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False Memories

February 10, 2015

The brain creates – and then reinforces – memories of events that never really happened.



The U.S. Army D-Day the Normandy Invasion Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower

Some people erroneously remember being present at historic events, or things that never happened at all. (The U.S. Army)

How the brain mis-remembers. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

If you recall something that happened to you, and it never really happened, you’re called out as a liar. That’s what happened to news anchor Brian Williams recently, when he falsely claimed that the helicopter transporting him in Iraq twelve years ago was forced down by enemy fire. But neuroscientists say a memory can be inadvertently altered when it’s recalled, and then replace the original memory, like a computer document that’s been opened, edited and saved under the original file name. McGill researcher Karim Nader says the process can actually reinforce the memory.

KARIM NADER (McGill University):

So when you recall it, it’s not just vulnerability that happens, but it’s also an opportunity for memories to get strengthened.


The phenomenon is not only perilous for news reporters, but for eyewitnesses to crimes, who may come to firmly believe memories that don’t match the facts. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.