Telling The Difference Between Real Memories And False Ones

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, May 13, 2014
“Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition for our existence.” —Sholem Asch, The Nazarene

In A Nutshell

Separating false memories from real ones is a tricky thing; sometimes our brain creates false memories to protect itself, or, occasionally, on accident when it puts together information in such a way that it suddenly revolves around us instead of the friend we heard the story from. But science can tell the difference. The body has a series of involuntary movements that can reveal whether we’re remembering something that really happened or not, and our brain waves actually follow different patterns when they’re retrieving something we’ve actually seen, heard, or experienced and filed away for future use.

The Whole Bushel

Memory is a funny thing, and we all know that we can’t always count on it to be truthful with us. False memories are extremely easy to develop, and very easy to have implanted in our minds. Sometimes our brain does it to protect itself. But, that’s not always a good thing, especially when we have to rely on eyewitness testimony to determine what really happened in a crime or an accident. Different than lying, false memories happen when a person really, truly believes that what they’re remembering is the truth, even if it’s something they’ve constructed from overheard information or other sources.

For a long time, we thought that it was all but impossible to tell the difference between a person’s recall of real memories and false ones. Aside from instances where a person might remember being at an event that happened before they were born or during a time they were living in a completely different area, it’s been all but impossible to separate the real from the false as a person is reciting the information—until now.

Several studies have found that there are certain, involuntary tells that the body gives off when a false memory is triggered.

Participants of one study were given a series of illustrations out of The Saturday Evening Post. Afterward, they were shown items and then asked to tell whether or not those specific items were present in the illustrations. (To maintain more integrity in the testing, there were both control groups and test groups, and participants thought that they were actually engaging in a study on social perception; this would keep them from concentrating on naturally forming false memories.) A series of measurements were taken, including breathing, heart rate, skin conductance, and pulse.

The responses that were measured are all a part of the autonomic nervous system. It’s already been established that the more often the nervous system is exposed to something, the less of a response it will have to the stimuli as it becomes more accustomed to it. Once the body is familiar with something, it doesn’t see a need to react to it; something new, though, will cause a response as the body decides what to make of this new experience.

In the groups that had false memories, it was found that skin conductance (the most sensitive of all the measurements), was decreased when the person falsely recognized items. When they were accurately recalling what they had seen, skin conductance increased.

Another study done by the University of Pennsylvania determined that monitoring gamma waves in the brain could tell whether or not the brain was actually retrieving a memory that it had actually, previously processed and stored away for future use. Participants in this study played a memory recall game while their brain waves were being studied, and there was a definite difference in the patterns presented when the brain was recalling something that had actually happened and remembering something falsely.

So why is memory so easy to fool? At first glance, it doesn’t seem to give much of an advantage, but researchers from Lancaster University say that there is a point to false memories. While we might think of false memories as being responsible for incorrect testimonies and confused accident reports, it’s suggested that the ability to form false memories started out as a survival trait. Our brain allows us to process a series of seemingly unrelated pieces of information and draw a complete conclusion, and remembering different circumstances around those conclusions might make them have more significance. For example, instead of remembering that we saw the footprints of a predator around a particular watering hole, we might remember that we saw a saber-toothed tiger there instead, making us more likely to avoid a potentially deadly situation.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: A physiological marker for false memories
Science Daily: Brain Waves That Distinguish Real Memories From False Ones Pinpointed
Science Daily: Illusory memories can have salutary effects