Why does the human brain create false memories?

Hot air balloon ride A doctored photo made many people believe they had been on a real hot air balloon ride

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Human memory constantly adapts and moulds itself to fit the world. Now an art project hopes to highlight just how fallible our recollections are.

All of us generate false memories and artist AR Hopwood has been "collecting" them.

For the past year he has asked the public to submit anecdotes of fake recollections which he turns into artistic representations.

They have ranged from the belief of eating a live mouse to a memory of being able to fly as a child.

One man who wrote in wrongly believed his girlfriend had a sister who died while at the dentist. So strong was his conviction that he kept all his dentist visits secret.

He wrote: "Over dinner one day she said she was going to the dentist the next week. It all went quiet at the table and my mum said it must be hard for her to visit the dentist after what had happened."

The false memory archive

A selection of anonymous false memories:

I remember biting into a mouse when I was four [and living] in Indonesia in order to make my brother be quiet... A mouse ran by and I bit into it. Blood filled my mouth and ran down my face.

I remembered that I saw a green comet on the sky through the window.

Watching the first Moon landing. I clearly remember it, from inside a playpen. But... I was three, and asleep in another room.

I can remember being able to fly as a small child. For years, in my teens I really struggled to accept that this wasn't a real memory.

This is hardly a rare case. Neuroscientists say that many of our daily memories are falsely reconstructed because our view of the world is constantly changing.

Imagination trick

Subtle cues can easily steer our memories in the wrong direction.

A famous experiment carried out by Elizabeth Loftus in 1994 revealed that she was able to convince a quarter of her participants they were once lost in a shopping centre as a child.

Another similar experiment in 2002 found that half of the participants were tricked into believing they had taken a hot air balloon ride as a child, simply by showing them doctored photographic "evidence".

Lost child in shopping centre Participants readily believed they had once been lost in a shopping centre when presented with "evidence"

This work was carried out by Kimberley Wade at the University of Warwick, UK. For the current project she was asked by Mr Hopwood to take part in a real hot air balloon ride, video and images of which are now exhibited in his show. She says she was very excited to take part.

"I've been studying memory for more than a decade, and I still find it incredible that our imagination can trick us into thinking we've done something we've never really done and lead us to create such compelling, illusory memories," she says.

The reason our memories are so malleable, Kimberley Wade explains, is because there is simply too much information to take in.

"Our perceptual systems aren't built to notice absolutely everything in our environment. We take in information through all our senses but there are gaps," she adds.

"So when we remember an event, what our memory ultimately does is fills in those gaps by thinking about what we know about the world."

Lost keys

For the most part false memories are about everyday situations with no real consequences except the occasional disagreement with a friend or partner about trivial things like who lost the keys, again.

But sometimes, false memories can have more serious ramifications. For example, if an eyewitness testimony in court contributes to a false conviction.

A simple test

  • Say the following words to a friend: bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn and drowsy
  • Later, ask your friend to recall the words they heard
  • How many incorrectly listed sleep as one of the initially given words?

A study found that participants recall the word sleep with about the same probability that they remember other words from the list.

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.

Christopher French of Goldsmiths University in London says there is still a lack of awareness of how unreliable human memory is, especially in the legal system.

"Although this is common knowledge within psychology and widely accepted by anybody who has studied the literature, it's not widely known about in society more generally," he says.

"There are still people who believe memory works like a video camera as well as people who accept the Freudian notion of repression - that when something terrible happens the memory is shoved down into the subconscious."

But the evidence of repressed memories, he adds, is "very thin on the ground".

Hot air balloon ride A psychologist's memory of her hot air balloon ride features in the exhibition

Prof French was also involved in the memory project. He hopes it will create more awareness of the malleability of human memory.

So too does AR Hopwood. He says he was fascinated to learn that people could strongly believe in an entirely imagined event.

"What's interesting is that the submissions become mini-portraits of the person (albeit anonymously) yet the only thing you are finding out about this person is something that didn't actually happen. So there's a lovely paradox there which I'm very drawn to as an artist," he says.

Saving us from the tiger

According to another researcher, the errors the human brain makes can sometimes serve a useful purpose.

Sergio Della Sala, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, says it can be thought of in the following way. Imagine you are in the jungle and you see some grass moving. Humans are likely to panic and run away, with the belief that there could be a tiger lurking.

A computer, however, might deduce that 99% of the time, it is simply the wind. If we behaved like the computer, we would be eaten the one time a tiger was present.

"The brain is prepared to make 99 errors to save us from the tiger. That's because the brain is not a computer. It works with irrational assumptions. It's prone to errors and it needs shortcuts," says Prof Della Sala.

False memories are the sign of a healthy brain, he adds. "They are a by-product of a memory system that works well. You can make inferences very fast."

