If you remember something did it really happen?
We know how hard it is sometimes to remember past events. We may even suspect that some of our memories aren’t certain but there is no way to create a memory of something which didn’t happen. Or is it?
Despite our desire to be certain of memory, it’s now being realised in the legal world how often poor interview techniques can implant memories which even the accused believe are true. By testing a group of 60 students in three weekly 40 minute interviews, it was possible to implant false memories simply by mixing real and false information.
We can all realise we may be missing something and if an interviewer confidently intersperses false content with true information, it’s too easy to think our memory is faulty.
In the experiment the 60 students were presented with both correct and false information, which involved them as a teen, including false events relating to a crime of assault or theft. They were prompted to think harder to try to remember the false memory.
In follow-up interviews two-thirds of the students formed false memories for the emotional events they were told had happen to the extent they had embellished them with incredibly vivid details of the crimes, far beyond what they were told and had never happened.
“This research speaks to the distinct possibility that most of us are likely able to generate rich false memories of emotional and criminal events,” says Julia Shaw of the University of Bedfordshire.
What this throws up is the reality of us being able to create false memories, dependant on the circumstances which help to reform them as part of remembering and not the reality of the actual events. Many of those situations are not in our control but as in this case, could be interviewers or investigators using poor techniques with misinformation, where we are emotionally involved and react in ways which form the false memories. It yet again shows the importance of investigators being diligent in their interviews so as not to add false information.
But the lingering thought here is, these are false memories, which the students know rationally are not true. But they still exist. So, as far as their memory is concerned, it’s just as valid as one that is correct. So from a memory point of view it happened. And that is about as real as we can trust any of our memories.