How to create a false memory and how to change the past.
In contrast, casting a humorous light on an embarrassing memory, for example, by weaving it into a funny story, can mean that in time, it loses its power to embarrass. A social gaff can become a party piece. Many people find that bad experiences stand out in the memory more than good ones. They intrude on our consciousness when we do not want them to. Researchers have shown that bad memories really are more vivid than good ones, possibly due to the interaction between the emotions and the memories.
This is particularly so when the emotions and memories are negative.
Creating False Memories
Neuroimaging has shown scientists that the process of encoding and retrieving bad memories involves the parts of the brain that process emotions, specifically the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex. It seems the stronger the emotions associated with the memory, the more detail we will recall. In , scientists at the University of Cambridge showed for the first time which brain mechanisms are involved in substituting and suppressing memories. They found that a person can suppress a memory, or force it out of awareness, by using a part of the brain, known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, to inhibit activity in the hippocampus.
The hippocampus plays a key role in remembering events. They can do this by using two regions called the caudal prefrontal cortex and the mid-ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. These areas are important for bringing specific memories into the conscious mind, in the presence of distracting memories. Suppressing a memory involves shutting down parts of the brain that are involved in recall. To substitute a memory, those same regions must be actively engaged in redirecting the memory way towards a more attractive target.
One of the report's authors, Dr.
Michael Anderson, likens this to either slamming on the brakes in a car or steering to avoid a hazard. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI to observe the brain activity of participants during an activity. This activity involved learning associations between pairs of words, and then trying to forget the memories by either recalling alternative ones to substitute them or blocking them out.
Results showed that both strategies are equally effective, but that different neural circuits are activated. In post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD , people who have experienced a traumatic life event are troubled by unwanted memories that insist on intruding into the consciousness. Knowing more about how a memory can be substituted or suppressed might help people with this debilitating condition. The mental context in which a person perceives an event affects how the mind organizes the memories of that event.
We remember events in relation to other events, where it occurred, and so on.
This, in turn, affects what triggers those later memories, or how we can choose to recall them. Context can be anything that is associated with a memory. It could include sense-related cues, such as smell or taste, the external environment, events, thoughts or feelings around the time of the event, incidental features of the item, for example, where it appears on a page, and so on. As we use contextual clues to recall information about past events, scientists have suggested that any process that changes our perception of that context can increase or reduce our ability to retrieve specific memories.
Creating False Memories
To test this, a team of researchers set participants a task of memorizing sets of words, while viewing images of nature, such as beaches or forests. The aim of the images was to create the contextual memories. Some participants were then told to forget the words on the first list before studying the second. When the time came to recall the words, the group that had been asked to forget were able to recall fewer words.
In deliberately trying to forget the words, they had discarded the context in which they had memorized them. In addition, the greater the detachment from the context, the fewer words they remembered. This suggests that we can intentionally forget. The researchers then instructed the group to remember the words did not "flush out" the scenes from their minds, and continued to remember the words and think of the images. The findings could be useful for helping people either to remember things, for example, when studying, or to reduce unwanted memories, for example, in treating PTSD.
Treatment for people with phobias includes exposure to the item that causes fear. Exposure therapy aims to create a "safe" memory of the feared item, which overshadows the old memory. While this works temporarily, the fear often returns in time. In August , researchers from Uppsala University and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden showed that disrupting a memory can reduce its strength. In their experiment, people who were afraid of spiders were exposed to pictures of their eight-legged friends in three sessions.
The aim was to disrupt the memory by disturbing it and then resetting it. First, the research team activated the participants' fear by presenting a mini-exposure to spider images. Then, 10 minutes later, the participants viewed the images for longer. The next day, they saw the pictures again. By the third viewing, the researchers noticed that there was less activity in the part of the brain known as the amygdala. This reflected a lower level of emotional interference and a lesser tendency in the participants to avoid spiders.
The scientists concluded that the first exposure made the memory unstable. When the longer exposure occurred, the memory was re-saved in a weaker form. This, they say, stops the fear from returning so easily. The researchers believe that this could strengthen techniques for dealing with anxiety and phobias in cases where exposure alone does not provide a long-term solution. To complement cognitive approaches, some scientists have suggested using drugs to remove bad memories or the fear-inducing aspect that is associated with them.
How do memories form?
D-cycloserine is an antibiotic , and it also boosts the activity of glutamate, an "excitatory" neurotransmitter that activates brain cells. In one study , people with a fear of heights took D-cycloserine before a virtual reality exposure therapy. One week, and again 3 months later, their stress levels were lower than before. In other research , when a group of people with PTSD took propranolol at the time of consolidating a memory, for example, just after recounting a bad experience, they had fewer stress symptoms the next time the memory was activated.
Propanolol blocks norepinephrine, a chemical that plays a role in the "fight or flight" mechanism and gives rise to stress symptoms. Researchers in New York carried out tests on rats that showed it is possible to erase single memories from the brain, by delivering a drug known as U, while leaving the rest of the brain intact. In a mouse study published in Nature in , scientists used a drug known as an HDACi to erase epigenetic markers in the DNA that enable bad memories to live on. This could help people, for example, with PTSD. Taking memory manipulation one step further, memory experts like Julia Shaw, author of "The Memory Illusion," have worked out how to implant false memories.
