False Memories Occur Amongst Superior Memory

False Memories Occur Even Among Those with Superior Memory:

False Memories Occur Even Among Those with Superior Memory

False Memories Occur Even Among Those with Superior Memory


Some people have the unique talent of being able to remember daily details of their lives from decades past.

But surprising new research finds that even among this select group of memory experts, false memories occur at about the same frequency as among those with average memory.

False memories are the recollection of an event, or the details of an event, that did not occur. UC Irvine psychologists and neurobiologists created a series of tests to determine how false information can manipulate memory formation.

In their study they learned that subjects with highly superior autobiographical memory preformed similar to a control group of subjects with average memory.

“Finding susceptibility to false memories even in people with very strong memory could be important for dissemination to people who are not memory experts.

“For example, it could help communicate how widespread our basic susceptibility to memory distortions is,” said Lawrence Patihis.

“This dissemination could help prevent false memories in the legal and clinical psychology fields, where contamination of memory has had particularly important consequences in the past.”

Patihis works in the research group of world-renowned psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, who pioneered the study of false memories and their implications.

Persons with highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM, also known as hyperthymesia) – have the astounding ability to remember even trivial details from their distant past. This includes recalling daily activities of their life since mid-childhood with almost 100 percent accuracy.

The lead researcher on the study, Patihis believes it’s the first effort to test malleable reconstructive memory in HSAM individuals.

Working with neurobiology and behavior graduate student Aurora LePort, Patihis asked 20 people with superior memory and 38 people with average memory to do word association exercises, recall details of photographs depicting a crime, and discuss their recollections of video footage of the United Flight 93 crash on 9/11. (Such footage does not exist.)

These tasks incorporated misinformation in an attempt to manipulate what the subjects thought they had remembered.

“While they really do have super-autobiographical memory, it can be as malleable as anybody else’s, depending on whether misinformation was introduced and how it was processed,” Patihis said.

“It’s a fascinating paradox. In the absence of misinformation, they have what appears to be almost perfect, detailed autobiographical memory, but they are vulnerable to distortions, as anyone else is.”

One response to “False Memories Occur Amongst Superior Memory

  1. People don’t re-experience an emotional memory when they just recall it. And it’s yet another level further removed from an emotional memory when someone describes their recall of it.

    To illustrate these differences with an example, I burned my left index fingertip last week being careless while toasting bread on an infrared oven grill. It wasn’t severe pain, and my fingertip has healed.

    The pain is still stored with my emotional memory, and is probably why my memory is very clear. I recall the visual details of the grill, how my fingertip looked, the pain I initially felt, and the relief I felt when I held my finger under running cold water.

    The researchers introduced factors to try to confuse the subjects about their recall of their emotions, and their verbal descriptions of their recall. The researchers were very sure that confusing the subjects’ thinking-brain recalls and descriptions produced evidence that the subjects’ emotional memories were changed and falsified.

    Can you see how far removed the researchers were from studying emotional memories? They didn’t demonstrate that they understood where emotional memories were stored because they didn’t attempt to engage the subjects’ feeling brain areas.

    Let’s imagine that the researchers analogously studied my burned fingertip. They would deny that I can accurately retrieve and re-experience my emotional memory of my accident if I initially say that I pushed the kitchen faucet handle all the way in the cold direction, then after repeated questioning, I say that I wasn’t sure that the handle was pushed all the way over to Cold.

    The problem the researchers’ viewpoint created with this study was that they were determined to produce a finding that emotional memories could be falsified. To this end, the study defined the subjects’ recalls of post-9/11 emotions and descriptions of their recalls as emotional memories.

    The researchers’ strawman definition of emotional memories was simply wrong. Maybe their purposeful error could be overlooked if it was confined to this study.

    But it isn’t. You can imagine the damage this viewpoint creates when mental health professionals adopt it, and deny their patients’ feelings, experiences, and emotional memories.


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