False memories: Can our memory betray us?
Published Jan 11, 2022 • By Candice Salomé
False memories are memories that are distorted from reality, involving interpretations and inferences. More dramatically, they can also take the form of events that never happened.
So why does our memory sometimes betray us? What are the mechanisms of false memories? And what causes them?
We explain it all in our article!
Our memory can play tricks on us. Sometimes we forget things, and sometimes our memory stores an approximate or a rather distorted recollection of real events. It is also possible that our brain creates a memory of an event that never actually happened. These false memories are not always trivial in terms of the consequences they can have.
What is a memory?
According to the definition given by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a memory is "something that is remembered”, and “the things learned and kept in the mind”.
Memories change and are constantly being created or reconstructed. This happens because our brain combines elements already present in the memory, with what it hears, learns, and thinks.
This is particularly true of the so-called episodic memory. It is a memory of everyday events from our personal lives. Thus, a memory is never static and is enriched with new information every time.
In the end, it seems almost impossible to say how true a memory is. Each memory has some truth in it, but there is also a certain amount of falsehood.
Memories are like puzzles. For example, a smell may remind you of a childhood memory, a piece of music may remind you of your holiday. When you experience a sensation, other sensory channels are activated and can reconstruct a memory.
Our memories are reconstructions, and our imagination fills in the blanks left by forgotten elements, in order to give coherence to the narrative of the memory.
Why does our brain distort our memories?
In our lives, there are more false memories than true ones, even among the most recent memories.
Freud was particularly interested in this subject, and was looking for the meaning that false memories could have for an individual. Why does our brain produce false memories?
Our memory regularly reconstructs itself and integrates the events unearthed in the present, which become mixed with others, more or less old, more or less similar.
In fact, our memory is unable to restore pure reality, so it creates a sort of a narrative of the reality. Thus, we create false memories, either by personal conviction, or when someone/something provokes it.
Research has also shown that when a memory is evoked in a positive context, it will itself become more positive than the original event. Similarly, when a negative memory is recalled in a negative context, it will become even more negative than the original event.
False memories are not a serious matter as long as they do not give rise to false testimony or are not maliciously induced by an ill-intentioned person, for example.
Nevertheless, it may sometimes happen that even though you seem to remember a childhood memory accurately, it never actually existed.
What is confabulation?
Confabulation is producing memories of events that never happened. The cases of confabulation are very rare. In fact, the majority of false memories have their roots in the past.
There are several forms of confabulation.
The most benign form is the production of small memory errors or additions to memories, when one tries to extract more information from one's memory than one has actually stored. This is called "provoked confabulation".
This can happen to anyone, but is more common after a brain injury.
Fantastic (spontaneous) confabulations, on the other hand, defy all sense of reality. They are linked to serious thought disorders and occur most often in cases of advanced dementia.
Between these two forms of confabulation there are "momentary confabulations". These are false recollections of events that a person produces in response to questions or during a discussion.
According to Prof. Armin Schnider, Head of the Neurorehabilitation Department at the University Hospital of Geneva (HUG) and Professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Geneva, in most cases of confabulation, the front part of the brain is damaged. This can be the result of a ruptured aneurysm or a head trauma.
The damage is located in the orbitofrontal cortex above the eyes, which is responsible for filtering reality. This area of the brain is responsible for determining whether a thought refers to the present or not. This happens very quickly, within 200 to 300 milliseconds, without us even having the time to understand the content of the thought in question.
According to Prof. Armin Schnider, patients affected by these lesions do not learn from their mistakes when they see that their anticipations have not come true.
What is the feeling of “déjà vu”?
Unlike confabulation, déjà vu is not a confusion of the past and the present. On the contrary, it is a feeling of particular familiarity with the present moment. We thus remain connected to the reality.
Indeed, many of us have already experienced, for a few seconds, the feeling of having already been in a house that we enter for the first time, for example. It is, of course, impossible, but the feeling is quite common. About 7 out of 10 people have experienced it at least once in their lives.
This phenomenon usually occurs when one is tired or stressed. It can be triggered by certain things such as a particular smell, or light, or the voice of the person next to us at that particular moment.
Déjà vu is said to be caused by the interaction between the temporal cortex - which processes sensory information - and the hippocampus, involved in memory and the sense of familiarity. Two distinct mechanisms, two different brain regions, déjà-vu and confabulation: what they have in common is, therefore, only the scientific questions that they still raise today.
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Faux souvenirs : ne vous fiez pas à votre mémoire !, Planète Santé
Comment comprendre les faux souvenirs ?, Psychologies
La confabulation, ou l'art de transformer l'imaginaire en réalité « vécue », Le Temps
Faux souvenirs, impression de déjà-vu… d’où ça vient ?, Notre Temps