Understanding False Memories

Our memories are wrong at least as often as they are right. At best, they are incomplete, though we might swear otherwise. This affects countless aspects of our lives, and in many cases the decisions that we take purely depending on our memories can have far reaching consequences to the lives of others.

Thus False Memories, which are the erroneous recollection of events that did not actually occur become important to understand because they have the potential to derail relationships simply because the parties simply relied too much on their memories. Even worse, it can send innocent people to prison.

Among the most surprising discoveries about human memory is the realization that remembering a past event is not like picking a DVD off the shelf and playing it back. Remembering involves an elaborate process of reconstruction from information stored in various parts of the brain.

We store assorted features of an event as representations that are distributed around the brain. In simple terms, visual features are represented near the back of the brain in the areas specialized for visual processing, sounds are stored in auditory processing regions close to the ears and smells are stored in the olfactory system that lies behind the nose.

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To experience the rich, vivid “re-living” of a past event, the brain gathers all these features and puts it together into a representation of what took place.


Loss of memory, and creation of new memory, is central to a relatively efficient system of information processing that never sleeps. The selective movement of information into long-term memory is an adaptive marvel of efficiency that allows our brains to store crucial pieces of information that we will rely on in the future, and at the same time shed information not worth holding onto. The process is not neat and tidy, and memory selectivity often works against us like in cases where we would rather like to forget a hurtful event. But when you view the process through the lens of species survival, it makes abundant sense. It is important to remember that during the human evolution, it was crucial to remember where the best sources of food were located, where the best hunting grounds were located, which areas needed to be avoided lest you became something else’s dinner and clarity on how to return safely back home. For our ancestors, reliance on memory of particular details was a matter of life and death.

There are two types of memories ‘verbatim’ and ‘gist’.

Verbatim traces are memories of what actually happened. Gist traces, on the other hand, are based on a person’s understanding of what happened, or what the particular event meant to him or her. Over a period of time the Verbatim traces fade away unless the event itself was emotionally charged. Ultimately what gets retained is only Gist traces.

Information retrieved from memory is simultaneously processed in two specific regions of the brain, each of which focuses on different aspect of a past event. The medial temporal lobe (MTL), located at the base of the brain, focuses on specific facts about the event, the verbatim part. The frontal parietal network (FPN), located at the top of the brain, on the other hand processes the global gist of the event.

The specific brain area accessed when one tries to remember something can ultimately determine whether the the memory is true or false.


During the brain scans, Roberto Cabeza, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University found that volunteers who were highly confident in memories that were indeed true showed increased activity in the fact-oriented MTL region.

“This would make sense, because the MTL, with its wealth of specific details, would make the memory seem more vivid,” Cabeza said. “For example, thinking about your breakfast this morning, you remember what you had, the taste of the food, the people you were with. The added richness of these details makes one more confident about the memory’s truth.”

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On the other hand, volunteers who showed high confidence in memories that turned out to be false exhibited increased activity in the impressionistic FPN. The people drawing from this area of the brain recalled the gist or general idea of the event, and while they felt confident about their memories, they were often mistaken, since they could not recall the details of the memory.

“Specific memories don’t last forever, but what ends up lasting are not specific details, but more general or global impressions,” Cabeza said.

What we do not realize is that other events that occur after the original event can change the memory of the original event. Think of the scenario where at the time original event occurred, you and your cousin were close friends. But later on you have an argument and a falling-out that lasts for years. Your memory of the first event might now include your cousin being aloof and cold, even if that was not true. The later experience has changed your memory.

You will also start to fill in your memory gaps with “made up” sequences of events, but these will seem as real to you as the original event. You can’t remember who else was at the family dinner, but Aunt Jolene is usually present at these events, and so over time your memory of the event will include Aunt Jolene.

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Have you ever embellished a story—or just made something up—and re-told the not-entirely-true version enough times that you could no longer distinguish between fact and fiction?

It is also not that difficult to implant false memories. In an interesting experiment, Daniel Schacter, Psychology Professor at Harvard University, was able to implant a “false memory” in more than half of the audience. He recited a list of 15 words, including candy, sugar, and taste. A minute or two later, he asked the audience whether certain words were on the original list. Taste, most everyone agreed, was. Nail was not. In both instances, the audience was correct. Lastly, Schacter asked if sweet was on the list. Nearly every hand went up. “Are you absolutely certain it was on the list?” Schacter asked. Some hands went down, but a majority was confident it was on the list. It was not. Most of the words were related to sweet; that association helped contribute to the false memory.

Similarly, It is easy to mix up memories so that things that happened at two separate events become fused into one.

Australian eyewitness expert Donald Thomson appeared on a live TV discussion about the unreliability of eyewitness memory. He was later arrested, placed in a lineup and identified by a victim as the man who had raped her. The police charged Thomson although the rape had occurred at the time he was on TV. They dismissed his alibi that he was in plain view of a TV audience and in the company of the other discussants, including an assistant commissioner of police. The policeman taking his statement sneered, “Yes, I suppose you’ve got Jesus Christ, and the Queen of England, too.” Eventually, the investigators discovered that the real rapist had attacked the woman as she was watching TV – the very program on which Thompson had appeared. Authorities eventually cleared Thomson. The woman had confused the rapist’s face with the face that she had seen on TV.

