What Is a False Memory?

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Most people have memory distortions, but emotional states, health, age, and environment can all affect how things are remembered.

False memories are memories that seem real but are not based in reality. Everyone has false memories at times because the human brain doesn't usually record events with the detailed accuracy of a device.

Instead, people are more likely to remember the stories or the “gist”(substance of information) of an event.

Most of the time, false memories aren't a cause for concern. And gist memory can help us make complex decisions and adapt to our surroundings. Also, a false memory in one situation doesn't mean false memories will occur elsewhere.

How accurately something is remembered can depend on several factors. These include your emotional or physical state when recalling or reliving a memory, whether someone else is affecting the memory, and circumstances like stress, mental health issues, or trauma. Trauma during an event can also affect whether a memory is retained right after the event occurs or if it is buried until a later time.

This article covers false memories, how they occur, and when they are a concern.

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Examples of False Memories

False memories can happen for several reasons, including:

  • The influence of others (such as authority figures)
  • Age
  • Mood
  • Confusion about specific details

Studies show autobiographical false memories, or stories that we tell about ourselves that aren’t true, can range from harmless to serious. They might include:

  • Getting lost in a public place as a child
  • A notable occurrence at an event, such as a funny accident at a party
  • Being attacked by an animal or person
  • False confessions

Age and False Memories

While it might seem like children would create more false memories than adults, research indicates otherwise.

A 2019 review of studies found that children seem less likely to create false memories, and, at times, they are less vulnerable to false memories. The research supported the idea that children can be accurate witnesses in court settings.

Causes

There are many potential causes of false memories, which are outlined below.

Sleep Deprivation

Losing sleep or not having sleep at all could increase false memories. Sleep deprivation can also raise the chance of memory distortions of facts that can be verified. 

Interference

Interference is when memories change because of newer memories or information we gain over time. Interference might be why people seem to lose some memories while continuing to gain new memories as they age. There are two types of interference:

  • Retroactive interference: When new information interferes with remembering older memories
  • Proactive interference: When old memories interfere with new memories

High Suggestibility

High suggestibility is when a person is more vulnerable to believing false memories. It can happen for several reasons, including:

  • Stress
  • Trauma
  • Age
  • Dreaming
  • Being under the influence of alcohol and drugs
  • Lack of sleep
  • Protecting someone else, such as during an investigation
  • Complying with authorities
  • Wanting fame or validation

Emotional State

Depression, stress, and anxiety can all increase the likelihood of false memories.

Research has also found if someone is in a positive mood, they might be more likely to believe false memories, whereas a negative mood could make someone more alert to threats and less likely to believe false memories.

Risk Factors

There are many risk factors for false memory, which are outlined below.

Traumatic Events and Repressed Memories

Trauma can increase memory distortions and can possibly suppress memories altogether. Some of these memories can seem to emerge at a later time.

In a 2021 study, researchers took pictures of the brains of trauma victims using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They found that participants had brain activity that showed signs of dissociation. Dissociation is when a person feels separated from events in their life and does not integrate them into their conscious awareness or identity. Some specialists suggested that if dissociation can be viewed in MRI scans, then the possibility that people do have repressed memories exists.

Natural Aging

We might be more likely to have false memories as we age. This is because new information and new memories can interfere with existing memories. This is a process called interference, and while it might appear to be a memory deficit, it's part of gathering more memories.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is marked by intrusive and aggressive anxious thoughts that are also repetitive. Compulsive rituals to reduce anxiety or fear are also a part of the disorder. People with OCD are more likely to be vulnerable to false memories because of their thoughts' overwhelming nature. These false memories might also come from a fear of threats or relying on feelings that memories represent instead of the truth of the memories themselves.

What Is False Memory Syndrome/Recovered Memory?

False memory syndrome (FMS) is a controversial label for repressed memories that are brought to the surface with the help of a therapist. The American Psychological Association advises against using the title and suggests the title “recovered memory” since there is evidence that recovered memories of abuse and trauma can be true. A recent review of trauma memory research also supports the idea that victims who recover memories could be telling the truth and that psychologists and law enforcement should support them.

Summary

False memories are memories of events that don't match reality. They can range from harmless childhood memories, like memories of a day at the park, to traumatic events or even false confessions of crime. Most people have some memory distortions, but trauma, pressure from others, stress, and mental health issues can increase their likelihood. Memories can also be repressed and appear later, and such memories can be false or true. As for the false memories of older people, what looks like a memory deficit might be new memories and information interfering with older memories.

A Word From Verywell 

False memories happen to most people, and they are usually nothing to worry about. Remembering that these false memories can exist and using records to verify events is an excellent way to clear up confusion about your memories.

For some people, having many false or sudden memories that seem false can be worrying or even traumatic. If you feel concerned about your memories, consider speaking to a therapist or someone you trust who can help you piece together the memory and manage any difficult emotions or circumstances they may cause.

If you're aging and worried about losing older memories, keeping a journal and maintaining records can help you hold onto memories.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do memories change over time?

    Memories change as we age and gather new memories. Interference is the process by which new memories replace old memories or old memories interfere with new memories. As we age, this can appear to be a memory deficit. However, it's more likely that the number of memories we acquire over time makes it difficult to remember them like we once did.

  • Is there a way to identify false memories?

    It can be difficult to verify whether a memory is true or false without witnesses. On the other hand, each witness to an event could have a different experience. Records, like photographs and documents, and an awareness that false memories exist might help with identifying false memories. In a court of law, false memories can be negated with the help of evidence. Therapy might also help with exploring and recalling old memories.

  • How can you get rid of false memories?

    Research indicates that false memories could be reversed if someone knows they exist and then verifies their memories with evidence. In a 2021 study, researchers suggested two false personal memories to participants. Afterward, the participants were told there was a chance the memories could have been suggested by the person interviewing them or told to the researchers by family. The participants were then able to reverse the false memories by looking at documents and photographs and speaking to their families to verify events.



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