False Memory

false memory

Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

False memory is the recalling of events that never happened or are distorted. As our memories shape our perceptions and emotions, false memory syndrome can lead to long-term mental health consequences. Acknowledging false memory is crucial for navigating the complexities of cognitive processes and promoting sound mental health.

What Is False Memory?  

False memory refers to the phenomenon where an individual recalls events, details, or experiences that never occurred 1 Mendez, M. F., & Fras, I. A. (2011). The false memory syndrome: experimental studies and comparison to confabulations. Medical hypotheses, 76(4), 492–496. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2010.11.033 or are distorted from reality. These cooked-up memories often feel as real and vivid as genuine ones, leading individuals to believe in their accuracy. False memory syndrome commonly manifests as:

  • Fabrication: Creating entirely fictional events or details.
  • Misattribution: Assigning a real memory to the wrong source.
  • Suggestion: External influences, like leading questions, implanting false details.

Signs Of False Memory  

Research 2 Zaragoza, M. S., Mitchell, K. J., Payment, K., & Drivdahl, S. (2011). False Memories for Suggestions: The Impact of Conceptual Elaboration. Journal of memory and language, 64(1), 18–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2010.09.004 attributes the common signs of false memory to the following:

  1. Inconsistencies: Contradictions or discrepancies in the details of the memory.
  2. Vividness: Overly vivid or detailed recollections that surpass typical memory clarity.
  3. Confabulation: Unintentional fabrication of events to fill gaps in memory.
  4. Sudden Recollection: Memories emerging suddenly without prior awareness.
  5. Implanted Details: Inclusion of information suggested by external sources.
  6. Lack Of Corroboration: Inability to find supporting evidence or agreement from others.
  7. Emotional Intensity: Strong emotional reactions disproportionate to the event’s significance.
  8. Source Confusion: Difficulty distinguishing between actual experiences and imagined events.
  9. Memory Resilience: Persistent belief in a memory despite contradictory evidence.
  10. Contextual Inconsistency: Memory details inconsistent with the time, place, or circumstances.

Read More About Memory Here

False Memory Examples 

Common 3 Abadie, M., & Camos, V. (2019). False memory at short and long term. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 148(8), 1312–1334. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000526 false memory examples include:

  • Misplaced Items: Believing an item was left in a location where it was never placed.
  • Eyewitness Errors: Incorrectly identifying a person or details related to an event.
  • Recovered Memories: Recalling traumatic events after suggestive therapy sessions.
  • Implanted Suggestions: Adopting false details suggested by leading questions or external influences.
  • Confusing Similar Events: Mixing up details from different but related experiences.
  • Cryptomnesia: Unintentionally attributing someone else’s idea as one’s own.
  • Dream Incorporation: Integrating dream content into waking memories.
  • False Accusations: Accusing someone based on a distorted or fabricated memory.
  • Screen Memories: Creating false memory to replace or mask distressing experiences.
  • Cognitive Dissonance: Altering memories to align with current beliefs or attitudes.

Read More About Cognitive Dissonance Here

What Causes False Memory? 

Research 4 Otgaar, H., Muris, P., Howe, M. L., & Merckelbach, H. (2017). What Drives False Memories in Psychopathology? A Case for Associative Activation. Clinical psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 5(6), 1048–1069. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702617724424 on “what causes false memory?” claims that false memory develops from a combination of factors like:

  • Suggestion And Leading Questions: Misleading cues or questions implant false memory.
  • Imagination And Visualization: Mental imagery can introduce inaccurate details into memories.
  • Source Misattribution: Confusing where information comes from distorts memory.
  • Misinformation Effect: Exposure to false information after an event alters memory.
  • Confirmation Bias: Remembering details that align with existing beliefs distorts memory.
  • Cognitive Biases: Memory influenced by biases like hindsight or self-serving bias.
  • Emotional Factors: Strong emotions can enhance or distort memories.
  • Neurological Factors: Brain disorders or trauma may impact memory processes.
  • Social Pressure: Conforming to social expectations leads to false memory.
  • Mis-perception Of Time: Inaccurate time perception contributes to memory errors.
  • Individual Differences: Cognitive abilities and personality traits affect susceptibility to false memory.

