The Mechanics of Memory

False memories

The ease with which a false memory could be created was demonstrated by an experiment conducted in 2001 by University of Washington memory researchers Jacquie E. Pickrell and Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus. About one-third of the 120 subjects in the experiment who were exposed to a fake advertisement showing Bugs Bunny at Disneyland later said that they had also met the cartoon character when they visited Disneyland and had even shaken his hand. Such a scenario could never have occurred in real life, because Bugs Bunny is a cartoon character owned by Warner Brothers and would not be seen walking around Disneyland with such cartoon creations as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Pickrell, a doctoral student in psychology, stated that the study suggested how easily a false memory can be created and just how vulnerable and malleable memory is. The experiment also demonstrated how people might create many of their autobiographical references and memories. Even the nostalgic advertising employed by many commercial companies can lead individuals to remember experiences that they never really had.

Loftus, professor of psychology and adjunct professor of law at the University of Washington, began her research into memory distortion in the 1970s. When she wrote an article on creating false memories for the September 1997 issue of Scientific American, Loftus and her students had conducted more than 200 experiments documenting how exposure to misinformation may induce memory distortion. Loftus and her colleagues found that memories are more easily modified when a significant amount of time has passed between the event and the recollection. The researchers also found that individuals who have witnessed a particular event, such as an automobile accident, may have their recollections distorted when they are later exposed to new and misleading information concerning the event.

While it is understandable that details of a particular memory might change over time, Loftus and her research associate, Pickrell, decided to undertake the challenge of determining how false memories could be implanted in an individual's mind. Over the course of a series of interviews, 29 percent of the 24 subjects claimed to remember a fictitious event that had been constructed for them by the researchers. In two follow-up interviews, 25 percent continued to insist that the event had actually occurred to them. "The study provides evidence that people can be led to remember their past in different ways," Loftus said, "and they can be coaxed into 'remembering' entire events that never happened."

Loftus's more than 30 years of research into the various processes of memory have led her to suggest that false memories are often created by three common methods: yielding to social or professional demands to recall particular events; imagining events when experiencing difficulty remembering; and being encouraged to abandon critical thinking regarding the truth of their memory constructions.

False memories, according to Loftus and her research colleagues, are most often constructed "by combining actual memories with the content of suggestions received from others." During such a process, individuals may experience source confusion and forget how much of the memory is valid and how much came from external sources.

In March 1998, a report commissioned by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in England accused its own members of having destroyed innocent lives by implanting false memories by using irresponsible techniques of delving into patients' childhood events. According to the report, nearly 1,000 parents stated that they had been falsely accused of sexual abuse after their adult children allegedly recovered such memories of the attacks during psychotherapy.

Dr. Sydney Brandon, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Leicester University, warned his colleagues that such incidents of alleged recovered memories could bring the whole of psychiatry into disrepute. When such memories of abuse are brought forth after long periods, sometimes decades of amnesia, Brandon said, there is a high probability that they are false.

In the November 1998 issue of the journal Psychological Science, Dr. C. J. Brainerd and Dr. V. F. Reyna of the University of Arizona in Tucson published their findings that many individuals often believed more strongly in suggested, false memories than in actual recollections of events. Police interviews and psychotherapy sessions are structured around a theme that is designed to help a witness or a patient remember scenes of the past. Psychoanalysis is motivated by the task of uncovering a past trauma and may involve a series of questions that may lead a patient to accept a suggested, rather than an actual, truth. When strong themes are operative in such explorations of memory, the researchers state, things that were not really experienced can seem more real to the individual than his or her actual experiences.

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