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False Memories…. when story and history get confused.

Many people still believe memories to be like video recordings, or filing cabinets containing perfect, detailed records laid down as events occur, and hopefully ready to be recalled at any time. Sure, we sometimes forget, or have hazy memory, but we believe that all those clear memories we have represent ‘perfect’ recordings of historical fact. However, research tells a very different story, which starts with the way we perceive the world: We take in a limited amount of information, which is then expanded and interpreted, based on our past experiences and cognitive biases, and becomes something we experience as an objective reality. The question of perception itself is a big subject, but it’s just the error-prone starting point for memories.

Our brains only record a small amount of our moment-by-moment experience in long-term memory, yet we tend not to experience memories as partial. In fact we ‘reconstruct’ memories when we recall them, and this process can easily cause memories to change over time, in a way that is imperceptible to us. A detail gets changed or added, extracts from other memories become combined, the chronology changes, and we may even add details that other people have told us about. But when we access that memory, it’s as if this was exactly how it was originally created. It feels completely true and accurate. These factors become particularly important when someone is being asked to recall a memory: If they are allowed to report what they remember, the result will be more accurate than if they keep being asked about details, which may lead to erroneous elements being added to the memory.

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studies false memories, and has been involved in conducting some of the most well known research in this field. One piece of research illustrated the hazards of leading questions in criminal prosecutions: People were shown a simulated accident and subsequently asked either the speed the cars were going when they ‘hit’ each other, or the speed they were going when they ‘smashed’ into each other. When the word ‘hit’ was used, witnesses considered the car’s speed to be 34 mph on average, but when the word ‘smashed’ was used, they recalled a higher speed of 41 mph. Furthermore, when the word ‘smashed’ was used, 32% of the people said they remembered seeing broken glass, against 14% who claimed to have seen broken glass when the word ‘hit’ was used. There was no broken glass.

The ways in which memories can be altered or contaminated by leading questions, or even conversations between witnesses, obviously raises may issues in criminal investigations and prosecutions, and it’s in this field that people became very interested in using hypnosis to ‘improve’ access to memories. The Los Angeles Police Department trained detectives to use hypnosis with both suspects and witnesses, and the officers became known as the ’Svengali Squads’. Perhaps the most dramatic success came in 1976 with the ‘Chowchilla’ kidnapping: Twenty-six children and a school bus driver were kidnapped by three men, but managed to escape after spending some time partially buried in a quarry. Under hypnosis the bus driver remembered the licence plate of one of the vehicles involved in the abduction, which led the police to detain the men responsible. However, the use of hypnosis did not prove to be a turning point in the fight against crime, and there were equally noteworthy failures. What was particularly significant on this occasion was that the driver had attempted to memorise the licence plate at the time of the abduction; the information had been encoded in memory.

Although there is still some debate on the subject, it seems there is little evidence that hypnosis makes memories more reliable as such, and although it can seemingly enhance memory access, it can also enhance all the errors that naturally occur in our memory; those ‘added details’, distortions and confusions. It’s like turning up a signal and getting more noise too. As a result, the pendulum has swung the other way in many places, including the UK where Home Office guidelines warn that evidence obtained under hypnosis is likely to be inadmissible in court.

Of course, this also raises questions about the use of memories in psychotherapy, and also the use of hypnosis to access memories in therapy. In fact, this was the subject of some pretty fierce fighting in the 80s and 90s, sometimes referred to as the ‘memory wars’. Elizabeth Loftus was on the receiving end of some of the hostility, for speaking out on the subject of false memories in therapy, something she discusses in her TED Talk linked below. Michael Yapko, clinical psychologist and author on the subject of clinical hypnosis, has written about this episode on a number of occasions, explaining that therapists used a range of techniques (including hypnosis) to ‘uncover’ repressed memories of childhood abuse. Unfortunately many of the therapists had no idea that digging deeply for memories of abuse could result in the creation of false memories. Inevitably, the results were disastrous for individuals, with families being torn apart, and on occasions innocent people stood accused in courtrooms.

Thankfully, the issues around false memories are better understood today, and psychotherapists can be expected to work with memories in ways that are not directive and do not involve suggestion. They should ensure their clients understand that memories would need to be independently corroborated, before they can be considered to have any historical accuracy, no matter how real they feel. But most often in therapy, unlike forensics, it’s the narrative truth that really matters. It’s the story we carry with us that influences how we think, feel and act, not the historical truth. Imagine a parent telling a child that they’ll get a great reward if they do well at school: The historical truth may be that the parent simply wanted their child to have the best opportunities in life, but if the child heard ‘I’ll only love you if you’re clever’, they may be left with a feeling of rejection, rather than unconditional love, and that is the story they will carry.

So, ultimately, memory is pretty unreliable when it comes to providing any historical truth, regardless of the fact that it feels so convincingly true. But, despite it’s inherent inaccuracy it forms the basis of our story, and fuels our thoughts, feelings and actions. Thus it can directly influence our present and our future.


See the TED Talk by Elizabeth Loftus here.