Can You Trust Your Memories?


Juliette Fang, Staff Writer

Since we were barely able to talk, our brains have been storing information in the form of memories. Sometimes they are forgotten over time, other times they are vivid and detailed, and oftentimes they are in between. But even though we’re constantly relying on memories for information, can you really trust these mental imprints? Research has shown that you actually can’t and that, sometimes, your brain actually makes up entirely false memories. 

“There’s the obvious, it could be wrong, and there could be gaps in your memory—which can sometimes lead to devastating consequences,” said freshman Hazel Wong when asked about the dangers of relying on memory. 

There are a couple of reasons why memories are unreliable. First off, our perception of events is usually recorded incompletely. Recalling memories is less like a pristine video recording and more like piecing together bits and pieces, then filling in the rest. Secondly, memories can become distorted and altered, whether on your own or because of outside influences. It’s a bit less like a dictionary, with firm, unchanging definitions, and a bit more like a Wikipedia page, constantly updated with information that isn’t always entirely accurate. 

“Our brains do not function like a video recorder, instead we build our memories from many different inputs or senses,” said Arcadia High School (AHS) psychology teacher Mr. David Jones. “It’s like assembling a puzzle and when a piece is missing, we automatically fill it with something that is made up, but logical. A lot has to do with perspective as well. For example, if something happens in the front of a class, the student in the back, middle, and front rows will have seen the same event but from different perspectives and interpretations.”

Even the clearest, most lifelike memories were not first perceived that way. For instance, try to recall what you had for breakfast two days ago. Chances are, you don’t remember exactly, which goes to show that our brains do not memorize every single detail. In fact, even our eyes are flawed. As images pass through the lens, retina, optic nerve, fovea, and the various blood vessels and neurons of our eyes, they get transformed into a blurry picture lined with veins and a blind spot. 

“In addition, there are some things that we don’t (or rather, can’t) pay attention to at the same time, which can lead to false memories,” stated Wong.

But if our memories are recorded so badly, why can we still remember them in perfect clarity years later? The answer lies in the fact that our brains fill in the blank spaces with made-up details. This is the same process as the great dress color debate of 2015, or the Yanny vs. Laurel audio. When our senses are confused, the brain picks an option, no matter if it’s right or not. So when memories are presented as fill-in-the-blanks, we simply fill them in with whatever works best. 

“Your memories are pieces and batches of information that your brain cobbles together and serves up to you, not to present the past as accurately as possible, but to provide you with information that you will likely find to be useful in the present,” states Guy P. Harrison in his book Think: Why You Should Question Everything. 

Time and misinformation also play a crucial role in false memories. For example, in a 1992 study, researchers asked people what they were doing when they found out about the Challenger space shuttle explosion. Two and a half years later, they asked the same question to the same participant. The logical expectation is that their answers would be the same, but as it turns out, only 7% of participants responded with the same or similar answers to the ones from before. 

Memory can also be influenced by outside factors. In 1995, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted an experiment in which 75% of participants recounted in near-perfect detail an experience where they got lost in a mall as toddlers. The plot twist is that none of them actually experienced this and were only told by the researchers that it had happened to them. In this way, Loftus successfully implanted memories in what she coined the “misinformation effect”, where inaccurate information leads to flawed recollections. 

“Just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of details, just because they express emotion when they say it, doesn’t mean that it really happened,” explained Loftus in her 2013 TED Talk. “We can’t reliably distinguish real memories from false memories, we need independent corroboration.” 

“By far, one of the most real-world consequences would be eyewitness testimony during criminal trials,” said Jones. “A lawyer can change a few words around and manipulate a person’s recollection of an event during testimony and essentially change the course of a trial.”

The fact that entirely made-up memories can be so easily implanted is a scary thought. This wrong information could convict the wrong person of a crime, create false accusations, or influence opinions in dangerous ways. It’s important that memory is treated as a flexible and fallible construct rather than an ironclad fact. The next time you call to mind a memory, just remember that it may not be as lifelike as it seems. 


Photo by Ben Sweet