The newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University

What is False Memory?

Memories are not perfect records of the past; they are vulnerable to forgetting, a process whereby details (or even entire events) can be lost. They are also vulnerable to modification in which incorrect details are inserted into a memory. These errors can be trivial or can alter the entire flavor of the memory, leading to a false memory.

When people recollect a memory, they sometimes make errors, deleting some details, fabricating others, and generally trying to reconstruct the information in a way that makes sense. In general, memory is not a literal record in the way that a photograph or tape recording is.

Research about False Memory

Several research studies have demonstrated that people are very vulnerable to suggestions which can disrupt memory. For example, in one study people might be shown a video of a blue car driving through a red light and hitting a green car. If the experimenter asks a question, "What color was the car that drove through the stop sign?", subjects will tend to answer without noticing the error -- and when queried months later, are more likely to recall that the blue car drove through a stop sign, not a red light.  

Children are especially susceptible to these kinds of false memory. For example, a child may be asked to imagine an event which the parents confirm never happened, such as being lost in a shopping mall. If the children are brought back a few months later and asked whether they have ever been lost in a shopping mall, some proportion will "remember" the fictional event, and will even produce extensive descriptions of the event and how it made them feel. These stories may be so plausible that a psychologist cannot tell which stories are "real" and which reflect experimentally-induced false memories.

Further Reading:

  • D. Schacter (1996). Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the Past. New York: Basic Books.
  • L. Squire & E. Kandel (2000) Memory: From Mind to Molecules. New York: Scientific American Library.

Article : "CONFABULATION"   

by Catherine E. Myers. Copyright © 2006 Memory Loss and the Brain