My curiosity about false memories started when I came across the “False Memory Archive” compiled by artist A.R. Hopwood.
I wondered at first if these memories might be “a case of” Déjà Vu. After investigating a bit further I found out that a false memory is a fabricated or distorted recollection of an event while a Déjà Vu is a process that our brain uses to keep our memories in check. So they’re not strictly related but it looks like they could be cousins.
Psychologists describe a false memory as a mental experience that is mistakenly taken to be a faithful and truthful description of an occurrence from someone’s own past.
Kimberley Wade PHD explains that the reason our memories are so malleable, is because there is simply too much information to take in.
We collect all this information through all our senses. This means we’re inevitably left with gaps and when we remember an event, our memory fills in those gaps by thinking about what we know about the world.
We all experience minor false memories at one time or another; believing for instance that we’ve put our bank card back in our favourite spot in the wallet not realising we placed it in our coat pocket instead; then, It’s sheer panic when we’re paying for something in a shop and we convince ourselves we must have lost the card earlier in Marks and Spencer.
Or for instance: when your cousin still insists after almost 40 years, in telling people that she clearly recalls you walking up on stage as a 6 or 7-year-old during a fancy dress party and doing the “robot dance” right next to that evening’s entertainer… yes, I must admit, I was rather good at doing the robot dance but as shy as I was I very much doubt I’d want to show off in front of all my peers.
I can understand if you’re not familiar with this type of dancing, it was the 80s after all, but trust me when I say It was all the rage!
To prove it, I’m including a video, for all you “robot dance virgins” out there. Apologies in advance for its un-coolness by the way!
False Memories: just a figment of your imagination?
UCI psychologist Elizabeth Loftus carried out an experiment in 1994 that revealed how memories can easily be steered in the wrong direction: she was able to convince a quarter of her participants they were once lost in a shopping centre as a child.
Even Hillary Clinton fell victim to a false memory when she once famously claimed that she had come under sniper fire during a trip to Bosnia in 1996. She later realised her mistake and apologised.
It really can be difficult to know where a false memory ends and the truth begins. Our memories become more vivid when they’re intertwined with our emotions because emotions play a big part in the shaping of our memories by making them more real.
Once events and emotions strictly intertwine, the part of our brain involved with memories becomes activated and a certain event will just simply stick in our head more. When we routinely do something every day we are unlikely to remember every detail, like when we travel to work for instance; but if on our usual commute on the tube we witness an accident, for instance, we’re more likely to remember what happened more vividly.
It’s intriguing to think that something we see as real might not be after all. Of course this casts many doubts on eyewitnesses testimonies during trials for instance, especially once we come to realise that memories can be easily manipulated.
Here are a few selected submissions from the “False Memory Archive”:
“I clearly recall being able to breathe under water as a child”
“I remember running away from the hospital as a new-born baby”
“My grandmother remembers her father running out of the house to announce her birth”
“ I have always believed I was on a plane from Italy to Gatwick in 1968 at the age of 12 and the plane over. I have very specific memories of getting off the plane via the emergency exit, shoes in hand. Other people who were on the same plane as me have told me it never happened but I have gone as far as checking our newspaper reports from the date to see if It was real or not”
“I remember copying my cousin’s gestures who had just been stung by a bee, but seeing it through my aunt’s eyes”
“I was in a family member’s house in New York State during a summer holiday when I was a child. There was a tornado and I vividly remember seeing it approach from the window. We all hid in the basement. After asking my mother about it years on, she assured me this never happened”
As I read these stories I wondered if the Déjà Vu
experiences we all have from time to time might be
connected to false memories somehow;
are they perhaps distant cousins?
I’ve always liked the thought that a Déjà Vu might be
a memory from a previous life that pops up
at the right moment;
maybe in the shape of an opportunity that lets us choose
differently when faced with the chance; like a little nudge,
a daydream or a gentle poke on your shoulder.
The mystery of Déjà Vu
Researcher Akira O’Connor and his team suggest that Déjà vu isn’t caused by the brain making false memories as previously thought.
Déjà Vu has a fleeting and unpredictable nature and so It’s very difficult to study; yet O’Connor and his colleagues developed a way to create the feeling of Déjà Vu in the lab by triggering a false memory and monitoring some volunteers whilst they had this experience. The experiment showed that the memory regions of the brain stayed quiet while the decision making and conflict resolution regions lit up. This could be a sign of our brain checking our memories and alerting us when it detects an error.
Sure, these results make sense but they still don’t really explain the most distinctive trait of the Déjà Vu: why, whilst experiencing this fleeting movie clip, do we feel like we’re having a Back to the Future moment?
It only lasts for a nanosecond but we’re really convinced we have already lived through that specific event, when the truth is most probably as far from the Twilight Zone as it can possibly get.
I think I rather prefer my theory, but then, I am yet to meet someone who has actually taken advantage of a Déjà Vu, aside from Neo in The Matrix that is, by fixing their past to change the future.
Would you really know what to do if presented with the chance of doing it all again?
Would you make a different choice or would you instinctively go for the familiar?
We might never know… this concept could forever be just a great plot for a film; or maybe, just maybe, when science is a few more steps ahead we’ll have agencies that will offer a catalogue of alternate choices for us to pick; giving us all our Sliding Doors moment.
On the other hand…
why would you want to control every single part of your life? What fun would that be once it all starts to look like Westworld: repeating the same experience over and over by choosing to be the hero in every episode to eventually turn into an out of control rebel so you can escape the dullness of the day to day routine.
As novelist Margaret Drabble said:
“When nothing is sure, everything is possible”
🎼 If I had ever been here before
I would probably know
just what to do. Don’t you? 🎼