Researchers have demonstrated just how easy it is to trick the mind into remembering something that didn’t happen. They also used two very simple techniques to reverse those false memories, in a feat that paves the way for a deeper understanding of how memory works.
Our brains are far from perfectly functioning recorders of our life events.
The human memory system is fallible and malleable, so much so that it is possible—and even quite common—for people to possess false memories. Memory glitches can lead to all sorts of wider social implications, especially in the legal and forensic field. But now, for the first time ever, scientists have evidence showing they can reverse false memories, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The same way that you can suggest false memories, you can reverse them by giving people a different framing,” the lead researcher of the paper, Aileen Oeberst, head of the Department of Media Psychology at the University of Hagen, told Gizmodo. “It’s interesting, scary even.”
Short-term memory allows us to be present in the moment, while long-term memory helps piece together our identity through the recollection of our past experiences, among other things. Yet, especially the farther back we go, the more our recollection gets murky. For example, when you think back to your childhood, you are reconstructing your past while also being affected by the current circumstances: who is asking, why, and how, Oeberst explained.
“As the field of memory research has developed, it’s become very clear that our memories are not ‘recordings’ of the past that can be played back but rather are reconstructions, closer to imaginings informed by seeds of true experiences,” Christopher Madan, a memory researcher at the University of Nottingham who was not involved in the new study, told Gizmodo.