The Fascinating Phenomenon of False Memories

Notes on a lecture on Friday 18th November 2016, at the Forensic Psychology Unit, Goldsmith’s College, London

Panel: Professor Elizabeth Loftus, Professor Christopher French, Dr Robert Nash and Dr Kimberley Wade

Definition of a false memory: a memory that feels absolutely real but the remembered event didn’t actually happen.

We don’t live far from Goldsmith’s College and jumped at the opportunity to hear these experts talk about false memories. We wanted to try and understand how someone could come to be absolutely convinced that something happened when in reality it hadn’t. This is a topic that’s of great importance to many FACT members who have suffered from a wrongful allegation of child sexual abuse.

img_1768The evening was introduced by A.R. Hopwood, a video artist who collected ordinary people’s experiences of false memories. Anyone could send him their false memories and then they formed the basis of his false memory archive. The stories were then told by actors and videoed. There were some amazingly bizarre childhood memories which only came to be recognized as false when challenged by older family members. The take away message was that everybody has false memories.

The panel discussion was opened by Professor Loftus who had been awarded the John Maddox Prize only the day before. The prize was for promoting ‘sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest in the face of deep personal hostility’ and she had had plenty of that in her long career.

She gave an engaging description of her 40 years of research which started in the 1970’s by researching memory malleability. She exposed subjects to simulated car accidents and then looked at how easy it was to alter people’s memory of the accident by asking them about it in different ways. The results confirmed that changes in the way questions were asked made people have very different memories of the details of the accident. This of course has important implications for the way in which witness statements are taken.

In the 90’s she became involved in “memory wars”. There was an epidemic of people relating bizarre stories about satanic abuse. Her research found that they had commonly been having psychotherapy involving dream interpretation, imagination exercises and sometimes hypnosis. She and other researchers decided to find out how easily false memories could be implanted. They found that they could implant childhood memories of being abandoned in a shopping mall, being attacked by a vicious animal or even being rescued by a lifeguard. Her publication of these findings caused her to suffer much angry criticism from repressed memory psychotherapists and their patients, and she had to spend five years fighting a lawsuit.

Dr Kimberley Wade followed with a fascinating description of her work on implanting false memories using fake photographs. She had shown her subjects photos of their own childhood, and one was a fake picture, showing them in a hot air balloon. They were asked to imagine the events in the photos for a week and then questioned about their memories. Surprisingly 50% of the subjects had formed rich memories of the hot air balloon ride, which of course had never happened. They were convinced that it had really happened, and they would describe details such as the appearance and smell of the burning gas, the people in the balloon etc. They ‘remembered’ far more than the information shown in the faked photo.

More worryingly her experiments showed that it was possible to make someone remember that they had committed a crime when in fact they hadn’t. They were given a task to perform which at times involved the transfer of money using a computer. The team showed people fake videos of them keeping some of the money for themselves, and many came to believe that they had actually done so. This opens the possibility that some interrogation techniques, such as pretending to have incriminating evidence that doesn’t really exist, could induce false confessions. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to hear more about risky interrogation techniques, we were told it would have been a subject for a whole lecture in itself.

Professor French followed on by discussing his research into the process by which people come to develop rich memories of impossible events such as alien abduction. He had discovered that those who suffered from sleep paralysis, which is a state between waking and sleeping during which someone feels they can’t move, were more likely to have developed these memories of alien abduction. During sleep paralysis some people have auditory hallucinations. He thought that these could be so disturbing that some would seek explanation for these experiences. They might look for help from UFO specialists or memory regression therapists. Psychotherapy or memory regression techniques are very powerful ways of inducing false memories, and the result would be another alien abductee!

Most importantly for many who have suffered from wrongful allegations of historic child sexual abuse Professor French stated that ‘repressed’ memories of historic sexual abuse ‘recovered’ during psychotherapy are unlikely to be true. A child older than say three or four would remember a traumatic event, a younger child would have not formed any lasting memory that would persist into adulthood, so it couldn’t possibly be recovered. Moreover there is strong experimental evidence to show that ‘recovered memory’ psychotherapy is dangerous and that there is a serious risk that it can induce false memories. The reason is that the techniques used during psychotherapy aiming to ‘recover’ memories are very similar to the methods which memory scientists have used to implant false memories.

