How to Instill False Memories

By Steven Ross Pomeroy | February 19, 2013  Scientific American blogs

Everyone enjoys the occasional practical joke – assuming the gag isn’t mean-spirited or overly perilous, even the prank’s poor victim can appreciate the punch line!

How to implant false memories in your friends, in four steps:

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan argued that implanting false memories in people is not only possible, but is actually pretty easy when attempted in the proper settings with a gullible subject, He cited as examples people who, at the urging of therapists or hypnotists, genuinely start to believe that they’d been abducted by UFOs or falsely remember being abused as a child. For these people, the distinction between memory and imagination becomes blurred, and events that never actually took place become sewn into their memories as real events. They can even describe these false remembrances incredibly vividly – as if they actually happened!

“Memory can be contaminated,” Sagan wrote. “False memories can be implanted even in minds that do not consider themselves vulnerable and uncritical.”


Once you’ve got your target singled out, the next, and possibly the most critical step, is to fabricate a memory. The false memory should have “taken place” at least a year in the past, not be unduly intricate, and not be something that might engender strong feelings of emotion.

Emotions tend to make people remember associated events more vividly. (You probably can recall where you were and what you were doing around the time of traumatic events, for example.) ….Choosing a childhood memory will give you the best odds of success. You’ll have an easier time implanting something that supposedly occurred far in the past. Since this is meant to be a practical joke, I recommend creating a false memory that’s comical and not potentially life-scarring.


With the memory and target selected, your third task is to prepare. You’re going to need a couple things if the prank will have any chance of success. .. you could also try doctoring a photo. In 2002, psychologists exposed twenty subjects to a false childhood event using a fake photograph. ….At the study’s conclusion, fifty percent of subjects ended up concocting complete or partial false memories!

You’ll also need corroborators; the more the better

Now you’re ready to set your plan in motion. When you commence, be persistent. The memory may not stick right away; you’ll probably have to bring it up multiple times over a span of days or even weeks. Additionally, don’t be afraid to use peer pressure. You and your compatriots should utilize phrases like the following:

  • “Really? You don’t remember that?”
  • “Seriously? You were there!”
  • “Your memory is awful!”

…but it can be done. So sew away, my friends. Sew away.

Images: Balloons by Tomascastelazo / Wikimedia Commons, Imagination by Mehdinom / Wikimedia Commons.

Steven Ross PomeroyAbout the Author: Steven Ross Pomeroy is the assistant editor for Real Clear Science, a science news aggregator. He regularly contributes to RCS’ Newton Blog. As a writer, Steven believes that his greatest assets are his insatiable curiosity and his ceaseless love for learning. Follow on Twitter @SteRoPo

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Leave a comment


  1. I’m sitting here squinting at Jeannette ….


  2. But I think it highly unlikely that you can falsify emotions to go into such a fake memory.

    If I find emotions, then I trust they are real, even if my friend is a compulsive liar, even after a year or more of listening to fabricating memories, I still hear the same emotions coming up, and they must have a real source, otherwise they would not be there.



    • Jeannette Bartha

       /  02/21/2013

      Hi Keith,

      I have to disagree that emotions don’t come with fake memories. If you believe something to be true.. emotions follow IME.



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