German researchers create, then erase, false memories in people’s minds

German researchers create, then erase, false memories in people’s minds
German researchers create, then erase, false memories in people’s minds

A team of researchers in Germany has completed successful experiments in which they showcased how false memories can easily be planted and, more importantly, erased, with potentially serious implications for the justice system.

The team, from the University of Hagen, Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien, Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz, and the University of Portsmouth conducted a series of memory experiments on volunteers over the course of several sessions.

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They wanted to both confirm that it is possible to implant (or incept, if you will) false memories in the mind of a subject using certain psychological techniques and tricks that rely heavily on the power of suggestion through repetition, while also discovering to what extent these memories can be erased. 

In this latest experiment, the researchers created fictional, but plausible, stories from 52 participants’ childhoods and blended them with events that actually took place.

The researchers then reinforced these false memories in the minds of the participants by asking the volunteers’ parents to play along and claim things happened exactly as described, including the additional, fictional elements. 

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This process was repeated over the course of multiple sessions to such a degree that many of the participants became convinced the accounts were, in fact, true, and thus, a false memory was born. 

Now all that remained was to extricate these false memories from the minds of the volunteers, which turned out to be almost as easy as implanting them had been.

They merely asked the volunteers to identify the source of the memory while highlighting the fact that false memories can be created through a process of repeated, elicited recall that itself can become a form of conditioning. 

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“If you can bring people to this point where they are aware of that, you can empower them to stay closer to their own memories and recollections, and rule out the suggestion from other sources,” psychologist Aileen Oberst at the University of Hagen says.

Again, over the course of multiple sessions, volunteers began to shed the false memories that they had previously believed, with a little nudge from their parents, were completely real, with the majority returning to the baseline of credulity from their initial meeting during which the false memory ‘inception’ began.

During follow-ups a year later, some 74 percent of the volunteers had lost their false memories or even outright rejected them as ever having occurred.

The implications of this kind of disturbing but important research might be far-reaching in the realm of criminal justice, with methods employed by prosecutors, police, and others called into question when seeking the ‘truth’ of a past event.

“Faulty memory may not matter in everyday life – if I tell you I had chicken last night instead of pizza, it may not matter,” says false-memory expert Elizabeth Loftus.

“But very precise memory does matter when we’re talking about these legal cases. It matters whether the bad guy had curly hair or straight hair, or whether the car went through a red light or a green light.”


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