False Memories: Remembering Something That Never Happened

MIT scientists investigate how false memories form.
Published on July 26, 2013 by Faith Brynie, Ph.D. in Brain Sense
Excerpts. Full Article

Anyone who watches TV courtroom dramas knows that memory can’t be trusted. Eyewitnesses believe that their recall is complete and perfect, but in truth, memories are, at best, sensory and emotional impressions blurred by imagination, belief, ambiguity, and time. As convincing as juries may find the testimony of witnesses, good prosecutors know that human memory is, more often than not, the least reliable source of evidence.

That’s true for several reasons. For one, attitudes and beliefs can affect the memories we form. Scientists at Cornell University told college students a story about a man who walked out on a restaurant bill. Half the participants were told that the man “was a jerk who liked to steal.” Half were told that the man left without paying because he received an emergency phone call. “One week later the people who were told he was a jerk remembered a higher bill–from 10 to 25 percent more than the bill actually was. Those who were told he had an emergency phone call remembered a slightly lower-than-actual bill,” says investigator David Pizarro. “Negative evaluations,” he concludes, “are capable of exerting a distorting effect on memory.”

The memory trace is, of course, chemical. Memories are stored with the formation of particular proteins in the brain. Each time a memory is recalled, the proteins can be reformed or modified.

external stimuli can distort mental representations to produce brand new, seemingly accurate—but completely false—memories.

Steve Ramirez and his colleagues used a combination of optical and genetic techniques to control the activity of individual neurons in the brains of specially bred experimental mice.

They found that they could create false associations between events and environments by artificially stimulating the neurons.

When certain of their hippocampal cells were activated, mice “remembered” a shock in a place where they had never been shocked.

So strong were the implanted false memories that the mice froze, even when the hippocampal cells weren’t stimulated.

These findings demonstrate that memories can be induced by artificial means

For More Information:

Pizarro quoted in “Bad Judgments about People Can Affect Memories of Them, Cornell Study Finds.” Cornell Chronicle, March 13, 2006.

Brian Gonsalves, Paul J. Reber, Darren R. Gitelman, et al., “Neural Evidence That Vivid Imagining Can Lead to False Remembering,” Psychological Science (October 2004), 655.

Paller quoted in Sarah Davidson, “Some Imagination! How Memory Fails Us,” www.livescience.com, November 1, 2004.

Richard G.M. Morris, Jennifer Inglis, James A. Ainge, et al., “Memory Reconsolidation: Sensitivity of Spatial Memory to Inhibition of Protein Synthesis in Dorsal Hippocampus during Encoding and Retrieval,” Neuron (May 2006), 479-489.

S. Ramirez, X. Liu, P.-A. Lin, J. Suh, M. Pignatelli, R.L. Redondo, T.J. Ryan, and S. Tonegawa. “Creating a False Memory in the Hippocampus.” Science (July26, 2013), 387-391.

Leave a comment


  1. Jeannette Bartha

     /  08/19/2013

    Hi Georgia, thank you for dropping by. Hope you are well.


  2. No therapy involved here, thus no implatation of false memories. My memories of an extremely traumatic incident are real, verifiable, and vivid. From 1962 through 2005, these memories were buried. A particular trigger opened the floodgates.



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