Why Are We Able To Remember Something That Didn’t Happen?

Photo: Elia Pellegrini/Unsplash


  • Researchers have tried to understand the circumstances under which we alter our memories – and whether we are capable of ‘remembering’ things that never happened at all.
  • In the 1990s, Elizabeth Loftus led some of a study’s participants to believe a fabricated event from their childhood that never happened, with the help of the participants’ parents and suggestive interviews.
  • Recently, two researchers used a survey to try and convince some of The Wire‘s readers that a few events in Indian entertainment and politics happened while they didn’t.
  • “People who felt positively about a person were slightly more likely to indicate that they remembered a positive event associated with the person,” one of them said.

In the acclaimed 2013 Malayalam film Drishyam, the protagonist – a middle-aged family man guarding a terrible secret – plants memories in the minds of several people in his village, in each case changing little but significant details about the date and time of their meeting with repeated, suggestive conversations.

He intends to gaslight the whole community into misremembering certain facts that will dilute any certainty about his actions, without drawing suspicion towards himself, and allow his family to get away with a crime.

Such cases of false memory, in which people remember events differently from the way they had occurred or recollect events that did not actually occur, have intrigued many scientists. Several memory researchers have studied the underlying processes to understand the circumstances under which we alter our memories – and in a more dystopian sense, whether we are capable of ‘remembering’ things that never happened in the first place.

Something more dynamic

Illustration: Sebastian Svenson/Unsplash

In a classic study in the 1990s, Elizabeth Loftus led 25% of its participants to believe a fabricated event: that as a young child, each participant got lost in a shopping mall, and were frightened and alone for some time, before they were reunited with their parents. Loftus and her colleagues achieved this terrifying yet fascinating effect with the help of the participants’ parents and multiple suggestive interviews.

“At the time, it was a pretty dramatic discovery that memory was so malleable – that not only could details of one’s memory be changed, but completely false events could be implanted into the minds of research participants,” Steven Frenda, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and a former student of Loftus, told The Wire Science.

According to him, remembering is a more dynamic process than we like to believe, draws on many sources of information and is reconstructive. That is, it brings together a bunch of facts and reconstructs events instead of recalling all the events as is.

False memories can have effects ranging from the benign to the terrible. You might think you washed your clothes the previous evening when you really didn’t. Or you might be convinced that a particular political leader apologised for a communalising remark when he really didn’t. Depending on what they are about, false memories can affect how we consume news and think about public events, and ultimately our voting preferences themselves.

This is why it is crucial that we understand how, when and where false memories take shape, the social and neurochemical circumstances in which they persist, and what we can do to protect ourselves against such thoughts – but without abdicating all the rules by which we make sense of the world.

A brilliant skill

Illustration: Milad Fakurian/Unsplash

Recently, as part of their fifth exhibition, ‘PSYCHE’, Science Gallery Bengaluru hosted a collaborative study that explored some of these questions in the Indian context. Frenda and Al Hopwood, an award-winning artist from the UK, ran an online experiment to study false memories associated with politics and entertainment news in India.

Hopwood’s fascination with false memories began during a residency in psychology at the University of London, London. He worked there with a professor of psychology named Christopher French, who connected Hopwood with Loftus. Their work together culminated in Hopwood’s ‘The False Memory Archive’.

It was “an exhibition of new collaborative artworks and a unique collection of vivid personal accounts of things that never really happened”.

Earlier this year, Science Gallery Bengaluru contacted Hopwood to check if he would like to present some of his work from The False Memory Archive at PSYCHE. “We wanted to find an interesting way to refresh this work – perhaps even extend it to the Indian context – to include in our fifth exhibition season PSYCHE,” Jahnavi Phalkey, a historian of science and the director of Science Gallery Bengaluru, told The Wire Science.

In a slightly rash and impish moment, as he put it, Hopwood decided to include the following idea in his email:

“Other thoughts at this stage include working with a psychologist to create doctored photos that we publish on the website, and then ask the public to submit what they remember about the fake event. They wouldn’t know it was fake at the start. It would replicate this brilliant study by Steven Frenda, a psychologist, called ‘False memories of fabricated political events’, but for the Indian public. It could be fantastic. It would be an artwork and a scientific study.”

