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What are false memories and how important is it to know whether my memories are real or not?

  • A Spiraling Philosophy Student

Téa Barrett

Staff Writer


Photo by: megamorworks/ iStock/Getty Images


Memories are curious things.

They present themselves as thoughts, feelings, or images that can be brought forth by some unknown will of the subconscious, or perhaps enticed from the back store of your mind by one of the senses. They can appear quite meaningless, like in the vague familiarity of déja-vu, or they can hoard our attention, such as when our minds replay the most embarrassing things to ever happen to us while we are desperately trying to sleep.

False memories are a psychological phenomenon that can occur through misinformation, or misattribution to the source of the memory. Sometimes, I’ll have such a vivid and realistic dream that it sticks in my mind until so much time has passed that the memory of that dream evolves into a memory of a false reality I’ve created (real freaky stuff, if you think about your memories and what forms of solid truth you can attach to them). False memories can also be created by the influence of existing knowledge or other memories, in effect muddling the accuracy of any new ones you create. Otherwise, psychological disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder can heavily affect, not only the accuracy of an individual’s memories, but even the foundational trust in one’s awareness and capability to trust anything they remember.

One of the scariest situations involving false memories I’d heard of were the Reykjavik confessions, two missing person’s cases from Iceland that resulted in 6 different false confessions. The police had a bad habit of throwing their suspects into solitary confinement, one of them being a 20-year-old woman called Erla Bolladottir, who had an 11-week-old baby at home. They convinced Erla that she witnessed her boyfriend commit a murder and that her mind forced her to bury the memory of it. They even went as far as to write her confession for her because her attempts to ‘remember’ it were too contradictory. She spent a total of 241 days in solitary confinement, and she wasn’t even the one who was put there the longest (her boyfriend, Saevar Ciesielski, spent 741 in solitary confinement).

While intense trauma is known to disorient a person’s memories, it might be even eerier to learn about mass delusions, because it’s such a universal phenomenon.

I’m sure almost every one can agree with me that Darth Vader says, “Luke, I am your father”; Curious George has a tail; the Monopoly Man wears a monocle; and obviously it’s spelt ‘Febreeze’. Nope. None of that is true.

Sorry for poppin’ your bubble, but all of those ‘memories’ you have are from something called the Mandela Effect. It’s a phenomenon in which an individual or, more commonly, large groups of people, have a false or distorted collective memory. Some may say it’s proof of alternate realities, but it can probably be attributed to the frailty of the human mind.

The concept of false memories was pioneered by Pierre Janet and, more famously, Sigmund Freud. As someone with lots of… interesting theories (Try Googling ‘Oedipus Complex’ or ‘Penis Envy’), I was intrigued to know what Freud thought of memory.

The opening line of Chapter 7 in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life reads: “If anyone should feel inclined to overestimate the state of our present knowledge of mental life, a reminder of the function of memory is all that would be needed to force him to be more modest” (Freud, 1901). In other words, Freud believed that memories serve as a limiting ‘screening’ from the self, protecting our consciousness from experiencing a type of destabilizing or uncanny knowledge about goals, desires, or purposes. He first encountered this insight with hysterical patients, where he claimed symptoms of hysteria were the representations of deeply repressed memories that were too overwhelming to be brought into consciousness.

So, it seems that memories are quite limited by human awareness. Yet, without our memories, we would have no way of constructing individualistic versions of the self, the infinite mass of things that make us uniquely us, because we wouldn’t have any knowledge or remembrance about our past self, thus eliminating the possibility for a self to exist. Despite this instability of knowing who we are and what makes us who we are, or whether our memories are real or something our minds falsified, I think the most important part of feeling grounded in your awareness of being is to enjoy living in the moment.

To be in a constant state of liminality between past and future is to fully absorb every experience of the present as it occurs. For instance, when someone is speaking to you, what do you notice aside from the words they speak? If you’re eating something for the first time, do you immediately try to compare the taste to something of a past experience, or let it become a new one? Do you strive to know exactly what kind of person you are, or do you just let yourself be?


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