it has been used to help people accept and come to terms with themselves after a probable traumatizing event.

By altering reality or changing certain aspects and details of things/events, psychologists have found ways to treat disorders like depression and dissociative personality. This approach can even be used as a major parenting technique where false memories can be implanted within the mind of a child to enhance positive aspects of his/her personality like self-confidence and trust.

It’s an ironic world that we all carry in our minds and there still remains a lot to be discovered about this self-named species “Homosapien”. Albert Einstein once said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”.

False memory is an inevitable phenomenon and its study will direct us towards a better understanding of what is reality and what delusion. Or maybe we were never built to know the reality and live in one made out of our very own fantasies. Either way, the search continue…