Imperfect, Distorted, and False Memories
Human memory is a remarkable and complex process, but it can also be surprisingly fallible. As confident as you may be that your memory of a particular event or experience is accurate, research suggests that you may in fact be completely wrong. While people sometimes talk about having a “photographic memory,” human memory doesn't function like a camera to record an exact snapshot of a particular moment in time. Instead, your memory is surprisingly apt to change, with details being exaggerated, subtracted, or even added.
False memories have been the focus of considerable debate among researchers, especially within the criminal justice system where there have been numerous cases in which people have been wrongly convicted of crimes based on inaccurate or downright false memories of eyewitnesses.
In one of the most famous false memory experiments, researchers had participants read accounts of four events from their own childhoods. Three of the stories were true accounts provided by family members of the participant, but the fourth was a false story about the participant getting lost in the mall around the age of five or six. After reading the stories, participants were asked to recall as many details about each event as they could. Participants were interviewed again five more times at two-week intervals. By the end of the six interviews, participants were able to describe either partial or full memories of their experience of being lost in the shopping mall. When the participants were finally told that the memory was entirely false, many were shocked because it had become so vivid and deeply entrenched in their memories. Even after learning the true nature of the experiment, some participants were still able to vividly remember very specific details of the fictitious experience.