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Behind The Science of False Memories

Author: Winnie Mok

Editors: Hwi-On Lee, Misha Wichita

Artist: Emily Tai

It would be convenient to think of our memories as objective video recordings of the events that play out in our lives—however, that is not the case. While we treat our recollections of the past as set in stone from the time we create those memories to when we recall them, we are often subject to factors that distort our memories without us realizing. This phenomenon of forming false memories occurs much more frequently than we might think. Though “false memories” sounds like someone who may be suffering from memory loss or a concussion, it is as simple as believing that you packed an item into your suitcase when in reality, you left it at home. Or, you might have sworn that you had eaten a sandwich for breakfast earlier, but that was what you had yesterday. In short, false memories are less threatening but also much more common than they sound—they simply are the inaccurate recollection of an event or the creation of a new memory that never occurred. 

So what exactly causes a false memory? The human brain couldn’t be so malleable that it would create false recollections without any rhyme or reason. Yet, one significant factor contributing to this experience is suggestion, where external influences can plant seeds of false information in our minds. This can happen through leading questions, misleading data, or even subtle cues. Psychologists have conducted numerous experiments that illustrate the effect of suggestions in forming or producing new memories. For example, in a study conducted by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, participants were shown a video of a car accident and later questioned about the speed of the cars involved. However, when prompting the participants, the researchers used slightly different versions to describe the two cars coming into contact. The participants that were asked, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” reported higher numbers than those asked the same question but with the word “hit” instead of “smashed.” The result concluded that the choice of words in what seemed to be a simple question was able to completely alter the participants’ memories. 

Memory alterations can also arise from repeated exposure to misinformation or crowd mentality. Although we may have our own impressions of specific events, when multiple people continually maintain otherwise, our memories begin to distort. The Mandela Effect exemplifies this and refers to a collective false memory shared by a large group of people who claim to remember facts, details, or events in a different way from how it was actually played out. The term originated from the popular misconception that former South African president Nelson Mandela passed away in prison in the 1980s, even though he passed away in 2013. The prevalence of this phenomenon highlights the impact of social influence and shared misinformation, especially as we live in a world where knowledge is so accessible. 

While most instances of false memories are harmless, they can have serious consequences, especially in court or judicial proceedings. Eye-witness testimony is often used in criminal trials, but if inaccurate, they can lead to false convictions. Innocent individuals may be wrongly accused based on the distorted recollection of the witness. Although we cannot actively control how our brains process and store memories, understanding the factors that contribute to false memories is crucial in mitigating their potential impact or consequences. 



 

Citations

Cherry, Kendra. “How False Memories Are Formed in Your Brain.” Verywell Mind,

Holland, Kimberly. “False Memory: What You Need to Know.” Healthline, 23 Apr. 2019,

McLeod, Saul. “Loftus and Palmer (1974): Car Crash Experiment.” Simply Psychology, 16

Perera, Ayesh . “False Memory in Psychology: Examples & More.” Simply Psychology, 7 July

Travers, Mark . “The Mandela Effect: How Do Collective False Memories Work? |

Psychology Today.” Psychology Today, 2 Dec. 2023,

www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/social-instincts/202312/the-mandela-effect-how-

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