I was wondering if false memories could be formed without undergoing psychotherapy. Professor French explained that false memories can also be self-induced, for example by hearing other people’s stories on TV or through reading (e.g. ‘bibliotherapy’ using self-help books). The more imaginative someone is, the more likely they are to develop a false memory. More importantly, false memories are just as emotionally charged as real ones, so can sound very convincing to a jury.

The audience were then able to ask questions. Here are some of them.

Q. Can you tell fake memories from real ones with a lie detector?
A. No, not with current knowledge, not even by scanning someone’s brain while they recall their memories. Lie detectors wouldn’t work; there is rich emotional content to a false memory and therefore physiological arousal when that memory is recalled. The physiological responses (heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure etc.) which lie detectors measure would be the same for a false and a real memory.

Q. Is there any gender difference in susceptibility to false memories?
A. None has been discovered so far. Following on from this, even people with very good day to day memory, who can accurately recall events, can be just as susceptible to false memory implantation.

Q. Do false memories lead to wrong convictions?
A. [Many wry smiles from panel], ¾ of 300 prisoners exonerated by DNA evidence in the US were wrongly convicted by false eyewitness testimony.

Q. Is it right to publicise suspects such as Jimmy Saville?
A. It’s a political question, but the answer from science is that such publicity could induce false memories of abuse in some people.

Q. What should we do about dangerous psychotherapy?
A. A lot more! There is a problem in that it’s possible to do a weekend course in regression therapy and then start taking clients.

Q. What about the ethics of implanting good memories?
A. Dr Nash described his research into people’s preferences in this area. About 50% of those questioned felt it would be right to do this. For example, making someone falsely remember an unpleasant experience with fatty foods could be used to help them lose weight.

Q. Is there any research into collective false memories?
A. Prof French told us that 50% of people can remember a paparazzi video of Princess Diana’s car crash, when in fact there is no such video. The Chinese seem to have attempted to alter the nation’s memory of what happened in Tiananmen Square using techniques similar to those use in false memory implantation experiments.

Q. Do power relationships affect false memory implantation?
A. People are more likely to form a false memory if the source of the false information is believed to be more credible than their own experience. So power relationships could have an influence. Kim Wade commented that in New Zealand, a US accent was shown to be more effective than a NZ accent when used to implant a false memory. Of course this has implications for people undergoing psychotherapy because the client believes the therapist has expert knowledge and authority and so is more susceptible to developing a false memory.

This was a fascinating evening and the two hours went past all too quickly. It was very encouraging to hear the way in which science was addressing a puzzling question. How can someone be absolutely convinced that something happened when it didn’t?

Now that evidence is no longer needed to corroborate someone’s testimony of being sexually assaulted, it is extremely worrying that the criminal courts attach so little credibility to the knowledge of memory scientists. In the common situation where a jury has only the testimony of the complainant and the defendant, a complainant with a false memory could seem just as credible as someone with a true memory.

To quote the late Judge Gerald Butler, in a BBC programme in 2008, when asked whether we needed memory experts to explain to juries how people’s memories work.

“I think, frankly, that is a faintly ridiculous suggestion. We do have experts who can be very helpful … there are handwriting experts, there are fingerprint experts, and of course there are the DNA experts who have turned out to be of immense value in the courts. But we also have juries who are there in order to use their common sense and when it is a situation that you weigh up a witness’s evidence and decide whether he or she is telling the truth or that he or she has a faithful recollection of what has taken place, this is essentially a matter for the jury. It is not a matter for an expert.”

After this evening at Goldsmith’s I was left in no doubt that Judge Butler was wrong.

See also

Experts Can’t Tell The Difference Between False And True Accounts Of Children, Cornell Study Shows

People can be convinced they committed a crime that never happened

Half of people believe fake facts, ‘remember’ events that never happened

Remember Pearl Harbor? Maybe….

Scientists, practitioners don’t see eye to eye on repressed memory