We all have false memories, and this is how they are created

2023-09-26 22:48:00, Kuriozitete Jason Goodyer

We all have false memories, and this is how they are created

How reliable is your memory? Do you remember what you were doing on this exact date 10 years ago? Or do you have a hard time even remembering what you had for lunch yesterday? No matter how well you think you remember things, the fact is that our brains are full of memories of events that never happened, or so-called false memories.

And according to science, this phenomenon is not necessarily a reason to worry. To explain this strange phenomenon, we talked to Dr. Julia Shou, researcher at University College London and expert in criminal psychology.

How are memories stored in the human brain?

Memories are essentially networks of neurons. And autobiographical memories—that is, memories of our lives—involve the connection of different parts of the brain. These memories don't just live in a small part of the brain. In fact, when you feel like you're reliving an experience—smells, sights, sounds, tastes—all the parts of the brain that are responsible for different sensations are recruited as part of this really big and complicated network.

How common are false memories?

Everyone has false memories all the time. Even those who think they have the best memory in the world. Scientists have tested people called HSAMs (people with highly superior autobiographical memory), who have the best autobiographical memories in the world.

They are the kind of people who you can ask what they did on November 2, 1972, and they will tell you in detail what they did that day. It was found that these people also create false memories, even at almost the same rate as everyone else. False memories appear to be an essential aspect of how the brain works.

This is because brain networks are not meant to be static. The brain functions as a dynamic and fluid organ that must constantly process new information. This is why our memories can change.

Do false memories also change over time? How can we tell them apart?

False memories add up over time. You create something that didn't happen and your brain adds the details. Although it is possible for someone to create a false memory to be a complete story from the start, this is not something that usually happens.

It could most likely be a lie. But if we talk about memories, about things that we believe happen to us, it takes more of a process and a little more time. When you create a false memory, you start with a detail, and then start wondering about other things that might have happened.

And it gets better over time. For example, imagine that "Maybe I fell down the stairs when I was 6 years old." You may wonder how this could have happened. Then the next time you think about it, you already have that image in your head of yourself falling down the stairs. Then start editing it, adding parts.

For example, I fell down the stairs and hit my head, and so on. So false memories get bigger over time, while real memories usually either stay the same or disintegrate especially when a lot of time passes. It is far more common for us to forget details of things that happened, and for a true memory to become fainter. Whereas false memories tend to be enriched with more details.

How can we avoid the traps of false memories?

You can write things, take photos and videos. If something is important, assume you will forget it. This is the main thing. Another tip is to be very attentive. The bigger you make the 'trace' of a memory, the more likely you are to find it again later.

Memory champions do this all the time. They use memory aids that help them "store" larger chunks of memory. For autobiographical memories, you can describe what you are seeing and experiencing now, almost as if you were a storyteller, telling it to someone else.

Can false memories ever be a good thing?

False memories seem like glitches, but I think they're an essential part of being human. The fact that we have false memories is a testament to the brain's creativity and ability to constantly, creatively recombine information.

Usually in the false memories I see in my studies, people use real people, real places, things they've heard or seen, maybe in movies or elsewhere. But they are all genuine pieces of information. A false memory is simply combining all of this into a story that didn't actually happen to you.

This is an incredible skill. It's probably one of the things that really defines us as a species, and I think that's a beautiful thing. If we got rid of false memories, so let's say we suddenly started having perfect memories, we'd get rid of a lot of other things we value. / “ Science Focus ” - Translated and adapted by CNA

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