Memory Hacking

There have been many healthy memory blog posts on the topic of false memories,  To find these posts enter “Loftus” or “false memory” in the healthy memory blog search block.  Psychologist Julia Shaw she says that she is a memory hacker in her book, “THE MEMORY ILLUSION.”  By that she means that she knows how to induce false memories.  In addition to discussing how she does this in the laboratory she also discusses how this is done in the wild.  She also notes that not only outside sources can dramatically alter our recollections of emotional events; we are also prone to distortion from internal influences.

Research by Alan Brown and Elizabeth March has demonstrated that simply showing people photos of particular locations makes them more likely to erroneously report having visited those places when asked a week or two later.  Participants were more likely  to misremember visiting places that were mundane than unique places.  This finding makes sense because they were investigating memory for visiting locations on a college  and mundane locations included things that exist on a college campus, such as classrooms, libraries and streets.  Unique locations included photos of statues, artwork and particularly ornamental buildings. 87% of the participants claimed to have visited at least one mundane location and 62% claimed to have visited one unique location.  None of the photos were from the campus the students actually visited.

The problem becomes even worse when researchers manipulated images or introduced misinformation to suggest that people did things that they never did.  Research done in 2002 by Wade, Garry, Read, and Lindsay showed that half of the participants in a study could come to recall details of a hot-air ballon ride that they have never taken simply through being asked to remember the supposed event while being shown a photoshopped image of themselves in the ballon basket.

Another study by Stephen Lindsay and his colleagues showed that the photos didn’t necessarily need to be altered.  They had half of their participants imagine experiencing three events from childhood, while the other  half were asked to do the same thing while looking at a real photos of their former school classmates.  Participants were then asked to recall their memories of the events in question.  Two of these events had actually happened (information about these true events had been provided ahead of time by the participants’ parents) but the third was a fictional event that had been invented by the team.  Of those who were asked to picture the event happening, 45% formed false memories of it, while 78% of those who pictured the event and were exposed to true pictures of old classmates formed false memories. So giving pictures to the participants who were trying to remember events made them more likely to create memories of things that never actually happened.  Dr. Shaw writes, “These real pictures served as a foundation that the participants could meld into their false accounts making them feel more real.”

Psychotherapists have inadvertently hacked memories..  These psychotherapists planted false memories of childhood sexual events into their patients’ memories.  These psychotherapists were falsely guided by the notion that repressed sexual memories were the source of their patients’ mental problems.  Can you imagine the nightmares of these parents when they were falsely accused by their children of sexual abuse?  It was not only parents but also teachers and staff at day care centers who were falsely accused of sexual abuse as the result of debriefings done by incompetent investigators.  They kept suggesting over and over to the children that they had been sexually abused.  The justification these investigators provided was that children needed to be coached to uncover the sexual abuse.  These investigators were wrong. Consequently, many were falsely imprisoned in a Kafkaefsque  nightmare.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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