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Where do false memories come from?

NBC TCA Summer Press Tour 072106
Suspended NBC News anchor Brian Williams

There’s speculation that NBC anchor Brian Williams’ account of riding in a helicopter under enemy fire was based on false memories. It’s a plausible explanation, with plenty of precedent.

The impact of false memories can be devastating, as Williams’ story demonstrates. But there have been worse instances.

Some believe that false memory could account for the bizarre case of Sweden’s most notorious convicted serial killer, Sture Bergwall, who under the name of his alter-ego, Thomas Quick, confessed in a series of therapy sessions to dozens of unsolved murders during the 1980s and 1990s. Later, however, serious questions arose as to whether he was involved in the murders at all. In a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, the convicted Bergwall would finally tell an investigator that he fabricated his confessions.

How could it be that someone believes they remember something that never happened?

One way is through memory implantation, a method that was tested by Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham. It could explain how people acquire memories through prompts from others. It goes like this:

A teacher asks students to go home and interview one of their younger siblings on “the day you got lost in the supermarket” — an event that never actually happened. The older sibling brings it up as a homework essay to write. On first occasion, the younger sibling naturally has no recollection of the event. The older one simply says that’s too bad. The next day, the question is repeated. Still the sibling has no memory. The older one says, wow, this is remarkable given how sad you were and how nice the guard was who found you and took care of you. Next day, the question is repeated, and now the younger sibling seems to remember some of it. As days go on, more and more details appear until there is a complete story full of detail. Typically, the younger sibling fills in standard details, things that seem obvious or plausible given the situation. So, depending on how a person gets prompted or interviewed about a situation, this phenomenon can occur.

That might not explain all the reasons why someone, particularly an anchor for a major news network, could present a story that consciously or unconsciously deviates from the facts.

We asked Erik Fransén, a researcher a KTH Royal Institute of Technology who has worked on short-term memory, how can people get it wrong when recalling a story?

“Probably, our memory is like a sparse web of facts, and when we recollect from memory, we make a full dress’ out of these sparse fragments of truth,” Fransén says.” Filling in can be based more or less on these factual observations but also on generalizations using our common knowledge, or as in the case of memory implantation, from fragments that have incorrectly entered into this web.”

Perhaps we’ll never know why Brian Williams said the things he did, but one thing seems apparent, recalling things from memory is not as simple as it seems. And memories aren’t always facts.

David Callahan

David Callahan
David Callahan is editor for international news and media at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.