How accurate is your memory?

August 28, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- As a child did you hate brussel sprouts? Do you remember such a preference or did your parents remind you afterwards, ensuring a lasting dislike of the vegetable? Or do you have a phobia in adult life, invoked by a memory from the past that no-one else remembers?

New research into the human memory has found that it is possible to plant false memories in the human mind that can have significant long-term effects on behaviour.

The work by psychologists at the University of St Andrews shows that the human memory can be remarkably fragile and even inventive when it comes to remembering past events, often completely rewriting 'autobiographical belief'.In a series of studies Dr Elke Geraerts, found that it is possible to change long-term behaviours by inducing false memories using a simple suggestive technique. The findings of the food-based study may be used positively to treat conditions such as obesity or aid dieting.

Dr Geraerts, a lecturer at St Andrews and associate of Maastricht University, where the study was carried out, said, "The false suggestion of a childhood event can lead to persistent false beliefs that have lasting behavioural consequences. Studies on false memories and beliefs have compellingly shown that misleading information can lead to the creation of recollections of entire events that have not occurred.

"Until now, however, no-one has examined the possible effects of false memories on behaviour. We asked ourselves can false beliefs be sufficiently strong to alter behaviour? If one develops false memories in the laboratory, might they have an influence on one's short- and long-term attitudes and actions?" she continued.

In a series of experiments, the researchers falsely suggested that participants had become ill after eating egg salad as a child. A 'significant minority' of participants believed this to be true, and even four months after the study were found to avoid egg salad.

"Interestingly, these participants showed a distinct change in attitudes and behaviour towards this food, even some time afterwards," explained Elke. "They not only rated egg lower than other foods but they avoided egg salad sandwiches altogether."

"With obesity levels reaching epidemic proportions around the world, we could use this type of suggestive therapy for treating cases of obesity or influencing dieting choices. It may be possible for people to learn to avoid certain foods by believing they had negative experiences with the food as a child."

Previous research has induced false memories of more inconceivable experiences, including those involving satanic rituals, previous lives, and abduction by space aliens. Even though such memories may not be real, researchers say they can cause emotional pain similar to that experienced by those who genuinely have memories of a traumatic event.

The new study could have significant implications for recovered memories involving abuse - previous research has claimed that it is possible for people to create false memories of being abused as a child, when memories are recovered through suggestive therapy. Such false memories triggered would impact on future behaviour such as seeking redress in adult life.

"Our study is the first ever to show that false memories can be so persuasive that people change their behaviour, both in the short and longer term. We have clearly demonstrated that false suggestions about childhood events can profoundly change people's attitudes and behaviour in adulthood."

The paper Lasting False Beliefs is published in the August issue of the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Provided by University of St Andrews

Explore further: Do trauma victims really repress memories and can therapy induce false memories?

Related Stories

Do trauma victims really repress memories and can therapy induce false memories?

October 10, 2017
The Australian newspaper recently reported the royal commission investigating institutional child sex abuse was advocating psychologists use "potentially dangerous" therapy techniques to recover repressed memories in clients ...

Dissociative identity disorder exists and is the result of childhood trauma

October 5, 2017
Once known as multiple personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder remains one of the most intriguing but poorly understood mental illnesses. Research and clinical experience indicate people diagnosed with the condition ...

The Sense of an Ending – and why we are wired to produce false memories

April 19, 2017
How much do you trust your memories? Do you consider the events and perspectives you remember as gospel truth, or as more malleable, fickle things that bend and warp with time and shifting context?

Cannabis consumers show greater susceptibility to false memories

April 21, 2015
A new study published in the American journal with the highest impact factor in worldwide, Molecular Psychiatry, reveals that consumers of cannabis are more prone to experiencing false memories. The study was conducted by ...

'False memories'—the hidden side of our good memory

February 5, 2014
Justice blindly trusts human memory. Every year throughout the world hundreds of thousands of court cases are heard based solely on the testimony of somebody who swears that they are reproducing exactly an event that they ...

Ear-witness precision: Congenitally blind people have more accurate memories, research finds

April 29, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Researchers from the University of Bath have found that people who are congenitally blind have more accurate memories than those who are sighted.

Recommended for you

Suicidal thoughts rapidly reduced with ketamine, finds study

December 14, 2017
Ketamine was significantly more effective than a commonly used sedative in reducing suicidal thoughts in depressed patients, according to researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). They also found that ketamine's ...

Do bullies have more sex?

December 14, 2017
Adolescents who are willing to exploit others for personal gain are more likely to bully and have sex than those who score higher on a measure of honesty and humility. This is according to a study in Springer's journal Evolutionary ...

Children's screen-time guidelines too restrictive, according to new research

December 14, 2017
Digital screen use is a staple of contemporary life for adults and children, whether they are browsing on laptops and smartphones, or watching TV. Paediatricians and scientists have long expressed concerns about the impact ...

Eating together as a family helps children feel better, physically and mentally

December 14, 2017
Children who routinely eat their meals together with their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits, a new Canadian study shows.

The iceberg model of self-harm

December 14, 2017
Researchers have created a model of self-harm that shows high levels of the problem in the community, especially in young girls, and the need for school-based prevention measures.

Encouraging risk-taking in children may reduce the prevalence of childhood anxiety

December 13, 2017
A new international study suggests that parents who employ challenging parent behavioural (CPB) methods – active physical and verbal behaviours that encourage children to push their limits – are likely protecting their ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.