We often think of memories as being like videos or photographs. If you think of what you did yesterday, you can probably remember images, maybe sounds. But sometimes we can remember things incorrectly or even remember something that didn’t happen. So how does this work?
Is memory like a photograph?
Our memory is more like a whiteboard than a photograph. We experience something, and our brain writes it down. Not everything is written down, and some things are rubbed off. When we come back to the memory, we sometimes change details based on new information. For example, you might meet your friend and she seems happy. However, you later find out that she had just got a bad mark on a test. You might then remember her being sad. This shows that your memories can change.
What about false memories?
What about when we remember something that never happened? The ‘Lost in the Mall’ experiment asked participants about a time when they were lost in a mall as a child. The participants often gave extra information, such as how they were found by an elderly woman, or that their mother was angry at them. However, none of the participants had ever been lost in a mall. All the details they gave were completely made-up!
Why do false memories happen?
Our memory can be affected by other people’s suggestions. Like a whiteboard, our memory can be written on by other people, not just us. This could be adaptive. Humans are social and so allowing our memory to take into account other people’s memories could strengthen our memories and keep us safe. For example, if someone remembers seeing a dangerous animal yesterday, your brain making that into one of your memories means you are more likely to avoid the dangerous animal.
How can we tell false memories apart from real ones?
A lot of the time, we cannot. Lots of our memories are affected by what other people say. For example, you might be remembering a teacher you had and your friend says that the teacher had a purple shirt on. You might suddenly remember the shirt, and that might be a false memory. However, participants in false memory experiments have reported that their false memories had less detail than real memories.
Why are false memories a problem?
A lot of the time, false memories are just part of how our memory works. However, there are times when it is important to know if it’s a false memory. For example, in eyewitness testimony. Police officers have to be trained in how to ask witnesses questions so that they do not form false memories. For example, if a police officer says “Was the car blue?”, the witness might create a false memory that it was. This could prevent the criminal from being found.
False memories show us a lot about how our memory works. We now know that memories are not perfect photographs of events, but are rebuilt all the time.