Saturday, June 20, 2015

False memories

I have been wondering for quite some time now: How many of our memories are false?

I think most people have had the experience of disagreeing with a friend on some past event: You are completely and absolutely certain that the event happened in one way, and your friend is absolutely certain that it happened in another way. You can't both be right. At least one of you has to be wrong.

If both of you are certain of remembering the event correctly, then at least one of you is having a false memory. (Perhaps even both of you?)

Many people have experienced also another form of this: You are quite certain that some event happened in a certain way, and later you get undeniable proof that you remembered incorrectly. (The mildest case of this is remembering the events of a movie you saw long time ago: You are certain that something happened in the movie in a certain way, but when you watch the movie again years or decades later, you notice that you misremembered it. It comes back to you when you see it again, and recognize that you had a false memory of it.)

False memories may form in a multitude of ways. Simply remembering something incorrectly for whatever random reason is of course one of them, but not the only one.

In some cases you might have imagined an event, or read it in a book (and got a mental picture of it), or somebody told you about it, and then years or decades later you misremember it as having been a real event that you personally experienced.

Oftentimes we tend to "fill in the blanks" with our own deductions (or imagination) on incomplete events. Perhaps we witnessed only part of it, or saw only one side of it, and we fill the rest in our head. Again, years later we may misremember this extra filler as having been an actual event we witnessed. Often we outright forget some details of an event, and fill in the blanks in our head later. Many events can change drastically in our head this way.

Sometimes you misinterpret what you are witnessing. You might not understand completely what's going on, and make a (mistaken) interpretation of it. Then later you "remember" what you interpreted as having actually happened.

In a few cases we might want to believe something really happened in a certain way so badly, that with time we start believing that it indeed happened that way. We forget what really happened, and substitute the memory with something else. A form of auto-suppression. (This may be rarer, but it can happen.)

This makes me wonder: How many of my memories are false? Even those memories that I am 100% sure of? Could at least some of them be actually false? How would I know?

How sure are you that all your memories are accurate?

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