Your memory is not as reliable as you think it is. Even events that you vividly recall in your mind may never have happened. Here is an example.
I have two cousins, Josh and Sam. When they were little Sam sat on a cactus. It was a very painful experience and their mother told the story many times over the years. 25 years later, Josh thinks it happened to him. He can remember the pain, the extraction, everything–even though it didn’t happen to him. The experience was so imprinted on his mind that he has all these false memories of an event that never happened to him.
These types of memories are particularly troubling when it comes to eye witness accounts of crimes and other events where someone’s testimony could send an innocent person to prison. This is one of the reasons the police will try to keep witnesses from talking to each other before taking their testimonies. The power of suggestion is too strong and one witness can drastically affect another’s memory.
Even without witnesses clouding each other’s memories a single witness’s mind can fill in all kinds of unknown details. The policeman asks “What color was the thief’s hat?” and the witness’s mind thinks “This must be important, so I’ll concentrate very hard. I can’t seem to find any memories of the color, but maybe it was blue.” Then the brain tries it on for size and visualizes a blue hat. Now the witness has a mental image of the thief wearing a blue hat and informs the police that the thief was undoubtedly wearing a blue hat because they have a distinct mental picture of it. It is entirely possible that the thief was wearing no hat at all and the witness simply provided details in order to fill in the blanks.
This is why it is so important for people to be trained on how to ask questions without creating “facts” from pure imagination. It is kind of related to the horse that could “count” and do addition by pawing its hoof. It was later discovered that the horse was simply picking up very subtle clues from his owner about when to stop pawing. The owner wasn’t even aware of this.
One of the methods used to study false memories is to show people lists of words like:
Adults will tend to “fill in” other words. For example, they may remember seeing the word “kitchen” or “pot”. Some recent research has found that this doesn’t happen as much in children. Some people are hoping that these results will help boost how much credibility is given to the testimony of children in court cases. On the other hand, children can often be even more susceptible to suggestion through leading questions.
While the understanding that our strong memories may, in fact, be false is not very comforting, it can be a great help in dealing with others. When we realize that two people’s memories of a particular event maybe significantly different, it is easy to focus on the reality of the situation instead of the reality of the past. It is more productive to accept people’s perceptions and move on from there, rather than try to convince them that their strong mental image is incorrect.