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The Danger of False Memory - A Psychological Review

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“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

Marcel Proust

So much of our identities as individuals - our interests, our knowledge, even our world view - can be attributed to our memories. Many memories we keep as precious possessions, pulling them off the shelves of our minds during moments when we need strength, or guidance, or even just a reason to smile. To put it simply, our memories define us. Perhaps this is why it is so disturbing a realization that remembering is no exact science. On the contrary, memories are fragile, subject to corrosion, embellishment, and even manipulation. False memories - inaccurate memories that we believe to be real - present themselves in various forms and have the potential to cause serious real-life problems.


Source Amnesia

Have you ever shared a childhood memory with your parents, only to be informed that you were merely an infant at the time and must be “remembering” the story as it was told to you? Most likely they’re correct – this mishap, called “source amnesia”, or “source misattribution”, is quite common. When a person cannot remember the source of a particular fact or event, they may mistakenly attribute it to the wrong origin.

Similarly, it’s possible that we forget having read or heard original thoughts from another person, and incorrectly believe that we’ve come up with them ourselves. This phenomenon is known as “cryptomnesia”, and can be quite embarrassing for the unwitting plagiarizer. (Gluck, 97)

In the Lab

Sir Frederick Bartlett studied the role of schemas in memory in an experiment conducted in 1932, in which participants were told a series of stories. When asked to recall these stories after some time had passed, participants embellished the original stories with details that fit into their schemas.

When recounting the story of a battle, for example, some participants insisted that there were “many wounded”, when in fact the story mentioned no such thing. Because their schema of battle involves injury, they imagined this to be part of the story as well. (Griggs, 178)

Filling in the Blanks

Inaccuracy in recall goes beyond the mere source – we are quite capable of distorting the content of our memories as well. Memories are not formed instantaneously; rather, there is a stage of malleability called the consolidation period. Some researchers believe that memories are similarly vulnerable during recall, allowing for small losses and alterations to take place each time the memory is reactivated, producing significant discrepancies over time. (Gluck, 406)

As memories deteriorate, we find ourselves filling in the blanks with what we assume happened, and these assumptions aren’t always correct. In order to make sense of the world, our minds create schemas, or frameworks of knowledge about events in life. These schemas help us predict the usual process of various things, such as dining at a restaurant (the hostess seats you, your server takes the order, you eat your meal, a bill is presented, etc.). If a detail becomes foggy, your schema steps in to fill in the blanks.

So memories aren't perfect, but how is that dangerous?


In the Lab

Professor Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of Washington is known for her extensive research into the influence of suggestion on human memory. In one of her experiments, Dr. Loftus showed participants a video of a car accident involving an intersection with a stop sign. It was then suggested to the half of the participants that the intersection had a yield sign. When later asked to recall the details of the video, the participants that experienced suggestion were more likely to “remember” a yield sign, while the other half of the participants remembered accurately. (Loftus, 71)

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False Content

What happens when such embellishments are aided by the power of suggestion? Is it possible for false memories to be planted? In a word, yes. Acts as simple as prompting a person to imagine an event taking place can encourage them to believe it actually happened. If we imagine events, we can later confuse them with reality in a phenomenon similar to source amnesia. (Gluck, 98)

Now apply this knowledge to a real-life situation, such as the questioning of an eyewitness in a court case. The possibilities are unnerving.

Hypnosis may seem like an old wive's tale, but it is used often today in more modern form.

Hypnosis may seem like an old wive's tale, but it is used often today in more modern form.


When the case went to court and became public, Beth's father lost his position as a clergyman in his church. False or otherwise, serious accusations produce life-long consequences.

Hypnotic Horrors

Beyond simple suggestion, there are other factors that can strongly affect the reconstruction of memory, especially when the memory is “recovered” from the past. Perhaps the most common way such “memories” are obtained is through hypnotherapy.

