False memories can be planted in the mind, and then reversed, study finds

PORTSMOUTH, United Kingdom — Human memory is far from perfect. As the days pass by, events from years or decades earlier become hazy and stripped of detail. The fallibility of our memories often leads to the creation of false memories that feel convincingly genuine. A recent study by a team at the University of Portsmouth investigated this topic, noting that it’s possible to both plant false memories and then reverse that process.

The subject of false memories is a slippery slope. After all, if one memory didn’t really happen, who’s to say any of a person’s memories are real? Importantly, researchers say their techniques can remove false memories without damaging or calling into question the legitimacy of real memories. It’s the first research project to ever convincingly show scientists can undo false memories.

While this research is relevant for pretty much everyone, study authors explain that their findings may prove especially useful within the world of law enforcement and other legal settings. A false memory when it comes to a criminal trial can potentially land an innocent person in jail.

“Believing, or even remembering something that never happened may have severe consequences. In police interrogations or legal proceedings, for instance, it may lead to false confessions or false allegations, and it would be highly desirable, therefore, to reduce the risk of false memories in such settings,” explains study co-author Dr. Hartmut Blank in a university release. “In this study, we made an important step in this direction by identifying interview techniques that can empower people to retract their false memories.”

The mind can make up details of fake events

Researchers recruited a group of 52 participants, along with their parents, for a study on “childhood memories.” Each participant’s parents were in on the scientific twist. Parents told their children about two 100-percent false (but believable) childhood memories. For example, running away from home at a young age for a few hours or getting lost during a day trip. Additionally, the parents also told their kids two true childhood memories.

So, each parent convinced the participants that all four of the memories were legitimate, even though were actually false.

From there, each participant had to “remember” all four supposed memories in great detail over the course of multiple interviews. By the third interview, most subjects had convinced themselves that the fake memories were indeed real.

The research team then employed two strategies to “undo” the false memories or at least help the participants realize on their own that not all the memories were true.

2 ways to take apart false memories

The first approach entailed telling subjects that memories aren’t always based on people’s own experiences, but can also stem from other sources such as a photograph or a family member’s recollection. Then, the team asked participants about the “source” of each of the four memories.

The second approach was even more straightforward: Researchers simply told subjects that false memories can easily occur when an individual is repeatedly encouraged to remember something that apparently happened to them. Subjects then “revisited” each of the four memories one more time.

Sure enough, many participants then realized that some of the memories their parents had told them were false.

“By raising participants’ awareness of the possibility of false memories, urging them to critically reflect on their recollections and strengthening their trust in their own perspective, we were able to significantly reduce their false memories. Moreover, and importantly, this did not affect their ability to remember true events,” Dr. Blank states.

“We designed our techniques so that they can principally be applied in real-world situations. By empowering people to stay closer to their own truth, rather than rely on other sources, we showed we could help them realize what might be false or misremembered – something that could be very beneficial in forensic settings,” he concludes.

The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

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