Holiday Dinner, With False Memory for Dessert

Dr Julia Shaw writes about false memories and how imagination can give credibility to them. It is possible not only to adopt false memories but even to ‘steal’ the memories of others and appropriate them to oneself.


…. According to science, should you let family take you down memory lane?

Imagination Inflation

As a researcher who studies memory, I am tempted to say that you should proceed with extreme caution when your family starts to share memories of you that you don’t remember.

There are a few major reasons for this. First, you have an imagination and you will use it. In what is scientifically called “imagination inflation”, imagining an event happening increases our confidence that the event has actually occurred, even when it hasn’t. This is particularly true when on top of imagining what could have happened you also picture how it could have made you feel. In other words, the more sensory details we picture, the more real these imagined events feel.

This means that when mom tells you about that time you were laughing your little head off when you sat on Santa’s lap, even if you don’t actually remember the event, you’ll find that it is easy enough to picture it happening. You know what Santa Claus looks like. You know what laughing feels like. You know what the background Christmas music would sound like. With minimal effort you have transported yourself back into a moment that you didn’t initially remember.

But how can you tell whether it is your memory you are recalling or your mother’s? Unfortunately, it’s likely that you won’t be able to tell, since imagined events can both look and feel the same as memories of things you actually experienced. Only if you had corroborating evidence – like a photo of the moment – could you know whether your memory details were generally accurate or just made up.

…. In a 2015 study on “borrowed” personal memories, over half of people questioned indicated they had arguments with others about memory ownership. Of course, usually we don’t notice that we have stolen a memory unless we happen to disclose it to the person it belongs to, and they actively confront us about it.

When memory thievery is unintentional, with the rememberer not realising they are telling another’s’ story, it can be called a “false memory”. False memories are accounts that feel real to us although we never actually experienced them, and can be the result of mere suggestion. Mom says it happened, so it must have happened, so it did happen. We then unintentionally fill in the details with our imagination.

To read more please visit the Scientific American website.

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