False memory of childhood experiences

False childhood memories

It's tempting to think of our long-term memories as static and unchanging - but they're not. Memory is dynamic, often a blend of the original event and our current state of mind. Memories are subject to change and revision in small ways almost every time we remember something, and they're very susceptible to external manipulation. Essentially a memory is formed from a real experience - but could someone implant an entirely false memory in our heads? Could we be made to believe we experienced something that never actually took place?

A false memory is not the same as lying - the subject really does believe what they think they remember. It's just that the memory is false.

False memory has become an important area of psychological research and also a controversial one. In the early 1990s several landmark legal cases in the United States centred around the issue of recovered memory. Recovered memories occur when a victim of some sort of trauma, such as child abuse, recovers a suppressed memory often with the help of psychotherapy. A wave of recovered memory cases prompted research psychologist Elizabeth Loftus to investigate whether or not it was possible to tell if a memory was of a real or imagined event.

After some generating positive results in the lab, showing that it was possible make experimental subjects recall things that they never experienced, Loftus wanted to see if this would work in the real world. She volunteered to assist a public defender in a supposed 'open and shut' murder case. In the end, Loftus was able to show how memories of the events surrounding the crime could easily be manipulated through careful questioning of witnesses. The result was eventual acquittal for the defendant.

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