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Did that really happen? Why one expert says your memories might not be true

Are you who you think you are? Author of The Memory Illusion says misremembering can create a false sense of self.

Author of The Memory Illusion says memories can be 'dramatically wrong' — and the consequences can be dire

Part of Dr. Julie Shaw's research includes asking subjects misleading subjects to twist their memories with their imaginations, creating false memories. (Science Photo Library RM/Getty Images)

Where were you born? What was your childhood like? What did you have for lunch? 

Memories make up a big part of our personal identity. But according to a researcher at London South Bank University, they can be hacked to create "memory illusions" — and the consequences can be dire.

"Generally, memory is okay," said Dr. Julia Shaw on CBC's The Early Edition. "But the problem is that it can be dramatically wrong, and it can be used in a way that puts people in jail."

Shaw is the author of The Memory Illusion: Why You Might Not be Who You Think You Are, a book that explores how misremembering events can actually alter a person's sense of self.

According to Shaw, misremembering occurs "when we add pieces of fiction into our memories about things that never happened."

"In the brain, your memory is a network — it's a network of brain cells, and this network is tampered with quite easily," she said.

"There can be pieces that get lost, which is forgetting, and there can be pieces or new connections being made, which are when we misremember."

Dr. Julia Shaw is the author of The Memory Illusion: Why You Might Not be Who You Think You Are. (CBC)

Part of Shaw's research includes convincing people they committed crimes that never happened, and remembering emotional events that never occurred.

"What I do is I use misleading questions and misinformation," she said. "I tell people they did things that they didn't and I get them to picture the event as it could have been."

"Over the course of three interviews, I get people to confuse their imagination with their memory."

Shaw says she's motivated to showcase the fallibility of memory, especially when it can lead to false confessions and witness testimonies that can land people in jail.

She currently consults as an expert on criminal cases, and provides workshops for police and the military in the U.K.

She also offers tips on how people can retain sharp memories.

"When you try to remember something, think about it in as much complexity as possible," she said. "Think about what a situation tastes like, or smells like, or feels like.

"What you're trying to do is make as much as a trace in the brain as possible, so later on you can get back to it."

With files from CBC's The Early Edition

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Author of 'Memory Illusions' talks about how our memories can be 'dramatically wrong'