FALSE MEM­O­RIES

Think you can trust your rec­ol­lec­tions? Think again. Sci­en­tists are un­cov­er­ing the shock­ingly com­mon phe­nom­e­non of…

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - ANNA WALKER

We can be tricked into re­mem­ber­ing events that never hap­pened.

EIGH­TEEN-YEAR- OLD PE­TER REILLY sat in the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room in a daze. Af­ter 25 hours of in­tense ques­tion­ing, he’d just signed a con­fes­sion con­firm­ing that he’d bru­tally mur­dered his own mother, 51-yearold Bar­bara Gib­bons. “We got into an ar­gu­ment,” he told in­ter­roga­tors. “I re­mem­ber pick­ing up the straight ra­zor, and I slashed to­wards her throat.”

Just a day af­ter Bar­bara’s body was found, the mur­der was an open and shut case. Based on his con­fes­sion, a jury sen­tenced Pe­ter to be­tween six and 16 years in pri­son. The only prob­lem? He was in­no­cent.

The teenager’s mem­ory of his mother’s mur­der was en­tirely false. In 1975, two years af­ter his con­vic­tion, Pe­ter was set free, ex­on­er­ated by ev­i­dence that proved he couldn’t have been at the scene of the crime.

By claim­ing that he’d failed a lie-de­tec­tor test and that men­tal ill­ness had likely caused him to ‘black out’ the crime, the in­ter­roga­tors con­vinced Pe­ter – by all ac­counts a quiet, good-na­tured boy who loved his mother dearly – that he must have been the killer.

Not only did Pe­ter be­lieve his in­ter­roga­tors, he even­tu­ally pro­vided de­tailed mem­o­ries of the at tack, ex­plain­ing both his mot ive ( his mother was an al­co­holic who rarely showed him af­fec­tion) and plan for dis­pos­ing of the weapon (toss­ing it be­hind a nearby ser­vice sta­tion).

So why did this young man from a sleepy town in Con­necti­cut con­fess to a crime he never com­mit­ted?

The In­no­cence Project move­ment in the US, which seeks to ex­on­er­ate in­no­cent pris­on­ers through modern DNA test­ing, says false mem­ory plays a role in more than 70 per cent of the wrong­ful con­vic­tions they over­turn. In ten per cent of those cases, their clients orig­i­nally pleaded guilty, serv­ing an av­er­age of 14 years for crimes that they didn’t com­mit.

Dr Ju­lia Shaw is a crim­i­nal psy­chol­o­gist at Lon­don South­bank Univer­sity and the au­thor of pop­u­lar psy­chol­ogy book The Mem­ory Il­lu­sion. She con­ducts re­search into how and why our brains form these com­plex false mem­o­ries. It’s a phe­nom­e­non, she ex­plains, that’s far more com­mon than we might imag­ine.

“We like to think we’re able to dis­tin­guish be­tween imag­i­na­tion and ex­pe­ri­ences, but the brain can’t ac­tu­ally do this very well. Cer tainly not once you’ve pic­tured what a fan­tasy might feel, smell or taste like. Then you’re adding in the mark­ers we usual ly use to sep­a­rate fact and fic­tion, and you’re mak­ing them in­dis­tin­guish­able.” Our brains are home to ap­prox­i­mately 86 bil­lion neu­rons. Each is equipped with stringy arms called den­drites, al­low­ing them to stretch out to other cells. Each den­drite has ‘spines’, which act like fin­gers, en­abling them to reach out across synapses and com­mu­ni­cate from one

False mem­ory plays a role in 70 per cent of the In­no­cence Project’s over­turned con­vic­tions

cell to an­other. Mem­o­ries are formed when par­tic­u­lar con­nec­tions be­tween these neu­rons are strength­ened. False mem­o­ries and real mem­o­ries seem to rely on the ex­act same mech­a­nisms to be­come lodged in the brain.

It’s tempt­ing to think of mem­ory as a per­sonal CCTV sys­tem, record­ing every­thing we see or do. In ac­tu­al­ity, as the founder of ap­plied mem­ory sci­ence Pro­fes­sor El­iz­a­beth Lof­tus ex­plains, it’s more like a Wikipedia page. “You can go in there and change it, but so can other peo­ple.”

