False Memories: The Distorted Memory

My uncle often tells me the stories of the time he baked a cake for my mother for her birthday years ago. Today, she still claims she ate it; however, my uncle begs to differ. He says she threw it away. Well…who is right? The human memory is not errorless. False memories of events are the result. Continue reading to learn what false memories are and how they originate.

false memory
Photo by Lisa from Pexels

What are False Memories?

False memories are incidents in which people have a distorted or false belief of how an event actually transpired. Very rarely are false memories intentional lies. The memory is fully or partially imaginary. False memories are completely normal. Nearly everyone has a false memory on occasion. A prime example is receiving detention for running in the halls, and years later, the teacher believes the punishment was due to chewing gum in class. False memories may also include inaccurately recalling small details such as giving the wrong physical description of someone witnessed at the scene of a crime. Memory is not like a video camera. There are bound to be lapses in memory, and people attempt to fill in the gaps.

What Causes False Memories?

Memory consist of three main processes. The first is encoding. As we gather information from our senses, the brain changes its form for memory storage. To “remember,” we retrieve the memory through retrieval. False memories are the outcome when any of the memory processes go awry and can be influenced by a variety of factors.


Inferences is not solely a skill applied while reading or watching television. Inferencing takes place in everyday life situations. Memories are skewed when someone uses previously existing knowledge to interpret an event. Whatever information they attribute to the event is incorrectly recalled later.

Inaccurate Perception

Inaccurate perception is a problem during the encoding process of memory. The false memory is created because the information was not encoded correctly while the event was occurring. For instance, consider recollecting details of a crime scene. A witness in distress cannot accurately describe the perpetrator because they were in a dark alleyway and the conditions were not optimal to visually see.


Similar conditions contribute to the development of false memories. As discussed below, we are prone to “remembering” information that is similar. For example, when asked to remember a list of sports words (i.e., soccer, goal, baseball, ball, glove), people may potentially insist “basketball” is on the list because it is similar to the other words.


Interference is an interruption of the retrieval process. Memories are stored and retrieved long after the event. If interference is occurring, events proceeding the original event interfere with its memory. In simpler terms, new memories block the older memories. The less time that has passed since the event, the easier it is to retrieve accurate details from memory.

How To Identify a False Memory

Medical professionals have discovered some ways of discerning false memories. Published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, researchers had given volunteers a list of words in which they were asked to identify while being scanned by an MRI. Words related to the original list stimulated two different areas of thetemporoparietal regions of the brain (Abe, et al., 2008).

We do not always have accessible MRI technology. Thus, it is difficult to discern for certain which memories are true versus those that are false. However, false memories do have characteristics that stand out from basic memories.

Tips for identifying false memories include:

  • Look for photo documentation—Photographs provide proof that a recalled event occurred.
  • Understand trauma—Those who have experienced childhood trauma are more likely to develop false memories.
  • Sensory details—Recollecting exact sensory details like a smell or sounds from an event increases the chance it is real.
  • Witnesses—Speak with others who have witnessed the event in question. They can help confirm or deny whether a memory is accurate.

False Memory Syndrome

False memory syndrome exceeds the typical, yet infrequent false memory of an event. In false memory syndrome, an individual’s relationships and identity are strongly impacted by false memories. These aspects of one’s life are based upon a memory that is believed to be true, but isn’t. This disorder develops after a significant childhood trauma, specifically sexual abuse. False memory syndrome is easily mistaken for psychotic disorder and malingering because the diagnosis is rare.

Hypnosis and False Memories

Hypnosis is a state of increased concentration. The process is controlled by a trained therapist implementing techniques of verbal repetition and visual imagery. During hypnosis, false memories can arise. In a 2005 study, patients under hypnosis were led to believe they were abducted by aliens, and event that never happened (Clancy). While in the trance-like state, they were encouraged to conjure details of the abduction with certainty.


Abe, N., Okuda, J., Suzuki, M., Sasaki, H., Matsuda, T., Mori, E., Tsukada, M., & Fujii, T. (2008). Neural correlates of true memory, false memory, and deception. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991)18(12), 2811–2819. https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhn037

Clancy, S. A. (2005). Abducted: How people come to believe they were kidnapped by aliens. Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.4159/9780674029576

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