Why People Can Have False Memories: Analysis of an Article Are Your 9/11 Memories Really Your Own?
When we talk about memory studies we often use examples from 9/11. Most people have a clear image etched in their minds about where they were or what they were doing during this memorable but devastating event. Melanie Mignucci tells her story of 9/11 “I remember my mom was working in the city and I remember smoke billowing out over the water of the Long Island Sound behind the building where I went to elementary school” Melanie was interviewed about her memory on the Netflix docuseries “the mind explained” when Melanie was later going over her memory with her parents, her mom informed her that in 2001 she was actually working in Connecticut and there was no way she could’ve seen the smoke billowing by. This is an example of a false memory. A false memory is a distorted recollection of an event or, most severely, recollection of an event that never actually happened. In most cases, people genuinely think these are their memories and have no intention of lying about something. The brain’s ability to believe false memories has proven to be problematic in many criminal investigations.
How come we have false memories? Why don’t our brains just remember everything that happens as it happens? A main reason why some of our memories are wrong is that our brain stores memories as they happen but then when we recall memories our brain doesn’t keep an exact replica of the original memory but rather forms a new memory, based on our recollection. The memory gets changed slightly over time, in the end, forming a large error. This is represented in a study by Karim Nadar on rats. In this study he taught rats that a high pitched screech would cause a minor electric shock. The rats then would freeze in place whenever they heard the screech because they knew the shock was coming. He then gave the rats a drug that keeps them from creating new proteins. If the memories are permanent the drug should have no effect on whether or not they freeze when they hear the sound, but after the drug the rats froze the first time they heard the sound because they recalled the effect of the noise but didn’t freeze the next time because they were unable to form that memory again and the old memory was gone. This experiment can back up why traumatic events are more likely to become false memories because usually these traumatic events are recalled many times in your mind or out loud as a story.
Another reason for false memories is a phenomenon called “flashbulb memories”. Olivier Luminet and Antonietta Curci define flashbulb memories as “memories for the circumstances in which individuals have heard about particular news” in the book false memories New Challenges and Future Perspectives. These are easily distorted because they are quick and unexpected events, therefore, our brains try to fill in any missing information. And this information that gets filled in is not correct. Sometimes our brains do a good job at filling in and it completes the story but other times it can add parts to the story that can change the whole narrative. Another process similar to our brains filling in information is called unconscious transference. Unconscious transference is when a victim or bystander confuses the face of a bystander as the face of the assailant. This is because our brains are working to gather all that information but ends up putting the pieces together wrong. Knowledge of false memories have played an important part in criminal cases. Most crimes are traumatic events that are susceptible to becoming false memories. This is due to the fact that we investigated earlier about how our brain makes a new copy of a memory each time it is recalled. If we go through a traumatic event generally we will replay it in our heads, tell people about it, and if it was something criminal and goes to court you are asked to repeat events of that moment many times for a jury, therefore, there are many chances for our memories to change. These crimes can also be considered flashbulb memories because they are quick and our brain is trying to fill in the information.
Which also brings us back to unconscious transference. With all three of these ideas together there is no wonder why mistaken identifications are the leading reason for wrongful convictions. The innocence project states that “Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to approximately 71% of the more than 360 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence”. An ironic and famous case of a false memory of mistaken eyewitness identification is that of a psychological expert on false eyewitness identifications. He was accused of rape by a victim who had seen his face on a news interview and apparently unconsciously transferred his face to that of her attacker’s. Thankfully the expert had an alibi and was not convicted but that obviously isn’t the case for many others. Memory is a very compelling part of our brains. It is very odd to know that there is a good chance a memory that you are certain happened exactly one way could in fact be totally different because of the way your brain stores information.
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