No matter how good your recall is, you still have false memories

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There is a condition known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, in which people can remember every detail of what they did years ago. In a sense, these people have the best memories on Earth. And yet they still suffer from false memory syndrome, just like the rest of us.

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We've all heard about cases where people have so-called implanted memories, where the power of suggestion causes them to recall doing things they never did. Famously, children have been led into convicting adults of molestation, simply because a well-meaning psychologist asked them leading questions that confused the kids' sense of what they remembered. But this happens to adults all the time, especially when they are trying to recall an event that they've heard conflicting stories about.


Often, we believe that these problems are the result of our flawed memories. If we only could remember our friends' phone numbers, surely we'd also be able to remember exactly where we were standing when the Twin Towers were hit in 2001. But it turns out that this isn't true. Even people with almost perfect memories can succumb to false memory syndrome.

Over at The Atlantic, Erika Hayasaki describes a recent experiment where people with superior memories were tricked into "remembering" things that hadn't happened to them:

Twenty people with such memory were shown slideshows featuring a man stealing a wallet from a woman while pretending to help her, and then a man breaking into a car with a credit card and stealing $1 bills and necklaces. Later, they read two narratives about those slideshows containing misinformation. When later asked about the events, the superior memory subjects indicated the erroneous facts as truth at about the same rate as people with normal memory.

In another test, subjects were told there was news footage of the plane crash of United 93 in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, even though no actual footage exists. When asked whether they remembered having seen the footage before, 20 percent of subjects with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory indicated they had, compared to 29 percent of people with regular memory.

"Even though this study is about people with superior memory, this study should really make people stop and think about their own memory," [neuroscientist Lawrence] Patihis said. "Gone are the days when people thought that [only] maybe 20, 30 or 40 percent of people are vulnerable to memory distortions."

[Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth] Loftus, who has been able to successfully convince ordinary people that they were lost in a mall in their childhood, pointed out that false memory recollections also occur among high profile people. Hillary Clinton once famously claimed that she had come under sniper fire during a trip to Bosnia in 1996. "So I made a mistake," Clinton said later about the false memory. "That happens. It proves I'm human, which, you know, for some people, is a revelation."

Read the rest of this fascinating article about memory over at The Atlantic.