How do false memories form?

38 views

How do false memories form?

In: 21

the neurons in your brain move around to connect in an efficient way. When you remember stuff, it is the brain linking itself up to relay specific signals when you think about the thing you are remembering.

Your brain can create them if you try hard enough, same as creating any fantasy. You can also do it accidentally if influenced during a police lineup. Like if they keep asking about the tattoo on his neck, even if he didn’t have one you can create the memory in your mind. There’s a book out there by a woman named loftuss that goes into it a great deal.

We like to think that our memories are precise; some of us take pride in our apparent ‘total recall’, or even brag about our ‘photographic memory’ that never lets us forget a single word we read.

No matter how much we brag about so-called ‘photographic memory’, science has proven that no such ability exists. Even so, some individuals have shown an impressive ability to memorize specific sets of data, and the media plays up the miracle of young geniuses with ‘super-memory’.

The reality is that our memories are actually *very* flexible. We can be conditioned to ‘remember’ things that didn’t actually happen. When we can’t recall the precise details of an event, our brains tend to fill in the gaps with bits of other, totally unrelated memories — which, particularly in the case of children, who are universally very suggestible, can prove disastrous.

In the past, psychotherapists have been investigated for ‘coaching’ children to recall confabulations (that’s a real term) of abuse that never actually took place (the mid-1980s ‘Satanic Panic’, for example, was mostly discredited when it was discovered that the alleged ‘memories’ of Satanic sacrifice and abuse were actually the byproduct of psychologists asking children leading questions).

As a result, those false memories, born of coaching, leading questions and a child’s natural desire to be seen as ‘obedient’ and thus not get into trouble, often tore families apart when parents began taking one another to court over unfounded allegations of abuse.

I’ll start off by saying … we’re not entirely sure. However, below was the prevailing theory as I learned it circa 2005 in grad school. Ideas may have changed, so I’ll be interested if anyone corrects me on this.

How does your brain tell the difference between memory, dream, imagination, plain information, and ideas? Well, it labels them. Have you ever remembered something that happened in a dream and had to think for a moment of whether it was real or a dream? That’s the label getting mixed up. (Not everyone experiences this, but many do, particularly in preadolescent childhood. Personally, I still experience this, but mostly because many of my dreams start with me waking up in bed.)

False memories can form by someone taking information in, coding it to memory, and mislabeling it as real memory. This can happen when a person is remembering something in a state of elevated suggestibilty (meaning, relaxed and trusting whoever they are talking to).

Horrifyingly, back in the 1970s and 80s there was a rash of people for whom psychologists created awful false memories, often via hypnosis therapy (a relaxed and trusting state), because the psychologists at the time didn’t even know this was possible. These people were led to believe terrible things had been done to them, often by their loved ones, and suffered the trauma of abuse that never even happened.

On a less dramatic scale that you are more likely to personally experience: Every memory you have is recoded from scratch each time you access it and “put it away”. And each time it is recoded, new or edited information can enter the memory. This can be useful if you are telling a story to friends, and the one friend who was there reminds you of a detail you forgot to mention, so your recoded memory incorporates that information for next time you tell the story, even though that part of the memory is “false”. And that new information will be retrieved the next time you conjure the memory. This happens automatically, usually without you noticing, and it is part of the mechanism those psychologists accidentally triggered.

Most commonly for fully crafted false memories, you may have a story from your early childhood that you remember happening. This would be a story your parents like to tell from when you were three to five years old. Maybe you got lost at a mall. Or you fell off your bike. Whatever the story is, chances are, the memory is false. What you are remembering is the imagery your brain created in one (or more) of your parents’ early tellings of that story, and every time the story was retold, you accessed that created memory and edited with more detail. In the end, you end up with a memory of something that happened before you were coding to long-term narrative memory.

Adults are more resilient to false memory creation (better at maintaining those labels I mentioned first), and children are particularly vulnerable to careless psychologists, so there is extensive warning given during education and training of psychologists and therapists to try to prevent what happened during the 70s and 80s.

If you’re unsure of a memory, take heart. They are all false memories, really.

We like to think of memories like photographs or books: information is put on something where they can be read or viewed as often as you’d like. The book or photograph my get damaged and harder to read but the content stays the same.

In reality memories are more like a game of telefone. Every time you remember something you listen to *past you* telling the story. You might misunderstand some parts or hear two things that don’t fit together. So you come up with a solution that makes sense again for *today you* and that’s the version you’re gonna pass on to *future you* when you remember the memory the next time.

Memories stored not like books on a shelf. Each “part” of a memory is stored separately in related parts of a brain.
Like you remember your mother kiss – feeling of a kiss would be stored in part of brain that is responsible for sensory information (S1), her smell would be stored in a nasal brain part (N1), “funny feeling in your stomach” stored somewhere else P1, etc, etc.

So memory is a chain of different interconnected parts – S1-N1-P1-Z1. And things become tricky, because mother smell (N1) is a part of many other memories you have about your mother. For example when you fall and she hug you – it would be another chain of hug+her_smell+you_crying+pain = F3-N1-T6-P11. As you could see, same “smell memory” is now part of two different chains and two different memories.

False memories happen when your connections are mixed and it become S1-N5-P5-Z2 – smell of someone else mixed in and your “memory” went on other rails, because N5 is connected to other “memory lane”.

**TLDR:** Our memories not monolithic and more like LEGO figures that are build from small bricks. You brain could take bricks from different LEGO figures and build completely new one that didn’t exist before.