Sep 15 2010

More Evidence Our Memory Stinks

One of the major themes of scientific skepticism is  – know thyself, specifically the many frailties and foibles of human cognition. Skeptics generally hold that the many anecdotes of strange experiences, sightings, abductions, encounters, and healings are not evidence of a paranormal world lurking beneath the physical world, but rather evidence of our flawed thinking, memory, and perception. The scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the latter, rather than the former, hypothesis.

Memory by itself is a sufficient explanation for many apparent anomalies. Our memories are not an accurate recording of the past. They are constructed from imperfect perception filtered through our beliefs and biases, and then over time they morph and merge. Our memories serve more to support our beliefs rather than inform them.

A recent study documents yet one more way in which our memories are flawed. Researchers found that simply observing another person performing an act can create false memories that we performed that act. They report:

In three experiments, participants observed actions, some of which they had not performed earlier, and took a source-memory test. Action observation robustly produced false memories of self-performance relative to control conditions.

This research follows other research demonstrating that imagining an event is often enough to create the false memory of that event. Imagination activates many of the same brain areas that a true memory would. In essence, a memory of the imagination may over time become indistinguishable from a memory of a real event – and a false memory is born.

This is especially relevant to many UFO abduction therapists who use hypnosis and encourage their clients to imagine themselves being abducted. This “research” is, in fact, optimized to produce (rather than uncover) false memories of alien abduction.

The current researchers sought to find out if observation of someone else performing an action would have the same result of creating a false memory as imagining ourselves performing an act, and they found that it does.

This may be due in part to the mirror neuron system. We evolved to be social creatures – to learn, adapt, and conform to those around us. Also to understand and feel the emotions of others. Neuroscientists have discovered that there are mirror neurons in our brain that fire in a pattern that matches the pattern of neurons that correspond to an action we are observing. These mirror neurons may be important to the false memories generated by observing others performing an action (a subject of follow up research).


It may be distressing to fully realize this, but it is also liberating – human memory is incredibly flawed. Not only can our memories change over time, we can generate entirely false memories. You cannot trust what you remember.

That is partly why scientists do not trust in anecdotes and stories. They are simply not reliable evidence.


17 responses so far

17 Responses to “More Evidence Our Memory Stinks”

  1. SARAon 15 Sep 2010 at 10:18 am

    Is there still any part of a person that remembers the original event correctly. In other words that they saw someone else act and not themselves?

    I know that I used to have memories of childhood that were essentially just the repeated stories that my family told. When I sat down to consider this, I realized I couldn’t really remember it and that my vision of it was linked to pictures and family stories. The memories have since faded considerably. (although the ones that have a family picture remain strongest).

    In the case of these memories, I had nothing to replace them with. They were entirely created by reference to the stories and pictures.

    But if someone else acted not me, I should think it would easier to overcome the false memory.

  2. tmac57on 15 Sep 2010 at 10:58 am

    “They are constructed from imperfect perception filtered through our beliefs and biases, and then over time they morph and merge. Our memories serve more to support our beliefs rather than inform them.”
    This confirms what I have always believed. ;)

  3. cwfongon 15 Sep 2010 at 11:56 am

    Perhaps if you learn from observing someone else’s experience, somewhere in your mind it can become the equivalent of having had that experience yourself. Evolution’s way of acquiring gain without the pain, so to speak.

    The mythological parable would be where someone else dies to relieve you from the consequences of past and future sins.

    The genesis of self-deception as a survival tactic?

    Or have I digressed?

  4. CWon 15 Sep 2010 at 12:29 pm

    This might be tied into the phenomenon in which people believe to have attended a sporting event where a historic achievement was made.

    I recall hearing a sports talk show anecdote where they polled sports journalists – and the number of people who said they covered Super Bowl XXIII (the famous 4th quarter drive in which the 49ers defeated the Bengals) exceeded the number of journalists that were actually there by almost 100%.

  5. tudzaon 15 Sep 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Rather than travel back through time to right the wrongs I remember, I shall simply convince myself that they did not happen. The poor man’s ( and totalitarian state’s ) time machine!

  6. CivilUnreston 15 Sep 2010 at 5:19 pm

    From my undergraduate thesis:

    “At each stage of the learning process, systemic errors resulting from beneficial heuristics and short-cuts (all of which are inherent to the learning system) are both problematic and necessary. Science is then discussed as the only learning system deliberately designed to compensate for these inherent human biases and allow for the generation of reliable knowledge.”

    It is truly terrifying to come to grips with how unreliable our memories are, ESPECIALLY because our memory systems tend to overstate their own accuracy (ie: people who have false memories are very convinced that those memories are real).

    When someone tells me about the time they saw a UFO, or that someone they trust has seen a ghost, I struggle to find a way to empathize with how certain they are while informing them of the unreliability of human memory. Anyone have any tips?

