the memory illusion

BBC Radio 4 – Law in Action

4 Nov 2021

Are your childhood memories false? DR JULIA SHAW’S intriguing suggestion is that even your most treasured recollections can’t be trusted

  • Many people insist that they can remember milestone events in their life
  • But DR JULIA SHAW says these memories aren’t as reliable as you think
  • Psychological researcher can get people to believe things that aren’t true
  • Her experiments help discover how severe memory distortions can occur
  • Findings highlight challenges that our faulty memories pose for the law

Toddling around the garden, our first day at school, the heartache of unrequited teenage love and the births of our children. No doubt, many of you will insist you remember some or all of these events.

But what if I were to tell you that your cherished memories aren’t as reliable as you think? Or that I can get you to ardently believe things that have never even happened to you?

You may pooh-pooh the very idea. But as part of my work as a psychological researcher at London South Bank University — where I specialise in the unreliability of human memories — I’ve done just this many times.

After a few sessions with me, I could get you to believe things that are complete fiction. I’ve even convinced the most law-abiding citizens they’ve committed violent crimes when nothing of the sort occurred.

It might sound shocking, but there is a purpose to my mind games. My experiments help discover how severe memory distortions come about — a vital issue when it comes to the criminal justice system, where we rely heavily on the memories of eyewitnesses, victims and suspects.

By creating false memories of crime, I highlight the challenges that our faulty memories pose for the law.

For the truth is, none of our memories is sacrosanct. No matter how good you think your recall is, I can show how our brains and social environments twist recollections so that you’ll have every reason never to trust your memory again.

It may leave you wondering just how much you truly know about yourself … a criminal past you never had?

You could call my work memory hacking — I break into people’s memories and get them to recall in great detail events that have never actually happened.

How? I just need three face-to-face interviews and a little background knowledge — and I don’t target the vulnerable or gullible either. Indeed, my work is strictly monitored by university ethics committees.

My most recent experiment involved telling innocent participants they’d committed a serious crime — assault, or assault with a weapon, or theft — something grave enough to warrant police contact. More than 70 per cent eventually believed me.

You might think you’d be completely certain you’d never been in trouble with the police. So how do I do it?

First, the participants — who think they are taking part in a study of emotional memories and have no idea I might be implanting false memories — put me in touch with people who know them very well, for example their parents.

I ask their nearest and dearest to describe emotional experiences the participants might recall between the ages of 11 and 14, as well as things like names of their best friends at the time, and where they lived.

When the participants first come in, I ask them about this genuine emotional experience — for example, the time they fainted on holiday or experienced bullying at school. This gives me credibility, that I know something genuine about them.

I then tell them about the fictional event — for example, the time they attacked a girl with a rock. I say their parents have told me how old they were, where it happened and who they were with.

Participants usually say ‘I don’t remember this’, so we do a visualisation exercise, where they close their eyes and picture the event.

Little do they realise that, because there is no memory to recall, their brains are instead accessing their imaginations for details.

I tell them not to discuss this with anyone, but to keep trying to visualise the ‘memory’. A week later we meet again, and I ask them to recollect the true memory. Then I ask them about the false event.

It’s at this point many begin to ‘remember’ details: ‘Leaves were falling. Blue skies. The policeman had brown hair.’

I get them to repeat the visualisation exercise and work on remembering further detail at home.

By the third interview, many are confidently divulging a huge number of specifics. For example: ‘It wasn’t a huge rock… I threw it at her head… I remember being in the house… I think we were eating dinner… The doorbell rang and there were two policemen there.’ It’s like memory magic.

Sceptical that you’d fall for it? My co-researcher and I found 70 per cent of participants in this study developed false memories, ‘recalling’ at least ten details related to the non-existent event.

Dr Julia Shaw for The Daily Mail – 4 June 2016

‘The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting,
And The Science Of False Memory’