A false memory is a recollection that seems real in your mind but is fabricated in part or in whole.
An example of a false memory is believing you started the washing machine before you left for work, only to come home and find you didn’t.
Another example of a false memory is believing you were grounded for the first time for not washing dishes when you were 12, but your mom tells you it was because you were disrespectful to her — and it wasn’t the first time.
Most false memories aren’t malicious or even intentionally hurtful. They’re shifts or reconstructions of memory that don’t align with the true events.
However, some false memories can have significant consequences, including in court or legal settings where false memories may convict someone wrongfully.
Read on to learn more about how false memories are formed, what their impact can be on you and others, and how you can correct them.
Memories are complex. While you might imagine a memory as a black or white element, the truth is memories are subject to change, malleable, and often unreliable.
Events are moved from your brain’s temporary memory to permanent storage while you sleep. The transition, however, isn’t absolute. Elements of the memory may be lost. This is where false memories can begin.
False memory implantation
False memories are created in several ways. Each of these affects what changes about the memory or how it’s stored.
It may be hard to know which of these issues caused your false memories, but knowing can ultimately help you understand why false memories are so common.
Inference is a powerful force. You may create new false memories with someone else’s prompting or by the questions they ask.
For example, someone may ask you if the bank robber was wearing a red mask. You say yes, then quickly correct yourself to say it was black. In actuality, the robber wasn’t wearing a mask, but the suggestion they were planted a memory that wasn’t real.
You can be fed improper or false information about an event and be convinced that it actually did occur. You can create a new memory or combine real memories with artificial ones.
Your brain is like a computer, storing what you give it. If you give it bad information, it stores bad information. The gaps left by your story may be filled in later with your own created recollections.
In your memory, you may combine elements of different events into a singular one.
When you recall the memory, you’re recalling events that happened. But the timeline is jumbled or confused with the assortment of events that now form a singular memory in your mind.
The emotions of a moment may have a significant impact on how and what’s stored as a memory.
Therapeutic memory recovery is controversial. Psychotherapy techniques, like hypnosis and guided meditation, have been used as a way for people to find suppressed memories. These memories are often traumatic, such as childhood sexual abuse.
These memories may directly relate to a person’s behavior today. They may inform their identify and relationships. This is called false memory syndrome, or the creation of a reality around a memory that isn’t true.
No techniques can determine the validity of these memories, and science doesn’t yet have a way to prove that a recovered memory is true or false when independent evidence is lacking. For now, the practice of recovering memories remains a debated practice.
Memory isn’t permanent. Indeed, it’s pliable and often ever-changing. Certain people or events may make you more likely to develop false memories. These include:
If you witness a crime or an accident, your testimony is important — but not conclusive. That’s because experts and law enforcement officials know memories and recollections can and do change, whether through suggestion or the passage of time.
Any gaps in events may be filled in by your memory, turning a reliable recall into a faulty one.
Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may have a memory deficit or poor memory confidence.
They may be more likely to create false memories because they don’t have confidence in their own memories. This often leads to the repetitive or compulsive behaviors that are associated with this disorder.
As both you and a memory age, details about that memory may be lost. The gist of a memory becomes stronger, while the details fade away.
For example, you may remember you went to the beach on your honeymoon, but you don’t remember the name of the hotel, what the weather was like, or even the city you stayed in.
The only answer or treatment for false memories is independent evidence that corroborates or disproves your memories.
Yes, false memories may seem quite real and even highly emotional. Your confidence in them makes them feel more tangible, but it doesn’t guarantee authenticity.
Likewise, the presence of false memories doesn’t mean your memory is bad or that you’re developing a type of memory disorder, like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
False memories, for better or worse, are an element of being human and not having an impermeable brain.
False memories aren’t rare. Everyone has them. They range from small and trivial, like where you swear you put your keys last night, to significant, like how an accident happened or what you saw during a crime.
False memories can happen to anyone. Some people may be more likely to experience them. The good news is most false memories are harmless and may even produce some laughs when your story conflicts with someone else’s memory of it.