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Did That Really Happen? How Our Memories Betray Us

Colourful abstract graphic illustration of brain
SEAN GLADWELL
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Getty Images

Large numbers of people hold beliefs about memory that conflict with modern science. Perhaps the most pervasive false belief, held by about 60 percent of Americans, is that memory works like a video camera. In other words, the things we experience in our lives are recorded, stored and preserved in our brains as faithful reproductions, and retrieving our recollections is simply a matter of reviewing the video tape.

But over the last 150 years or so, researchers have found that this analogy is wrong in startling ways. Memory is not like a video camera; a better way to think of it is as an act of reconstruction, or what you might call "mental paleontology." This is the analogy that psychologist Ayanna Thomas likes to use.

"A paleontologist uncovers a fossil, just as we have to uncover a memory....but that paleontologist doesn't have all of the pieces," she says. "And what that individual has to do is fill in the gaps with best guesses and prior experience."

A manipulated photo of a boy and his dad in a hot air balloon. They were never there<em> — </em>but when the boy tried to "remember" the photo years later, he came to think he was.
/ Kimberley A. Wade
/
Kimberley A. Wade
A manipulated photo of a boy and his dad in a hot air balloon. They were never therebut when the boy tried to "remember" the photo years later, he came to think he was.

What Thomas and other researchers have found, over and over again, is that our recollections are fallible. And the implications of this extend far beyond how we recall our childhoods or where we left our keys. They extend into serious settings, like the criminal justice system, where we constantly ask people to make recollections or remember things under oath.

This week on Hidden Brain, how we remember, why we forget — and the simple lessons we all can learn to make our memories sharp and vivid.

More resources:

The Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab at Tufts University

"Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory," by Elizabeth F. Loftus and John C. Palmer, 1974

"A picture is worth a thousand lies: Using false photographs to create false childhood memories," by Kimberley A. Wade, Maryanne Garry, J. Don Read and D. Stephen Lindsay, 2002

"Creating bizarre false memories through imagination," by Ayanna K. Thomas and Elizabeth F. Loftus, 2002

"Replication and Analysis of Ebbinghaus' Forgetting Curve," by Jaap M. J. Murre and Joeri Dros, 2015

"Retrieval practice protects memory against acute stress," by Amy M. Smith, Victoria A. Floerke and Ayanna K. Thomas, 2016

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Laura Kwerel
Parth Shah is an associate producer at Hidden Brain. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.