Can our memory play tricks on us and plant false memories? The short answer is yes. When we have a distorted recall of an event or believe something happened that didn’t, we’re experiencing the phenomena of false memory. The most astounding thing about false memory is that you can feel entirely confident that you are remembering something correctly.
But evidence can then be presented that you were entirely mistaken. When considering false memory, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s rarely intentional. To put it another way, if you intentionally retell an event falsely, it’s not a false memory—you’re lying.
However, even though false memory creation is unintentional, it can still have harmful consequences. The criminal justice system is a great example of that. One of the areas where the phenomenon of false memory has been studied the most is within the criminal justice system. This research into the creation of false memory has shown how unreliable our long-term memories can actually be.
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Everyday False Memories
Everyone has experienced remembering something incorrectly or having missing pieces when trying to recall a recent event. Truly, the experience of false memories is universal. The reality is, not having a perfect memory of all the events in our lives doesn’t usually have profound consequences.
But this is not the case when it comes to the criminal justice system. Eyewitness testimony relies on the quality of the memory of the individual who takes the witness stand. If someone is reporting a false memory on the stand, they could end up convicting an individual of a crime they didn’t commit.
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In the 1990s, when DNA evidence became more widely used in the courtroom, the fallibility of eyewitness testimony was revealed. Now, numerous scientists and psychological researchers report on the fact that long-term memories can often be fairly unreliable. To understand the connection between false memory and the criminal justice system, it’s a good idea to look back at the origins of this phenomenon.
The Connection Between False Memory and Freud
To understand how we observe false memories in the courts, we have to go back to the man who is known as the “father of modern psychology,” Sigmund Freud. Freud was one of the first modern psychological practitioners, and he pioneered the concept of the unconscious. His theory included the suggestion that when we explored the unconscious through psychoanalysis, we could retrieve repressed memories.
Sigmund Freud laid the foundation for the modern practice of counseling and private therapy that is now provided all over the world by countless professionals. One such professional is Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, an American cognitive psychologist who specializes in false memories. Focusing primarily on how and why false memories are created, Dr. Loftus has aided in over a hundred different legal cases through the use of eyewitness testimony. Though work done by individuals like Dr. Loftus has helped to further the case for considering false memories as a valid resource, there have been some individuals who have refused to accept them.
This conflict came to a head in the 1990s, when new neurological research and understanding around the brain and memory were called into question. Researchers wanted to know whether repressed memories were real phenomena. Prior to this, many individuals had experienced recalling repressed memories through psychoanalysis. Many others had been sent to jail because of these memories.
Over time, research continued to demonstrate no scientific basis for the existence of repressed memories, and many scientists began taking the witness stand and casting doubt on the reports of eye-witness testimony. By the end of the ’90s, the therapeutic trend of recovering repressed memories had receded.
A recent survey showed that mainstream psychotherapists and practitioners are much more skeptical about the existence of repressed memories than they were twenty years ago1. But there is still a divide between psychological researchers and practitioners. Many therapists still believe that traumatic memories can be repressed as a young child and can be recalled through alternative techniques.
The Result of the “Memory Wars”
Regardless of your stance on repressed memories, one of the reasons that they became so controversial is because of what scientists have discovered about how memory works in the brain.
Researchers now understand that it is almost impossible to record memories into your long-term memory bank until after the age of three. So the recall memories from around or before this date are typically unreliable.
Another sign that a memory may be false is if your memory of the event changes slightly every time you remember it. This happens to some extent or another with most of your memories. But science has demonstrated that memories of traumatic events tend to be very visceral and clear. So even if someone hasn’t recalled a moment of trauma in years when their memory is triggered, it is usually quite potent.
So, if someone is speaking of a repressed memory of a traumatic event (this is especially common in legal cases), but the details shift between tellings, it can call the memory into question, and may even be a false memory2.
Finally, science has learned that another thing that can highly influence our formation of memories is when we are asked to recall things with individuals that we are very familiar with. Meaning, sometimes when other people remember events in a certain way, and we hear the story, the memory can become implanted in our brains.
We can sometimes begin to believe we were present to an event that we weren’t, or remember things closer to the story we recently heard from someone else as our own. Again, these mistakes of memory are rarely made intentionally. It’s just that remembering events perfectly is very difficult.
The Process of Recording Memories
To truly understand the difficulty of recalling events perfectly, and why it can be so easy to create false memories, it’s a good idea to fully grasp how memories are recorded into our long-term memory bank at all.
There are two general types of long-term memory. There is implicit memory, which is our brain’s capacity to remember how to speak, how to coordinate our hands and eyes, and how to navigate walking and other physical feats3. There’s also explicit memory. That’s the memory where we store our recollections about our past and all the data and information we’ve retained over our years of experience.
The three main areas of our brain that store our explicit memories are our hippocampus, our amygdala, and our prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus and amygdala are more foundation pieces of our brain. The prefrontal cortex includes a huge swath of our brain matter.
What research has demonstrated is that our memories are actually recorded twice. It is recorded once into the short-term memory, and then again in the long-term memory. And even more surprising, when we encode long-term memories, we actually reform the memory, including parts of the brain that weren’t stimulated during the original memory.
In this way, we can see how the transfer of short-term memories into long-term memories can result in the creation of errors in our memory of events, and even false memories. Research like this is what has called the memories of many eyewitnesses to be called into question.
False Memories and Social Cues/Pressure
There are other significant factors that can cause false memories to take hold in an individual. One of them being peer pressure. When there are other individuals who recall a memory that involves others, it can bring the recollection of that memory into another person’s head.
This has been documented in a variety of cases. It is part of the reason why individuals who are accused of a crime are tried in locations outside of where the crime occurred. This is especially true if there was media coverage of the crime.
The Verdict on False Memory
The reality is, our memories are often unreliable. There is a two-step process our brains must go through in order to create new memories. It involves a transfer of information from our short-term memories into our long-term memories. This process creates the opportunity for mistakes to be made around the quality of the memories that are transferred.
This doesn’t mean that we intentionally make things up. If we don’t remember all of the details of an event, often we do remember the emotional texture and experience of something. It is precisely this deep emotional memory that can have such a powerful effect on our lives. Exploring how memories are created, what circumstances create a false memory, and how to have a relationship with your memory that serves you for years to come is a beautiful journey.
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