Think you can trust your recollections? Think again. Scientists are uncovering the shockingly common phenomenon of false memories.

Eighteen-year-old Peter Reilly sat in the interrogation room in a daze. After 25 hours of intense questioning, he’d just signed a confession confirming that he’d brutally murdered his own mother, 51-year-old Barbara Gibbons.

“We got into an argument,” he told interrogators. “I remember picking up the straight razor, and I slashed towards her throat.”

Just a day after Barbara’s body was found, the murder was an open and shut case. Based on his confession, a jury sentenced Peter to between six and 16 years in prison. The only problem? He was innocent.


Peter Reilly pictured the weekend after his conviction. He owed his eventual freedom in part to a generous donation from playwright Arthur Miller

The teenager’s memory of his mother’s murder—of killing his only known relative with a razor with which he crafted model aeroplanes—was entirely false. In 1975, two years after his conviction, Peter was set free, exonerated by evidence that proved he couldn’t have been at the scene of the crime. He was never retried.

By claiming that he’d failed a lie-detector test and mental illness had likely caused him to “black out” the crime, the interrogators had convinced Peter—by all accounts a quiet, good-natured boy who loved his mother dearly—that he must have been the killer.

Not only did Peter believe his interrogators, he eventually provided detailed memories of the attack, explaining both his motive (his mother was an alcoholic who rarely showed him affection) and plan for disposing of the weapon (throwing it behind the nearby petrol station).

So why did this young man from a sleepy town in Connecticut confess to a crime he never committed?

The Innocence Project movement in the US, which seeks to exonerate innocent convicts through modern DNA testing, says false memory plays a role in more than 70 per cent of the wrongful convictions they overturn. In ten per cent of those cases, their clients originally pleaded guilty, serving an average of 14 years for crimes that they didn’t commit.

 

 

"The Innocence Project movement says false memory plays
a role in more than 70 per cent
of the wrongful convictions they overturn"

 

 

Dr Julia Shaw is a criminal psychologist at London Southbank University and the author of popular psychology book, The Memory Illusion. She conducts research into how and why our brains form these complex false memories. It’s a phenomenon, she explains, that’s far more common than we might imagine.

“We like to think we’re able to distinguish between imagination and experiences, but the brain can’t actually do this very well. Certainly not once you’ve pictured what a fantasy might feel, smell or taste like. Then you’re adding in the markers we usually use to separate fact and fiction, and you’re making them indistinguishable.”

Our brains are home to approximately 86 billion neurons. Each of these neurons is equipped with stringy arms called dendrites, which allow them to stretch out to other cells. Each dendrite has “spines”, which act like brainy fingers, enabling them to reach out across synapses and communicate from one cell to another. Memories are formed when particular connections between these neurons are strengthened.

Unfortunately for us, false memories and real memories seem to rely on the exact same mechanisms to become lodged in the brain.


"Memory hacker" Dr Julia Shaw

It’s tempting to think of memory as a personal CCTV system, recording everything we see or do. In actuality, as the founder of applied memory science Professor Elizabeth Loftus explains, it’s more like a Wikipedia page. “You can go in there and change it, but so can other people”.

When we recall a memory, we aren’t flipping through the Rolodex of our minds to produce the correct file—we’re writing that file out anew. We actively recreate our memories every time we think of them, adding room for potential fabrication or misremembering each time.

Think about your earliest memory. Perhaps you remember the birth of a sibling, your first taste of birthday cake or a traumatic trip to the dentist. Maybe you’re even one of the few who can recall their own birth. Well,
if any of those memories occurred before you turned three years old, bad news: they’re definitely false.

As Dr Shaw explains, it’s physically impossible for our brains to form long-lasting memories when we’re that young. “Almost everybody thinks they have a memory from childhood that’s actually impossible.”

These false childhood memories are often caused by a process called “memory conformity”, where details we’ve learned through the accounts of others can implant entirely false memories, or lead us to accept the experiences of others as our own. Perhaps you remember telling someone a story about yourself, only to realise that it had actually happened to them. That’s memory conformity.

 

 

“We like to think we’re able to distinguish
between imagination and experiences,
but the brain can’t actually do this very well"

-Dr Julia Shaw

 

 

This phenomenon has serious implications for the criminal justice system. If eyewitness accounts can mutate through discussion or the process of remembering itself, then their reliability becomes compromised. And research has shown that emotional memories are no less vulnerable to fabrication. In fact, because we tend to be more confident about our memories of emotional or traumatic events, they can be even less reliable than their humdrum counterparts.

