Most people think they can have a good memory. Maybe you sometimes forget where you have left your car keys, a person’s name or a phone number, it is even possible that you have forgotten someone’s name! But when you want to remember important things, your resources can be precise, right? This is not entirely true. Memories are like a collage of images that are strung together with a few occasional embellishments.
Human memory is fragile
Human memory is much more fragile than you might imagine. We are terribly susceptible to mistakes, and subtle suggestions can trigger false memories . Surprisingly, people with exceptional memories are still susceptible to doing things without even realizing it.
In a famous experiment conducted in 1994, memory expert Elizabeth Loftus was able to get 25% of her participants to create a false memory that they had once been lost in a shopping mall as children. Another 2002 study revealed that half of the participants could be mistakenly led to believe that they had once taken a hot air balloon ride as children simply by showing them manipulated “evidence.”
Most of the time, these false memories focus on things that are quite mundane or inconsequential. Simple, everyday events that have few real consequences. But sometimes these false memories can have serious or even devastating consequences. A false memory transmitted during criminal testimony can lead to an innocent person being convicted of a crime. Clearly, false memory has the potential to be a serious problem, but why exactly are these wrong memories formed?
Human perception is not perfect. Sometimes we see things that do not exist and at other times, we miss the obvious things that are in front of us. False memories are formed because information is not encoded correctly. A person may witness a car accident but not have a clear vision of what actually happened. Re-explaining what happened can be tricky because you didn’t witness all the details absolutely. This can cause the person to fill in those ‘gaps’ by forming memories that never happened.
It can also happen that old memories and experiences compete with the most recent information. Sometimes it is the old memories that interfere with or disrupt the new memories, and in other cases, the new information can make it difficult to recall previously stored information. As old information is put together, sometimes there are gaps in memory. The mind then tries to fill in the missing spaces, often using current knowledge as well as beliefs or expectations.
If you’ve ever tried to remember something that happened to you that is emotionally charged, such as a medical emergency or an argument with a loved one, you are likely to become aware of the emotions you felt, the same emotions that can wreak havoc on that. memory. Strong emotions can make an experience more memorable, but can sometimes lead to wrong or unreliable memories.
Sometimes accurate information is mixed with incorrect information, which then distorts our memories for the events. The serious potential impact of this misinformation effect can easily be seen in the area of criminal justice, where mistakes can literally mean the difference between life and death in America.
Have you ever mixed the details of one story with the details of another? For example, when telling a friend about your last vacation, you could mistakenly link an incident that occurred on a vacation you took several years ago. This is an example of how misattribution can form false memories. This could involve combining elements from different events into a cohesive story, remembering imagined events from your childhood and believing they are real, etc.