Have you ever been confused because you and a friend are recalling the same event very differently? If you were both there and saw the same thing, why do you remember it differently? This is because the human brain often creates ‘false memories’; it can both distort real memories or completely make them up.

The study of why the brain creates false memories started over a hundred years ago. In 1906, Hugo Münsterberg wrote of a case where a woman was murdered and a man was accused of the murder. He was questioned by the police and confessed despite having an alibi. He confessed several times, each time with more detail. Münsterberg said that the man was ‘a victim of involuntary elaboration of suggestion’ meaning that suggestive information is involuntarily integrated into someone’s mind. A week after Münsterberg suggested this, the boy was hanged as Münsterberg’s ideas were seen as implausible.

After this, it was not until 1932 that the psychologist, Sir Frederic Bartlett, proposed ‘The Theory of Reconstructive Memory’, which stated that memories can be understood as notes our brain takes about what we experience, and when we retrieve them, they are influenced by our schemas. Schemas are mental representations of the world based on our own experiences, that affect how we perceive and remember things. Bartlett carried out several studies to test his theory and he found that during recall, people omitted unfamiliar or irrelevant information; changed details to make them more familiar, rational, and to fit in with our schemas; and added details to give reason for things that did not initially fit with our schemas. Bartlett analysed his results himself to come to conclusions, meaning that his findings could be seen to be subjective, reducing the validity of his research. Despite this, his theory was accepted for a long time.

In 1988, Elizabeth Loftus carried out her own research to explain how memories are distorted. She researched many cases and carried out her own studies to investigate memory. An example is a mugging that took place in a park. The mugger had a knife with him. A man and a woman both witnessed it. Afterwards, the two witnesses discussed the event. The woman said that she saw the mugger with a gun. The police arrived very soon after it happened and when they questioned the man, he described the event in detail. When the police asked whether the mugger had a gun or a knife, he said a gun. Loftus said there are four main explanations for erroneous reporting of information. The first is that the man didn’t see the knife and mentioned the gun because he remembered hearing about it. The second is that he remembered both the knife and the gun but trusted the woman’s memory more than his own. The third is that he didn’t see the knife or hear the woman speak about the gun, so he simply guessed. The last is that he could have seen the knife but when the woman mentioned the gun, his memory was altered, or weakened in some way. This is called the effect of misleading postevent information. Using what she learned, Loftus began to question to what extent you can alter people’s memories and create new memories. She and other psychologists managed to plant entire new memories into people’s minds. In one study conducted by Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter, 70% of the subjects were made to believe they had committed crimes such as theft and armed assault using just memory-retrieval techniques in their interviews.

In the 1990s, ‘Fuzzy Trace Theory’ was proposed by Charles Brainerd and Valerie Reyna. They proposed this as an explanation for the DRM paradigm, which is a false memory task, in which people are given a list of words that are lexically related and asked to recall as many as possible. People will confidently produce words related to but not on the list. The ‘Fuzzy Trace Theory’ explained this as people’s verbatim memory (the memory associated with details and precision) surpasses their gist memory (which is associated with fuzzy memories of a past event) meaning that people remember false information vividly and are confident in that information. Over time there have been many different proposed explanations for why the brain creates false memories. All of these have credit as they are all supported by studies and research, meaning that there could be more than one explanation for the creation of false memories.

Rashmini Mootoosamy