Science News

False memories

Thu, 21st Nov 2013

Ginny Smith

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A ghostResearchers at the university of California have found that even individuals with highly superior autobiographical memory fall for tricks designed to produce false memories.

It has been known for a long time that the human memory isnít particularly accurate. When we remember something, itís not just like playing back a film clip- we have to reconstruct the event, and this give opportunity for false memories. But for the first time, this study, published in PNAS, has tested people with astonishing memories for their own lives.

This group of people can recall events that happened on any given day of their life, from mid-childhood. They can remember what day a given date falls on, what they had for lunch that day, and any big events that occurred. For facts that can be checked, they are right 97% of the time. But it turns out that having such an amazing memory doesnít make you immune to false memories.

One of the classic ways of producing a false memory is to give people a list of related words, but miss out the most obvious word they all link to-so you might say: sugar, sour, honey, candy, but not say sweet. When asked to remember the words, a high proportion of people will say that sweet was presented, and be very confident about that answer.  This study  found that the Ďsuper-rememberersí were just as likely to be fooled by this task as normal controls.

They also tried several other false-memory tasks: for one they showed participants a video followed by them reading a story about the video in which some of the details had changed; in another they asked them about real events for which there was no video footage- commonly people report seeing it anyway.

In all the tests they used, the super-rememberers were just as likely to be fooled as the control participants, and in some circumstances, more likely. This is important because it suggests that they use the same process as everyone else when remembering things, despite their incredible ability.  There must be little or no mis-information about their lives, which allows them to give such reliable answers normally.


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People donít re-experience an emotional memory when they just recall it. And itís yet another level further removed from an emotional memory when someone describes their recall of it. To illustrate these differences with an example, I burned my left index fingertip last week being careless while toasting bread on an infrared oven grill. It wasnít severe pain, and my fingertip has healed. The pain is still stored with my emotional memory, and is probably why my memory is very clear. I recall the visual details of the grill, how my fingertip looked, the pain I initially felt, and the relief I felt when I held my finger under running cold water. The researchers introduced factors to try to confuse the subjects about their recall of their emotions, and their verbal descriptions of their recall. The researchers were very sure that confusing the subjectsí thinking-brain recalls and descriptions produced evidence that the subjectsí emotional memories were changed and falsified. Can you see how far removed the researchers were from studying emotional memories? They didnít demonstrate that they understood where emotional memories were stored because they didnít attempt to engage the subjectsí feeling brain areas. Letís imagine that the researchers analogously studied my burned fingertip. They would deny that I can accurately retrieve and re-experience my emotional memory of my accident if I initially say that I pushed the kitchen faucet handle all the way in the cold direction, then after repeated questioning, I say that I wasnít sure that the handle was pushed all the way over to Cold. The problem the researchersí viewpoint created with this study was that they were determined to produce a finding that emotional memories could be falsified. To this end, the study defined the subjectsí recalls of post-9/11 emotions and descriptions of their recalls as emotional memories. The researchersí strawman definition of emotional memories was simply wrong. Maybe their purposeful error could be overlooked if it was confined to this study. But it isnít. You can imagine the damage this viewpoint creates when mental health professionals adopt it, and deny their patientsí feelings, experiences, and emotional memories. PRice, Fri, 8th May 2015

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