Read More About Cognitive Bias Here

Mental Health Impact Of False Memory  

False memory significantly impacts mental health 5 Otgaar, H., Howe, M. L., & Patihis, L. (2022). What science tells us about false and repressed memories. Memory (Hove, England), 30(1), 16–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2020.1870699 across various domains. Emotionally, they can induce stress, anxiety, and identity crises. Trust issues may arise in relationships, and decision-making can be compromised. Coping mechanisms may falter, contributing to mood disorders and psychosomatic symptoms.

Therapeutically, addressing false memory poses challenges. Individuals may experience a decline in self-esteem and confidence, leading to social isolation. Constantly navigating between reality and distorted memories imposes cognitive strain, affecting overall mental well-being.

Mental Illness Associated With False Memory  Syndrome

False memory syndrome (FMS) intertwines with various mental health disorders 6 Decades, N. R. C. (US) C. on M. and I. M. for E. N. and C. R. in the N. T. (2008). True and False Memories as an Illustrative Case of the Difficulty of Developing Accurate and Practical Neurophysiological Indexes of Psychological States. Www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov; National Academies Press (US). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207945/ , compounding the challenges associated with these conditions. Anxiety and depression may intensify as false memory contributes to emotional distress and disrupt the perception of reality.

Psychosis may be exacerbated by false memory syndrome, as the boundaries between reality and delusion become blurred. People with substance use disorders may face heightened challenges 7 Leon, C. S., Bonilla, M., Brusco, L. I., Forcato, C., & Benítez, F. U. (2023). Fake news and false memory formation in the psychology debate. IBRO neuroscience reports, 15, 24–30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ibneur.2023.06.002 , as false memory may contribute to cravings, relapse triggers, or impaired judgment. For individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the impact can be profound, with false memory potentially interweaving with genuine traumatic experiences.

Moreover, memory (neurocognitive) disorders 8 El Haj, M., Colombel, F., Kapogiannis, D., & Gallouj, K. (2020). False Memory in Alzheimer’s Disease. Behavioural neurology, 2020, 5284504. https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/5284504 (such as amnesia, dementia, etc.) can also be intensified by false memory syndrome. This results in a convoluted interaction between distorted recollections, genuine memory lapses, and the complexities of mental health and substance-related conditions.

How To Diagnose False Memory

Diagnosing false memory involves a systematic approach, including in-depth interviews, memory retrieval techniques, and psychological testing. Clinicians cross-reference reported memories with external evidence, use collateral information, and may employ neuroimaging to distinguish between genuine and false recollections.

Additionally, analyzing emotional responses and considering contextual factors 9 Thakral, P. P., Devitt, A. L., Brashier, N. M., & Schacter, D. L. (2021). Linking creativity and false memory: Common consequences of a flexible memory system. Cognition, 217, 104905. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104905 , such as timing and circumstances, enhances the accuracy of the diagnosis. A comprehensive evaluation, blending psychological, neurological, and contextual assessments, is essential for effectively identifying and understanding false memory. 

Ways To Overcome False Memory  

Consider the following tips 10 Devitt, A. L., & Schacter, D. L. (2016). False memories with age: Neural and cognitive underpinnings. Neuropsychologia, 91, 346–359. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2016.08.030 to overcome false memory:

  1. Reflect Critically: Question the accuracy of memories regularly.
  2. Verify Externally: Seek evidence or consult others to confirm details.
  3. Consult Professionals: Seek guidance from mental health professionals, like therapy and medication.
  4. Practice Mindfulness: Use mindfulness to enhance awareness and clarity.
  5. Document Experiences: Keep a journal to establish a reliable timeline.
  6. Memory Exercises: Practice memory-enhancing exercises like using mnemonic devices, playing crossword puzzles or sudoku, etc.
  7. Be Skeptical: Approach memories with a concern of doubt or disbelief.
  8. Limit Misinformation Exposure: Be cautious about exposure to misleading information.
  9. Cope Healthily: Develop healthy coping mechanisms like gratitude journaling, deep breathing, positive affirmations, etc.
  10. Maintain Consistency: Keep a consistent narrative of experiences.
  11. Educate Yourself: Stay informed about psychology of memory and cognitive biases.

