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What are false memories?

Whose memory is it anyway?

How and why are false memories formed?

It's tempting to think of our long-term memories as static and unchanging - but they're not. Memory is dynamic, often a blend of the original event and our current state of mind. Memories are subject to change and revision in small ways almost every time we remember something, and they're very susceptible to external manipulation. Essentially a memory is formed from a real experience - but could someone implant an entirely false memory in our heads? Could we be made to believe we experienced something that never actually took place?

A false memory is not the same as lying - the subject really does believe what they think they remember. It's just that the memory is false.

False memory has become an important area of psychological research and also a controversial one. In the early 1990s several landmark legal cases in the United States centred around the issue of recovered memory. Recovered memories occur when a victim of some sort of trauma, such as child abuse, recovers a suppressed memory often with the help of psychotherapy. A wave of recovered memory cases prompted research psychologist Elizabeth Loftus to investigate whether or not it was possible to tell if a memory was of a real or imagined event.

After some generating positive results in the lab, showing that it was possible make experimental subjects recall things that they never experienced, Loftus wanted to see if this would work in the real world. She volunteered to assist a public defender in a supposed 'open and shut' murder case. In the end, Loftus was able to show how memories of the events surrounding the crime could easily be manipulated through careful questioning of witnesses. The result was eventual acquittal for the defendant.

Over the next decade Loftus worked on dozens of cases and continued to research false memories, turning her attention to the controversial area of recovered memories. Loftus claimed it was possible for recovered memories to be fabricated as a result of the very therapeutic process that was designed to aid the alleged victim. She succeeded in planting a range of traumatic memories in people, which included getting lost for long periods of time as a child, watching animals dying and even being witness to a demonic possession. All of the subjects truly believed they had undergone these experiences when in fact, they hadn't.

This isn't to say that recovered memories are all fabricated. Many people do genuinely experience and then for some reason suppress traumatic events, a phenomemon sometimes called selective amnesia. But Loftus has revealed to us the reconstructive and ultimately fragile nature of memory - our past is continually being updated to fit our present context and knowledge.

In evolutionary terms it makes sense for us to update our memories as this allows us to adapt to future threats or uncertainties as well as learn from our past mistakes.

Elizabeth Loftus was recently voted one of the most influential psychologists of all time and the most highly rated female, in a list topped by Freud published in the Review of General Psychology and authored by more than half a dozen fellow psychologists using a number of different criteria. Her work will be featured in BBC Radio 4's The Science of Memory.

YOUR COMMENT

Niall
I was sexually abused as a child, by no less than 3 abusers. All 3 got away scot free, which remains typical - less than 1 in 200 UK incidents of child sex abuse actually result in conviction. This is partly because FMS is being blamed for the recovery of REAL memories. I had no outside influence when "recovering" some of my more painful memories, and still cannot remember many aspects of the experience. The videos of me performing sexual acts are apparently still available online, and I have been told I did all manner of things I have no recollection of at all. Coming forward to 'tell' after being abused is too hard already. The child will be scared, may have been threatened, and in the case of incest will know that the implications of their speaking up will be enormous. If their stories are continually rubbished by courts, lawyers and self-proclaimed "experts" if and when they DO tell, how do we/they ever get justice? I'm not denying the existence of FMS per se, but it COULD be applied to most legal cases and create Reasonable Doubt - eye-witnesses, police reports and most forms of evidence could be called into question by the suggestion of FMS. Did I actually type this, or was it someone else's work and a False Memory I have recovered? You tell me!

Megan
Thank you for this programme. I come from a family devastated by false memories due to dubious/dangerous therapy for depression/anxiety (a strong family trait for some generations) during the nineties. It is important the public learns how malleable and unreliable memory can be. False memories are often tragic in their consequences, both for accusers, the accused and associated friends and family. Regarding any therapy - 'Buyer Beware!' - be especially cautious of therapy (I am not saying don't do it, but do be careful) that looks backwards for reasons and blame.

Ingrid
I was eleven when I first got adopted by my adopted parents. I was lead to believe by my false memory that they were close friends of my real parents who died in a car crash. We started talking about my parents and I metioned that the flower arrangements were perfect, and my adopted mother told me they didn't know my parents so they didn't she the flowers. I was confused. Why did I think they knew my parents?

