False Memory

June 30, 2021

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False memory is the phenomenon that has been the subject of research for many scholars. This issue has particular features, such as the creation of events’ memories that have not happened in real life, or factors that influence its formation, including biological, social, psychological, and political ones, as well as certain outcomes such as manipulation of possibility, self-preservation, or destruction. The aim of this paper is to analyze and summarize articles, related to false memory studies, and to present suggestions for future research in this sphere. Six works, written over a period of the last five years by leading scholars who study the field of false memory, have been summarized in this paper. Their perception on false memory research history, factors, impact on other spheres, possible future prospects of the research in this sphere have been analyzed. The study shows that while many features and trends have been covered by various scholars, this topic is still not studied completely. To obtain more involving results and respond to possible future threats that exist because of false memory’s openness to manipulation, scholars should cooperate with common people, use modern technologies, and work on possible ways to prevent all negative impacts of false memory.

False Memory

Human memory is a complex phenomenon that has been studied for a while by many researchers. For example, Shaw’s (2016) opinion clearly proves a controversial manner of memory perception: “Do not trust your memory. If someone asks you if you can remember something, say no. Write it down” (p. 32). This statement means that people should not trust things that they remember. The central reason for such an assumption is that false memory can become a consequence of human’s memory operation and lead to a setting, when situations that have not happened in life are treated as real ones. Moreover, these memories can influence the formation of one’s character and their perception of the world. Those factors create a strong interest among various scholars who dedicate their studies to the topic of false memory. These researches examine this sphere as a sophisticated complex, thus paying attention to such components as general principles, manipulation techniques, the role of mass media and information, the impact of traumatic and negative experiences as well as works on the innovations and future analysis of methods of study.

General Overview of False Memory Perception and Its Studies

Associative Illusions of Memory by Gallo presents a history of the research that deals with the development of associative memory errors. Thus, Gallo (2013) concludes that nowadays, almost each researcher follows a very similar analysis pattern: people, who participate in the survey, are given a list with close incentives, for example, associated pictures or words. During the test, they need to recognize or recall this list, and researchers use the so-called Dace-Rodigera-McDermott (DRM) method in this case. In Chapter 2 of his book, Gallo (2013) develops the point that such researches prove the appearance of false memory. As a result, those tasks are assumed to be the expression of laboratory-based false memory emergence. Further, the used methods, subjects’ behavior, and results of the research are presented and analyzed in Chapters 3-6 of the book under discussion. Next chapters give examples of other studies that are based on false memory findings in such spheres as development, aging, pharmacological agents, brain damage, and neuroimaging. Thus, DRM research method is among the most popular ones in modern false memory studies.

Based on the research presented in Associative Illusions of Memory, three core features were chosen during the false memories formation analysis – decision-based theory, illusory recollection, and associative activation. Decision-based theory states that “the memory errors obtained in the convergence-based false memory tasks do not truly reflect illusory memories” (Gallo, 2013, p. 41). As Gallo (2013) argues, people do not choose the word from the list based on their memory, but they rather relay on links between words in a particular list and later, they use simple guessing. The other phenomenon, which has been carefully studied by Gallo (2013), is illusory recollection, or “detailed subjective experience that one had encountered an event that never occurred” (p. 75). The author proves that illusory recollection can result in false choices during test, but they do not always cause memory errors. Association, as it is explained by Gallo (2013), creates links between past memories, present thoughts, and environmental hints. Moreover, this feature represents human’s general knowledge about the world. At the same time, memory astray can appear as the result of existing associations. (Gallo, 2013). Thus, decision-based theory, illusory recollection, and associative activation have been analyzed in Associative Illusions of Memory.

At the same time, The Memory Illusion describes the finding of Julia Shaw’s research. Thus, she argues that people should not consider memory errors as something that occurs only with sick people and states that this common phenomenon can develop in everyone (Shaw, 2016). Beginning with biological processes that are connected with memory formation, Shaw (2016) describes its fundamental principles. Such factors as social environment, self-concept, education, and media influence the formation memory and one’s perception of the world. As a result, the author is positive that a close look and critical attitude towards memories can help evaluate information more clearly and define one’s identity (Shaw, 2016). Furthermore, Shaw (2016) states that:

…understanding all the shortcomings that our memory system presents allows us to adhere to a whole new ethos. Our past is a fictional representation, and the only thing we can be even somewhat sure of is what is happening now. It encourages us to live in the moment and not to place too much importance on our past. It forces us to accept that the best time of our lives, and our memory, is right now. (p. 52)

Thus, Shaw (2016) considers the creation of false memory as a common process that an everyone can develop and that has particular features.

