Are Childhood Memories Reliable?

Are Childhood Memories Reliable? Is it possible that some of our most cherished memories are not exactly what they seem? In a new book called ‘The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, And The Science Of False Memory’, Dr Julia Shaw claims that far more of our memories may be fabrications than we are willing to admit. Working as a psychological researcher at London South Bank University, she has performed numerous experiments on test subjects showing how memory can be distorted, and how false memories can be created.


You could call my work memory hacking – I break into people’s memories and get them to recall in great detail events that have never actually happened.
How? I just need three face-to-face interviews and a little background knowledge – and I don’t target the vulnerable or gullible either. Indeed, my work is strictly monitored by university ethics committees.
My most recent experiment involved telling innocent participants they’d committed a serious crime — assault, or assault with a weapon, or theft – something grave enough to warrant police contact. More than 70 per cent eventually believed me.

It is not difficult to see that this is similar to the process unscrupulous or incompetent psychotherapists inflict on their vulnerable patients, creating damaging false memories that change the entire course of their lives. Replicating such processes in a strictly controlled research environment enables third parties to gain a more objective assessment of what exactly happens to individuals when they receive recovered memory treatment, and then begin to ‘remember’ things that have never occurred. As Dr Shaw has indicated, the implications for criminal cases resting solely on the accuracy of the memories of suspected crime victims are of great importance.


One idea why we develop inaccurate memories is called the ‘fuzzy trace’ theory. This argues that remembering involves two things: a memory of the general experience (called a gist memory trace) and a memory of specific details (a verbatim memory trace).
While both traces are stored in the brain at the same time, they’re stored as independent fragments.
Unfortunately, because they can also be recalled separately, they can be recombined with other memory fragments to create new, false memories.


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Dr Julia Shaw’s book, ”The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, And The Science Of False Memory’ will be published by Random House Books on 16 June 2016, and will be available from Amazon here.

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