false memories

Is Your Brain an Unreliable Narrator?

Have you ever wondered whether or not the memory you are recalling actually happened?

Probably not. We generally trust ourselves to have accurate memories, especially at a young age.

But false memory is a phenomenon that no one is completely safe from. Our minds may be powerful, but they’re not always reliable.

A recent study published by PNAS brought this to light. In it, participants were tested to see if they would fabricate false memories based on faulty information that was fed to them.

One of the most popular examples, which was recently cited by The Verge, revealed that 29% of  participants with “normal” memory claimed to remember seeing footage of United 93 crashing in Pennsylvania during the September 11th terrorist attacks. 20% of the participants with a higher level of memory function also claimed to see this footage.

The only problem? Such footage doesn’t exist.

Test after test revealed that false memory would come about if false information and premises were fed to the participants, and there are several possible explanations.

You may have already thought of one of them. In these situations, it’s easy to put the blame on human error of perception. In other words, we know that people like to lie in order to seem smarter. That’s definitely easy to believe.

But the numbers point to the answer being slightly more complicated, especially when you factor in the various facets of memory distortion that exist in mental health. Let’s go over just a few.

Types of Memory Distortion

One of the most prominent is Change Bias, the phenomenon in which we remember a process being more challenging than it actually was. This is brought on by the stress that comes about when we put effort into reaching a change or desired outcome through our own efforts.

Cryptomnesia is also quite common. This is when our mind forgets when and where it learned something, so that when we recall this memory later, we believe we generated the information on our own. For example, we may hear a melody from a song and think about it later, forgetting that we aren’t the person who came up with it. Although this condition is often abused by people looking to avoid the consequences of plagiarism, it has been well-researched and confirmed by mental health professionals.

Embellishment is a result of Egocentric Bias, which is when we recall our accomplishments as being more impressive than they actually were. Think of the times when you went fishing, for example, and described the event later.

Finally, there is Illusory Correlation, which is arguably the phenomenon that many of the participants in the study above were experiencing. This is when our mind incorrectly creates a relationship between two events. In this case, the participants recalled the memory of seeing the plane crash footage because they were told it actually happened and because they saw plane crash footage from the other attacks that day.

There are many, many more examples of memory distortion, but the point is that we have many options to pick from when pinpointing the origination of a false memory.

false memories

How False Memories Grow

You may be wondering how fully formed memories (that are false) can become so believable to a well-adjusted person. Elizabeth Loftus, a celebrated researcher of memory functions, has provided very convincing insights into how false memories grow and become mentally cemented.

She claims that many false memories begin through suggestion. Similar to the study above, faulty or misleading information leads to a false recollection of an event or idea. From there, our false memory becomes more vivid as time passes, making it seem more believable. This may happen because our minds continue to add new information to an established event, and we may be unable to properly separate these memories.¹

The problem is that these memories become so believable and accepted by our conscious minds, that we may develop False Memory Syndrome.

False Memory Syndrome

One of the worst case scenarios of this subject is False Memory Syndrome, or FMS. Originated by Peter J. Freyd, FMS is not yet a mental disorder, and it cannot be found in the DSM-5.

It is, however, often cited as an observation of individuals who center their personalities around factually incorrect memories. The danger is that we become so fixated on the memory being true that we actively avoid any evidence or logic that would disprove it.

This condition is extremely problematic, especially when observed in cases like sexual abuse. Still, more information and documented evidence is needed before FMS can become a fully-realized mental disorder.

Is It All In Your Head?

Like the movie Inception, this information is likely to leave you scratching your head. How can we avoid false memories and their potentially bad implications?

Though it’s probably impossible for us to recall everything that happens around us with 100% accuracy, there are some helpful steps we can take to preserving our most important memories.

Journaling is a fantastic method for keeping track of what you remember. Reading your eye-witness account of an event you’ve been through often prompts your mind into recalling the event more accurately than otherwise.

Try to remove yourself from biases. It’s difficult, but if you put in a significant effort toward being objective with your memories (and the moments when they’re being made), then you are providing yourself with an honest outlook, or even conclusion, of what has occurred.

Finally, let yourself process events, even if they are negative. Our mind does not like to dwell on negative emotions, so our memories that are associated with pain tend to fade quicker than positive ones, depending on the type of trauma involved. No matter how positive or negative an experience is, try to review it and implant the actual emotions that were involved before your subconscious does it for you.

You may also want to read: What Is So Bad About Feeling Sad?

¹Loftus, Elizabeth F. Memory: Surprising New Insights Into How We Remember and Why We Forget Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1980.

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