This column, On the Mind, is a series about the latest in cognitive science and neuroscience-related research that applies to our everyday lives. This biweekly series is for those interested in cutting-edge findings about the practical side of habits, memories, multitasking and the human-brain interface. What are the recent studies, and what is the context? See what science says and how you can apply it to your life.
As journalists and politicians worry about the implications of “fake news” and “alternative facts” under President Donald Trump’s administration, experimental psychologists and neuroscientists are renewing interest in “fake memories” and collective false recollections. How can we make sure the correct history is recorded and remembered if official federal accounts seem to be in opposition to national news accounts?
Scientists have learned over the past few decades that memories aren’t infallible, and in fact, many are. Memories aren’t recorded like a video camera, as we may perceive it, but are actually stored as pieces in our brain that we reconstruct when we try to recall them. Our memories can be disrupted by what we experienced earlier, which is called proactive interference, or what we experienced later, called retroactive interference. We’ve seen this play out famously in courtroom dramas or psychological evaluations when people recall car accidents or childhood memories that never happened.
The latest research extends these ideas even further. About half of people may remember experiences that never happened, according to a study in Britain that came out in January. Beyond that, a study shows that being more interested in a topic increases the likelihood of false memory because it is consistent with previous beliefs, stereotypes and desires. Around this time last year, researchers at MIT reported they successfully implanted a false memory into a mouse’s mind. They put the mouse in a metal box, and it froze in fear even though it had never been shocked there before. And another study shows that smartphones and Internet connectivity are taking over human memory as a form of cognitive offloading. Rather than rely on ourselves, we turn to Google to look up answers to questions, even ones that we should probably remember the answers to easily.
Don’t be afraid of false memories, but be aware. As we watch facts become divisive on the battleground of the national news scene, keep these ideas in mind about our permanent memories as well.
1. Memory is Malleable
Memory is a constructive process. We typically remember the gist of an event rather than the exact details, so when we remember something and reconstruct a memory, errors happen. We fill in the gaps with what we assume must have happened, often including misinformation that occurred after the event.
“While I’m always cautious about memory accuracy (as far as I remember, hah!), now I am convinced that no memories are to be trusted. I am confident that we create our memories every day anew, if ever so slightly,” said Julia Shaw of London South Bank University. Shaw specializes in false memory research and released a new book called The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting and the Science of False Memory.
2. Back It Up with Evidence
This is the No. 1 recommendation touted by Elizabeth Loftus, the eminent U.S. researcher on false memories who began looking into faulty formations and reconstructions in the early 1990s. You may have seen her famous TED talk about the fiction of memories, in fact.
“You need independent corroboration to know whether you’re dealing with an authentic memory, or something that is a product of some other process,” she recommended previously in an article written by Shaw.
3. Watch Out for Leading Questions
Memories are easily influenced by suggestibility. When recalling memories with others, be careful how you ask questions or how others ask you. Closed questions — What was the color of his jacket? — and leading questions — He was a redhead, right? — are the worst for prompting incorrect responses. Open-ended questions that allow people to recall on their own terms and at their own pace are best.
“What I’d like everyone to know is how (not) to probe for a memory of an event,” said Annelies Vredeveldt of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research focuses on how we remember details when we recall events and experiences with other people.
4. Know the Memory Myths
We distort memories for events we’ve been part of, as well as ones that may never have occurred. This can happen through psychotherapeutic techniques or during psychology experiments. In fact, no solid evidence supports the psychoanalytic concept of repression, although it’s a popular concept, said Chris French of the University of London. French has researched anomalous and paranormal memories for decades and has been fascinated by false memories tied to ghosts, aliens and other fantastical experiences.
5. We Can’t Prove What’s True
Scientifically, there’s no way to distinguish between a true or false memory — outside of independent evidence, of course. Even vivid and detailed memories can be false. Many factors have been tested, but researchers haven’t yet figured out a single characteristic that proves what’s true and false.
As Loftus says, this area is still “ripe area for research.”
New studies are focusing on planting false memories and exploring who develops false memories and how. A new study last year demonstrated, for example, that false memory increases with age, which makes sense. Another says that those with low IQ, children, teenagers, and people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia also have difficulty with “reality monitoring,” which also makes sense.
Other studies have said that fantastical false memories (such as UFO abductions or alien encounters) may be related to personality, neuropsychological disorders such as sleep paralysis, or magnetic sensitivity. Overall, though, a recent study shows we’re more alike than different — people who watched a movie together and then recalled it showed the same neural activity in their brains in the same systematic way, even if they spoke freely, differently and in their own words about the movie. Maybe that’s enough to comfort us for now about potential collective false memories that could form around the current national political scene.
Image: Neil Conway, Flickr, CC-BY
Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.