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  • Rarely do we second guess the validity of our memory, but the truth is that our minds do sometimes deceive us by creating false memories.
  • A recent study demonstrated this phenomenon, as participants claimed to remember viewing footage of United 93 crashing in Pennsylvania on September 11—but this never happened.
  • This type of memory distortion is called illusory correlation, in which the mind incorrectly creates a relationship between two events.
  • Other forms of memory distortion are change bias, cryptomnesia, and egocentric bias, all of which can present themselves as actual memories.
  • Support your memory by journaling about your life, considering your biases, and giving yourself a chance to process events—the good and the bad

Have you ever wondered if your memory of an event is actually accurate? Maybe not. Rarely do we second guess what we remember to be true. That said, false memory is real: our minds may be powerful, but they aren’t always reliable.

What Is Memory Distortion? 4 Examples

A study “False memories in highly superior autobiographical memory individuals” published by PNAS brought the phenomenon of false memory 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 revealed that 29% of participants with “normal” memory claimed to remember seeing footage of United 93 crashing in Pennsylvania during the September 11 terrorist attacks. Twenty percent of the participants with a higher level of memory function also claimed to see this footage. The problem? Such footage doesn’t exist.

Test after test revealed that false memory would come about if false information was fed to the participants. There are several possible explanations for this, and you may have already thought of one: in situations of the like, it’s easy to put the blame on human error of perception. In other words, we know that people like to lie to seem smarter. However, there are other explanations. Here are a few examples of memory distortion:

  • Change bias is one of the most prominent types of memory distortion. This is the phenomenon in which we remember a process being more challenging than it actually was; it’s brought on by the stress that comes with working toward 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 might read something and then copy it later, say when we’re writing a paper, without realizing they aren’t our words.
  • Egocentric bias is when we recall our accomplishments as being more impressive than they actually are. Think of a time you went running. When a friend later asked how fast or how far you ran, you probably reported running a little faster or farther.
  • Illusory correlation is the phenomenon that many of the participants experienced in the aforementioned study. 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 say.

How Do False Memories Form?

You might be wondering how false memories can become so believable. Elizabeth Loftus, a celebrated researcher of memory functions, has provided very convincing insights into how false memories form and become mentally cemented. She claims that many false memories begin through suggestion. Much like 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, as she explains in her book Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget.

False memory syndrome (FMS) is a worst-case scenario. Though it is not yet classified as a diagnosable mental disorder, it explains 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 and recognized mental disorder.

Is It Real or All Just in Your Head?

How can we avoid creating false memories? It’s impossible for us to recall everything that happens to and around us with 100% accuracy, but there are some helpful ways to preserve our most important memories:

  1. Write it down. Document your life (at least important events) in a journal. Reading your personal account of an event often prompts your mind to recall the event more accurately.
  2. Remove yourself from biases. It can be difficult but try to be objective when it comes to your memories. Remind yourself that your mind can play tricks on you—this will open yourself to a more honest outlook. 

Let yourself process events. Yes, even the negative events. Try to review all positive and negative experiences and implant the actual emotions involved before your subconscious does it for you.

Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is a staff writer at Thriveworks. She devotes herself to distributing important information about mental health and wellbeing, writing mental health news and self-improvement tips daily. Taylor received her bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism, with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book and has published content on Thought Catalog, Odyssey, and The Traveling Parent.

Check out “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book” written by AJ Centore and Taylor Bennett."

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