False memories- a Glitch or a Mismatch?

Millennia Chakraborty

23rd October, 2020

Can you relate to the times when you find yourself indulged in an argument with someone who witnessed the same event as you, but somehow the details just don’t match? Even if someone tells you that you’ve got it all wrong, you wouldn’t admit it. You’re just absolutely convinced of what you remember! Later on, you have no choice but to believe that maybe you are the person out there who’s got the facts wrong. Well, this is something quite frequent because according to a lot of researches, “human memories are imperfect”. From this, we can conclude that our minds cannot be trusted, because memories can be altered at any point in time, and more importantly, by anyone.

Well, our memories are not the basis of our lives. They constantly remake and reshape our brains. Defining memory is about as difficult as defining time. In general terms, memory is a change to a system that alters the way that system works in the future (Stockton, N. (2017, July 20). Your brain doesn’t contain memories. It is memories. Wired UK. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/how-memories-work-brains). 

Now, sometimes these alterations in the pre-existing, completely functional working system, are fabricated. Not deliberately, but automatically. These fabricated fragments from the memory are what we call as false memory. 

Events that our brain can capture, move from the short term memory to the long term memory. This entire process happens when we are sleeping. Thus, the transition is not absolute. Some of the facts might even be lost in the process. This is exactly where false memories occur! False memory refers to cases in which people remember events differently from the way they happened, or, in the most dramatic case, remember events that never happened at all (Iii, H. L. R., & Marsh, E. J. (2009). False memory. Scholarpedia, 4(8), 3858. https://doi.org/10.4249/scholarpedia.3858). Speaking of these memories being rare or not, well, they aren’t. Everyone with a perfectly functional brain has these memories. The only thing of concern here is its impacts on an individual. For some, these memories turn out to be small and trivial. Like believing that you had plugged-in your cellphone

to charge before you went for a bath, only to come back and find out you didn’t. However, for others, these memories can be significant like how an accident took place or remember the intricate details about a crime they witnessed. 

Does the phrase “false confessions'' ring a bell? I’m sure it does to many of us reading this right now! We eventually start relating this phrase to some of the famous Netflix series like Making a Murderer or When They See Us. Fierce interrogations conducted by police officials manipulate people to change the sequence of the events that they remember and confess to the crimes that maybe they didn’t even commit.  So the question that lies here is if they are speaking the truth or are they just admitting to the accusations so that they are no longer interrogated? The latter is true and something that occurs more frequently! Therefore, earlier when I mentioned memory being “fabricated” here is what I spoke about! 

The idea of this memory distortion was first brought to light by the immense work of psychologist Hugo Münsterberg who was the chair of the psychology laboratory at Harvard University and the president of the American Psychological Association. It all started with a case that Münsterberg came across in the streets of Chicago where a woman was found dead.

A farmer’s son was accused of the murder and after going through a fierce series of interrogative sessions by the police officials, the kid happened to have admitted to the false accusations despite having an alibi. Münsterberg also observed that the kid was ready to repeat his false confession several times and each time, the details were finer and rich. Münsterberg eventually concluded that the kid felt victimized to those elaborative interrogations and confessed to something that he wasn’t supposed to be. The groundwork for the neuroscientists was set from here on.

A study conducted by Daegu University in South Korea, drew a contrast from the brain scans of people having real memories and false ones. 11 participants who agreed to be a part of the study were asked to read a list of words that fell under categories like ‘farm animals’. They were then asked to mention if the specific words asked were in the given list or not. Meanwhile, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was conducted to detect the changes in the blood flow to different regions of the brain. I feel that this study had very interesting results that I, as an author, couldn’t have imagined! The study showed that for participants who were confident and correct with their answers, the blood flow showed a significant increase towards the hippocampus (the region of the brain that is responsible for memory), and for the participants who were confident but gave an incorrect answer (which constituted 20% people from the group), had their front-parietal region of the brain which is associated with the “sense of familiarity” lit up due to the increased blood flow. 

As you might be thinking, yes, indeed, our brain often creates false memories. But science suggests that we are better off this way. The “fuzzy trace theory” whose conclusions happen to be as interesting as its name, helps us in understanding the origin of false memories. This unique term, which was coined by researchers Charles Brainerd and Valerie F. Reyna was considered to be the first theory that could explain the Deese Roediger-McDermott (DRM) paradigm. The paradigm involves giving people a list of related words and then asking them to recall as many words as possible. It was found out that the subjects responded with words that were related to the list of words given. Initially, the researchers assumed the main underlying idea was word association as the results were the same after conducting several experiments. Well, the fuzzy theory puts forward the same idea in a much more evolved manner. The theory suggests that there are two types of memory – first, being verbatim and the second, being gist. Verbatim memory is when we can vividly remember something in detail, whereas gist memories are fuzzy representations of a past event - hence why the theory is called "fuzzy trace" (Our brains sometimes create ’false memories’—But science suggests we could be better off this way. (n.d.). Business Insider. Retrieved September 12, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.in/our-brains-sometimes-create-false-memories-but-science-suggests-we-could-be-better-off-this-way/articleshow/62132822.cms).

Psychotherapeutic techniques, for instance, hypnosis and guided meditation have been an effective way of digging deeper into the memories of a person that has been repressed. These so-called repressed memories are often traumatic ones, for example, cases of child abuse. These sorts of memories happen to directly relate to a person’s behavior in the present and create a new reality around a memory that is not real. This is what we call false memory syndrome. Well, science has still not been able to figure out a way to prove if the recovered memory in these cases is true or false. Hence, the practice of recovering memories remains debatable. 

The only answer or treatment for false memories is independent evidence that corroborates or disproves your memories (False Memory: How Memories Form and Why So Many May Be False. (2019, April 23). Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/false-memory). False memories are seemingly illusory, seem quite real, and have a high range of emotions. One’s confidence makes these false memories more tangible even though there is a significant lack of information. 

“If there is nothing that needs correcting in the world memory, the only thing left to do is to correct reality where it doesn't agree with that memory.”

― Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics


We all need to understand that false memory is a powerful psychological phenomenon. The presence of such memories isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t like one is dwelling into the dark spectrum of neurological disorders like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The problem isn’t about not being able to remember the facts but, it is about remembering something vividly that did not happen at all in the first place. False memories, whether good or bad, are like white and grey elements that act like a striking bell reminding us every time that human minds are not as perfect as they are said to be. Thus, a complete glitch in the entire memory system and a perfect reality mismatch isn’t something wrong!

About the Author

Millennia Chakraborty, a student who is majorly into the field of psychology. Apart from reading the various theories of mind and behaviour, she has a huge fascination towards stars and galaxies.