Casting Memory in Doubt

Do you ever doubt your own memory? New research at the Institute suggests that some of the things we think we remember could be wrong. It seems that our brains are surprisingly willing to exchange a true memory for a false one, just on the basis of friends' claims. The scientists not only demonstrated just how easy it is to create false memories, they showed that the switch in memory has a signature pattern of brain activity. The most significant feature? They found strong connectivity between areas of the brain known to be involved in memory and learning, and the amygdala, which, among other things, plays a role in social interaction.

This of course, raises a number of interesting issues and questions. One of the more significant could be this: If memory is so malleable, what is it really for? We may believe our memories to be a personal record of events, but might there be a social aspect to memory that is better served by a tendency to adjust our memories to those of the group?

The amygdala, more often associated with emotions, has been showing up in a number of studies dealing with various aspects of memory conducted by this group and others at the Institute. The implication, here, could be that the rational, information-processing parts of our brain don't really work independently of the emotional, social parts.

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Really interesting. At first glance, you'd assume that accurate-to-reality memories would provide a selective advantage, since past experiences serve as basis for evaluating future scenarios, and an accurate evaluation should provide advantages.

But a single individual's experiences are naturally limited, so an argument could probably be made that a mechanism that allows an individual to assimilate memories from a larger group would also be advantageous - if an individual's experience in an given scenario was somehow atypical, having the memory 'overwritten' with a more typical communal experience might actually lead to forming more accurate expectations, even if, strictly speaking, the memory is wrong.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 01 Jul 2011 #permalink

Quote from Jerome K. Jerome's 1899 book "Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow"

"That is just the way with Memory; nothing that she brings to us is complete. She is a willful child; all her toys are broken. I remember tumbling into a huge dust-hole when a very small boy, but I have not the faintest recollection of ever getting out again; and if memory were all we had to trust to, I should be compelled to believe I was there still".

Perhaps the malleability is just an indication of the limitatioins of this amazing biological ability.

Memories are really "stories" and oral history has probably been with us a lot longer than writing. When there's value to society in stories, there's probably also value in editing them.

By Bob O`Bob (not verified) on 01 Jul 2011 #permalink

We assume that our brains work better at comprehending reality than they actually do. It's another collective illusion - we constantly reassure ourselves that we are the pinnacle of evolution, when if we take even a cursory look at human history, we are very limited in our intelligence. We make the same mistakes over and over; we rely on one solution. War, violence, brutality, and tribalism, have only been augmented by technology, not resolved. We know that we are destroying the very environments we depend on, and yet we persist. This is not the sign of an intelligent species.

By bo rex moore (not verified) on 02 Jul 2011 #permalink

Is it possible that different types of memories are associated with different levels of malleability. It would seem that the location where a food source ripens at a given time of year would need to remain fairly correct if one is to survive in most habitats where food is not plentiful year around. However, in memories more social than geological/chronological, one might be best served to "go along to get along"...


Is it possible that different types of memories are associated with different levels of malleability.

This is a really interesting point. Has anyone done experiments on this question?