Short Science: Did That Really Happen? Or Is It A False Memory?

You might remember riding in a hot air balloon as a kid, or it could be that someone else did it, told you about it, and now it’s a false memory you’ve adopted as your own. A new study shows that a surprising number of people are susceptible to memory implantation.

Here’s the gist :

Many people are prone to ‘remembering’ events that never happened, according to new research by the University of Warwick.

In a study on false memories, Dr Kimberley Wade in the Department of Psychology demonstrates that if we are told about a completely fictitious event from our lives, and repeatedly imagine that event occurring, almost half of us would accept that it did.

Over 400 participants in ‘memory implantation’ studies had fictitious autobiographical events suggested to them — and it was found that around 50% of the participants believed, to some degree, that they had experienced those events.

Participants in these studies came to remember a range of false events, such as taking a childhood hot air balloon ride, playing a prank on a teacher, or creating havoc at a family wedding.

30% of participants appeared to ‘remember’ the event — they accepted the suggested event, elaborated on how the event occurred, and even described images of what the event was like. Another 23% showed signs that they accepted the suggested event to some degree and believed it really happened….

One can easily imagine that this plays heavily into the way people recall information of all kinds, from the news to religious experiences. The power of the brain to create what we think of as reality should never be underestimated.

Read the press-release summary at Science Daily or the full study (“A mega-analysis of memory reports from eight peer-reviewed false memory implantation studies”) in the journal, Memory.

Photo: Lindy Baker CC0