(Medical Xpress) -- False memories tend to get a bad rap, says developmental psychologist Mark L. Howe, of Lancaster University in England. Indeed, remembering events incorrectly or remembering events that didnt happen can have grave consequences, such as the criminal conviction of an innocent person. But false memories are a natural outcropping of memory in general. They must have some positive effect, too.
That argumentthat memory illusions were evolutionarily adaptive and remain useful for psychological well being and problem-solvingis the subject of an intriguing paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.
Obviously, the evolution of accurate memoryfor the location of food, the appearance of a predator, or the smell of a potential matewas critical to human survival. Howe cites findings in evolutionary psychology that the more relevant a memory is to survival, the more likely it is to be evinced.
But memory is a flexible process of taking in new information and blending it with what is already there, selecting or forgetting portions of experience; it inevitably leads to errors small or large. Not only do we regularly generate false memories, says Howe, but, perhaps because we create them ourselves, those illusions are more tenacious than facts.
In some instance, such illusions may have enhanced our ancestors survival. The animal that goes to a favorite food-foraging location and sees signs that a predator was therebut not the predator itselfmay be on guard the next time. But the creature that falsely remembers the predator was actually there might be even more cautiousextra protection against getting eaten if the bad guy shows up.
Memory illusions, like illusions generally, can still be salutary. An inflated self-concept may result in greater confidence, which fuels success. Similarly, remembering your childhood as happier than it was may help you have more satisfying intimate relationships in adulthood. The placebo effectbelieving the sugar pill is real medicinecan cure the ailment without side effects. False memories sometimes have a related outcome: Howe cites a study in which children who came to remember a lumbar puncture as less painful than it was were able to tolerate the procedure with more ease the next time. False memories can also help in problem solving. Howe and colleagues conducted experiments in which they gave children a list of wordsnap, doze, dream, pillow, bed. Those who falsely remembered that sleep was also on the list did better on a complex associative task involving that word than those who did not generate the illusion.
Memory, Howe suggests, does not work like a video recorder. Memory is designed to extract meaning from experience: At the foraging place, something bad was going on. You dont need the exact information to get the meaning.
The point of the paper is not to exaggerate the value of illusion, says Howe. Memories true or false can have a negative or positive effect, depending on the context. The key point is: Just because a memory is false doesnt make it bad.