Not only are false memories possible, psychologists have proved that they can actually create false memories, hacking into our brains to implant recollections of events that never really took place.

Dr Shaw is one such psychologist. “I get people to repeatedly imagine committing a crime—theft, assault or assault with a weapon and police contact—and after three interviews using leading techniques and imagination exercises, we see that 70 per cent of them accept that they’re guilty of a crime that they didn’t commit.”

But not everybody accepts the explanation that false memories are a by-product of our imperfect brains. Fiona Broome, a paranormal consultant from Florida, coined the term “The Mandela Effect” in 2010 when she realised she wasn’t the only person to remember Nelson Mandela’s funeral, 30 years before he actually died. Far from it. She soon discovered that hundreds of people across the world shared the same richly detailed false memory.

So what causes these eerily similar collective false memories? On her website, Fiona Broome speculates that we’re all “sliding between parallel realities…that somehow have glitches”. She’s proposing a version of the quantum mechanic “multiverse” theory, which speculates that there could be many possible universes all existing simultaneously.

Multiverse theory was hypothesised to explain physics experiments, not false memories, but nevertheless, Mandela Effect enthusiasts enjoy speculating that their false memories are windows between worlds, not simple human errors.

Professor Chris French, of Goldsmiths University’s Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, is sceptical.

“We have a tendency to put ourselves at the centre of the action and I think that explains a lot about the so-called Mandela Effect. We all knew Mandela had a long sentence and many assumed he’d die in prison. Perhaps some people thought about it, imagined it happening and subsequently became convinced.

“False memories can arise without anyone deliberately implanting them. Take the crashing-memories paradigm. Studies have shown that if you ask a random sample of British people if they saw the footage of Princess Diana’s car crashing in Paris, about 50 per cent will say they did, when in actuality, no such footage exists.”

Perhaps another explanation is that those who experience the Mandela Effect are particularly susceptible to false memories. As a paranormal psychology specialist, Professor French has worked on many studies examining connections between a belief in the paranormal and a predisposition to form false memories.

 

 

"Memory is rightly considered fundamental to our sense of who we are"

-Professor Chris French

 

 

“Anything that’s likely to make you confuse something you’ve imagined with something that really happened makes you susceptible to false memories,” he explains. “Fantasy proneness, being creative, having a vivid imagination or simply, as my grandma would put it, a tendency to be away with the fairies.”

So what does the future hold for false-memory science? Developments in optogenetics, a technique that modifies brain cells to make them sensitive to light, and then uses laser beams to target specific memories, have already successfully implanted false memories in mice. Susumu Tonegawa, a neuroscientist at the RIKEN-MIT Centre for Neural Circuit Genetics and the researcher behind the trial, hopes future findings will help to alert legal experts as to the unreliability of eyewitness accounts.

Dr Shaw explains that optogenetic research is now going a step further, with groundbreaking applications. “My French colleagues are doing some of that work on humans, trying to cut out trauma from the memories of veterans. So in extreme cases, there are potential future applications for severe PTSD. It’s very invasive, though, as you’re physically modifying the brain, so it’s definitely a last resort.”

These rapid developments are raising a host of moral concerns for researchers.

“The idea that techniques could be developed that would reliably allow the powerful manipulation of memory raises a host of tricky ethical issues,” explains Professor French. “There are no easy answers, but it would be wise for such issues to be discussed by everyone—not just scientists—sooner rather than later.

“Memory is rightly considered fundamental to our sense of who we are and many people instinctively feel it’s wrong to interfere with a person’s sense of self, even if they consent.”

Nevertheless, one of the most important focuses of future memory research relates to the criminal justice system and educating our law enforcers on the subject.

“A lot of police don’t know about this. A lot of lawyers. It’s shocking,” Shaw states. “It should be part of their core curriculum. The fact that there isn’t even a one-hour lecture on false memories for lawyers is absurd.”

Now 62, Peter Reilly works as a car-parts salesman in Tolland County, Connecticut, but he remains interested in cases similar to his own, sometimes taking time off to attend court hearings.

In an interview with The New York Times in 1997, Peter explained, “I’d just as soon forget and move on, but it’s such an important issue and it could affect anybody. I have a responsibility to make people aware.” More than 40 years on, the mystery of his mother’s murder remains unsolved.

Accepting that our memories are vulnerable and that our past is always a fiction (to some degree) doesn’t have to be depressing.

“In some way, if you remove the weight that people often place on their past, it’s freeing—it’s quite Zen,” says Dr Shaw. “We’re storytellers, and what matters is now. Accepting that only makes us stronger.”

 

Read more by Anna Walker

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