How False Memories can be Implanted in People

Memory is a strange thing. It helps you relive the past in all its glorious detail; it helps you formulate ideas and make judgments about what you are seeing in the present. You can review virtually everything that has happened to you over your whole life. But is what you remember fact? Or is it a false memory that someone has helped you construct? Is it an implanted memory?

Most people rely very heavily on their memories. Court cases often depend on eye-witness testimony. Are these memories true? Or are they constructs?

Psychology Today has an interesting article based on a symposium at a conference of the Committee of Scientific Inquiry – false memories, which highlights examples like Mitt Romney’s strong recollection of the Golden Jubilee marking the 50th anniversary of the automobile industry, despite the fact that it actually took place nine months before he was born.

It seems that no matter how strong-willed, how intelligent, how informed you are, there are times when you rely on a false memory, and one that could influence how you think about many events in your past.

On a more clinical note, you might also work your way through a paper on memory in children: data, theory and legal implications. It’s a bit dry and full of technical descriptions, but the content is worth going through to see how children, despite the belief that they only tell the truth, construct false memories that they take into their adulthood.

The article and the paper show that false memories do occur, and probably more often than the public would like to believe. They may be influencing decisions in ways people can hardly imagine. However, they don’t completely explain how a false memory can be implanted in an individual. Perhaps nothing can provide such an explanation, but some ways may be as described here.

False memories in children

Children love stories. They also love to tell stories. If you listen to stories that the children tell, you will find that many of them place the child into a main character role. It may be as an animal that talks, a hero rescuing a princess, or something that takes on a very active role in the story. When the story is a fantasy, the child is well aware that it is a tale, and not reality. But, as with adults when they get involved in a story, the adventure is real in their minds, but only during the story itself.

The false memory problem starts to appear when the child is asked to make up a story that involves reality. Ask them to tell you about a visit to the emergency room of a hospital, or to the school nurse. Initially, the story will sound less than detailed, less than real. But, when prompted, the child will start to add those details, from the smells, to the sights of doctors and nurses, of people in the emergency room or also coming to see the nurse. As the story grows, the child will create the details around why he or she went to the emergency room or the nurse’s office. It might be as simple as a paper cut that needed a band-aid or dust getting into an eye. It might be a cut from a knife that the child should not have been handling, or, if there is some enmity with another child, it can be a stabbing with scissors or… Soon, the story is so detailed, so complete, that it sounds like an actual event.

But the crux is that the child starts to think of it as having actually happened. Small scars become proof of the event, and days later, the child will tell the tale as a personal experience. All the emotions that would go with the experience are there, and to the child it is as real as anything that did happen.

The story is implanted, and is likely to be remembered as well as, if not better than, any real event, even when the child becomes an adult.

False memories in adults

While a child’s imagination may be the source of a false memory, based on a story that adults asked the child to weave, one would think that most adults are immune to such a technique.

There is a scene in the movie musical, “Gigi,” where Maurice Chevalier’s character and Hermione Gingold (his lover sometime in the past) reminisce about how they first met. (The song: “I remember it well”: snippet from the movie or lyrics). Are Honore’s memories right, or are Madame Alvarez’ memories the real ones? Or are they both false memories?

The point is that memory changes over time. People sometimes need another person’s view to “correct” what they remember. But this is similar to the prompting of a child constructing an episode that did not happen.

This brings to mind how lawyers prepare their witnesses for a court appearance. How much of the memory of the events is coloured by the promptings, even though they may be well-meaning? Does the witness really remember what happened in fact? Or is the event reconstructed because of the promptings used?

Implanted memory

So far, you’ve looked at how memory may be altered through added input. So, can a completely false memory be implanted in a person’s mind? Probably the closest you can get to this is using what might be called hypnotism. See hypnotism work?, as reported in a newspaper.

First, what is hypnotism? It has nothing to do with will power, and one mind (the hypnotist’s) being more powerful than the subject’s. It has a great deal to do with the subject’s susceptibility to suggestion. This susceptibility is similar to the way a child wants to please the listener to the made-up story.

As long as there is enough structure in reality to allow the story (the false memory) to be accepted by the subject’s mind (and experiences in the real world), something like 80 percent of people can have a false memory implanted to some degree (it should be noted that people with high intelligence and who are well-informed are more susceptible than those with low intelligence and limited information). The subject will add all the necessary detail, even without prompting – smells, taste, sounds, even sights and feelings. If the subject doubts the reality of the story – it does not fit what the subject feels to be right for the story – then the memory does not take root in the mind, and hence there would be no false memory.

Yes, it’s scary…

Just how many of what you think of as memories are false memories to a greater or lesser degree?

The truth is, without external and objective verification, you don’t know. You could be constantly having your memories changed through the various media, and you would never know it.