The proposal appealed to Phalkey and her team. It fit well with the goal of PSYCHE – “to broach the fact that we understand our mind with our mind” – and also formed a part of their attempt to create a living exhibition, an idea that Science Gallery Bengaluru has been experimenting with, “where the programming is dynamic and responsive to current concerns.”

This was an “experiment in science and culture”, Phalkey said, that the researchers could run from a distance, involving an Indian audience in the research directly. The experiment could also demonstrate the need to “reconsider not only our own memories, but also those that are presented to us in the public domain as reminders of things past,” in a “subtle yet effective” manner.

After some deliberation, and consultations with the people at the Science Gallery Bengaluru, Hopwood and Frenda decided to zero in on the link between the entertainment industry and Indian politics.

“It’s intriguing how acting appears to be a brilliant skill for politicians to learn from,” Hopwood said. “It can lead to extraordinary empathy and compassion for others.”

In his telling, the ability to imagine oneself in “someone else’s shoes” was not a skill to be underestimated – but that the “experience of acting” could also impart the individual with what it takes to lie and to be believed as completely as possible.

“Although we were not suggesting that the individuals involved in our study are guilty of such an approach, we thought it was perhaps useful to consider what impact our love of fiction and celebrity can have on what we are willing to believe,” Hopwood said.

The survey

Illustration: Milad Fakurian/Unsplash

While he came up with the initial versions of the event, iterating to ensure that the fabricated events were ‘balanced’ enough to make them believable, Frenda designed the study to match the requirements for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. The Wire carried short advertisements on its homepage asking for people to take the survey, but without giving away anything of the survey’s actual purpose.

(People who took the survey were informed at the end by email about the true nature of what they had just participated in. The email also sought their consent to include their responses in the study, minus any identifying information.)

The duo used photographs of their key protagonists – the celebrities about whom people were answering questions – along with a short description of a news event in question. They adopted this tactic because it could be implemented quickly – but also because previous studies had found that it was a well-established way to elicit significant results in false memory studies.

It also seemed, in Hopwood’s words, “more relevant to the way we receive information every day on news feeds – as the technique is often used while reporting news events, when editors use Creative Commons images online to have a story ready to go in minutes.” (‘Creative Commons images’ refers to images on the internet available to reuse for free as long as the publisher meets some simple conditions.)

The survey consisted of ten news stories, and asked participants to write what they remembered about each of these events. The experiment also required the respondents to indicate their fondness for various political parties and people, including politicians and actors from India, the US and the UK. Finally, the participants were also asked how much sleep they had had the night before.

For each news event, the researchers asked the participants whether they were familiar with the event and remembered specifically when they first learned about it. Respondents were free to elaborate these circumstances as well as their emotions on the occasion.

How do you feel about whom?

Illustration: Milad Fakurian/Unsplash

Two of the 10 stories in the survey didn’t really happen. Hopwood and Frenda had created them to be a mix of some real events and three false ones.

The false ones were:

  1. In 2013, during a nationally televised interview, Michelle Obama described J. Jayalalithaa to be an inspiring woman and leader who had dramatically improved the life chances of young women by investing in learning skills in Tamil Nadu.
  2. In 2014, a letter that Bill Gates had written to N.T. Rama Rao in 1985 was published for the first time. It was one of many sent to prominent leaders around the world, explaining the concept of the then-new Windows operating system. In the letter, Gates also praised N.T.R.’s films and expressed interest in visiting India one day.
  3. In a 2015 interview with Vogue India, the popular US actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio said he was interested in how Bollywood actors were so involved in Indian politics. He named Amitabh Bachchan as a particular source of inspiration and also hinted that he, DiCaprio, could possibly run for US President in future.

The Wire hosted the survey on its website and allowed the researchers to collect the responses between April 1 and May 8, 2022. There were more than 800 legitimate entries. The participants were predominantly male and were 40 years old on average.

About a quarter of the respondents said they recalled reading at least one of the false news events. Nearly 6% indicated some memory of the N.T.R. and Bill Gates event; 13% claimed to remember reading about the DiCaprio interview; and more than 25% indicated some memory of the Jayalalithaa and Michelle Obama event.

“Interestingly, people who felt positively about a person were slightly more likely to indicate that they remembered the positive event associated with the person,” Frenda said. The association held up in all three instances, to varying degrees, and was most pronounced with the Obama/Jayalalithaa event especially among participants who indicated that they harboured a favourable view of Jayalalithaa.