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At the same time, Winter’s (2013) book Memory presents “a social history of memory science” (p. 1) in the 20th century. The essence of autobiographic memories and their reliability were explored by various experiments. For example, forensic techniques, neurosurgical projects in the 1950s, and memory wars in the 1990s are covered in the book. As a result, Winter (2013) aims to focus not on some particular scholars but rather on the fragments of the most successful memory researches in various periods and even those that are no longer popular in current canon. Consequently, applying this approach, Winter (2013) demonstrates the cultural and intellectual complexity, variety, and diversity of memory science. He also argues that stress that “stories we tell about our past define who we are in the present” (Winter, 2013, p. 3), which means that people’s memories play a crucial role in self-identification. At the same time, these points closely correlate with Walsh’s (2016) ideas. According to Winter (2013), truthful memories can be defined by tree main factors such as good faith, ardor to knowledge about previous event, and emotional experience. Consequently, Winter (2013) demonstrates the impact of certain scholars’ studies on the development of false memory theory.

False Memory Creation as the Possible Manipulation Technique

Shaw (2016) proves that by using appropriate techniques, a person can start to believe in the events that have never happened. Moreover, later, they can be persuaded that they have always had those memories. One of the main conclusions that Shaw (2016) has made is that people can be sentenced to jail just because of a confession, made under pressure of the police officer who has enforced the emergence of false memory. In fact, people can start sincerely believing that they have committed a crime. Moreover, during her research, she made people believe that subjects had been attacked by the dog or they had some physical injury in order to prove her hypothesis (Shaw, 2016). To achieve such an effect, people were asked about two events that had indeed happened to them in real life. The third event was made up, but it included basic details that were true. At the end of the research, when they had several meetings with the psychologist, 25% of all participants had a distinct false memory of the event (Shaw, 2016). However, almost 13% became “partial remembers” (Shaw, 2016, p. 34) as they recalled the fact that an event had happened, but they did not remember how it had actually occurred Thus, false memories can appear as the result of manipulation and pressure from other people.

Special attention was also given to jurisprudence and testimonies in Winter’s book. For example, he argues that during the 20th century, some psychologists had tried to introduce more accountable foundation for testimonies with the help of legal decisions (Winter, 2013). The main reason why courts have received so much attention in the research is because during the case, listening to individuals’ memories and the worries about the accuracy of these memories are combined (Winter, 2013). Thus, Winter’s research also proves the possibility of the creation of false memory in the legal sphere.

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The Role of Mass Media and Information Sharing Enhancement on False Memory Formation

Mass media and recording technology development play a special role in the studies, dedicated to the development of false memory. The influence of media and photography, in particular, can be traced back from its origins in the 19th century and especially, its explosive development in the 20th century. At the same time, recording technologies have also helped to demonstrate the existence of interpretation in terms of self-deceit and suggestion in memory formation. The appearance of cinematography has helped to create the memory “as a stable archive or recording in the brain” (Winter, 2013, p. 4). For example, the experiment conducted by Bridey Murphy introduced an extraordinary experience, when a person could recover previous existence in the 19th-century Ireland only for 25 dollars. This became possible only with the help of existing recording equipment (Winter, 2013). Thus, the evolution of technology and information sharing have created a basis for memory manipulations.

