How Quickly We Forget: False Memories Form Fast
In just 2 seconds, our brains subconsciously replace factual observations with illusions of how we want or expect the world to be
Your fondest memories are liable to be works of notable fiction, perhaps based on a true story, but often glaringly embellished and stunningly inaccurate.
The stories we tell ourselves—including what might’ve begun as raw, factual recollections of, say, a car crash we saw moments ago or a new colleague we met last month—can be flawed from the outset, as our initial perceptions are skewed by what we already know and our expectations of what reality should look like. So begins a series of mental foibles that create totally erroneous memories that we nonetheless hold fast to.
New research reveals how quickly our brains can twist an observation into a falsehood.
Within two seconds, an obvious visual fact can be literally reversed to become its opposite in memory — especially if the observation doesn’t fit our expectations, a set of new experiments has revealed.
Participants were given a challenging task: remember sets of unrelated letters, in specific locations, with some of the letters being reversed (appearing backward). Within a second, they’d typically get it right. But within two seconds, their recollections often degraded into false memories, even if they’d had it right in that first second.
“Within a second or two, people can create illusory memories,” said the study’s lead author, Martre Otten, PhD, who researches cognition and psychology at the University of Amsterdam. “They report with certainty that they saw something which they actually did not see.”
It’s worse with the strange and unusual
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect to the experiments: When letters were presented normally, facing forward, the participants were pretty good at recalling them correctly. But when letters were presented backward, the participants were more likely to misremember and say they saw the normal version — suggesting that memories of unusual or weird things are more likely to be remodeled in the mind to reflect what we expected to see.