Unreliable Memory: It Makes Things Up

“I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other,” said by Brian Williams, a 55-year-old veteran.
He has told people a story about how his helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade when covering the war in Iraq. However, the fact is that the helicopter he was in was not the one got hit. Also, when the strike happened, his helicopter was an hour away from the strike location. His experience shows a part of the unreliability of human memory.
Elizabeth Loftus, a professor the at the University of California who experted in human memory, calls William’s story a “teaching mement,” which is a typical example of false memory. According to her, false memory happens when a person “remembers” something happened that actually did not. There are many experiments show the effect of false memory, and one of them is made by Wade, Garry, Read, and Lindsay. In 2002, they digitized a group of people’s childhood pictures and modified the picture to appear that the participants was taking a hot air ballon ride when they was a child(Pennsylvania State University, Lesson 9, pp9). The result showed that over fifty percent of participants believed that they had taken a hot air ballon ride when they was a child just by being showed doctored photographic “evidence” (Hogenboom, 2013).

Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-24286258

Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-24286258

Kimberley Wade, one of the creator of the ballon ride experiment, explained that the reason our memories are such melleable is because there is too much information to take in. What happens when a false memory is built is that the perceptual system cannot notice everything in the environment, so there would be gaps when the information is taken through senses.
“So when we remember an event, what our memory ultimately does is fills in those gaps by thinking about what we know about the world,” illustrated by Wade (Hogenboom, 2013).
Although the existence of false memory questions the reliability of our memory, some researchers believe that the errors made by human brain could help people as well.
Sergio Della Sala, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, believes that the errors in memory could help people be away from danger. He presented an instance that if a person walks in a jungle and sees some grass moving, he would likely be panic and run away, assuming that there would be a tiger lurking. In contrast, in the view of a computer, the grass moving would be believed to be simply the wind in 99 percent of the time. In that case, if a person thinks like a computer, he might be eaten if there is truely a tiger.

Retrieved from http://www.imgneed.com/image/white-tiger-in-jungle-wallpaper/tiger-white-tiger-jungle-water

Retrieved from http://www.imgneed.com/image/white-tiger-in-jungle-wallpaper/tiger-white-tiger-jungle-water

According to Della Sala, the brain would make 99 errors to save people from the tiger. Unlike a computer, the brain works with irrational assumptions. It’s prone to errors and it needs shortcuts.
In addition, Della sala also belives that the fact that brain would make false memory is a sigh that the brain is healthy.
“They are a by-product of a memory system that works well. You can make inferences very fast.”


Hogenboom, M. (2013). Why does the human brain create false memories?. BBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-24286258

Firger, J. (2015). Brian Williams and the false memory phenomenon. CBS News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/brian-williams-and-the-false-memory-phenomenon/

The Pennsylvania State University. (2015). False Memories. Lesson 9: Everyday Memory and Memory Errors . PSYCH256: Introduction to Cognitive Psychology. pp9. Retrieved from: https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa15/psych256/001/content/10_lesson/09_page.html

2 thoughts on “Unreliable Memory: It Makes Things Up

  1. Pingback: Musings on Patient HM and the Human Enigma

  2. abc5543

    Reading your blog was interesting. It caused me to reflect back on a conversation that I had with a family member about 3 months ago, in which every word that I spoke during that conversation somehow returned to me entirely different than delivered. During the conversation, the emotions of my relative seemed to be extremely elevated to the degree of exhaustion for me.

    I’m generally a calm individual, who would rather make peace through genuine honest conversation, and move forward amicable without any remnants of discontentment even if the outcome simply means to “agree to disagree.” Understanding that everyone does not share the same characteristic, I still somehow believe that it’s worth the effort to attempt to approach every situation in this manner, believing for a favorable outcome.

    Well, here we are about a month after the conversation. Keep in mind that me and my relative had not spoken since; however, in my mind, the conversation ended as resolute as possible with the understanding that the concern; which originated the conversation, would not be completed resolved overnight. So my relative contacted my sister and expressed that she was emotionally scarred from the conversation that she had previously encountered with me. Now my sister felt inadvertently placed in the middle, yet concerned, so she asked my relative out of curiosity what was emotionally scarring about the conversation. As my relative told the story to my sister, ultimately, the entire storyline of the conversation was fabricated from what was actually discussed to something extremely and unreasonably different. “How in the world?!”…

    My sister, who knows me, felt as though the storyline that she was given to believe was out of character for me and out of the ordinary; however, my relative told the story so emotionally convincing that even my sister, in wonderment, questioned the validity, thinking that perhaps there may be some truth. After hearing the story that my sister called to share with me out of sheer concern, I was in utter amazement as to how someone could take one event (story) and alter it to something completely different, and honestly believe that the event occurred themselves. At the end of the story, my character had become verbally abusive, a liar, and “just like” another family member of mine; who in actuality, I was the complete opposite of. I was in complete dismay… Talk about an unreliable memory; which made things up!!

    Understanding that everyone’s memory is fallible, I desired a clearer picture as to how this type of fallacy could occur. I began to research Memory Re-consolidation; which is the process of previously consolidated memories being recalled and then actively consolidated all over again, in order to maintain, strengthen and modify memories that are already stored in the long-term memory. I learned that the act of re-consolidation may change the initial memory. As a particular memory trace is reactivated, the strengths of the neural connections may change. The memory may become associated with new emotional or environmental conditions or subsequently acquired knowledge and expectations rather than actual events, and may become incorporated into the memory (http://www.human-memory.net/processes_consolidation.html).
    Also, the encoding process of memory is also paramount. Human memory is essentially associative; which means that new information is remembered better if it is associated with previously acquired knowledge that is already established in memory. The more personally meaningful the association, the more potent the encoding and consolidation; which will lead to improved recall. On the contrary, information that is difficult for an individual to understand is not easily associated with already acquired knowledge; therefore, it will more than likely be poorly remembered, and or remembered in a distorted view due to the effort to comprehend its meaning and associations (http://www.human-memory.net/processes_consolidation.html).

    There are a number of reasons for false memory, and sadly, I may never understand specifically why in my situation with my relative. We still have not spoken as of yet because my relative’s desire is that, before she speaks to me again, I must call her profusely apologetic in regards to the pain that I inflicted from a conversation that I’m not even aware occurred.

    As mentioned in your post, “Della Sala also believes that the fact that brain would make false memory is a sigh that the brain is healthy.” In my humble opinion, as it applies to my situation, the fact that the brain would make such a false memory, honestly just makes ME SIGH.

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