The topic of information and media factors in the creation of false memory has also been developed by Nash and Ost (2017). Photographs can aid significantly in the appearance of false memory. For example, many subjects who had seen some pictures of fictional events told later that they remembered those events. Furthermore, such factors as social environment, information fabrication, and other untrue information manipulations were analyzed. For instance, Nash and Ost (2017) in their book False and Distorted Memories mentioned the research of March and Mullet who had demonstrated how fictional information from unreliable sources could be later used to become a basis for people’s perception of the real world. According to those findings, even if person realizes that they have some false memory, those memories do not disappear, but they can rather influence one’s remembrance of them later. At the same time, Howe and colleagues, whose work has been also analyzed in False and Distorted Memories, argue that false memories can have positive effects (Nash & Ost, 2017). For instance, they can help in some problem-solving abilities development. Moreover, false memories can influence the choice that people make when buying things, such as drinks and food, which can also have positive drawbacks (Nash & Ost, 2017). Thus, information and media can be used to introduce strong memories that are accepted as reliable.

At the same time, Nash and Ost (2017) argue that nevertheless, the brain is “a necessary condition of memory” (p. 2), it is not referred as sufficient. As memory is accepted as an individual’s combination of behavior, motivation, politics, and social factors, the latter can be the main factors of memory formation. Moreover, they also underline that memories influence the formation of a person’s self-identity and their reality perception (Nash & Ost, 2017). For example, some people can refuse to accept information because it contradicts their recollections. At the same time, this rejection can a have positive side in the form of self-preservation activities, when negative memories can be rendered in a positive light, with bad things omitted or forgotten. Nash and Ost (2017) raise the topic of whether a person, who has false memory, can be always referred to as credible one because their perception of the event often depends on their personal outlook and believes. Furthermore, findings from Oulton’s and Takarangi’s research, as shown in the book, demonstrate that traumatic and negative memories cannot be accepted as truthful and reliable ones (Nash & Ost, 2017). Thus, this book proves that the formation of false memory is a complex process that does not exclusively depend on the brain activities.

Negative and Traumatic Experiences’ Impact on False Memory

Levine’s book Trauma and Memory develops the topic of the work of Nash and Ost regarding traumatic memories. Thus, Levine (2015) describes that negative experience and traumas have been present in human lives since ancient times. Different incidents can lead to “tyranny of the past” (Levine, 2015, p. 7), when one particular memory can become dominant and influence one’s present and future. The existing problem, as underlined by Levine (2015), is that very rarely, scientists and clinicians work together on the research of traumatic memory. Moreover, Levine (2015) stresses on the existing misconceptions, such as verbally accessible memory, that have been taught at school and university, but they are not always helpful in curing patients. For instance, often, therapists do not understand the full meaning of such term as conscious, explicit memory. They tend to apply cursory examination of primal implicit experience, which is a far more powerful motivation as compared to conscious mind (Levine, 2015). Thus, the impacts of traumas and negative experiences have been studied for long period of time.

Levine (2015) analyzes memory from the prospective of negative experience. First, his book presents the fundamentals of memory formation’s process in order to “learn to befriend our haunting and liberate ourselves from their [memories] tyranny” (Levine, 2015, p. 8). Second, Levine (2015) describes various approached that have been historically developed and implied to cure traumatic memories, and these are mesmerism, hypnosis, analysis, exposure, somatic experiencing, eye movement desensitization reprocessing and energy psychologies. Third, he introduces certain process that need to be encountered during therapy. For example, the therapist should understand how trauma is involved in the formation of some instinctive reaction to threat or how it is connected with certain emotions; therapist should also understand how traumatic events lead to negative mood states and result in self-destructive behavior (Levine, 2015, p. 8). Thus, negative experiences are related with the formation of memory.

Levine (2015) discusses the issue of memory wars that are also mentioned by Winter (2013) in general terms. Thus, the study of traumatic memories has proven that often, recovered memories of the past tend to be modified or implanted by therapists. Moreover, Levine (2015) offered the example of professor Loftus’ research, when she asked whether students would like to take a memory-dampening pill, and the results demonstrated that only 14% of students would like to use such a drug. Later, Loftus was confused with these results and strengthened her beliefs that often, abused memories that had been evoked by the therapist were false (Levine, 2015). Thus, these memory wars prove that past memories can be modified and later, they can cause the formation of false memories.