Hot air balloon ride

The False Memory Archive, supported by the Wellcome Trust, opened at The Exchange in Penzance on Saturday 28 September


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  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    I have a false memory from around the time I was 3 years old. The memory in technicolor glory was generated from a story my mom told more than once about my oldest sibling. I was not born at the time of the event and realized as a teen it must have been a dream.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    This is hardly news! I read this exact same article 30 years ago...

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Nick Clegg gave unreliable testimony to the British public when he said he & the Lib. Dems wouldn't increase student tuition fees if people voted them into power. He was voted into power & he tripled the tuition fees.

    I now fear the testimony of the people that voted him into power to ensure a complete annihilation of a Clegg run Lib. Dem. party at the next election will prove to be reliable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    I remember scenes in films very precisely and when reviewing the film later find that a lot of detail is incorrect, but it is never completely false. The memory seems to file away similar memories in similar places and when it gets crowded perhaps that's when things go wrong.

    I also used to believe that life protected us from our worst memories but while depressed I found this horribly untrue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Looking at the various comments here, there are quite a few about the genuineness (or otherwise) of sexual abuse claims. No doubt there is some concern that there could be false memory suggested by others, and adopted by a "victim" but equally a perpetrator will no doubt want to persuade himself nothing (or nothing bad) happened and may eventually believe himself

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Personally I honestly don't think that I have ever developed a false memory of anything, as memory is pretty unique to the individual. I would concede that my perceptions have not always matched reality however.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Being blessed with an almost eidetic memory, I tend towards the 'memory as video' opinion... the interesting thing is that I can visualise with the same clarity imaginary events, be they stuff I have read in books or from my own very active imagination - including being able to recall events from role-playing games (Dungeons & Dragons and the like) as if they had taken place!

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    As for Yew Tree, it doesn't matter whether all accusations against Saville are true, as there are so many and so consistent, and his own comments are so incriminating, that we can be sure that most are true. But when you get down to 1 or 2 accusations against a famous person, in a climate of mass hysteria, things get a bit dodgy. I shall be very surprised if Rolf Harris turns out to be guilty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Sadly fictional memory feeds into what Finkelstein calls The Holocaust Industry. Anti-revisionist Lipstadt, author of "Denying the Holocaust", included Binjamin Wilkomirski's book "Fragments" in her Emory University class on Holocaust memoirs. When a Jewish journalist uncovered the work as a fraud, Lipstadt said the revelations "might complicate matters somewhat, but [the work] is still powerful."

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    My doctor's surgery began life in an old house, and I very clearly remember going up a dark staircase to visit the old doctor. However, the house was pulled down the year before I was born!

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    A friend and I were once absolutely convinced that a day or two beforehand we had had a conversation about a lost ring with a particular friend - so convinced that we half convinced him that the conversation had taken place, even though he couldn't remember it. But, in fact, we had had the conversation with a quite different friend of vaguely similar appearance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    It really depends... I have a terrible memory for names and faces but my long term memory of places and events are pretty accurate. Same for trivia, I know all sorts of random trivia, but try putting me to the test on something important I learned at school = heh not much of a chance of recalling it. Memory is a weird thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    16 Minutes ago

    The BBC is the biggest 'false memory' generator on the planet.

    Second only to the Tory party, everything that goes wrong is somebody elses fault. Or like today the were taking credit for the Olympics of 2012, even though it was basically all done and dusted before they came to power.

  • Comment number 73.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I am sure that threesome rendesvous with Matt Damon and Kate Bekinsale is a reliable memory - just as reliable as my memories of receiving an Oscar, a Pulitzer, the VC and the Iron Cross (Eisernes Kreuz 2. Klasse) - First I developed banking with Rothchild and helped Nostredamus write a few fortune cookies.

    Nothing wrong with my memory!

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Memory or apperception is not reliable as it shortcuts the sensed object with a belief system. Ergo people misread things and sadly err.
    This could explain why despite government failures one still chooses to believe the untrue as true and the truth as false.
    Another example of cognitive dissonance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    The BBC is the biggest 'false memory' generator on the planet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Memory's are certainly unreliable, the best way to tell is by asking someone how many girls they have slept with, memory sure starts to get a bit hazy :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    John Byng
    I hope they remember this during operation "witch hunt"... sorry, "yew tree". There seem to be an awful lot of people being accussed of things of late. Some will be correct memories, but how many will be influenced into believing something happened by the stories in the papers?

    Thank you for this comment...
    signed:concerned bystander who does not believe 10% of 'yew tree' claims...

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    my son has suffered from schizophrenia for 15 years; his memories are really bizarre; sometimes he recalls incidents from his childhood that are 100% accurate ( as in they match my recall of them!) but at others he "remembers" things that could not possibly have happened. Memory is very interesting and I do believe it can be affected by what others say and suggest.


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