False memories, real implications

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False memories (Image Scout; CC BY; edited)

“When I was young, my dad and his best friend went fishing in a very remote part of the NZ bush. They got lost and somehow crashed into a tree. The story was often recollected and retold at gatherings of family and friends. I always thought I remembered the crash so clearly as I was in the car at the time, belted in the back seat.. It was a scary but exhilarating experience for a child. However, I was told as a young adult that [I was] never there.”


The Freud Museum in London was recently home to a fascinating collaboration between artist A.R. Hopwood, prominent psychologists, and members of the public. This touring exhibition, called “False Memory Archive”, showcased creative reconstructions of people’s false memories. Since early 2012, Hopwood has been gathering anecdotes of distorted or entirely made-up memories (like the one above), which he later turns into artistic displays. Supported by the Wellcome Trust, this project has bridged the gap between science and art by using imaginative interpretations of established, but somewhat controversial, scientific findings to highlight the fallibility of our memories.

Implanting false memories

A false memory is one that did not actually occur, but feels real to the person recalling it. As absurd as it may seem that we can remember things that didn’t even happen, it is not a rare phenomenon.

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus is at the forefront of research on false memories, and was one of the psychologists who joined forces with Hopwood on his project. Experiments on memory distortion typically try to alter a memory for an event that was actually experienced. Loftus, however, is one of the pioneers of a slightly different league of experiments – one where she implants memories for things that never actually happened.

One of her earliest and most famous experiments is the “Lost in a mall” study, which aimed to convince people that they had once been lost in a shopping mall as a child. A fifth of the study participants ultimately believed they had in fact experienced being lost, even though it had not happened. Some even went so far as to “remember” the elderly person who helped them out!

Since then, Loftus has conducted and published several prominent experiments that highlight the imperfections of memory. She showed that by doctoring photographs of major political protests, it was possible to change people’s descriptions of those events, an experiment that was informally but effectively replicated by Slate magazine. She has convinced people that they had once broken a window with their hand, and has even misled a few study participants into believing that they had witnessed a demonic possession during their childhood.

Loftus isn’t alone in her endeavours. Others have swayed subjects into thinking they had dropped a bowl of punch on someone at a wedding and that they had once been hospitalized overnight with a blinding pain, even though these events were entirely fabricated by the experimenters. In fact, more recently, scientists at the RIKEN-MIT Center have even successfully implanted false memories in mice!

The power of suggestion: people who are described a false memory tend to adopt it as their own.  Hyman, 1998: When the interviewer first describes the false event, most people accurately state that they don’t remember it. By the second or third interview, some of the participants tend to come up with detailed recollections of the false event.
The power of suggestion: people who are described a false memory tend to adopt it as their own. Hyman, 1998: When the interviewer first describes the false event, most people accurately state that they don’t remember it. By the second or third interview, some of the participants tend to come up with detailed recollections of the false event.

Controversies surrounding false memories

Clearly our memories are imperfect, and with the passage of time, they fade, become distorted and may even be fabricated. However, research on false memories has been the subject of much controversy, particularly within the legal arena, in cases of childhood sexual abuse (CSA).

Loftus has served as an expert witness on numerous criminal cases, which rely solely on eyewitness testimony or repressed memories. One of her earlier cases was that of Holly Ramona, who alleged that her father, Gary, had repeatedly sexually abused her. Nineteen at the time of the accusation, Holly had recovered repressed memories of the alleged abuse during a course of therapy for bulimia, under the guidance of her therapist Dr. Marche Isabella.

In the early sessions, the therapist told Holly that most bulimics were sexually abused as a child, and encouraged her to remember the details. Holly was given sodium amytal, a hypnotic drug that she was told was a “truth serum”, and during that interview, she began to recall memories of CSA.

After consistently denying the charges, and losing his wife, job and children due to the trial, Gary Ramona accused Holly’s therapists of implanting false memories of CSA during her therapy sessions. This was the first time that a court allowed a therapist to be sued for implanting false memories and with Loftus’ help, and that of many others, Ramona was subsequently awarded $500,000 as compensation for his troubles. Sodium amytal treatment is now considered a dubious therapy technique, as people can be easily coerced into believing false events while under the influence.

In her article “The Reality of Repressed Memories”, Loftus discusses how repeated exposure to leading questions during therapy can be counterintuitive to accurate recollection. For instance, suggestive questions like Your symptoms sound like you’ve been abused when you were a child. What can you tell me about that?” are not uncommon during therapy. Further, even when patients deny the occurrence of abuse, therapists have been known to ask them to “guess, or tell a story”, or interpret their dreams as signs of memory of abuse.

In the account, Loftus also lists several incidents where people go into therapy without any memories of abuse, but come out of it with vivid recollections of CSA. When she testifies at the trials, she usually discusses her experiments demonstrating the power of misinformation and suggestion in altering memory, and argues for the unreliability of our memories. She stresses that a detailed recollection of an event cannot, by itself, be taken as a confirmation that the event actually occurred, and must always be supported by corroborating evidence.

However, her expertise is sometimes mistaken for lack of consideration, and she has become the target of several feminist groups who claim that Loftus’ work undermines the credibility of victims of CSA. “I do not question the commonness of childhood sexual abuse itself but ask here about how the abuse is recalled in the minds of adults”, she says in her article.

Can we test if a memory is false? 

Testing if a memory is true or false is conceptually difficult; after all, when one believes a memory to be true, there is no way of disproving it. Instead of assessing the accuracy of existing memories, cognitive psychologists turn to studying the behavioural and physiological responses to implanted false memories.

One of the simplest tests to study false memories is the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) paradigm where people hear a list of words, like:

bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, drowsy.”

Immediately after, they are asked to recall the words. We already know that people usually remember the first few and last few words with greater accuracy than the words in the middle of the list, i.e., there is a strong “primacy” and “recency” effect.

However, what’s interesting is that people are also more likely to recall the root word (i.e. the one from which all the other words were derived e.g. sleep), which does not appear on the list, more often than the words in the middle of the list! When Roediger and McDermott asked their participants about their memories after the test, most of them said that not only did the word “sleep” seemed familiar, but that they actually remembered it being uttered.

The DRM paradigm has been used to study memory in victims of CSA. Several reports state that women who recover repressed memories of CSA are more likely to falsely recall root words on the test than those women who have always known they were abused as a child. These studies agree that people who recall repressed memories are more prone to false recognition than others.

One of the major criticisms of these tests is that since they are run in a laboratory setting, using simple word lists and pictures, they can hardly be relevant to memories of traumatic experiences like sexual abuse. However,  from all the research out there, it is safe to conclude that our memories are easily distorted over time, and we must rely on more substantial evidence when it comes to real world implications like imprisonment.

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Sana Suri
Sana is a Neuroscience PhD student in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford. She studies genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Tweets from @sanasuri
Sana Suri

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