The following article by David Derbyshire appeared in the Daily Mail on the 2nd August 2010
From the thrill of a perfect childhood Christmas to the excitement of a holiday romance, memories can sustain and support us through life’s more difficult times.
But according to scientists, many of our most treasured memories may never have actually happened.
In an astonishing study, psychologists discovered that one in five people vividly recalls incidents that they know did not take place.
The finding highlights once again the fallibility of memory – and explains why two people can have such different recollections of the same conversations and events.
University of Hull researchers asked 1,600 students whether they had experienced a false memory.
A fifth said they had experienced ‘fictional’ memories, mostly dating back to when they were four to eight years old, reported the journal Psychological Science.
One volunteer claimed to have had vivid memories of being a hockey player – even though her parents confirmed she had never played hockey in her life.
Another claimed to have remembered seeing a living dinosaur. In many cases, people continued to have memories of events after their parents or siblings had told them they could not have happened.
‘Autobiographical memory provides us with a sense of identity and it is usually accurate enough to help us negotiate our lives,’ said researcher Giuliana Mazzoni.
‘But as our study shows, not all that we remember about our past is true. Our research also shows that this phenomenon of non-believed memories is much more frequent than people had imagined.
‘Crucially, if these memories are not challenged by some form of evidence, they would still be considered part of the individual’s autobiographical experience.’
Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget vividly remembered being kidnapped in a park at the age of two, while out with his nurse.
He even had memories of the scratches on his nurse’s face, caused by the attacker.
But 13 years later the nurse confessed-that she had fabricated the story. Even after Mr Piaget no longer believed he was kidnapped, he was unable to stop remembering the traumatic event.
In one famous experiment, University of Washington scientists successfully implanted false memories into the minds of volunteers.
They were shown a doctored advert for Disneyland featuring Bugs Bunny.
A few weeks later when the volunteers were asked to recall their childhood trips to the theme park, a third remembered meeting the stuffed rabbit – despite the fact that the character is owned by Disney’s rival Warner Brothers and has never appeared at the park.
The work raised concerns about the way therapists ‘recover’ lost memories of child abuse in adults.