Recent Innovations in Memory Research

In his Memory, Consciousness and the Brain, Tulving gathered recent studies in the sphere of memory researches. Three core phenomena, such as memory, consciousness and the brain, were analyzed in this. Tulving (2013) argues that numerous researches have been conducted in this area; however, many questions are still not answered. Nevertheless, all materials presented in this book were discussed during the conference in Tallinn in 1998. The author stresses on the importance of such events because nowadays, people can easily find, share, and use information electronically (Tulving, 2013). As a result, the core objective of this conference was to provide guidelines and demonstrate how conferences could be organized in the future (Tulving, 2013). Thus, Memory, Consciousness and the Brain gathers the modern research of memory studies but one should remember that this sphere still has many blank spaces.

Several other core modern tendencies of memory studies are analyzed by Tulving (2013). Thus, Part 1 of the book particularly covers research in memory sphere. Such topics as available and accessible information in memory, divided attention, mood factor in memory formation are discussed. As the same time, the biological and neurological processes are also encountered in the topics such as the role of genes and neuroimaging in memory research (Tulving, 2013). The common conclusion of the Tallinn conference allows one to understand that memory, the brain, and conscious form one’s intelligence. Scholars also raise the question of the future of memory science. According to Sternberg, “doing more and more research about a phenomenon does not necessarily tell us more and more” (Tulving, 2013, p. 372). Such a conclusion assumes that various studies with particular and distinct participants, predictors, and criteria in specific cultural context cannot lead to fair conclusion. Consequently, making some prediction can have limitations and obfuscate the research of intelligence in its entirety. The same conclusion can be applied to memory studies as well. Thus, the topic of false memory is popular today among scholars, but this fact does not mean that those researches make the issue of false memory more clear.

Future Studies

Winter (2013) makes some suggestions on the possible future of false memories studies. For instance, special attention can be paid to the situation whether an expertise is required. Winter (2013) believes that every person has unique memories and no one else can have them. As a result, all people render their memories and they have a particular understanding of them that does not follow scientific matters that, in fact, change all the time. Moreover, the researcher stresses that more attention should be given to common people, not professional psychologists (Winter, 2013). Sometimes, they can introduce approaches or thoughts that can help in developing new theories. For example, in 1950, when neurosurgery research was conducted, not only did patients remain conscious during the brain surgery, but they also asked the surgeon to adopt interpretations and categories introduced by patients (Winter, 2013). Thus, Winter (2013) suggests that the scientific perception of this issue is not always correct. As a result, he proposes to consider involving more common people into researchers and listening to their ideas.

Tulving (2013) raises the question of conference importance in the future research and argues that information technology has changed the traditional role of these events. Thus, future conferences will aim to gather people with the same interests, have a real talk, and discuss issues they are interested in, not simply lecture about their findings. For example, the format of the conference in Tallinn included three working days: first – opening reception with two minutes of short presentation of their work and a few minutes for questions, while the second and third days were working days, during which participants worked in groups and made a bit broader presentation of their studies for around five minutes, with the discussion that followed them (Tulving, 2013). As a result, Tulving (2013) proposes to adopt such a practice as a more effective and productive way of communication between scholars who are interested in memory studies. Thus, Tulving brings a new approach to conference’s perception and organization.

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At the same time, less attention should be given to the theoretical aspects of false memory’s formation, but scholars should rather study more carefully such questions as memory manipulation, the role of mass media and information in the formation of false memory. The results of Shaw’s and Winter’s researches illustrate that many people can face the influence of memory creation that can later determine what they consume or how they behave. Therefore, an uncontrolled development of these combined features can create dependent and vulnerable society. Thus, future studies should search for the ways to protect human’s memory and conscious.

The area of false memory studies includes the works of various scholars who share some similar points but differ in some perceptions at the same time. The complexity of this sphere is represented by various factors that are referred to as the main features of false memory’s formation. For example, decision-based theory, illusory recollection, and associative activation are named as core traits of false memory. Moreover, other scholars underline the influence of social environment, self-concept, education, and refer to motivation and politics. The history of memory research has been discussed in several works. Special attention is given to the topic of the creation of false memory as a way to manipulate other people, while its special role in the case of serving justice is rather important. The topic of mass media and informational impact on the memory formation are presented as a way to demonstrate possible negative outcomes of people’s memory alteration. At the same time, the influence of negative and traumatic experience on memory was also covered. The questions of modern research in this sphere and its future prospects are referred to as well.