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The Science Behind Our False Memories

Updated: Mar 7

Author: Suhani Patel

Editors: Galiba Anjum and Simran Gohel

Artists: Daelah Nicholas

Although memories seem to be solid and straightforward to most people, strong evidence suggests that memories are much more complex, subject to change, and often simply unreliable. Memories of past events can be reconstructed either as people age or as their views and beliefs change. People regularly recall childhood events falsely, and through effective suggestions and various methods, it's been proven that they can even create new false memories. Mind-blowing right?

Why exactly are memories fallible? Research suggests that when an individual has a poor memory, the brain reactivates the memory in a similar situation and then updates it. However, These memories can be wrongly reactivated in a similar, but irrelevant situation, updating it with an irrelevant event which in turn causes the memory to become incorrect – creating a new and entirely different memory. Researchers have identified three main psychological factors responsible for creating false memories: inferences, interferences, and similarities.


False memories may arise from inferences made during an event. The witness to a crime is actively trying to figure out what is going on during the event and uses prior knowledge to make sense of what is happening. Humans are biased to extract meaning from events, and this may lead to confusion about what actually happened and what was inferred from the situation. It may also lead to the forgetting of non-semantic details since people typically focus more on meaning rather than perceptual and phonological details. For example, most people will fail to draw details on a penny when asked to, even though they have likely handled thousands of pennies in their lifetime; successfully using a penny does not require one to know the direction of Lincoln’s head or the exact wording on the coin.


Normally, memories are retrieved after considerable time has passed, meaning that many events could have occurred after a memory was stored. Latter events may interfere with retrieval of the original event; for example, Spanish learned in college may come to mind when trying to remember one’s high school French. Or an eyewitness who may read newspaper accounts about a crime, answer the investigator’s questions, talk to other witnesses, and imagine the event in her mind’s eye. All of these may yield representations that differ from what actually happened, and these new memories may block access to memories of the actual event. For example in one study, subjects watched a slideshow of an automobile accident, which included an image showing a red car approaching a yield sign. Later, some participants were asked: “Did another car pass the red car while it was stopped at the stop sign?” This question contained an incorrect presupposition (that there was a stop sign) and affected later memory. The subjects’ ability to identify the original image (depicting the yield sign) dropped after answering the misleading question.

The suggestion does not need to come from an external source; describing a face reduces a witness’ ability to pick it out of a line-up, imagining an event can lead the subject to later thinking she completed the action and telling a story about an event may bias the storyteller’s later memory for that event.


Consider some of the problems that may arise when one tries to recognize whether or not an event occurred in the past. Recognition tests ask subjects to make decisions about whether or not they have seen each of a series of words, objects, or people before, and some of the test items are old (studied) and some are new.

The eyewitness lineup is an example of an everyday recognition test. False memories can arise when subjects (incorrectly) endorse new items on a recognition test due to their similarity to original events. Imagine the witness to a crime sees a male perpetrator in clear daylight and gives a description of the man to police. Later the police apprehend a man fitting the description and put him into a line-up with other people fitting the same description. Witnesses pick the suspect out of the line-up (the recognition test), and he is later convicted of the crime. However, several years later, after being captured in an unrelated incident, another man who looks like the convicted man confesses to the original crime and he also possesses information about the crime that only the perpetrator could know. In this case, the man originally convicted of the crime was falsely recognized because of his visual similarity to the actual culprit.

While this is a hypothetical example, it is backed up by numerous research all of which shows that exposure to similar events can create illusory memories, with a person confusing the original parts of the original memory with things that may seem vaguely similar - or in their mind, the exact same.



News. Researcher Show How False Memories Are Formed: Northwestern University News.

Dodgson, L. (2017, December 19). Our brains sometimes create 'false memories' - but science

suggests we could be better off this way. Business Insider.

Sussex Publishers. False Memories. Psychology Today.

Sussex Publishers. False Memories. Psychology Today.

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