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.

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