I’m going to keep this public service announcement short because I don’t think this is complicated… although entire communities of lawyers, police, medical practitioners, and journalists seem to just not get it. Even Stephen Fry from one of my favorite nerdy TV shows, QI, got this wrong recently.
Here’s how it works; you just say “false memory”, without adding the “syndrome” part. See how easy that was? The ill-conceived term “false memory syndrome” may have been uttered once or twice in the 1990s, but science is totally over it.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the core concept of false memories, let me give you a crash course.
False memories are memories of things that we did not actually experience. In other words, we can come to believe that we did things we didn’t do, and these recollections can feel and look like regular memories.
False memories can be partial or full. In essence, partial false memories occur when we misremember parts of events, such as thinking we bounced a ball when we really just picked it up. Full false memories occur when we misremember entire events, such as remembering getting lost in a shopping mall as a child even though this never actually happened to us.
As I demonstrate in my research, we can even come to generate richly detailed full false memories of entire events such as being attacked by a dog or committing a crime with that results in a run-in with police.
Why not a syndrome?
False memories may sound extraordinary, but they are far from it.
Normal people, with normal brains, have false memories all the time. Our brains are beautifully flexible, which allows us to have capacities like intelligence, creativity, and problem-solving. One price of this flexibility is that we sometimes get our memories wrong.
A syndrome, however, is not a normal feature. A syndrome is characterized by symptoms, and a symptom is “a physical or mental feature that is regarded as indicating a condition of disease”.
But false memories aren’t a disease. We all have them. Having them is healthy and normal. We may not like our false memories, and they can have disastrous legal repercussions, but even in the worst cases they are still just the products of healthy brains.
Consider this a desperate call from a memory scientist to get it together and stop with these semantic shenanigans.
This post is part of a series of articles that focus on debunking common misconceptions and beliefs about how our memory works.