The Current

Chances are your memories are untrue and unreliable, says criminal psychologist

Forget everything you think you know about memory. Canadian criminal psychologist and author of The Memory Illusion, Julia Shaw, says our memories are usually unreliable and wrong. She may even have you questioning everything you think you know about yourself.
Think you have a good memory? Author Julia Shaw says our memories are usually unreliable and provide distorted stories from our past. (Boris Breuer)

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Our memories, whether ones from our childhood or from a recent holiday seem solid and unshakeable. 

But in the book, The Memory Illusion: Why you might not be who you think you are, author Julia Shaw says there is strong evidence that suggests most of our memories are likely wrong.   

"Every memory you ever had I argue is false. And by that I mean at least slightly false," Shaw tells The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

As it turns out your life story may be more fiction than fact. Not only can we forget actual events but there is growing evidence we can be made to believe things that never really happened.

Shaw is a Canadian criminal psychologist at London South Bank University and conducts research on so called "false memories." Part of that research is convincing people that they committed crimes that never actually happened. 

"Seventy per cent of the participants ended up confessing to crimes that never happened."

She tells Chattopadhyay that we can sometimes become memory thieves and misappropriate other people's memories as our own.

"We can also make mistakes and think we experienced things in a very, sort of severe, or extreme way that never happened."

Shaw works with the British police to advise on historical sexual and physical abuse cases. She says the implications of "false memories" on our criminal justice system are profound — placing too much weight on witness' memories could mean innocent people being imprisoned. 

"A lot of court cases you'll have like a minute of behavior — so a crime — picked apart for days or weeks," says Shaw.

"I mean you're implying that people can remember an enormous amount of detail about something that happened sometimes in seconds, sometimes in a minute... that's just not how memory works."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by Calgary network producer Michael O'Halloran.