Memories are not perfect records of the past;
they are vulnerable to forgetting, a process whereby details (or
even entire events) can be lost. They are also vulnerable to
modification in which incorrect details are inserted into a
memory. These errors can be trivial or can alter the entire
flavor of the memory, leading to a false memory.
When people recollect a memory, they
sometimes make errors -- deleting some details, fabricating
others, and generally trying to reconstruct the information in a
way that makes sense. In general, memory is not a literal record
in the way that a photograph or tape recording is.
Several research studies have demonstrated
that people are very vulnerable to suggestions which can disrupt
memory. For example, in one study people might be shown a video
of a blue car driving through a red light and hitting a green
car. If the experimenter asks a question, "What color was the
car that drove through the stop sign?", subjects will tend to
answer without noticing the error -- and when queried months
later, are more likely to recall that the blue car drove through
a stop sign, not a red light.
Children are especially susceptible to these kinds of
false memory. For example, a child may be asked to imagine an
event which the parents confirm never happened, such as being
lost in a shopping mall. If the children are brought back a few
months later and asked whether they have ever been lost in a
shopping mall, some proportion will "remember" the fictional
event, and will even produce extensive descriptions of the event
and how it made them feel. These stories may be so plausible
that a psychologist cannot tell which stories are "real" and
which reflect experimentally-induced false memories.
D. Schacter (1996). Searching for Memory:
The Brain, the Mind and the Past. New York: Basic Books
L. Squire & E. Kandel (2000) Memory: From Mind to Molecules.
New York: Scientific American Library.
by Catherine E. Myers. Copyright © 2006 Memory Loss and the Brain