Tricks of the mind

Psychologists are starting to figure out why we get false memories, and it turns out that they might even be useful…

25th June 2018
Tricks of the mind © Getty Images

Rob Nash had been excited to meet the former British newsreader Trevor McDonald at his sister’s graduation ceremony.

“He was getting some kind of honorary degree,” Nash recalls. “I was sat right at the back, so all I could see was that he was wearing this awful, garishly multicoloured graduation robe. His speech seemed to go on and on, but afterwards 
I got the chance to meet him in person.”

But Nash – a psychologist at Aston University – discovered a few years later that McDonald hadn’t been at that event at all. In fact, Nash realised that even he wasn’t at his sister’s graduation. He’d invented the whole thing.

False memories like this are common. Of course, we all misremember things, but false memories can be rich in detail; not so much mistakes as elaborate fantasies. I recall a book of piano pieces that I used to play in my youth – a compilation of tunes with the wistful romanticism of Chopin and Fauré. I can still almost remember how some of them went and I’d love to find that book again. But I know I won’t, because I’ve had to gradually accept the truth: I made it up.

In a recent interview in The Times, novelist Ian McEwan described a similar false memory, of an “incredibly beautiful” novella that he was convinced he’d written and then stowed somewhere in a drawer after he’d moved house. He looked all over the place for the work. “I saw it in my mind’s eye, the folder, the pages, the drawer it was in,” McEwan tells me. But there was no escaping the truth. “There was no gap in which this work could have been written – my time was fully accounted for. It was a kind of haunting.”

Nash might have expected to be better at spotting his false memory, though – he specialises in studying them. But even his expertise and experience wasn’t enough to make him immune.

So why do we get false memories in the first place? Over the past decade or so, psychologists like Nash have started to suspect that, far from being a kind of useless mental spasm, false memories might actually have some benefits. It seems that they’re able to improve our mental processing: they can help us to think and may be a surprisingly handy part of our cognitive toolbox.

Remember, remember?

Remembering, says Nash, isn’t a matter of looking up a fact in a mental filing cabinet. “It’s more like telling stories,” he says – we forget and invent details. It’s hard to know when these don’t map onto reality because, as far as we can tell, “memories are our reality.” Despite decades of research, we still can’t distinguish true memories from false ones unless we can independently verify or falsify the remembered facts, which is either impossible or hardly worth the effort (why should I care if I had porridge last Wednesday – or was it Thursday?).

What’s more, says psychologist Prof Mark Howe of City, University of London…

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