Can memory be taken at face value as an accurate record of past events?

Memory is core to the human experience; it allows us to connect and integrate the seemingly random complex web of experiences gained throughout a lifetime into a coherent self-narrative that forms our sense of identity (Camina and Güell, 2017). The fallibility of memory has been explored by many people since Ebbinghaus’ first foray into forgetting (Schacter, 1999), and has progressed most notably to the creation and implantation of false memories. The topic of false memories, memories of one’s “past” which are incongruent with reality, is of particular importance due to the weight and trust placed in eye-witness testimony during sentencing in a court of law (Howe and Knott, 2015; Johnson and Raye, 1998; Lindsay and Johnson, 1989). Therefore, this essay aims to explore the fallibility of memory, first by illustrating the vulnerability of the memory recall system to falsify memories through suggestion of misinformation, then the creation mechanism of said false memories, and finally how false memories can lead to wrongful conviction – to which this essay will ultimately conclude that memory cannot be taken at face value as an accurate record of past events.

The vulnerability of the memory recall system is best illustrated through suggestibility, which is the brain’s tendency to take on external inferences to modify internal memories and create false memories (Schacter, 1999). This was used to notable effect by Loftus, Miller and Burns in their seminal 1978 paper Semantic Integration of Verbal Information into a Visual Memory, in which 195 participants were shown a series of 30 coloured images depicting a single auto-pedestrian accident involving an identical red car at either a stop or yield sign. Immediately after viewing, participants were given a questionnaire which contained a question either consistent with the images or misleading and contrary to the images. After a 20 minute filler activity, participants undertook forced-choice recognition test to identify the previously shown slides from 15 pairs of new and old slides, with the critical slide being the red car at either the stop or yield sign. Their results showed that when a consistent question was asked (stop sign picture with a stop sign question), participants identified the correct slide 75% of the time, but only 41% of participants could identify the previously shown slide when asked a misleading question (stop sign picture with a yield sign question) (Loftus, Miller and Burns, 1978). Thus, even after accounting for random 50/50 guessing, participants who were given misinformation during questioning performed at a significant detriment compared to their consistent question counterparts. Although the exact mechanism for how questioning affects memory is under debate, further studies involving leading questions and similarly doctored images have produced similarly falsified memories (Wade, Garry, Don Read and Lindsay, 2002). These two studies succinctly show that the memory recall process is vulnerable to manipulation via exposure to misinformation either in the form of questioning or images, and hence memory cannot be taken at face value as an accurate record of the past.

The exact cellular mechanism by which false memories are created has yet to be fully elucidated, but it is understood that when memories are recalled they are not holistically replayed, but rather reconstructed in the hippocampus from a group of diverse constituent fragments into a complete memory that can then be re-experienced (Horner et al., 2015; Rolls, 2013). It is during this reconstruction stage that the mind is vulnerable to falsifying memories (Schacter, 1999). Loftus, Miller, and Burns originally postulated that misinformation caused the original memory to be overwritten by the incorrect suggestion, although more recent studies have attributed the cause to the mis-attribution of the source of information, whereby the mind believes the suggested misinformation to be from the original sensory information, and hence perceived as true (Schacter, Harbluk and McLachlan, 1984; Zaragoza and Lane, 1994). Additionally, fuzzy trace theory has also been suggested as a possible mechanism for false memory creation, which categorises memories as either literal, verbatim traces, or as liberal, imprecise gist traces (Reyna and Brainerd, 1995), As gist trace memory is posited to required less cognitive power to use, it is the preferred method of memory storage. However, this comes at the expense of generalisation and hence increases error rate and susceptibility to incorporating misinformation as truthful memories (Reyna, Corbin, Weldon and Brainerd, 2016), most notably illustrated as the misidentification of a theme word when recalling a list of closely related words (Pardilla-Delgado and Payne, 2017). Through either of these two models of misinformation integration and false memory generation, the memory recall process is shown to be vulnerable to manipulation, and hence memory cannot be taken at face value as an accurate record of the past.

The implications of false memories reach far beyond clinical settings, as eye-witness testimonies are a major component during with court sessions. In regard to source mis-attribution, improper questioning with misinformation cues during police interrogation may produce coerced and falsified confessions to crimes people did not commit, with subjects creating vivid false memories and subsequently languishing in guilt despite conclusive evidence of their innocence (Gudjonsson, 2002). On the other hand, gist memory derived false memories in fuzzy trace theory have also implicated otherwise innocent individuals in heinous crimes, such as the identification of an innocent rape suspect in a photo line-up due to chance similarities in vehicle description and facial features, transitioning into definitive conviction of his guilty status by the prosecution (Loftus, 2003). The implications of these unjust convictions have resulted in life imprisonments in the case of the Birmingham Six (Gudjonsson & Mackeith, 2008), and death by stress-related heart attack in the case of Steve Titus (Loftus, 2003). These miscarriages of justice highlight the ramifications of misinformation generated false memories, and the formal consideration of misinformation suggestion during legal proceedings as the Gudjonsson scale of suggestibility show that memory cannot be taken at face value as an accurate record of past events.

In conclusion, the complex process of memory formation is retrieval is not infallible, due to both the source mis-attribution phenomena, and the generalised nature of gist memory in fuzzy trace theory. These false memories can have major legal ramifications, and cause massive disruption to people’s lives, culminating in an understanding that false confessions may come from innocent people and the formal incorporation of misinformation suggestion as a test in eye-witness validity. In all of these ways, it has been shown that memory cannot be taken at face value as an accurate record of past events.


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