How Are False Memories Formed?

Have you ever passionately defended a memory you believed to be real, yet it's not? More often than not though, your mind may be deceiving you—in fact, kids under the age of three aren't quite yet capable of retaining long-term memories. And when Maya Angelou famously noted, "People will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel," she actually provided some interesting insight into how emotions can influence and create false memories. Feelings allow people to build vivid memories and act as markers of particularly emotional events, yet the images they create in our mind are often clouded by our mental state. But emotion isn't the only thing that exacerbates fraudulent memories. Misinformation and misattribution—or getting the facts wrong to begin with—are among the biggest factors, along with situational exposure to events, such as through the news or Internet. For example, people have the tendency to believe they attended an event because they've viewed prolonged coverage on the evening news. Or, after people have been told a story by a friend or family member enough times, they can begin to internalize the and misinterpret the story into a false memory.

So how can we tell which memories are real and which are imaginary? Why does our brain do this—and how does this relate to déjà vu? The brain is the most powerful and complex organ in your body. Add in our mix of daily emotions, responsibilities, tasks and substances like coffee and food, and memory becomes even harder to regulate and process. Watch this quick playlist to learn more about how false memories are made implanted in our minds, and what we can do to better preserve our recollections.

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Memory is reconstructive, meaning that every time we "retrieve" a memory, we're likely to modify it a bit. 00:24

  2. A single misleading word can affect your memory, causing you to recollect something that you didn't actually perceive. 02:22

  3. Extremely emotional memories are often called flashbulb memories, and can have a positive or negative valence. 03:55

Written by Curiosity Staff September 8, 2014

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