When we re­call a mem­ory, we aren’t flip­ping through the Rolodex of our minds to pro­duce the cor­rect file – we’re writ­ing that file out anew. We ac­tively recre­ate our mem­o­ries ev­ery time we think of them, adding room for po­ten­tial fab­ri­ca­tion or mis­re­mem­ber­ing each time.

Think about your ear­li­est mem­ory. Per­haps you re­mem­ber the birth of a sibling, your first taste of birth­day cake or a trau­matic trip to the den­tist. Maybe you’re even one of the few who can re­call their own birth. Well, if any of those mem­o­ries oc­curred be­fore you turned three years old, bad news: they’re def­i­nitely false.

As Shaw ex­plains, it’s phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble for our brains to form long-last­ing mem­o­ries when we’re that young. “Al­most every­body thinks they have a mem­ory from child­hood that’s ac­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble.”

These false child­hood mem­o­ries are of­ten caused by a process called ‘mem­ory con­form­ity’, where de­tails we’ve learned through the ac­counts of oth­ers can im­plant en­tirely false mem­o­ries, or lead us to ac­cept the ex­pe­ri­ences of oth­ers as our own. Per­haps you re­mem­ber telling some­one a story about your­self, only to re­alise that it had ac­tu­ally hap­pened to them. That’s mem­ory con­form­ity.

THIS PHE­NOM­E­NON has se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. If eye­wit­ness ac­counts can mu­tate through dis­cus­sion or the process of re­mem­ber­ing it­self, then their re­li­a­bil­ity be­comes com­pro­mised. And re­search has shown that emotional mem­o­ries are no less

vul­ner­a­ble to fab­ri­ca­tion. In fact, be­cause we tend to be more con­fi­dent about our mem­o­ries of emotional or trau­matic events, they can be even less re­li­able than their hum­drum coun­ter­parts.

Not only are false mem­o­ries pos­si­ble, psy­chol­o­gists have proved that they can ac­tu­ally cre­ate false mem­o­ries, hack­ing into our brains to im­plant rec­ol­lec­tions of events that never took place.

Shaw is one such psy­chol­o­gist. “I get peo­ple to re­peat­edly imag­ine com­mit­ting a crime – theft, as­sault with a weapon and po­lice con­tact – and af­ter three in­ter­views us­ing lead­ing tech­niques and imag­i­na­tion ex­er­cises, we see that 70 per cent of them ac­cept that they’re guilty of a crime that they didn’t com­mit.”

But not every­body ac­cepts the ex­pla­na­tion that false mem­o­ries are a by-prod­uct of our im­per­fect brains. Fiona Broome, a para­nor­mal con­sul­tant from Florida, coined the term the ‘Man­dela Ef­fect’ in 2010 when she re­alised she wasn’t the only per­son to re­mem­ber Nel­son Man­dela’s funeral, 30 years be­fore he ac­tu­ally died. She dis­cov­ered that hun­dreds of peo­ple across the world shared the same richly de­tailed false mem­ory.

So what causes these eerily sim­i­lar col­lec­tive false mem­o­ries? Broome spec­u­lates that we’re all “slid­ing be­tween par­al­lel re­al­i­ties … that some­how have glitches.” She pro­poses a ver­sion of the quan­tum me­chanic ‘mul­ti­verse’ the­ory, which spec­u­lates that there could be many uni­verses all ex­ist­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Mul­ti­verse the­ory was hy­poth­e­sised to ex­plain physics ex­per­i­ments, but nev­er­the­less, Man­dela Ef­fect en­thu­si­asts en­joy spec­u­lat­ing that their false mem­o­ries are win­dows be­tween worlds, not sim­ple hu­man er­rors.

Pro­fes­sor Chris French, f rom Gold­smiths Univer­sity, in Lon­don, is scep­ti­cal.

“We have a ten­dency to put

our­selves at the cen­tre of the ac­tion and I think that ex­plains a lot about the so- called Man­dela Ef­fect. We all knew Man­dela had a long sen­tence and many as­sumed he’d die in pri­son. Per­haps some peo­ple thought about it, imag­ined it hap­pen­ing and sub­se­quently be­came con­vinced.

