Can Memories Be Faked? The Science of Memory

How would you feel if someone implanted a fake memory into your mind?

Based on surprising new research, it’s possible.  Your memory is malleable and can easily be fooled into remembering something that isn’t 100 percent true.

In fact, all it takes to create a false memory is a little “help” from your friends…

Social pressure makes it easy

The study, published in Science reveals the intimate connection between memory and our social selves.[1]

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute in Israel had volunteers watch a documentary film in small groups.

To test the volunteers’ memories, researchers invited them to come back three days later to take a test that asked them questions about the film.

In addition to answering the questions, volunteers had to indicate how confident they were in their answers. Once this data was in place, researchers had what they needed to find out how social pressure could affect memory.

Again, the volunteers were invited back to the lab to retake the same test. This time, volunteers took the test while getting a functional MRI (fMRI) scan, to see what was going on in their brains.

The test was exactly the same, but with one addition. Each question came with a “lifeline.” This lifeline was the supposed answers of the other volunteers that were in their same viewing group (researchers also included social-media style photos).

What the volunteers did NOT know, however, was that among these “lifelines” were false answers to questions the volunteers had previously answered both correctly and confidently when they first took the test.

The results of these false “implanted” memories?

Despite having been confident about their answers on the first go-around, the volunteers changed their answers to what the planted “lifelines” were… as a result giving incorrect answers almost 70 percent of the time!

But the researchers didn’t stop there…

They wanted to determine whether the volunteers were just caving into the perceived social pressure created by the “lifelines” or whether their memory of the film actually changed.

Again, they invited the same volunteers to take the test a third time. However, this time, they were told that the “lifelines” they were given were not actual responses from their peers. Rather, they were responses randomly generated by a computer.

This change caused a change to a few of the answers to the questions, but almost 50 percent remained unchanged!

Remember, these were on questions they initially answered correctly and confidently. So it seems to suggest that all it takes to change a memory is a little bit of social pressure.

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The fMRI scans revealed why.

It turns out that both the hippocampus and the amygdala work together to create false memories.

The hippocampus is related to long-term memory formation. The amygdala deals with emotions and also plays a role in social situations. Researchers think that the amygdala might act as a doorway that connects the social and memory processing areas of our brain.

Why can we be so confident in memories that aren’t true?

Duke University Medical Center did some research in 2008 that explains why the testers in the Weizmann Institute study were so certain of their incorrect and socially “planted” answers.[2]

The researchers at Duke gave volunteers well-established tests of memory and false memory.

These tests were done while the volunteers were in an fMRI so researchers could see the brain activity.

When it comes to retrieving a memory, two regions of your brain are simultaneously accessed – your frontal-parietal lobe (FPL) and your medial temporal lobe (MTL).

It turns out the reason we can be so confident in false memories is because of our front parietal lobe (FPL).

This region of the brain gives us an impression of a memory. It doesn’t give us exact details, but rather just a “gist” of what happened. So volunteers who were confident in the false memories had stronger activation of their FPL.

Those volunteers in the study who were confident in memories that were true had more activity in their medial temporal lobe (MTL).

The MTL is the region at the base of the brain that helps you remember specifics and details. It’s what helps you remember certain colors, smells, tastes, sounds, etc.

When you’re trying to remember something that really didn’t happen, your brain can’t come up with the specifics… so it activates more of the FPL to try and give you the sense of what supposedly happened in the memory.

What happens to memory as you age?

As you get older, it becomes even easier to be confident in memories that never took place.

This is because with aging comes some mental decline. And one of the first things to go is the ability of the MTL to recall specifics.

According to Dr. Roberto Cabeza, the lead author of the Duke University study:

“Specific memories don’t last forever, but what ends up lasting are not specific details, but more general or global impressions. Past studies have shown that as normal brains age, they tend to lose the ability to recollect specifics faster than they lose the ability to recall impressions. However, patients with Alzheimer’s disease tend to lose both types of memories equally, which may prove to be a tool for early diagnosis.”

Good reason to do everything you can to keep your memory sharp.

Thankfully, there ARE a few things you can do right now to slow – and sometimes even prevent – mental decline as you age:

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Walk more

Part of the reason for memory decline as you age is that the hippocampus shrinks. But a study reported at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that walking just 3 times a week for 40 minutes can expand the size of the hippocampus by almost 2 percent. [3] This alone can have a huge effect on keeping your mind and memory “young.”

Vinpocetine

This extract from the periwinkle plant has been used in Europe for decades to treat and help prevent dementia. It’s so effective, one study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that regular supplementation with vinpocetine helped chronic cerebral dysfunction patients improve significantly and score better on numerous mental tests. [4]

Blueberries

You’ve probably heard that these are great for your heart. But it turns out they’re also good for your brain. One Tufts University study suggests it can even help prevent the loss of short-term memory. [5] You can eat them plain or add them to your favorite cereal or oatmeal.

Folic Acid

This is one I found surprising. It’s already well-known that folic acid is good for pregnant women. But a Dutch study found that supplementing with folic acid can improve your memory. Subjects who took 800mcg daily knocked off 5.5 years their age when it came to their performance on standardized memory tests. [6]

Reduce Stress

This is a big one.  The research [7] is clear that higher cortisol levels caused by stress can drastically reduce memory (both short term and long term).

And please take action on some or all of the other suggestions and you won’t have to worry about whether or not that memory of yours is true or not.

And while we’re at it, I’d love to hear your experience with this. Have you ever remembered something and were 100% sure about it… only to find out later that it wasn’t true?

References:

  1. Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, Raymond J. Dolan, Yadin Dudai. Following the Crowd: Brain Substrates of Long-Term Memory Conformity. Science, 2011; 333 (6038): 108-111
  2. Duke University Medical Center (2007, November 8). Why False Memories Sometimes Feel Like They Are Absolutely True.
  3. Kirk I. Erickson,et.al “Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory,” PNAS 2011 108 (7) 3017-3022
  4. Balestreri, R : Fontana, L : Astengo, F,“A double-blind placebo-controlled evaluation of the safety and efficacy of vinpocetine in the treatment of patients with chronic vascular senile cerebral dysfunction.”, J-Am-Geriatr-Soc. 1987 May; 35(5): 425-30
  5. Journal of Neuroscience, September 15, 1999, 19(18); 8114-8121.
  6. Durga J, van Boxtel MPJ, Schouten EG, Kok FJ, Jolles J, Katan MB, Verhoef P. Effect of 3-year folic acid supplementation on cognitive function in older adults in the FACIT trial: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. Lancet 2007;369:208-16.
  7. Newcomer JW et al. Decreased Memory Performance in Healthy Humans Induced by Stress-Level Cortisol Treatment. Archives of General Psychiatry, vol. 56, no. 6, pp. 527-533, June 1999.

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