Remember the last time you were at an event where you almost struck an argument with a friend or a family member because you recall something differently? ?

You both were present but somehow your version is different from theirs. Just because you remember something doesn’t mean it actually happened.

This occurs due to the fact that our memory is not as perfect as we think it is ? It can also be altered over time as we add false details and change facts without even realizing. A famous physiologist of the 20th century, Elizabeth Loftus, also supported the argument after conducting successful experiments on the minds of healthy people. Her research concluded that 70% of the participants believed that they had committed a crime such as theft, assault, or assault with a weapon, simply by suggestive questions in interviews ?

Most of the times, false memories do not have real consequences. However, in serious matters like criminal testimony, they do play an important role and if the false memory is relayed during the time, it can lead to an innocent person being held guilty. Since it can have a significant implication in such matters, false memory is something that needs to be taken seriously. With all that being said, what do we define as ‘false memories’? ?

False memories are mental experiences that people believe are an actual representation of past events. It is not about mixing up and adding details of the things we experience but it is about remembering things that never even occurred in the first place.

It can be something trivial like believing you locked the door or something grave like falsely accusing of a person being present in the crime scene ?

So, why do false memories happen? There are many reasons that attribute to false memories such as misinformation and inaccurate perception from the original source of information and event. Existing knowledge and old memories could interfere with the formation of a new one, leading to the deviation from the true recollection of events. Many researchers argue that the accuracy of event recollection increases with age and that children are more susceptible to falsification of memories due to suggestions and repetitive questions ? This is why before the ’90s, courtrooms of countries like the USA were hesitant in having children come forward as witnesses. Not all psychologists agreed with this.

Two research scientists, Charles Brainerd and Valerie F. Reyna proposed the ‘Fuzzy Trace Theory’. This was in stark contrast with the former notion and suggested that adults are more capable of having false memories. This dwelled on ‘developmental reversal’ where a skill actually gets worse with age ? It asserts that we have two types of memory: verbatim and gist. Verbatim memory is when we can remember something in detail and accurately while gist memories are fuzzy representations of a past event hence why the theory is called “fuzzy trace.”

Adults rely more on gist memory for handling day to day tasks because they require lower cognitive demand than verbatim memory. This leads to generalizing ideas and memories for similar themes which increases error in remembering information. To explain this better, experiments were conducted by giving a set of simple words like ‘sleep,’ ‘food’, ‘drink’, etc. to adults and after a period of time, the majority could only falsely recall synonyms of the term which were not in the list. This confirmed the legitimacy of the said theory ?

Another way false memory happen is through trauma and emotions. Studies have shown that people who have gone through trauma or have been under depression are more likely to produce fabricated stories of events.  Our minds often create a distorted narrative in order to cope up with the pain caused by such negativity ? This concept is even seen in action in the final episode of Sherlock Holmes’ season 4. Sherlock Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, has forgotten about his sister due to the trauma he endured in his childhood from her. His memories of his best friend being killed by her were distorted to the point where he couldn’t remember having a friend but a dog in his early years. The plotline in the finale clearly explains how people repress their emotions from hurt and anger and rewrite a memory to let them sleep better at night ?

While it might be difficult to accept, false memories aren’t a rare occurrence, and everyone has them.  This might make some people concerned about how they see things in the world but that always isn’t the case. It helps us feel safer and live our lives with less pain and worry. On a good note, false memories are mostly harmless and may give you a good laugh when your childhood story doesn’t match with how your grandmother remembers it ?

Written and researched by Jain Susan Thomas

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