30 December 2016

False Memories

Welcome back. During my 20 years as a scientist with the federal government, I was fortunate to have many superb contractors supporting me. One was exceptional in every way, even as a storyteller. 

His mastery of that art was evidenced when, one morning, I told him about some particularly unusual something or other I had seen or encountered en route to the office. Later that day, I heard him telling other people my story, much better than I could ever have told it. But it was no longer me and my experience. In his telling, it was he and his experience. Had I implanted a false memory? A recent study showed how possible that could be.

Memory Implantation Study
Collaborators from Canada’s Windsor and Victoria universities, the UK’s Warwick and Portsmouth universities, and Kent State and Washington universities in the U.S. conducted a meta-analysis. They merged data from eight published false-memory implantation studies, involving 423 participants.

Memory implantation. Or were
they wiping his memory? (Arnold
Schwarzenegger in the 1990
movie, Total Recall)
In each of the studies, fictitious childhood events, such as trouble with a teacher, a hot air balloon ride and spilling a wedding punch bowl, had been suggested to the participants using various approaches (e.g., multiple interviews, mixing true and false information, school photos from relevant years, doctored photographs). The participant gender and age were not reported for every study; however, about 70% of the participants were female and, based on about two-thirds of the sample, their average age was 21. 

Since the eight studies defined and measured false memories in different ways, the data could not be combined directly. As such, the researchers obtained the original transcripts of the participants’ memory reports and reassessed them using a coding scheme they developed for defining a false memory.

Their coding scheme was based on seven criteria: (1) verbal statements of remembering, (2) acceptance of suggested information, (3) elaboration beyond suggested information, (4) presence and quality of mental imagery, (5) coherence of memory narratives, (6) evidence of emotional experience and (7) no rejection of the suggested event.

Study Findings
Applying the coding scheme to the 423 memory reports, the researchers found more than half of the participants showed evidence of believing that the implanted false event actually occurred. Of these, 30% remembered the false memory and another 23% accepted the suggested event to some degree though they did not meet the criterion for remembering.

Of the remaining participants, 10% had strong mental representations of the event but rejected having the false memory, and 36% completely rejected the suggestion of the false memory.

Wrap Up
The study demonstrated that suggesting a false autobiographical event can produce a false memory in a large percentage of people, especially if evidence of the event is provided, imagination is employed and resistance to considering the event’s possible occurrence can be overcome.

The researchers also point out the difficulty of distinguishing when someone is remembering the past, reporting other forms of knowledge or belief, or describing thoughts that originated in other sources of experience.

Finally, as has been demonstrated over the past year, implanting false memories is not limited to individuals. The collective memories of groups or segments of society can be incorrect, due, for example, to misinformation. False news, anyone? Thanks for stopping by.

False memory study in Memory journal: www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09658211.2016.1260747
Article on study on Science Daily website:
General background on memory implantation in Wikipedia:


  1. Fascinating, informative and very interesting. Wish I DID have "memories" of you Warren, a cousin I only recently connected with. Thanks for this wonderful blog post. from Phylis P.

  2. Thank you, Dr P. It's much appreciated.