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False memories can be planted and reversed, finds study

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on March 29, 2021

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Study highlights techniques that can correct false recollections without damaging true memories

It is possible to plant and reverse rich false memories of autobiographical events, according to a new study.

The study, published by researchers from the University of Portsmouth, UK, and the Universities of Hagen and Mainz, Germany, highlights techniques that can correct false recollections without damaging true memories, as per an official release by the University of Portsmouth.

The research included 52 participants for a study on ‘childhood memories.’ They implanted two false-negative memories in the participants with the help of parents. These memories, though plausible definitely didn’t happen. For instance, memories such as getting lost, running away or being involved in a car accident.

The false memories were implanted along with two true events, which had actually happened. The participants’ parents persuaded them that all four events were part of their autobiographical memory.

Actual false memories

They were then asked to recall each event in multiple interview sessions. Most of the participants believed that the false events had happened by the third session. Similar to previous research – nearly 40 per cent had developed actual false memories of them.

The researchers then attempted to reverse these false memories by using two strategies.

As part of the first strategy, participants were reminded that memories may not always be based on people’s own experience, but also on other sources such as a photograph or a narrative by a family member. They were then asked the source of these four memories.

In the second strategy, it was explained to them that being asked to repeatedly recall something can elicit false memories. They were then asked to revisit their event memories keeping this fact in mind.

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According to Dr Hartmut Blank, co-author of the research from the University of Portsmouth’s Department of Psychology, the results were that “by raising participants’ awareness of the possibility of false memories, urging them to critically reflect on their recollections and strengthening their trust in their own perspective, we were able to significantly reduce their false memories. Moreover, and importantly, this did not affect their ability to remember true events”.

“We designed our techniques so that they can principally be applied in real-world situations. By empowering people to stay closer to their own truth, rather than rely on other sources, we showed we could help them realise what might be false or misremembered - something that could be very beneficial in forensic settings,” said Dr Blank.

“Believing, or even remembering something that never happened may have severe consequences. In police interrogations or legal proceedings, for instance, it may lead to false confessions or false allegations, and it would be highly desirable, therefore, to reduce the risk of false memories in such settings,” said Dr Blank.

Published on March 29, 2021

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