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Wed 24 March 2021:

Human memory is prone to (sometimes quite severe) inaccuracies and distortions – that much we’ve known for a long time. Stories, pictures, sounds, and other inputs from the environment affect us in countless different ways, leaving a vague “sense” of their “meaning” after the actual recollections have faded – and these we call memories.

“I find it so interesting, but also scary, that we base our entire identity and what we think about our past on something that’s so malleable and fallible,” Aileen Oeberst from the University of Hagen, Germany told the online magazine Inverse.

Oeberst is the first author on a study published in the 30 March 2021 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examining the formation of false memories and methods of reversing them.

Arguably, the biggest source of false autobiographical memories is clinical psychologists who believe in the phenomenon of repression, whereby a patient who had – or is believed by the psychologist to have – experienced a traumatic event is encouraged to unearth selectively forgotten memories and process them in order to heal.

According to Oeberst, people who have actually experienced significant trauma often suffer from the opposite problem, finding it difficult to put negative thoughts or so-called flashbacks out of their minds.

In the study, Oeberst and her colleagues implanted false, yet harmless memories in 52 subjects with a median age of 23, thanks to the willing assistance of their parents who were asked to make up two fake events that sounded plausible, but didn’t actually happen to their children.

During three separate interviews, the subjects were encouraged to recall two real and two false events, and provide details about them, such as when the specific event happened and who was present. By the third session, most subjects believed that the made-up events happened, and more than half developed actual memories of them.

While this phenomenon might not matter very much in daily life, it can – and most likely does – have serious consequences in forensic settings, e.g., leading to false accusations on the basis of distorted or downright false memories of witnesses.

Luckily, the researchers were able to (mostly) reverse the false memories by employing two strategies – “source sensitisation (alerting interviewees to possible external sources of the memories, e.g., family narratives) and false memory sensitisation (raising the possibility of false memories being inadvertently created in memory interviews, delivered by a new interviewer)”.

Neither of the reversal methods were effective at reversing real memories, leading the researchers to suggest that they could be used in court prior to commencing the prosecution of potentially innocent people.

Source:  | (Photo-illustration by Irvin Serrano)




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