Read More About Mindfulness Here

Takeaway

Addressing false memory is paramount for mental health as it directly impacts emotional well-being, relationships, and cognitive functioning. Recognizing and mitigating the influence of false memory can lead to more accurate perceptions of reality, reduce emotional distress, and improve overall mental resilience.

By understanding the complexities of memory and its potential for distortion, individuals and mental health professionals can work collaboratively to foster a healthier psychological state, promoting better decision-making, stronger relationships, and enhanced overall mental well-being.

At A Glance 

  1. False memory is the recalling of events that never occurred or the recalling of distorted memory.
  2. It poses challenges such as fabrication, mis-attribution, and suggestion.
  3. False memory examples range from misplaced items to recovered memories.
  4. Causes of false memory encompass suggestion, imagination, and emotional factors.
  5. False memory impacts mental health, contributing to stress, trust issues, and cognitive strain.
  6. False memory syndrome intertwines with mental health disorders, exacerbating conditions like anxiety and psychosis.
  7. Overcoming false memory involves therapy and medication use, critical reflection, external verification, mindfulness, and maintaining consistency.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

1. What Makes False Memory Possible?

False memory can arise due to suggestion, leading questions, imagination, and other factors influencing memory recall.

2. Why Is False Memory Important?

False memory is important as it impacts legal proceedings, eyewitness testimony, and the reliability of personal recollections.

3. Can Overthinking Create False Memory?

Yes, overthinking and excessive cognitive processing can contribute to the creation of false memory by distorting or embellishing details.

References:

  • 1
    Mendez, M. F., & Fras, I. A. (2011). The false memory syndrome: experimental studies and comparison to confabulations. Medical hypotheses, 76(4), 492–496. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2010.11.033
  • 2
    Zaragoza, M. S., Mitchell, K. J., Payment, K., & Drivdahl, S. (2011). False Memories for Suggestions: The Impact of Conceptual Elaboration. Journal of memory and language, 64(1), 18–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2010.09.004
  • 3
    Abadie, M., & Camos, V. (2019). False memory at short and long term. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 148(8), 1312–1334. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000526
  • 4
    Otgaar, H., Muris, P., Howe, M. L., & Merckelbach, H. (2017). What Drives False Memories in Psychopathology? A Case for Associative Activation. Clinical psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 5(6), 1048–1069. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702617724424
  • 5
    Otgaar, H., Howe, M. L., & Patihis, L. (2022). What science tells us about false and repressed memories. Memory (Hove, England), 30(1), 16–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2020.1870699
  • 6
    Decades, N. R. C. (US) C. on M. and I. M. for E. N. and C. R. in the N. T. (2008). True and False Memories as an Illustrative Case of the Difficulty of Developing Accurate and Practical Neurophysiological Indexes of Psychological States. Www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov; National Academies Press (US). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207945/
  • 7
    Leon, C. S., Bonilla, M., Brusco, L. I., Forcato, C., & Benítez, F. U. (2023). Fake news and false memory formation in the psychology debate. IBRO neuroscience reports, 15, 24–30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ibneur.2023.06.002
  • 8
    El Haj, M., Colombel, F., Kapogiannis, D., & Gallouj, K. (2020). False Memory in Alzheimer’s Disease. Behavioural neurology, 2020, 5284504. https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/5284504
  • 9
    Thakral, P. P., Devitt, A. L., Brashier, N. M., & Schacter, D. L. (2021). Linking creativity and false memory: Common consequences of a flexible memory system. Cognition, 217, 104905. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104905
  • 10
    Devitt, A. L., & Schacter, D. L. (2016). False memories with age: Neural and cognitive underpinnings. Neuropsychologia, 91, 346–359. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2016.08.030
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