Consider the story of Beth Rutherford, who began seeing a church counselor for stress-related symptoms at the age of 22. Convinced that the symptoms were similar to those exhibited by sexual abuse in children, the counselor practiced hypnosis with Beth and encouraged her to imagine in detail having been abused as a child. (Gluck, 393) Over time, Beth began to “regain” detailed and gruesome memories of childhood that included rape by her father. When Beth was examined for evidence, it was discovered that she was still a virgin. (Loftus, 70) The horrible “memories” that Beth had dredged up in therapy were completely fictitious.

Another Example of Questionable Testimony

Authority Steps In

These cases haven't gone unnoticed. The American Medical Association has since stated that “recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse are of uncertain authenticity, should be subject to verification and are fraught with the problem of potential mis-implication.” (Merskey, 258)

The parahippocampal gyrus plays an important role in memory encoding.

The parahippocampal gyrus plays an important role in memory encoding.

A Physiological Solution?

Is there a way to distinguish between false memories and reality? Possibly. Experiments involving the creation of false memories in participants have been closely studied for clues. FMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that monitors brain activity) conducted during the recollection stage of these experiments reveal that most areas of the brain involved in memory are equally active during the remembrance of the correct words and the incorrect theme words . . . with the exception of the parahippocampal gyrus, a portion of the medial temporal lobes. This area is more active during presentation of the correct words than the false theme words. ( This study suggests a physiological solution to the issue of false memory, though a real-life application has yet to be attempted.

The Moral of the Story

Physiological clues may someday provide the answer for distinguishing between falsehoods and true recollection. Until that day comes, we can probably all agree that despite what we may believe, memory should never be taken for granted.


Gluck, Mark A. Learning and Memory: From Brain to Behavior. New York: Worth Publishers, 2008.

Griggs, Richard A. Psychology, A Concise Introduction. New York: Worth Publishers, 2009.

Justman, Stewart. Fool’s Paradise. Chicago: Ivan R. Lee, 2005.

Loftus, Elizabeth F. “Creating False Memories.” Scientific American, September 1997: 70-75.

Merskey, Harold. “Prevention and Management of False Memory Syndrome.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment: Journal of Continuing Professional Development, 1998: 253-260

Can medial temporal lobe regions distinguish true from false? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 25 October 2000. Web. 19 November 2011. <>

© 2012 Allison


Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on May 20, 2012:

That’s an interesting point AlexK2009 – I suppose you could use false memory for good as well. Perhaps that’s the idea behind hypnotism as treatment for quitting smoking. I can’t imagine allowing anybody to hypnotize me though. You’d have to really, truly trust that individual.

Thanks for reading!

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on May 20, 2012:

Jama Genee,

That is truly a heartbreaking story. It’s just terrible that somebody can go their whole life thinking that their parent had done that to them. It must be so damaging. Not to mention how her father must have been cast out like a pariah, poor man.

Thank you for reading and for sharing such a relevant example!

AlexK2009 from Edinburgh, Scotland on May 17, 2012:

I read somewhere visitors to Disneyland can be convinced they shook hands with Bugs Bunny ( A Warner Brothers character).

Memory seems to be volatile and unreliable anyway but planting memories as the woman's Grandpa did is generally evil, though I suppose it could be used in a benign fashion.

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on May 17, 2012:

Most veteran law enforcement officers will tell you a total stranger (a passerby, for instance) who was an "eyewitness" should not be the only "proof" that a certain person committed the crime. And yes, there are many innocent people behind bars because of this.

As for "planting memories", I know of a well-to-do grandfather who never liked the man his daughter married, even less so after she fell into a coma shortly after giving birth to the couple's only child, a daughter. She lingered in that state for several years before she died, during which time the son-in-law obtained a divorce (there was NO hope she'd EVER recover) and married the woman he's been with now for 30-some years. Until he remarried, the baby was pretty much raised by his relatives. But when the girl was a teenager and having "normal" teenage issues, good ol' Grandpa paid for a shrink, and to everyone's surprise and astonishment, she began "remembering" being sexually abused by her father. Which, of course, never happened. Really. But she cut all ties with her father. Then it came to light that the grandfather, being quite wealthy, told her he'd cut her out of the will if she ever had any further contact with her father or any of his relatives. The upshot being no one from his side of the family could get near her to convince her her "memories" were planted by the well-paid shrink. Very sad. By now, I hope she's realized they weren't memories at all, but she's lived under the radar for so many years, we'll probably never know.