The researchers also found that those with fewer hours of sleep were more likely to remember false events than those who had had a good night’s sleep before taking the survey.

“It is interesting to see that the phenomenon” of false memory associated with political news events “may be quite universal,” Frenda said. “The feeling that what we are remembering is true is not always reliable. These findings suggest that we may be susceptible to suggestions that confirm our preferences.”

Fill in the blanks

Illustration: Milad Fakurian/Unsplash

Scientists have theorised how our minds form false memories, although the complete mechanism remains unclear. The mind can encode inaccurate information and overlook some details of the event. While remembering, the mind may fill in the gaps by forming memories of things that actually did not occur.

Recounting old memories gets more complicated because our mind can use new information to fill in the gaps. We are also more likely to form false memories when recalling emotionally charged events.

Even trained journalists are not immune. A classic example is the story of Brian Williams, the host of NBC’s Nightly News, who was suspended in 2015 after he admitted to exaggerating a story about flying in a helicopter that came under fire in Iraq. In reality, Williams was in the helicopter that followed the one that came under fire. In his apology, Williams said, “the fog of memory over 12 years … made me conflate the two, and I apologise”.

The effect of misinformation in forming false memories can be just as grave. When exposed to misinformation, our mind mixes accurate information with inaccurate ones to distort our memories of events.

Imagine you get a WhatsApp forward about how an international forum admitted a political leader with great acclaim. You realise it is fake when you read a fact-check later that day. But suppose you were to receive the same fake news report (or a similar one) a few months later. You may then believe that the leader was indeed received with great acclaim. This could be because your mind confused the fake news report with the fact-checked one.

We are also more likely to believe in fake news that is novel, because novelty is related to motivation, and the region of the brain that responds to novel stimuli is linked closely to the regions that help in memory and learning.

Protecting people’s memories

Illustration: Milad Fakurian/Unsplash

The goal of PSYCHE was to explore the human mind by bringing together neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists, social scientists, artists, filmmakers and writers. The study is the product of such a collaboration, and its findings – yet to be written up in a paper – indicate a novel aspect of false memory research: that the consequences of our positive associations with political events remain relatively unexplored.

In their previous such study, hosted in 2010 by the American magazine Slate, Frenda and his colleagues investigated how people who dislike Person X may be more susceptible to believing X’s negative portrayal in fake news events. The results of the current exercise, on the other hand, indicate that people who like and admire someone tend to believe in news events – true or false – that contain positive stories about that someone.

“It feels really important to understand that suggestion and misinformation can affect your memory to the extent where you could have a clear record of something that didn’t happen to you – either in your past or out in the world of politics,” Hopwood said.

This awareness could be “transformative”, leading us to reflect on our “own ways of thinking”. But in illustrating the potential danger of fake news, Hopwood also hoped that the exercise wouldn’t push us into a state of apathy, where we stop believing anything we read or see.

What, then, to believe?

Researchers have found that identifying the sources of events and revisiting memories of these events while bearing in mind that repeatedly recalling something could elicit false memories can help people – including journalists – stay mindful of what is real.

For readers, Julian Mathews, a research officer at Monash University, Melbourne, advised in April 2019: “strive to be more reflective in our open-mindedness by paying attention to the source of information, and questioning our own knowledge if and when we are unable to remember the context of our memories.”

Hopwood & co. continue to analyse the data for more insights, and they hope to understand the possible consequences of what they have already found.

Ivan Mangiulli, an assistant professor of general psychology at University of Bari Aldo Moro, Bari, considered this study to be a fine additional example for how people can form false memories vis-à-vis public events.

“It is interesting that this relates with people’s preferences for public figures, as indeed research has pointed out that people are more likely to report false memories for fake news if these are congruent with their beliefs and attitudes,” he told The Wire Science.

“It would be interesting,” Frenda added, “to see if this could influence voting intentions and cause people to change their voting behaviour on the basis of false information.” He also expressed hope that he and his peers could come up with interventions to prevent fake news from altering people’s memories in future.

Phalkey also expressed her delight about the number of participants who took the survey. She hoped that it would increase in time. “At the end of the day,” she said, “that is our goal: to bring science back into where it firmly belongs – in culture.”

Joel P. Joseph is a science writer.

Scroll To Top