Seeds of certainty

Seeds of certainty - image for article by Greg Alder

Remember when?

Chances are that you think you do. But you don’t.

Chances are that some details in your memory of past events are false. They seem real and you’re certain that they’re real. But they are fake memories of events as they didn’t happen.

Psychologists have long known about the phenomenon of false memories. Various studies have revealed that our recollection of past events might not be dependable.

Psychologists have also discovered that memories can be altered. Our recollection of events can be manipulated. Our memories can also be fabricated. Things that we have read or seen in a movie can be stored in our brains as if they really happened. They can be intermingled with real memories so that the two become indistinguishable.

In one experiment, psychologist James Coan gave his brother a book of recollections from childhood. Every event in that book was true. Except one – a story about his brother getting lost in a shopping mall. Coan asked his brother to memorise the life stories from this book.

Some time later, Coan asked his brother to recount events in his life (the ones in the book). His brother retold the lost in the mall story as if it were true. He also embellished it with details of his own creation.

In Coan’s brother’s mind, the fake memory had become real and had taken on a life of its own.

German psychologist Georg Müller wrote about the retroactive interference of information in our memories. Sigmund Freud studied the phenomenon of false memories. It has really been over the past few decades that study has intensified.

In many cases, these false memories are harmless. However, in a murder trial where a defendant’s fate rests on the testimony of a witness, false recollections can have catastrophic consequences.

What psychologists have learnt is that our memories become increasingly unreliable with time. And yet, our certainty doesn’t waver.

Hypnosis is popular in helping people recall buried memories. However, research has found that the visualisations and suggestions used in hypnosis can inadvertently interfere with memories.

In one experiment, psychologist Susan Clancy found that people who claimed that they had been abducted by aliens had only vague memories of the experience prior to hypnosis, but could provide detailed descriptions of what happen after hypnosis.

So, we have unreliable eye witnesses, imagined incidents from childhood and encounters with extraterrestrials. What do they all mean? How do they influence our lives?

Unless we’re a key witness in a trial, our unreliable memory won’t have a dramatic impact on life. O does it?

What psychologists have found is that our fake memory of a traumatic event can have enduring consequences. We might avoid a situation similar to the one we think we recall. We might harbour lifelong anxieties that affect our happiness and wellbeing.

Memories are wonderful things. It’s great to be able to recount a pleasant experience from childhood. The only problem is that some of these memories mightn’t be our own.

Which of your own memories are real? Which are fake?

You might never know.

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