Every memory you have ever had is chock-full of errors. I would even go as far as saying that memory is largely an illusion.
This is because our perception of the world is deeply imperfect, our brains only bother to remember a tiny piece of what we actually experience, and every time we remember something we have the potential to change the memory we are accessing.
I often write about the ways in which our memory leads us astray, with a particular focus on ‘false memories.’ False memories are recollections that feel real but are not based on actual experience.
For this particular article I invited a few top memory researchers to comment on what they wish everyone knew about their field.
First up, we have Elizabeth Loftus from the University of California, Irvine, who is one of the founders of the area of false memory research, and is considered one of the most ‘eminent psychologists of the 20th century.’
Elizabeth Loftus says you need independent evidence to corroborate your memories.
According to Loftus: “The one take home message that I have tried to convey in my writings, and classes, and in my TED talk is this: Just because someone tells you something with a lot of confidence and detail and emotion, it doesn't mean it actually happened. You need independent corroboration to know whether you're dealing with an authentic memory, or something that is a product of some other process.”
Next up, we have memory scientist Annelies Vredeveldt from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, who has done fascinating work on how well we remember when we recall things with other people.
Annelies Vredeveldt says to be careful how you ask questions about a memory.
According to Vredeveldt: “What I'd like everyone to know is how (not) to probe for a memory of an event.
When you are trying to get a story out of someone, be it about a witnessed crime or a wild night out, it seems natural to ask them lots of questions about it. However, asking closed questions, such as ‘what was the color of his hair?’ or worse, leading questions, such as ‘he was a redhead, wasn't he?’ often leads to incorrect answers.
It is much better to let the person tell the story of their own accord, without interrupting and without asking questions afterwards. At most, you might want to ask the person if they can tell you a bit more about something they mentioned, but limit yourself to an open and general prompt such as ‘can you tell me more about that?’
Research shows that stories told in response to free-recall prompts are much more accurate than stories told in response to a series of closed questions. So if you really want to get to the bottom of something, restrain yourself and don't ask too many questions!”
Finally, we have Chris French from Goldsmiths, University of London, who has done decades of research on anomalous and paranormal memories, and believes that some of these may be the result of false memories.
Chris French wants you to stop believing common memory myths.
“My top 5 take-home messages on memory:
1. Memory does not work like a video camera, accurately recording all of the details of witnessed events. Instead, memory (like perception) is a constructive process. We typically remember the gist of an event rather than the exact details.
2. When we construct a memory, errors can occur. We will typically fill in gaps in our memories with what we think we must have experienced not necessarily what we actually did experience. We may also include misinformation we encountered after the event. We will not even be consciously aware that this has happened.
3. We not only distort memories for events that we have witnessed, we may have completely false memories for events that never occurred at all. Such false memories are particularly likely to arise in certain contexts, such as (unintentionally) through the use of certain dubious psychotherapeutic techniques or (intentionally) in psychology experiments.
4. There is no convincing evidence to support the existence of the psychoanalytic concept of repression, despite it being a widely accepted concept.
5. There is currently no way to distinguish, in the absence of independent evidence, whether a particular memory is true or false. Even memories which are detailed and vivid and held with 100 percent conviction can be completely false.”
The take home message remains: Your memory is incredibly malleable. Because you often cannot spot a false memory once it has taken hold, the only way to prevent false memories is to know that they exist and to avoid things that facilitate them.
Want to learn more about the science of false memory? Learn about the work of Loftus, Vredeveldt, French, and hundreds of other fascinating memory scientists in my new book The Memory Illusion.