False Memories- An Interview With Dr. Jeffrey S. Anastasi

False memories are vivid memories that an individual has of an event that has not occurred in their life. For example, individuals may have an extreme vivid memory of an event that happened before they were born and only heard about it through family members. The false memories feel as real and vivid as real memories, which made me wonder if we could tell them apart from each other. This is what the article, ‘Distinguishing between memory illusions and actual memories using phenomenological measurements and explicit warnings’ by Jeffrey S. Anastasi, Mathew G Rhodes and Mathew C. Burns talks about. Read further to find out more about the research done by Mr. Anastasi on the topic.

1. I was wondering if you could touch a bit on the research for the audience that may be learning about it for the first time.

The general topic is based on the idea of repressed memories. There were many individuals who had “recovered” memories of sexual abuse that they had potentially repressed. This abuse had taken place when they were children. Due to the emotional aspect of the events, these individuals were thought to have repressed these memories. During prolonged therapy, many of these individuals slowly began to uncover these memories of abuse. Interestingly, it seems that many of these individuals had not actually been abused at all, but still had vivid memories of this abuse. This phenomenon of individuals having vivid memories of some event that never actually happened led to a plethora of research investigating whether this could actually be possible. This is the false memory research.

2. What got you interested in studying false memories?

When I was in graduate school (in the early 1990s) was the time that many of these repressed memories were happening. Numerous individuals “recovered” memories of abuse and many of these individuals later recanted their memories. These were normal, average people as well as many famous individuals (movie actors, etc.). I found the topic fascinating that someone could have such a vivid memory of an event that never actually occurred.

3. In the article, you talk about how explicit warnings play a role in being able to distinguish between false memories and real memories. Outside a controlled experiment, do you think people are provided with these explicit warnings to help them differentiate between false memories and real memories?

Even in our research, individuals who are warned still have false memories. While they can lower the incidence of false memories when they are given an explicit warning, they still get false memories and are confident in those false memories. In therapeutic situations, I think the therapists are oftentimes encouraged when the individual is able to remember something from their past that might be causing their current problems. The therapist is doing everything in their power to try and help their client to get at the root of the problem. With this type of motivation to help their client to get better, they may sometimes hastily accept whatever their client says as factual. They may also inadvertently lead their client to fabricate memories or form memories for events that never occurred. Again, I think that they would never do this purposely, but many of the techniques that are common in recovered memory therapy are highly suggestive and much research has shown that they do lead to fabricated memories.

⦁4.In a criminal case, do you think the extent to which a witness can differentiate between false and real memories affect the reliability of their memory?

Absolutely. If an attorney is able to discredit a witness because their memory differs from what may be objectively true (i.e., a video recording of the actual crime), this would certainly discredit the witness and affect how reliable a jury might view that witness. Unfortunately, false memories can be formed very easily and may involve something as simple as suggesting that something was present. For example, in a study conducted by Loftus and Zanni, individuals were asked if they remembered seeing any broken glass at a car accident scene. There was no broken glass. Some of the participants were asked if they remembered seeing any broken glass. Other witnesses were asked if they remembered seeing the broken glass. Those who were asked if they remembered seeing “the” broken glass were significantly more likely to remember seeing this nonexistent broken glass. So, very subtle suggestions is all it takes to affect one’s memory.

⦁5.Where are studies in this area at the moment and where do you anticipate findings going in the next year or so?

There are a number of studies that are showing how photographs can be used to help jog one’s memory. These photographs aren’t fabricated photographs showing a false event, but simply photographs from that time in the person’s life that is around the time of the memory that is being coerced. Interestingly, these photographs serve as cues and as a foundation to build false memories. Other research is starting to look at the brain areas that are activated when someone recalls real or false memories. I think this research approach is going to become more popular. Some of this research has shown that thinking about or imaging a false event activates the same brain areas that are activated when one is actually looking at something occurring. Thus, it’s very difficult to distinguish between something that was actually seen and something that was simply imagined.

6.Do you have any additional resources or further readings for those who want to learn more about the topic?

There are numerous studies that have been conducted by Steve Lindsey and Marianne Garry that have looked at the effects of photographs on false memory generation. Marianne has also done a lot of work on imagination inflation which is very much related to this topic. In my own lab, we’re looking at the effects of photographs on people’s false memories for fake news events. Thus far, these photographs make individuals much more confident that these fake news events actually occurred.

Having false memories can be a problem as it can lead to people pressing charges against individuals that they believe abused them but in reality did not. Research has shown us that slight suggestions like the broken glass study can alter a person’s memory of the actual level. This makes me wonder how much we can trust our own memories knowing that we can’t differentiate between false and real memories.

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  1. I can recall finding myself in situations where I have a memory of something that never happened or happened differently, and my friends or family correct me. I’ve encountered false memories among others before, mostly when watching crime shows or documentaries. One thing I had in my mind throughout reading your piece is the connection between repressed memories of abuse and false memories, like if there was any explanation for it or research regarding the specifics of the phenomena. Nice article!

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