False Memories Are Made Of This.

Memories are sometimes good and sometimes bad, but they may not be accurate. Sometimes we compress things and even remember the wrong person being present. Worst of all, we can feel convinced we did something which it turns out we didn’t actually do.

We can believe strongly in these false memories, but what happens when we find out that some of those fond memories (or bad ones) didn’t actually occur? Do we abandon them entirely so they are forgotten, or have those pesky neurons got those robust connections so the pictures still play across the screen in our head even though we know it didn’t happen?

It turns out that we don’t have to believe something happened to picture it happening to us. This week Clark et al report on their experiments to create false memories in 20 of their unsuspecting students (1). The memories weren’t of anything memorable. They had the students copy the experimenter doing simple actions such as clapping their hands, rubbing the table with the palms of their hands or covering their faces. All the while they were video taped.

After one session they introduced some fake shots of the experimenter doing things that they hadn’t done in the monkey see – monkey do session. After giving them some anagrams to solve to help put their memories into the closet, they were shown the tapes of the experimenter and had to say which they had seen and copied.

After a four-hour break, the experimenters ’fessed up and then got the students to rate their memories of performing the actions. So, what were the results? Firstly, the false memories were easily and effectively planted. Secondly, even after they were told about the fakes and they didn’t believe that they had completed those particular actions, they still had memories of doing them.

This result has some really scary implications as it seems that we can easily be fooled into remembering we done something when we have not done it and don’t even believe we have, but that worrying little picture is playing among our brain cells.

I guess it is even more important than ever to remind our politicians about what they actually did to help demolish their false memories of doing a splendid job for us all.

  1. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0032998

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