yes, therapy helps!
What are false memories and why do we suffer them?

What are false memories and why do we suffer them?

October 1, 2022

On numerous occasions we have found ourselves arguing with another person. The causes of a possible debate or discussion are innumerable, but the reader will find it easy to identify with the fact of arguing to remember an event, event or conversation in a different way from another person.

How can two people remember the same event so differently? Moreover, how can it be that we do not remember well or even remember things that have never happened?

To answer these types of questions we must first understand what false memories are , why they appear and what are the brain processes that make them exist.

  • Related article: "Types of memory: how memory stores the human brain?"

The fallible functioning of the memory

Memory is what we use to get to our memories , to repeat some action that took us to the desired result, locate us or pass an exam. Now, the difference between our memory and that of any machine is that we constantly distort those memories.


We remember that we have a memory, but this one was coded in its moment with a concrete load, sensations and emotions, a cognitive state, previous experiences and a context. By accessing it we can remember it, and perhaps access a residue of the emotion experienced at that particular moment; we access a transcript, but the state in which we find ourselves when recalling it is not the same .

Nor are the previous experiences the same, since in the course of time these continue to increase, which leads us to have an image of the past seen from the present , with its consequent interference. In the same way, we can contaminate any event that occurs in the present, if it has been repeatedly imagined beforehand.


Through the expectations, come given by inference in function of previous situations or by mere personal desire, we condition the experience (and therefore the memory) of the present event, since these expectations, are also a memory (for example: I remember having I wanted everything to be perfect that day) and constitute a consolidated pseudo learning, that is, something to be expected.

In such a situation, a fact with a low negative valence can be interpreted as a big problem, or in the inverse situation, a fact with a low positive valence can be interpreted as something extraordinary. So, in this way, is this distortion encoded in memory , through the imagination that actively shapes reality.

The link between memory and imagination

Being clear the distortion to which we submit to our memory and the interference that the imagination of the future may have in its subsequent interpretation, it seems reasonable to believe that changing the direction in which this imagination normally operates (forward) and turning it backwards, can distort our memory even more, even creating memories of an event that never existed. This is the basis of false memories .


There are, in fact, studies where the possibility of memory and imagination sharing a neural network has been investigated.

The activated areas of the brain when remembering and imagining

In an investigation carried out by Okuda et al, (2003). The role of two structures of the brain, the frontal polar zone and the temporal lobes (all of them involved in the thinking of the future and the past) was investigated through the use of positron emission tomography (PET). The regional cerebral blood flow (Rcbf) was also measured in healthy subjects while they talked about their future prospects or their past experiences.

Most of the areas in the medial temporal lobes showed an equivalent level of activation during the tasks related to imagining the future and tasks related to reporting the past .

In the same line, in another study the participants were asked to imagine a future event and to remember a past event for 20 seconds with a specific backward or forward projection. Although some differences were found, such as greater activation of the right hippocampus when imagining future events (an issue that according to the authors could be due to the novelty of the event) and a greater activation of prefrontal areas involved in the planning, the similarities were abundant .

These results are consistent with those found in amnestic patients , which in addition to being unable to access memories of episodes from the past, could not project themselves into a vision of the future.

An example that can be consulted through the scientific databases is the one reported by Klein, Loftus and Kihlstrom, J. F.(2002) in which an amnestic patient, with the same type of injury and with the same problem as those named above. Interestingly, I only suffered this deficit to imagine the future and remember the past episodically , being able to imagine possible future events of public domain, such as political events, who would win the elections, etc. This relates memory and imagination, but also giving it an important nuance, in its episodic form.

Classic experiment for false memories

An example of a classic experiment in the field of false memories is, for example, the one made by Garry, Manning and Loftus (1996). In it, the participants were asked to imagine a series of events that were presented to them. Later they were asked to judge what probability they believed there was that it had not happened to them at some point in their life (in the past).

After a while, in a second session, the participants were asked to repeat the experiment and reassign probabilities. Curiously, the fact of having imagined them made them assign lower probabilities to his conviction of not having lived that event. This is an example of how memories deform.

  • Related article: "Elizabeth Loftus and the studies of memory: can false memories be created?"

Why is it important to understand what a false memory is?

The importance of these data goes beyond the anecdotal (or not so anecdotal) of a discussion or "who said what?". For example, a very worked-out aspect in forensic psychology relatively recently has been to try differentiate a real statement from a contaminated one with false information or distorted that has been suggested to the declarant.

Popular wisdom dictates that if someone tells something that did not happen or tells it in a way that does not fit the reality, it is because he wants to do it; Maybe he has hidden motives or wants to cheat someone. With the results discussed earlier in this article, there is, at least, a reasonable doubt to this statement.

Thus, research in this area suggests that the most common sources of error are given by factors related to perception, interpretation of the facts , inference of unprocessed information, the passage of time and the post-event information received or imagined. These factors can cause the person to be telling the truth (his) even remembering something that did not happen.

It is the work of psychologists, but also of anyone who wants to go beyond a first impression, try to analyze these factors as much as possible. Whether it is going to explain or receive an explanation that is relevant for one or more parties, either in a legal area or in daily life, it is important to keep in mind that our memory is the result of a process that they pass through. the facts lived and that this "stored" result, even so, is not in a fixed and unalterable state.


How reliable is your memory? | Elizabeth Loftus (October 2022).


Similar Articles