Fact: Some of your memories never actually happened.

How many of your memories are fake?



I was six when Princess Diana died. My very first memory is of my entire family crowded around the television in our living room, glued to the news reports about the car accident that caused her untimely departure from this earth. I remember our living room – all federation ceilings and ugly carpet.

I remember our small, 90s television. I remember having no comprehension of what was going on, and why everyone cared so much, so I was playing with a rainbow-coloured skipping rope and probably being generally quite disruptive.

At least, I think it’s my first memory. But I generally have a shitty memory. And there are so many memories all muddled up in my head; some good, some bad, and some as murky as the ocean on a particularly tumultuous day. There are some memories that I think I’ve put together entirely based on photographs. There are other memories that I think I’ve actually muddled up with particularly vivid dreams. There are even some that have many blanks, but that I’ve pieced together somehow, based on congruous bits and pieces.

When it comes down to it – every story we tell, is a memory. Every anecdote we share is based on a memory. And yet memory can be so incredibly flawed.

So how many of your memories are actually fake?

Or if not fake – then at least intrinsically flawed in some way?

That’s the question The Atlantic asked its readers in an article last week, written about people with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory – you know, the kind of people who can be asked what they were doing on a completely random day 30 years ago, and they will tell you that they ate a blueberry bagel with cream cheese for lunch while reading Animal Farm for the third time.

Essentially; the release of new research has found that even those with extraordinary memories can have false memories, and suggests that any one of us can succumb to the demise of the accurate memory.

A journalist named Erika Hayasaki, who teaches journalism at UC Irvine in the United States, wrote the Atlantic article. She takes note of the research done by one Professor Elizabeth Loftus, who spends her time researching the contamination of memories. She writes:


Loftus has found that memories can be planted in someone’s mind if they are exposed to misinformation after an event, or if they are asked suggestive questions about the past. One famous case was that of Gary Ramona, who sued his daughter’s therapist for allegedly planting false memories in her mind that Gary had raped her.

Loftus’s research has already rattled our justice system, which relies so heavily on eyewitness testimonies. Now, the findings showing that even seemingly impeccable memories are also susceptible to manipulation could have “important implications in the legal and clinical psychology fields where contamination of memory has had particularly important consequences,” the PNAS study authors wrote.

Fact: All memories are recalled by people. People with emotions, and minds that work to fill in some blanks and happen to omit others. As is pointed out in the article – all true stories are filtered through the teller’s take, and coloured with life experiences. It’s a reconstruction.

Hayasaki quotes Professor James McGaugh in explaining that you’re more likely to remember memories with which you associate strong emotions. Any events that have made you really happy, or really shaken you up – you’re bound to remember much better. It’s evolution’s doing, McGaugh explains, “because it was essential for our survival. An animal goes to the creek and gets bitten by a tiger but survives, the animal knows it’s a good idea not to go to that creek again.”

But this triggering of the memory parts of the brain, doesn’t automatically mean that the memory will be accurate. In fact, history has uncovered endless examples in which memory has been completely flawed:

In 1977, 60 eyewitnesses to a plane crash that killed nine people were interviewed by Flying magazine. But they had differing recollections. One of the witnesses explained that the plane “was heading right toward the ground—straight down.” Yet photographs showed that the airplane hit flat and at a low-enough angle to skid for almost one thousand feet.


So in conclusion – what does this all mean for us? What does this mean for the memoirs we’ve read, for the journalism we’ve read? After all, at its heart, journalism is based on the retelling of people’s stories. Often incredibly emotional ones.

There are no real conclusions in the article from The Atlantic. But there are a couple in the comments. Write everything down, they say. Write it down as soon as it happens. Keep journals and go back and compare your memories to what was written in those journals. That’s the only way you will really be able to trust your memory – and recognise the flaws you build in your brain over time.

Ever had a fight with a friend about what happened at a party years ago? Tell us your memories and how they may differ to the reality.