Our memories are surprisingly unreliable — so much so that the brain can recollect details and even entire memories that never actually happened.
Delving deep into this mystery, a new study, published on Monday, March 22, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examines false memories and how they can be reversed.
False memories, the study says, can go as far as being disruptive to our society. They have the capacity to disrupt a courtroom, and the fate of those being tried.
"I find it so interesting, but also scary, that we base our entire identity and what we think about our past on something that’s so malleable and fallible," psychologist Aileen Oeberst, first author of the study, at the University of Hagen in Germany told Inverse in an interview.
Planting false memories
In their new study, Oeberst and his team of researchers were able to successfully implant false memories in study subjects, before successfully reversing the same memory.
With the help of parents, the researchers implanted false memories in 52 subjects with a median age of 23. The parents identified events in their child's life that had and had not happened — they also invented two events that were plausible but had not happened.
In several sessions, the psychologist researchers then questioned the test subjects about these events, and asked them to recall details about the memories.
By the third session, most participants believed the false events had actually occurred. More than 50 percent of those participants also developed false memories about those events.
Though other studies have investigated the ways in which false memories can be implanted in the brain, Oeberst and his team are the first to try to reverse these memories.
The researchers found two methods were successful in reversing implanted memories in test subjects. Without revealing to the subjects what had happened, the team asked them to recall the source of the memory. They also explained to them that being pressured to remember details of a memory can induce false memories.
Utlimately, the team found that it is relatively easy to undo strong, false memories. The researchers suggest that education about the way our minds work is a reliable way of strengthening our connection to the memories and recollections that are real. They say that methods gleaned from their research might go as far as helping to prevent the problem of false accusations and witness statements in court.