New Study Shows Your Memory is Far from Foolproof
by Scott Kennedy
Memory is becoming a much less concrete concept with new discoveries in manipulating it. In a study led by Julia Shaw—a renowned psychologist who has studied memory in great detail—various mental exercises and carefully scripted interviews were used to convince college students they had committed a crime that never actually occurred.
While it may seem possible to remember specific details of an untrue event, we now know that the human mind can be tricked into doing so. In a recent study, Shaw’s team of researchers managed to effectively synthesize a false memory for nearly three-fourths of the participants. It is important to note that the study does not explore a natural phenomenon in human memory, but rather attempts to test if it will treat an invalid memory the same as one that is true. The experiment followed a similar outline to past studies on false memory, in which researchers managed to get participants to recall meeting celebrities and even vicious animal attacks that never actually happened.
When the participants of Shaw’s study were selected, their caregivers were asked to give information to the researchers about a deeply emotional event in the student’s life, specifically between ages 11-14. The students were then interviewed three times by Shaw’s team, who began by recounting the details of the emotional event, then asking about the false memory, the crime that they never committed. Beginning this way showed each participant that the information must be valid, as their own caregivers had reported it. When none of the participants recalled the false criminal event during the first interview, they were each asked to practice visualizing the event’s details every night. This mental exercise would help prime the memory retrieval process, ultimately starting formation of the memory by asking the student to repeatedly imagine it.
During the second and third interviews, the researchers gave several cues and details to the participants, all made to seem like they came from their file of actual life events. By the third interview, 70% of the students recalled committing the crime they were led to believe in. In a second group of students, 77% of students were able to remember a highly emotional event—instead of a crime—which also never happened.
Shaw’s study certainly raises the question that if a false memory can be formed in a three week study, could it happen over time in everyday life? We now know that memory is malleable, and it may be possible that some of our memories are false. While it’s unlikely that your friends will use the same communication tactics and mental exercises to get you to remember an event the same way they do, it’s still possible that with enough repetition, a memory can altered falsely or newly formed altogether.
Original news article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201605/three-reasons-not-trust-your-memory
Scholarly news article: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1IScvrTbyeUMhpjpOPt5bzE2bY5J_NTzr2K8hsm1n2f8/edit
Successfully encapsulating the significance of a great study into a simple news article is most certainly a challenging task for any writer. In all of the three assignments, I began to see several strengths and weaknesses in the original news article and even the study it was based on. Though Shaw’s work was inspiring, thorough, and revolutionary, there were several questions I still had about the variables in the experiment. While completing the scholarly article critique, I found it difficult to only address the clearer points in the study that could be improved. Reading research provokes many different questions from the reader, and when your job is the regurgitate a highly detailed study and discuss those details, you have to careful and deliberate in which questions you include into consideration.
While completing the media production project, it was an even bigger challenge, as the time I spent critiquing the original news article also seemed necessary for my own work. I chose to completely avoid the main idea of the news article, which felt like a bold move, though necessary. The original new article based its overall message on the journalist’s interpretation, misrepresenting the findings of the actual study. In my own article, I chose to simply summarize the study in a concise way–not as concisely as the original article did, however–and discuss the significance of the findings. Rather than twisting the information into unlikely everyday-life applications, I made sure to emphasize that Shaw’s study does not give a reason to stop trusting your memory, but does show an interesting vulnerability in memory.