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on May 16, 2012:

Lyn. Stewart,

Oh wow, that is such a great example. It makes you wonder how many people behind bars are the wrong people entirely. Just as in therapy, questioning by police could be so easily skewed.

Lyn.Stewart from Auckland, New Zealand on May 15, 2012:

This is really interesting. voted up as well. I watched a T.V. programme where people were taken to a park and they saw a handbag stollen, then they were taken back to the office and the guy running the programme asked them what they saw then told them he saw blue shoes and a couple of other things ie blonde hair in a ponytail. 80% of the people then started saying they had seen the same things. In a fake police lineup the 80% all said the only person wearing that colour shoe was the culprit.

They were then told how this piece of information had been implanted. The person who played the part of the bag snatcher then stepped forward ... he had black hair and white sneakers.

MobyWho on April 27, 2012:

Great hub further enlightened by pertinent comments. Hope you'll give us more on relative subjects.

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 27, 2012:


Unfortunately, leading takes place without hypnosis. If you’re mind has any holes or uncertainties in your recollection, leading questions can fill those in without your awareness through mere conversation.

And thanks to MizBejabbers for answering the question about lingering hypnosis – I’ve been wondering about that myself ever since I saw the movie Office Space :)

Thanks for reading!

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on April 27, 2012:

I am so glad that you have written this hub and documented it so thoroughly. Anyone who has been a victim of someone's false memories, or who has a family member who was such a victim, can testify to the dangers. Unfortunately, our legal system rarely takes that into consideration. And yes, SouthernHoney, it gets worse as one ages. Sometimes I have to stop and sort out what really happened and what I was told. It gets scary because when it happens to an older person, we wonder if it is a sign of Alzheimers.

@MobyWho: Yes, lingering hypnosis is possible. I took self-hypnosis classes many years ago, and our instructor told of an incident of lingering hypnosis that happened to her. Fortunately hers was harmless, but it frightened her and she warned us to "never give control of our minds to another person." (Meaning don't let anyone hypnotize you.)

MobyWho from Burlington VT on April 25, 2012:

I had heard that no one could be hypnotized against his/her will...does that fit in with the theory of 'leading' the patient? Frankly, I'd be afraid of hypnosis lingering. Is that possible? Thanks for a great hub on a slightly scary subject.

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 20, 2012:

Hi Stephanie,

I totally agree - I’m already filling in the blanks at 25, so I shudder to think how much worse this memory is going to get over the years … haha! Thanks for the comment and feedback.

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 20, 2012:

Thanks Angie, it’s wonderful to hear feedback from an industry professional! Hypnotherapy is such a fascinating topic to me, but I agree, not one to be taken lightly. Thanks so much for reading!

Stephanie Henkel from USA on April 20, 2012:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your well-written and documented hub. The older I get, the more I realize how unreliable memories are! I do find myself filling in the blanks, and it is very interesting to compare memories of the same event with my children or siblings.

That false memories can be generated during hypnosis is truly frightening! If one believes that something bad happened to them as a child, it seems that the effect would almost be as bad as if it had actually happened!

Thanks for a great hub! Voted up and shared!

Angie Jardine from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on April 19, 2012:

As a retired clinical hypnotherapist I am so glad you wrote this hub, SouthernHoney.

It is so important to be neutral and not directive when doing this sort of therapy and sadly there are therapists out there who 'lead' the client to see pictures in their minds of things that didn't happen.

Hypnosis can be very effective but unfortunately sometimes a therapist's training is not as thorough as it should have been.

An extremely well-written and well-researched hub. Voted for.

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 19, 2012:


So true, you certainly shouldn’t treat every memory like it’s a fraud. Those Holocaust deniers have an awful lot of identical “false” memories to explain though!

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 19, 2012:

Thanks PiYe19 - I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I look forward to exploring your hubs as well!