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Witness testimony has been the gold standard of the criminal justice system, revered in courtrooms and crime dramas as the evidence that clinches a case.

If memory flaws only affected our personal past, that would be bad enough. But the problems created by our mistaken recollections affect all of society. More than 75,000 prosecutions every year are based entirely on the recollections of others. While perjury is a felony, the overwhelming majority of eyewitness errors aren’t conscious or intentional. Rather, they’re the inevitable side effects of the remembering process.

Forensic technology has now led to many such convictions being overturned. The Innocence Project in the US campaigns to overturn eyewitness misidentification and lists all the people who have subsequently been acquitted.

The project reports that there have been 311 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the US, which includes 18 people who were sentenced to death before DNA evidence was able to prove their innocence. Unfortunately, many of them had already served dozens of years in prison.

We need to appreciate that human memory has not evolved so that an observer may accurately report previously seen events. The actual, physical events are merely grist for the mill of interpretation. We need to appreciate that each witness extracts an interpretation of the event that is meaningful in terms of his own beliefs, experiences and needs. Once the interpretation is done and the interpreted information is stored away, the event itself becomes relatively unimportant. Moreover, since each person interprets the event in terms of his own world view, different eyewitnesses observing the same event may have different interpretations and therefore different memories.


We do not see what we sense but what we think we sense. What our consciousness is actually presented with, is an interpretation of the event and not the raw data.

The whole process starts with a quick interpretation of the event.  Once the interpretation is done, then the raw sensory data is mostly discarded. What is important to note is that the transformation from raw data to interpretation occurs automatically and outside our awareness.

One mystery that is somewhat alarming emerged from case reports of Innocence Project. Despite being innocent having not committed the crime, nevertheless around a quarter of the accused who were later exonerated had, in fact, confessed or pleaded guilty to the offences.

It seems hard to imagine that anyone of sound mind would take the blame for something he did not do. But several researchers have found that it was surprisingly easy to make people confess to invented misdemeanors.

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Admittedly these confessions are taking place in a laboratory rather than an interrogation room, so the stakes might not appear that high to the confessor. On the other hand, the pressures that can be brought to bear in a police station are much stronger than those in a lab. The upshot is that it seems worryingly simple to extract a false confession from someone—which he might find hard subsequently to retract.

Elizabeth Loftus has dedicated most of her life’s work and energy to creating a vivid and brilliant model and theory showing that the memory is amazingly inventive and fragile. In one of her experiments, Loftus gave a group of volunteers the rudimentary outlines of a childhood experience: getting lost in a mall and being rescued by a kindly adult. She told the subjects, falsely, that the scenario was real and had taken place when they were young. (For verisimilitude, Loftus asked their parents for biographical details that she could plant in each story.) Then she debriefed the subjects twice, with the interviews separated by one or two weeks. By the second interview, six of the twenty-four test subjects had internalized the story, weaving in sensory and emotional details of their own. Loftus and other researchers have since used similar techniques to create false memories of near-drownings, animal attacks, and encounters with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland.

It’s important to point out that a false memory is different from a lie. Liars know what really happened, but claim something different. People with false memories honestly believe what they’re saying—there is no intent to deceive. They’re just wrong about what actually happened, for predictable reasons.

The main difference between false memories and lies is awareness: people are unaware that a memory is false, but are fully cognizant of the truth when lying or concealing incriminating information.

The British False Memory Society (BFMS) is a registered charity formed in 1993 to deal with issues relating to false memory.

False memory is creating severe problems in the field of alleged sexual abuse.  The Society acknowledges and abhors the fact that there are many genuine cases of child abuse that may require the application of the criminal law. However, what is happening is that a number of people, usually during psychotherapy or counselling, are recovering ‘memories’ of having been sexually abused in childhood, even though those accused – usually, but not always, their parents – strongly deny such abuse and there is no real corroborating evidence to support such abuse.  A worrying feature of these cases is that the accusers did not remember being abused prior to receiving therapy. Thus these could be cases of planted memory.

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Not surprisingly, such memories, if false, have severe consequences both for the person concerned and for his or her family. It is not uncommon for a whole network of family relationships to be destroyed as a result.

The phenomenon of false memories is common to 
everybody. You may recall, for example, the party you were certain that you attended many year ago in high school, say, when, in fact, you were home down with the flu. The false memory is created because so many people told you about the party over the years that the details made their way into your own memory cache.

False memories can be dismissed sometimes as a mere curiosity, but quite often they have real implications. For instance, innocent people have gone to jail when well-intentioned eyewitnesses testified to events that actually unfolded in an entirely different way.

We tend to develop overconfidence in our memories as in our daily experience we recall events, especially the important ones, easily and often. Unfortunately, we rarely find our memories contradicted by evidence and we also do not take any initiative to check if they are right.


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