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We cherish our memories. They tell us who we are. They help us recall our first love affair, where we had dinner last week. And what else happened there.

Or do they?

Memory is under heavy scrutiny by a new generation of scientists — and they’re posing an uncomfortable question: Can we trust what we remember about our lives?

Just as we often recall someone’s name incorrectly, scientists say we can misremember critical personal events, catastrophes and even crimes we think we saw or committed.

MORE:
We change our memories each time we recall them, but that doesn’t mean we’re lying
Total recall: some people can remember every day like it was yesterday
Partial recall: Why we can’t trust our own memories

Recent studies are questioning the fragile unreliability of the human memory — with enormous implications for justice, psychology and our sense of who we are. Says psychologist Julia Shaw: “Every memory you’ve ever had is full of distortions and errors.”

We will look at the implications in:

Eyewitness testimony

DNA evidence has already overturned almost 350 criminal cases in the U.S. — people who spent an average of 14 years in jail,” says Iowa State  University cognitive psychologist Gary Wells. “Three-quarters of these convictions were based almost entirely on eyewitness testimony that was mistaken.”

Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint when she was a university student.  During the traumatic event, she focused on memorizing details of her attacker so she could pick him out of a line-up.  She accused Ronald Cotton, confident that he was the one who assaulted her.  11 years later, DNA evidence cleared Cotton and proved Jennifer wrong.

Hundreds of studies have now shown there is almost nothing more unreliable than an eyewitness who thinks they remember they saw. Yet tens of thousands of people are indicted every year because a witness has picked them out of a lineup.  According to Wells, until laws are changed, a frightening number of people will continue to be mistakenly arrested.

Flashbulb memories

We all have crystal-clear memories of where we were and what happened on specific dates such as 9/11 — or JFK’s murder. Events which seem seared on our brains are called “flashbulb memories” because we practically see them in our mind like pictures illuminated by flashbulbs.

We have great confidence in these memories — but we are mostly wrong, says NYC neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelp. Her studies show that flashbulb memories erode over time just like fading memories of birthdays and love affairs. If our memories are so wrong, while convinced we are so right, some scientists now pose an even more extraordinary question: Can we deliberately create false memories?

False memories

In studies, people have been led to remember all kinds of false things: a supposed beach vacation, or being lost in a mall as a child. It’s known as “memory-hacking,” and it’s proving remarkably easy to do.

In 2015, Dr. Julia Shaw and colleagues tried to convince a group of 60 UBC students they had each committed a crime when they were younger — a crime which never took place. An astonishing 70 per cent of subjects came to believe the story, often adding details and embellishments to make the fake event seem even more real.

As scientists discover our memories are vulnerable to change and malleable to our experiences, is it possible that traumatic memories could be “replaced” with healthy ones to deal with issues like depression and PTSD?

MORE:
We change our memories each time we recall them, but that doesn’t mean we’re lying
Total recall: some people can remember every day like it was yesterday
Partial recall: Why we can’t trust our own memories

According to Julia Shaw, “Memory is largely an illusion. All our memories are essentially false.”  But she goes on to say: “We should all accept our clumsy, flimsy memories because that’s what makes us human.”
 

 

 

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