She starts, she says, by telling someone that when they were young, they committed a crime, then adding layers of information until the person can no longer decipher reality from imagination. Shaw says she does this to highlight how some interrogation methods can be abused. Healthy people could use them to erase an inconvenient event from the mind.
Perpetrators of crimes could give memory-erasing drugs to people to make them forget events. After all, some bad memories serve a purpose.
- Unwanted memories: How to forget them.
- An Exorbitant Lapse of Realism.
They can prevent people from making the same mistakes again, or guide their actions on similar occasions in the future. How much do we want to forget? Article last updated by Yvette Brazier on Tue 14 August All references are available in the References tab. Association for Psychological Science. In one experiment, Loftus tested the credibility of eyewitness accounts in car accidents. When study participants were asked to recount exactly what they'd seen take place, they offered details as best they could, some vague and some more specific.
Yet when Loftus prompted these same individuals, asking them if they saw either "a" broken headlight or "the" broken headlight on one of the vehicles involved, those who heard the word "the" changed their story, admitting that they remembered "the" broken headlight. However, no broken headlight existed.
Loftus tested the viability of memory hacking again when she asked study participants to share childhood memories. Once again, when Loftus prompted her participants to remember events that never occurred, the individuals responded by agreeing with her altered version of their own memories. In fact, they offered even more false information, claiming they could recall the names of stores, siblings, and other details who were with them when the fake memories "happened.
All of Loftus's work shows that not only our own minds are susceptible to a simple memory hack, but that implanting a story in another person's mind can lead them to build their own new, altered memories, overriding whatever it is that they actually recall. Why, with all of their precious memories and stockpiles of information, are our brains so easy to hack? With the slightest suggestion, our memories no longer become our own but rather ones we've created based on others' suggestions. The answer lies in what Dr.
Loftus calls the misinformation paradigm. It connects back to Lehrer's point: We're willing to fudge our memories and make them more exciting to appeal to social groups, and we're equally concerned about being proved wrong. No one wants to be called out for a weak memory, or forgetting the details of a standout event. So, in turn, when another person suggests things didn't quite happen as we remember, we're willing to shift our memory to suit theirs—all in the name of social acceptance.
When you want to mess with your friends' minds, take a page from the research of Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, and their fellow researchers. This group of neuroscientists tested exactly how we can implant false memories in the minds of others, and to what extent we could truly trick them. First, offer a body of supporting evidence. When Edelson, Sharot, and their team had subjects watch a documentary and then recall it, the responses changed the second participants were allowed to see others' summaries.
Though the summaries were completely false, the participants chose to believe what others said happened—giving up on their own perception and succumbing to the pressure of others before them. Say you owe your friend a significant sum of cash, but you're not exactly interested in paying them back right away. You simply need to implant a false memory, one in which you and your friend agree that you'll repay the sum at a different, much later date.
When they approach you to collect the cash, remind them that it wasn't due for two more months. As long as their are no texts to prove it, you can persuade their memory to agree with yours, especially if you get another person to back your story. Or, if you're attempting to change a friend's behavior through false memories, try lying to them in a different way: For example, if your roommate can't seem to understand that doors need to be locked when leaving home, point out the unlocked door every single time you leave.
Do this repeatedly over time, and your roommate will start double-checking and questioning himself every time he leaves home. Did I completely forget? If false memories prove too tricky for your friends' brains, you can also try gaslighting them. Instead of altering their memories, gaslighting is a hack in which you convince others they're crazy—and that you're the sane one.
- Green Darkness.
Each time you remind friends of their mistakes, react as though their thoughts are illogical, trivialize their worries, and feign forgetfulness, you slowly and subtly lead them to believe they're losing their minds. Sure, it sounds mean to mess with your friends' minds and implant completely false memories of situations that may never have occurred. But what if your memory tweaks had the potential to do good? As Loftus argues, there are ways to use false memory implantation for good. When parents crafted lies to keep their children from eating ice cream, telling the kids that they were incredibly sick each time they ingested the treat, over time the children developed a distaste for the sweet, sugary treat—and they ended up losing weight.
Though you may not be attempting to convince your friend to stick to their diet, you can use your memory-changing powers for good. Instead of hacking their brain to get what you want, try implanting false memories that will help them. For example, remind your best friend just how much they fought with their ex each time they're tempted to contact them; or mention how disgusting they found a former roommate's laundry habits to be even if they weren't when they're considering moving back in with someone they can't stand.
Use your own brain power to better another's choices, and you won't feel so guilty. Good Lord - there is nothing ethical or decent about techniques like gaslighting. None of us have the right to try to fuck with our friends - even out of the misguided notion it can help them. You want to help your friend - recommend a healing technique or a counselor. No-one has the right to try to steer anyone else using such methods.