Bel
My younger sister has many false memories. I have 5 siblings and we used to live in Africa. My younger sister was not born, so of course was not there. However, when we were younger and back in the UK, we used to talk of our memories in Africa. My sister remembers them all as her own memories.

Wytesoxx
Memories seem to pass through 'filters', like emotions, perceptions, prejudices, expectations, assumptions and hopes, which can distort them and cumulatively have a kind of Chinese whispers effect. Childhood memories in particular seem to reveal the imagination filling in gaps caused maybe by incomplete comprehension. In conversation with family members I've often found huge discrepancies in the way each of us remembers particular events. It seems we all have our own truths.

Penny
I retold a story about how I had fallen out of a top bunk on an overnight train when we went on a family holiday. I thought I was about 4 years old at the time. I found out when I retold the story in front of family members years later, that it wasn't me at all, it was my older brother that had fallen. I felt very stupid as I honestly thought the event had happened to me.

Michael Dowding
I'm 70yrs old and certainly worry about a poor memory. There are times I can hardly remember what I did yesterday. Of the instances given this morning, I can't remember where I was at the time.World cup date is mentioned so often, but I can't remember where I was at the time or the date of the other events. When I was about 8 yrs old I saw 2 airplanes collide in the sky and one crashed in a nearby field. I can remember bullets rattling on nearby roofs but was not scared. Three or 4 yrs ago John Levesley, a newcomer to the village, took it upon himself to to open a website about a local U.S. airdrome..ALG Winkton, and asked some of us lads for our memories. I told him about the crash and he contacted some military people who knew about all the Typhoon crashes in the Country and came back to me saying it was a figment of my imagination. I was talking to a 90 yr old family friend recently and he told me he remembers seeing it too. I contacted John L and he confirmed it to be correct...he had found out about it from another source, but did not have the courtesy to tell me. For all these years I had been thinking I had been going daft. I'm hoping to meet John soon and ask him to include it in my paragraph on his web site.

angharad davies
I have recently discovered that a memory I thought was true is in fact false. In someways this has made me foolish and embaressed. The memory concerns how my father proposed to my mother. They were playing a game of chess, and my father casually turns to my mother and says "well we might as well get married then" and my mother agrees. As I said this is a completely false memory, but I have told people that this is a truth for years, and its only recently while talking with my mother that I discovered that I had fabricated this event. I am confused at this false memory. Why did I make this up, and how did I beleieve this for years and years?

Gemma
I have recently started to suffer from false memory. I ‘remember’ having conversations that I haven’t had and doing things that I have not done (e.g. reading and deleting a message from my phone that never existed). These ‘memories’ seems so real and are experienced with a full recollection of my feelings at the time, location, smells etc. This has been an issue on a few occasions when I haven’t told someone information they need, because I ‘remember’ having done so already. I think I must be dreaming that I have said /done these things, and that the dreams are so vivid that they are entering into my memory and being recalled as such. My dreams have become extremely vivid since I moved to India and have been taking anti-malaria tablets.

Margaret
This is a fascinating topic and suggests extreme caution in prosecuting for example WW2 war crimes 60 years after the event, or the wave of child-abuse allegations from people who are now adult against the Catholic Church. I sit as a JP and in many trials witnesses have quite different (but presumably genuine) memories of what has happened in a case a few months previously. Police witnesses are always asked at what time their notes were written up, as a guide to the accuracy of the information. On another tack, collective memory is also of interest and I would suggest that this too can be manipulated and re-written. Look at Germany post WW2: the German people have redefined themselves as victims of Nazism. We are of course at liberty to accept or reject this position, but to many it would be offensive. Nevertheless it shows a conscious national effort to redefine events and, following on from this, to remember them differently.

David Samson
I am a Clinical Hypnotherapist specialising in regresssion hypnotherapy to allow patients to recover previously forgotten memories whilst they are in hypnosis. Whenever possible following a session, I encourage the patient to discuss the accuracy of the recovered memory with a parent for example. The results are quite astounding with even the finest details being remembered. From my experiences, accurate memory far outweighs false memory. David Samson Dip.Adv.Hyp.

Jeffers
For years I have recounted various 'memories'but recently I have become uncomfortable with those 'stories', suspecting that their origin may well be hearsay. The repetition of them has of course consolidated and embellished the 'facts' since the early tellings.

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