A false memory is a recollection of an event which may seem real in your mind, but has been fabricated in part or in whole. This could just mean recalling an event happening slightly differently than in reality or, in some cases, even remembering an event that never happened at all. An example of false memory could be believing that you locked the door or turned off the oven.
There are two types of false memory. The first is spontaneous false memory. This type of false memory develops without any external pressure and instead arises from our own internal memory mechanisms. The second is suggestion-induced false memories: false memories created by external pressure when some type of information is exposed to the person. Subtle cues can change our memories drastically.
An experiment by Elizabeth Loftus, convincing people they were lost in a shopping centre as children, is an example of suggestion-induced false memory. In this experiment, Loftus was testing the “misinformation effect”. The participants were given four stories about their childhood. Three of those stories were true, but one was false. Naturally, the participants were not informed that they were going to be fed with false information. In the false story, the participant was told about a time they were lost in a store and finally returned to their parents. In the next few weeks that followed, the participants were interviewed. The results showed that 25% of the participants reported to have clear memories of the fictional event.
A similar experiment was conducted in 2002 by Kimberly Wade at the University of Warwick. In this experiment, doctored images of participants as children in a hot air balloon were created. The results found that half of the participants were tricked into falsely believing that they had indeed taken a hot air balloon ride as children. Wade said that the reason that “our memories are so malleable is because there is simply too much information to take in”. She explains that when we do not remember an event fully, our mind fills in those gaps by “thinking about what we know about the world”.
It has also been proven that language affects our memory. For example, in another experiment published by an article in the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, language had a big impact on how people recalled a video of an auto accident they had to watch. After watching the video, the participants were asked variations of the same question: “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed/collided/bumped/contacted/hit into each other?”. A week later, the participants were interviewed once more, and those who were asked the question with the word “smashed” were more likely to recall broken glass in the video, which was not the case.
False memories may become a problem when they lead to bad decisions. To illustrate this, even when the memory of a certain event fades, the strong negative emotions tend to leave lasting impressions. This can cause all types of fears or aversions to certain activities, people or situations. On the other hand, memories exist to help us make better decisions in the future. It is possible to fabricate your own memories of certain events that never happened. For instance, you could form a new memory of yourself winning an award. If you do this and feel the positive emotion along with it, your brain will start to believe it. If you were to repeat it again and again, your brain will end up believing it. This could help people with self-confidence and in taking the right actions.
So, can you trust your own memories?
There are countless reasons why mistakes or embellishments may happen when recalling past incidents. Memories of events can be easily changed by things from our own beliefs of what is true or what we wish were true, to what other people have told us about that event or what we would like the other person to think. Whenever this happens, it has long-term effects on how we’ll recall that memory in the future. However, this could work in your interest, as you could create your own positive associations or emotions to a certain memory or even tweak it slightly to your liking.
Hence, it is wise to not believe everything you remember. People often rely on their memories as if they were files effortlessly saved on the computer, but this is not the case. Unlike the files we safely store on a hard drive, our memories are susceptible to change and influence rather easily. This is not to say our memories are totally untrustworthy but – take them with a grain of salt.