“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” - Mark Twain
For anybody who has watched the television show "Friends," the episode where Ross and Chandler cannot figure out who told a joke first hardly seems like a real-life scenario. As it turns out, not being able to recall a memory correctly is common for many people.
“Probably all of us have false memories from one time or another,” said Nicholas DiFonzo, a Psychology professor at RIT. “Most of the time we don’t even realize these memories are false, because there isn’t always someone to validate the truth.”
“Probably all of us have false memories from one time or another."
“Occasionally, as one is telling a story, they will be corrected by someone else, because as a community we are very good at finding the truth if we want to find it and have the capacity to do so,” DiFonzo continued.
However, when we don’t have the ability to confirm a memory and straighten it out, we remember what we think we saw — and that memory becomes ingrained, even though it may not be completely factual. The ability to remember something accurately varies from person to person, depending on the development of some brain structures.
“Differences in size of the paracingulate sulcus (PCS) are associated with one’s ability to remember an event accurately and if a memory is of a real event or something that was imagined,” said Joseph Baschnagel, another Psychology professor at RIT.
The Journal of Neuroscience recently published a study concerning people with a small or nonexistent PCS. These people tend to have a harder time recalling whether they had said a specific word in a test or if the researcher had said the specific word. They were also unaware of their inaccurate memories. This study helps us understand that it is very possible that, in the "Friends" example, both Ross and Chandler were completely confident in their memories of who said the joke first; the problem in this case is that there wasn’t anybody to verify the memory.
False memories can come up often in cases where there is a question of whether or not a person was sexually abused as a child. As humans, it is very hard for us to have a completely accurate memory of something that happened, especially if people are suggesting that the event occurred in a different way.
“We tend to remember things that make us feel good, and we tend to want to forget from our collective memory the events that make us feel bad,” added DiFonzo.
Additionally, people who are good at thoroughly immersing themselves in their own vivid imaginations are especially susceptible to these kinds of memories.
False memories can arise from many different factors, such as brain structures, susceptibility to suggestions and the ability to fully immerse oneself into an imaginary event. Everyone can have false memories, despite how good they think their memory is. Even when you think you are telling the complete truth, you may unknowingly be telling a story that's just a little bit untrue.