“False mem­o­ries can arise with­out any­one de­lib­er­ately im­plant­ing them. Take the ‘crash­ing-mem­o­ries’ par­a­digm. Stud­ies have shown that if you ask a ran­dom sam­ple of Bri­tish peo­ple if they saw the footage of Princess Diana’s car crash­ing in Paris, about 50 per cent will say they did, when no such footage ex­ists.”

Per­haps an­other ex­pla­na­tion is that those who ex­pe­ri­ence the Man­dela Ef­fect are par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to false mem­o­ries. As a para­nor­mal psy­chol­ogy spe­cial­ist, French has worked on many stud­ies ex­am­in­ing con­nec­tions be­tween a be­lief in the para­nor­mal and a pre­dis­po­si­tion to form false mem­o­ries.

“Any­thing that’s likely to make you con­fuse some­thing you’ve imag­ined with some­thing that re­ally hap­pened makes you sus­cep­ti­ble to false mem­o­ries,” he ex­plains. “Fan­tasy prone­ness, be­ing cre­ative, hav­ing a vivid imag­i­na­tion or sim­ply a ten­dency to be away with the fairies.”

What does the fu­ture hold for false-mem­ory sci­ence? De­vel­op­ments in op­to­ge­net­ics, a tech­nique that mod­i­fies brain cells to make them sen­si­tive to light, and then uses laser beams to tar­get spe­cific mem­o­ries, have al­ready suc­cess­fully im­planted false mem­o­ries in mice. Re­searcher Susumu Tone­gawa, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the RIKEN-MIT Cen­tre for Neu­ral Cir­cuit Ge­net­ics, hopes fu­ture find­ings will help to alert le­gal ex­perts as to the un­re­li­a­bil­ity of eye­wit­ness ac­counts.

Shaw ex­plains that op­to­ge­netic re­search is now go­ing a step fur­ther, with ground-break­ing ap­pli­ca­tions. “My French col­leagues are do­ing some of that work on hu­mans, try­ing to cut out trauma from the mem­o­ries of vet­er­ans. So in ex­treme cases, there are po­ten­tial fu­ture ap­pli­ca­tions for se­vere PTSD. It’s very in­va­sive, though, as you’re phys­i­cally mod­i­fy­ing the brain, so it’s a last re­sort.”

These rapid de­vel­op­ments are rais­ing a host of mo­ral con­cerns.

“The idea that tech­niques could be de­vel­oped that would al­low the pow­er­ful ma­nip­u­la­tion of mem­ory raises a host of tricky eth­i­cal is­sues,” says French. “There are no easy an­swers, but it would be wise for such is­sues to be dis­cussed by ev­ery­one – not just sci­en­tists.

Fu­ture find­ings may help to alert le­gal ex­perts as to the un­re­li­a­bil­ity of eye­wit­ness ac­counts

“Mem­ory is right ly con­sid­ered fun­da­men­tal to our sense of who we are and many peo­ple in­stinc­tively feel it’s wrong to in­ter­fere with a per­son’s sense of self, even if they con­sent.”

Nev­er­the­less, one of the most im­por­tant fo­cuses of fu­ture mem­ory re­search re­lates to the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and ed­u­cat­ing law en­forcers on the sub­ject.

“A lot of po­lice don’t know about this. A lot of lawyers. It’s shock­ing,” Shaw states. “It should be part of their core cur­ricu­lum.”

NOW 62, PE­TER REILLY works as a car-parts sales­man in Con­necti­cut, but he re­mains in­ter­ested in cases sim­i­lar to his own. In an interview with The New York Times in 1997, Pe­ter ex­plained, “I’d just as soon for­get and move on, but it’s such an im­por­tant is­sue and it could af­fect any­body. I have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to make peo­ple aware.” The mys­tery of his mother’s mur­der re­mains un­solved. Ac­cept­ing that our mem­o­ries are vul­ner­a­ble and that our past is al­ways a fic­tion (to some de­gree) doesn’t have to be de­press­ing. “In some way, if you re­move the weight that peo­ple of­ten place on their past, it’s free­ing,” says Shaw. “We’re sto­ry­tellers, and what mat­ters is now. Ac­cept­ing that only makes us stronger.”

Pe­ter Reilly pic­tured the week­end af­ter his con­vic­tion

‘Mem­ory hacker’ Dr Ju­lia Shaw claims she can im­plant false mem­o­ries of com­mit­ting a crime in 70 per cent of peo­ple

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