More Than Half of Us Are Prone to "Remembering" False Memories

“Memory is a poet,” Marie Howe once remarked, “not an historian.” When it comes to fake news, our minds can be easily and permanently misled. 

A not so careless whisper. (Photo Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Do you remember where you were on 9/11? While most Americans immediately explain the details of the moment they found out about the attack on the World Trade Center, 40 percent of them are wrong.


Mere days after the attack, over 2,000 Americans were questioned about their experiences. Researchers followed up a year later, three years later, and a decade later. Nearly half of respondents reminisced inaccurately.

Humans have terrible memories. Part of the reason is the way we remember. When an event happens we file it via our brain’s weigh station, the hippocampus. When we recall the event it returns piecemeal, influenced by everything that’s occurred since. The more we retell a story the stronger the recall—and the more likely it will be revised.

“Memory is a poet,” Marie Howe once remarked, “not an historian.”

Like all verse, we can wax poetic over golden ages or reconstruct nightmares. Memory informs our identity. How we move forward in life depends on how we remember our past. Not only do we poorly reconstruct our experiences, we’re also susceptible to false memories. Tell yourself a lie often and it becomes truth.

A recent study published in Memory confirms this. A team of researchers from three separate countries assessed over 400 memory-report transcripts to better understand the mechanisms behind false beliefs. Pulled from eight different reports with no clear set of shared criteria, the researchers settled on seven concepts they felt adequate for describing the characteristics of autobiographical memories. This study reveals startling evidence regarding just how gullible humans are.

Take subjects implanted with false memories. Participants that reject the supposed event outright are unlikely to develop one. Yet others are more suggestible. If there is even an iota of doubt (or belief) regarding the imagined event, a process of questioning the possibility begins. A narrative arc is constructed. Eventually the event is taken as historical fact even though invented.

We think in narrative; we construct our lives as stories. Events barely noticed become foundational creation myths down the road. Worse, false events influence and shape the future.

Like Pizzagate.

One of the more disturbing drivers and consequences of the recent election is the proliferation of fake news, such as the absurd notion of a reported pedophilia dungeon turning into real gunfire at a D.C. pizza shop. Fake news is nothing new, though part of what makes it so difficult to discern involves agreeing as to what it is.

Satire? Propaganda? Advertising ploy? A little bit of all, depending on who’s writing it and the willingness of the believer. Gullibility is a neurological quirk: we’re more likely to believe what we are predisposed to, regardless of evidence against it.

Enter vaccines. To better understand the anti-vaccination movement, a research team based at Dartmouth mailed four separate types of pro-vaccination literature to nearly 2,000 parents. One stated there has been no scientific evidence relating vaccines to autism; another highlighted the dangers of the diseases vaccines prevent; the third featured photos of children suffering from said diseases; the final was a story about an infant who almost died from measles.

The team spent three years only to discover it didn’t matter which leaflet each parent received. Those predisposed to believing vaccines are evil did not change their mind. The neural connection, the memory they bought into—vaccines are bad—was so wired that no amount of contradictory evidence sufficed. Opposing literature sometimes fueled resistance in what is known as the backfire effect: you say do this, I do that instead.

How we’ve wired dictates what we believe, altering our memories to sync with the narrative inside of our heads. The researchers from Memory found that imagery and emotion are especially important markers for false memories. Returning to Pizzagate, there was a physical image—Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria—and an emotion to attach: namely, distrust and hatred of Hillary Clinton.

This leads to the second aspect of implanting false memories. Remember, only those at least somewhat willing to accept the possibility of the fake event will eventually formulate a false memory. The next cognitive leap occurs when they “remember” it. The imagination takes hold. Stories grow elaborate as the participant embellishes details that never occurred about an experience that never happened.

Researchers discovered that sprinkling in actual names and places makes the participant more susceptible. Doctored photographs are useful tools. Still, imagination reigns supreme. When false imagery was present the false memory rate was 37.3 percent, compared to 19 percent when it was not.

That only gets the ball rolling. Once the memory is implanted recollection is no longer as important. As the authors state:

Belief in the occurrence of an event may be sufficient to influence behaviour, whether or not there is also an accompanying episodic recollection.

Of the over 400 reports studied, 30.4 percent of participants had false memories, while 53.3 percent accepted the fake event to some degree. When factoring in previously stated conditions—doctored photographs, idiosyncratic information, and imagination procedures—rates were even higher: 46.1 percent had a false memory; 69.7 percent displayed at least some acceptance. The researchers state:

One conclusion that can be made based on this study and on similar work is that it can be difficult to objectively determine when someone is recollecting the past, versus reporting other forms of knowledge or belief or describing mental representations that have originated in other sources of experience.

There is a lot of discussion about how to combat fake news and debate over how much influence invented stories have on our political and social landscapes. The ease of sharing news has merely exploited a longstanding neurological feature: memories are highly susceptible to alterations. As this electoral season has shown, those who understand how to manipulate facts are experiencing unprecedented power at the expense of our faulty memory machines. We might not remember, but they do.

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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