A false memory is a memory that is a distortion of an actual experience or a confabulation of an imagined one. Many false memories involve confusing or mixing fragments of memory events, some of which may have happened at different times but which are remembered as occurring together. Many false memories involve an error in source memory. Some involve treating dreams as if they were playbacks of real experiences. Still other false memories are believed to be the result of the prodding, leading, and suggestions of therapists and counselors. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus has shown not only that it is possible to implant false memories, but that it is relatively easy to do so (Loftus 1994).
A memory of your mother throwing a glass of milk on your father when in fact it was your father who threw the milk is a false memory based on an actual experience. You may remember the event vividly and be able to “see” the action clearly, but only corroboration by those present can determine whether your memory of the event is accurate. Distortions such as switching the roles of people in one’s memory are quite common. Some distortions are quite dramatic, as you will see from the examples given below.
Many people have vivid and substantially accurate memories of events that are erroneous in one key aspect: the source of the memory. For example:
In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan repeatedly told a heartbreaking story of a World War II bomber pilot who ordered his crew to bail out after his plane had been seriously damaged by an enemy hit. His young belly gunner was wounded so seriously that he was unable to evacuate the bomber. Reagan could barely hold back his tears as he uttered the pilot’s heroic response: “Never mind. We’ll ride it down together.” …this story was an almost exact duplicate of a scene in the 1944 film A Wing and a Prayer. Reagan had apparently retained the facts but forgotten their source (Schacter 1996, p. 287).
An even more dramatic case of source amnesia (also called memory misattribution) is that of the woman who accused memory expert Dr. Donald Thompson of having raped her. Thompson was doing a live interview for a television program just before the rape occurred. The woman had seen the program and “apparently confused her memory of him from the television screen with her memory of the rapist” (Schacter 1996, p. 114). Studies by Marcia Johnson et al. (1979) have shown that the ability to distinguish memory from imagination depends on the recall of source information.
Tom Kessinger, a mechanic at Elliott’s Body Shop in Junction City, Kansas, gave a detailed description of two men he said had rented a Ryder truck like the one used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. One of the men looked like Timothy McVeigh, who was later executed for the murder of 168 people including 19 children under the age of 6. The other wore a baseball cap and a T-shirt and had a tattoo above the elbow on his left arm. That was Todd Bunting, who had rented a truck the day before McVeigh. Kessinger mixed the two memories but was absolutely certain the two came in together.
Jean Piaget, the great child psychologist, claimed that his earliest memory was of nearly being kidnapped at the age of two. He remembered details such as sitting in his baby carriage, watching the nurse defend herself against the kidnapper, scratches on the nurse’s face, and a police officer with a short cloak and a white baton chasing the kidnapper away. The story was reinforced by the nurse, the family, and others who had heard the story. Piaget was convinced that he remembered the event. However, it never happened. Thirteen years after the alleged kidnapping attempt, Piaget’s former nurse wrote to his parents to confess that she had made up the entire story. Piaget later wrote: “I therefore must have heard, as a child, the account of this story…and projected it into the past in the form of a visual memory, which was a memory of a memory, but false” (Tavris 1993).
Remembering being kidnapped when you were an infant (under the age of three) is a false memory almost by definition. The left inferior prefrontal lobe is undeveloped in infants but is required for long-term memory. The elaborate encoding required for classifying and remembering such an event is very unlikely to occur in the infant’s brain.
The brains of infants and very young children are capable of storing fragmented memories, however. Fragmented memories can be disturbing in adults.
- How Long Will a Lie Last? New Study Finds That False Memories Linger for Years (illuminutti.com)
- Can We Rely On Our Memories? (urbantimes.co)
- Implanting False Memories (drvitelli.typepad.com)
- Mystery of Memory: Why It’s Not Perfect (livescience.com)
- How Long Will A Lie Last? New Study Finds That False Memories Linger for Years (blogs.scientificamerican.com)
- How Long Will a Lie Last? New Study Finds That False Memories Linger for Years (psychologicalscience.org)