Everyone is interested in memory, though most of us don’t do research into it. We don’t fully understand how memory works, or why it fades, or how we can save it.
Another research question is why we have wrong memories or false memories. False memory is the psychological phenomenon in which a person recalls a memory that did not actually occur. It has been considered in many legal cases regarding childhood sexual abuse. But researchers are more concerned with how this phenomenon occurs. Current research shows that a particular area of the brain called the temporal pole is activated during false recall.
One term used in these discussions is “flashbulb memory.” This is when we have a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid memory of a moment. These memories are almost always centered on emotionally arousing event. But experiments have regularly shown that these memories are very likely to change over time. I still recall the day that President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. I was 10 years old and the news was given to me in school. I remember that my classmate, Alice, came back from the front office crying because she had heard the news. I recall going to my Cub Scout meeting after school and being sent home. But I don’t know how I would have told the story in 1963 or in the years that followed. I know hat now I only recall a few moments of that day and those are the ones I have repeated over the years. It is not a false memory, just a fading one – unless I was to find out that it was not Alice who told us or some other details were wrong.
You may have a similar experience with events like the Challenger explosion, the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech or New Town or 9/11.
An interesting other kind of memory is when we have an approximate recollection of something, often referred to as a gist memory. We retain an overall concept that you store in memory, but that concept that can lead us to build a false memory.
When false memories become a prevalent part of your life that it affects your day-to-day life, it is known as false memory syndrome. Having false memories doesn’t have to be that serious though.
“Humans have a vast store of concepts, and we’re exceptionally good at using those concepts to make generalisations that allow us to come up with solutions to new situations and problems,” writes Simon J. Makin.
“Creating the gist” can be helpful for retrieving true memories. Fuzzy-trace theory is a way of trying to understand why false memories occur.
And false memories can be manufactured deliberately. It sounds like science-fiction but scientists can implant false memories in the brains of research subjects. It can be done unwittingly when police, lawyers or reporters deal with eyewitnesses to an event.
And sometimes, your brain will call up false memories all on its own.