What’s the Deal with False Memories?

Have you ever gone on a summer vacation to an amusement park and had the misfortune of experiencing conditions such as overpriced tickets, long lines, sweltering heat and crabby party members? Months later, when pressed to recall the vacation experience, did you remember it that way? Or when the vacation popped into your mind, did your memory queue up images of everyone having a blast?

Memory is a tricky thing. Our memories are generally not as reliable as we think and false memories can manifest easily, even among people who usually have very good memories.

A false memory is a mental experience that is mistaken for a factual portrayal of an event from one’s personal past. Memories can be false in small ways (e.g. thinking you left your keys in a certain spot); to significant ways (e.g. thinking a decision had been your own idea when really it was planted).

The vacation example is fairly benign. In that case, your mind slightly alters the memory for the better and perhaps you wind up with another less than stellar getaway by choosing the amusement park again.  But what about more profound implications, such as mistakenly believing you’d been sexually abused as a child? Or that you’d witnessed a crime? Can that happen? Does that happen?

While it might be difficult for many people to believe, everyone has some kind of false memories. Here are a few different scenarios:

Remembering With Rose-Tinted Glasses

One type of false memory is that of the idealized memory or “remembering with rose-tinted glasses.” Remembering a vacation or holiday as idealized might not do too much harm, but forgetting how destructive certain behaviors are can be a slippery slope for an addict like myself.  Because I am psychologically and chemically addicted to disordered eating,  in terms of  abstinence, I must stay cognizant of its potentially fatal consequences.  The disordered part of my brain is continuously attempting to trick me into falsely remembering my relapses of anorexia through glamorization or “rose-tinted glasses.”

Creating False Memories Through Framing Questions & Police Interrogation

Through the power of suggestion, we can be made to recall events that never happened, or in less extreme cases, change the details of things that really did happen.  This can and has happened in police interrogations.  Sometimes, people feel pressured to summon false memories from their recollection when they’ve been imposed upon them through framing questions.  A suggestive lie told can take root in a suspect’s mind and their imagination simply runs with it.

Psychologist Saul Kassin has studied interrogation and false confession for decades. He says that social pressure can make innocent people admit to wrongdoing. “Lying puts innocent people at risk, and there’s a hundred years of psychology to show it,” he says.

For example, in 1988, in Long Island, New York, Martin Tankleff was harshly interrogated after calling the police when he found his parents bleeding on the floor.  He had found his mother dead and his father nearly dead.  Tankleff was interrogated for five hours. Finally, an officer manipulated him into a confession by telling him that his father had regained consciousness temporarily, named his son as the killer, and died thereafter.

Tankleff confessed, believing he must have somehow killed his parents and blocked it out.  He served 17 years before they found the actual killer and overturned the ruling.  By the power of interrogation, then suggestion through the officer’s lie, Tankleff’s imagination had run wild and he sincerely believed he had killed his parents.

Kassin condemns the practice of lying to suspects and advocates for a change in U.S. policy.  It  is illegal in some countries, but not in the U.S.

The Power of Hypnotic Suggestion: Creating An Entire Event

Sometimes false memories sometimes are created in response to suggestion based therapies such as hypnosis. In this scenario, an individual recollects a memory that did not actually occur.  The events recalled are actually related to ideas they’ve been exposed to in their day-to-day lives, such as what’s happening in the media or with acquaintances known.  Hypnosis in and of itself is highly suggestive in nature and some experts believe that it could lead to the development or intensification of false memories or even false memory syndrome in severe cases.

Eyewitness Testimony: Memories in Court

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus of Stanford University launched a controversial series of studies about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony.  She claimed that memories are both malleable and unreliable, and using eyewitness testimony in court cases involving serious and violent crimes isn’t helpful.

Furthermore, she suggests that because of the absence of convincing scientific evidence to support one’s capacity to summon repressed memories of traumatic experiences, using the victims themselves to testify against their accused attackers isn’t advisable either.  Loftus has testified in many cases to this effect.

Many psychologists and therapists strongly disagree with her stance. Her opinion is quite controversial in the women’s and victims’ rights circles as well.  They feel as though Loftus undermines victims’ credibility in the eyes of the general public and mass media.

False Memory Syndrome

A person may come to believe the traumatic details of a false memory and it can disable their ability to function normally in their everyday life. The experience has been labeled as false memory syndrome, although there is some doubt as to its existence as a condition.

Dissociative Amnesia

Individuals with dissociative amnesia have recurrent episodes in which they forget events or personal information which is usually connected with some kind of trauma. Dissociative amnesia was formerly called “psychogenic amnesia.” Dissociative amnesia is classified by the DSMV and is one of the dissociative disorders.  In this case, the individual is not suffering from false or corrupted memories, but have true repressed memories which are localized, selective, generalized, continuous, and systemized.

Should fear of memory malleability or memory corruption deter us from seeking help if we believe trauma has occurred in our past and it has been repressed?  What about the fear of not being believed?  I don’t think any of the above situations mentioned should serve as a deterrent from seeking therapy.  Everyone deserves a chance to be heard, believed, and helped.    


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