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 19, 2012:

Shahid Bukhari,

Well put, nothing is certain when it comes to matters of the mind. I love the idea of the “junction of your conscious and unconscious … sits the banished.” Very Freudian. Thanks for reading!

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 19, 2012:


Thanks for the feedback! What a fascinating idea, I wonder what the theory is behind the colorful images. Unfortunately, one area that psychology has been fairly unsuccessful at is memory improvement. But research continues, so we’ll see!

AlexK2009 from Edinburgh, Scotland on April 19, 2012:

Great hub. It works two ways however. Holocaust deniers have claimed survivors' memories are false memories.

PiYe19 on April 19, 2012:

This was a very interesting hub. I appreciate you sharing this information and look forward to others like it ; excellent.

Shahid Bukhari from My Awareness in Being. on April 19, 2012:

The mundane Reality of the "Mind" has to be first understood ... before you start passing judgments about Reality ... of Brains, playing tricks ... Memory's Corruption ... allegedly due the workings of Mind !

For, at the "Junction of your Conscious and Unconscious ... sits the banished ... planting ideas, as these transit from one, to the other side of the "Mind" ...

Naif Hamed Almutairy from Saudi Arabia on April 18, 2012:

vote up!

on the other hand, how is it possible to enhance our memories so that we don't hurt ourselves or others?

the strangest answer I've ever came across was to avoid looking at colorful images!

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 16, 2012:


That’s a perfect example! I know, I have several memories from childhood that are completely botched. I just had a conversation with my family about a funny event from years ago, and we argued forever over the details. Everybody had their own version.

Thanks for the comment, and for your vote – I really appreciate the support. Nice to meet you!

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 16, 2012:

Hi Pamela99,

Wow, you really have experienced this first hand. Thank goodness your brother was able to sort out fact from fiction! That must be a truly confusing experience.

Thanks so much for your feedback, I appreciate the comment and nice to meet you!

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 16, 2012:


Kind of unnerving, isn't it? :) Thanks so much for your comment, and for posting the link for other readers! I appreciate your time.

Elsie Nelson from Pacific Northwest, USA on April 16, 2012:

You have my vote for the hubnugget nomination, that's for sure. What a fantastic, thorough and well documented hub. Memories really are interesting. I was just thinking about things I "remember" from my childhood, in particular in 1969 when we first landed on the moon. I do remember seeing the footage on the TV. But, I also remember my cat lying on our old radiator in front of my parents window... just by the TV during the newscast. It dawned on me that I didn't really remember the cat lying there at all... I'd just seen it in a photograph. But, the memory seemed just as real all the same. Sorry for the tangent. Good luck!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 15, 2012:

This is an extremely interesting hub. It is very well written with such excellent documentation. My brother was in therapy many years ago and the psychologist tried to instill a memory of him being molested when he was very young in day care. Now he is quite sure it never happened.

Congratulations on your well deserved nomination.

Michelle Simtoco from Cebu, Philippines on April 15, 2012:

Now you have got me thinking LOL Hmmmm.....

Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination. To those who would like to read and vote, this way

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 14, 2012:

Thanks so much ShepherdLover! I really appreciate that :)

ShepherdLover from Portland, OR on April 13, 2012:

Wow, what an interesting hub! (And congrats on your HubNuggets nomination!)

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on April 13, 2012:

Oh wow, thank you so much vespawoolf! I just found out, how exciting! I really appreciate your support.

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on April 13, 2012:

This is a well-written and well-documented hub. I'm in full agreement that memories, like computer files, are fragile. Congratulations on the HubNugget nomination. You have my vote!

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on March 16, 2012:

Thanks Sparkster! It really is a fascinating subject :)


Marc Hubs from United Kingdom on March 16, 2012:

Excellent hub, very interesting. Love psychology.

Allison (author) from San Diego, CA on March 16, 2012:

Thank you Healthy Pursuits! I appreciate the feedback, and look forward to exploring your hubs as well.


Karla Iverson from Oregon on March 16, 2012:

Excellent hub! Very well written, and I appreciate your sourcing. I've decided to follow you. More interesting reading to come, I'm sure.

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