How to hack a memory: how someone can remember something that didn’t really happen
If you had a memory of being abused as a child and someone told you that this was a false memory, this would be extremely upsetting. You might think that they were implying that you were a liar or even that you were deranged. At the very least it would seem that they were not taking you seriously and were denying your suffering. Sue Atkinson, in her self help book for victims of abuse (Breaking the Chains of Abuse, 2006, Lion Hudson, Oxford)’ describes how she tried to understand her fragmentary and very disturbing memories of being abused. She doubted that they were real, and felt that she was an evil person for “making them up”. She believed that God would reject her for this and no longer attended church. The thought that she could be such a bad person made her suffering even greater.
However, modern memory science tell us that if Sue Atkinson’s memory was false that would not mean that she was a bad person, or that she was mad, but that she was a normal person. Memory doesn’t work like a video recorder but is constantly being unconsciously reconstructed as our brains try to integrate new information (or misinformation) with old memories. False memories can feel just as rich in visual detail, in emotion, sound, and smell, as a real memory.
None of us can be absolutely certain that our memories are accurate unless there is external corroboration of the memory. We attended a meeting on the Fascinating Phenomenon of False Memories in London in 2016. The evening began with a video recording of various members of the public who were describing memories they later found out were false. The message was that each and everyone of us are subject to false memories. I recently met an old friend from university. I hadn’t seen him for 40 years. He told me a story about an event that had happened after a weekend I had supposedly spent with my fiancée. The strange thing was that I had the exact mirror image of that memory, the same story, but it was when he went away with his bride to be.
Those who have been wrongfully accused of sexual abuse will struggle to understand how an accuser could genuinely believe that they had committed the offence. Unfortunately, if the complainant’s memory is false, because it will feel exactly the same as a real memory even a lie detector test would be unable to tell that it was false. To the complainant it may feel absolutely real. Only corroboration from other sources can test the accuracy of a memory. This can give a jury real problems in deciding who is telling the truth in a case where it is one person’s word against another. If they don’t have an knowledge of memory science there is a real danger that they will believe whoever seems to sound the most convincing.
So how can false memories come about? Can memories be inadvertently ‘hacked’ by our family, friends or even by well meaning counsellors?
Julia Shaw is a forensic psychologist and memory expert. She is the author of ‘The Memory Illusion’, 2016, Random House Books, London.. On the British False Memory Society’s website there is a fascinating video in which she describes how to hack a memory.
In this video she shows how she was able to implant false memories into 70% of her subjects in only three sessions.
If you want to know how a memory can be hacked and why it matters in the criminal justice system, watch this important video.
Listen to ‘Sentence First, Verdict After’ on BBC sounds, podcast about false memory in the courtroom.