  7. James Foxon 15 Sep 2010 at 5:27 pm

    It would seem that this research supports the work of Elizabeth Loftus has been doing over the past twenty years showing how poor and easily distorted human memory is. This whole issue has been very problematic in my field when conducting child abuse investigations. The imagination issue had a significant impact on child interviewing practice when it was found that using anatomically correct dolls often led to false disclosures because the interviewers were encouraging children to play with the dolls and tell stories and imagine themselves as one of the dolls. And as we all (should have) know(n) playing with dolls that are easily associated with imagined stories was not a good way to determine what actually happened.

  8. ebohlmanon 15 Sep 2010 at 7:36 pm

    I have a distinct memory of watching Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech while on vacation in New Hampshire. The one problem is that on the date he delivered that speech, I was at home in Illinois. As far as I can tell, I watched some other Nixon speech in NH and merged that memory with one of watching the more famous speech (if I actually did watch it).

  9. HHCon 15 Sep 2010 at 8:21 pm

    Interesting German science study. The late American writer, Eric Hoffer made a relevant comment, “Those in possession of absolute power can not only prophesy and make their prophesies come true, but they can also lie and make their lies come true.”

  10. sonicon 16 Sep 2010 at 2:48 am

    According to the study, 23% of those observing an action remembered having done the action two weeks later.
    So why aren’t there 10′s of millions of people claiming to have made the game winning interception in the last Super Bowl?
    Why aren’t there millions of people claiming to have won the US Open?
    We have all witnessed many killings on TV, but few people actually think they have committed murder.
    I think the experimental conditions might not be indicative of ordinary life.
    This is not to say the effect isn’t real, but if the effect is small, then would ‘stink’ be the proper description of the memory?

  11. davidsmithon 16 Sep 2010 at 4:39 am

    Sonic said,

    So why aren’t there 10’s of millions of people claiming to have made the game winning interception in the last Super Bowl?

    What an excellent point.

    It seems like there is a temptation to regard any new study on the fallibility of memory as a ‘one size fits all’ explanation of strange or paranormal experiences where memory may play a role in the experient’s report. However, it is important to think about whether the study can be reasonably extrapolated to any particular reported case of a paranormal experience.

    I am assuming that the reason why we don’t see many people claiming to have made the game winning interception in the last Super Bowl is because false memories do not necessarily get created in all real life situations. This should be reason enough to be sceptical of the claim the results of false memory research can be regarded as an explanation for all reports of paranormal experiences.

  12. BillyJoe7on 16 Sep 2010 at 7:01 am

    sonic & davidsmith,

    Are you two for real?

    I’m certainly not going to remember delivering Obama’s victory speech just because I saw him deliver it, but there’s a good chance I’m going to remember telling that joke at my brother’s 21st that his friend told.

  13. BillyJoe7on 16 Sep 2010 at 7:03 am

    …oops, maybe I misunderstood what you were saying.

  14. SteveAon 16 Sep 2010 at 7:17 am

    Sonic: “So why aren’t there 10’s of millions of people claiming to have made the game winning interception in the last Super Bowl?”

    I would guess that a false memory only gets a chance to take root as long as it does not jar too much with the multitude of existing memories already in residence.

    I would have thought that time must also be a factor, the older your memories, the more flexible they seem to become, and the easier it is for a new one to slip in amongst them.

  15. davidsmithon 16 Sep 2010 at 9:00 am

    BillyJoe7 said,

    I’m certainly not going to remember delivering Obama’s victory speech just because I saw him deliver it, but there’s a good chance I’m going to remember telling that joke at my brother’s 21st that his friend told.

    This kind of makes my point (and perhaps sonic’s). There are clearly many real life situations where false memories are more or less likely to play a role. The particular factors responsible for why false memories show up in some circumstances but not others is a question for science to work out, but it seems like where reports of ‘paranormal’ experiences are concerned, there is a “one size fits all” approach for sceptical explanations.

    Steve A has already suggested that the probability of forming a false memory might have something to do with how much conflict the false memory creates with other memories. If that were true (which it may or may not be), then we might predict that false memories would not explain some paranormal experiences since their content appears to be in great conflict with existing memories (for example, the apparition of a deceased relative). I’m not saying this is in any way a demonstrated principle, but I would expect these sorts of issues to receive consideration if you’re going to claim that a particular cognitive bias can account for a certain class of reported experience. Much more work needs to done to make the claims Steve N is making IMO.

  16. casey rentzon 16 Sep 2010 at 1:56 pm

    I’ve always been interested in how the fallibility of our memory affects the construction of our own personality. Supposedly, we construct who we are from what we’ve done and how we tend to react towards certain situations. If you’re only remembering a minuscule part of your life (and possibly making up much of it) what does that say about who we think we are?

  17. CivilUnreston 16 Sep 2010 at 4:29 pm


    The problem is that people believe that ghosts or UFOs are plausible are the ones who tend to actually report seeing them. Skeptics who see something strange and incomprehensible, on the other hand, are much less likely to jump to a paranormal conclusion.

    Paranormal Conclusion, by the way, might have to be the new name of my band.

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