When the brain plays tricks on us: false memories

sI remember one thing and not the other – this is completely normal. But sometimes our memory plays tricks on us. Then we think that we remember something that never happened – and we are completely convinced of the authenticity of this memory.

Not just one person, but entire generations wrongly remember. Think Star Wars and the confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader. Darth Vader says “Luke, I’m your father.” No doubt. genuinely? Error. In fact, he says “No, I am your father”.

The occurrence of this distortion of memory – false memories shared by a group – scientists call “confabulation” or the “Mandela effect”. According to author Fiona Broome, the term was coined in 2009. In an informal conversation at a conference, many people were convinced that Nelson Mandela was actually dead because he died in captivity in the 1980s. Some even thought they remembered the TV pictures of the funeral. The truth is that Mandela was released from prison in 1990, served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 – and died decades later on December 5, 2013.

Another example: Think of Monopoly Man. Is in front of his eyes monocular or not? Most say yes, there is mono. But this is not true. But it fits perfectly with our idea of ​​a rich old man fallen into the past: anyone who wears a mustache, hat, and tails—not far from monocular. Memory research talks about “schemes” here. If part of these schemas (mustache, top hat, tails) are activated, then often the entire striatum is activated, which also includes monoculars.

Mustache, hat and tails - but without the mono


Mustache, hat and tails – but without the mono
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Photo: AP

The more “Luke I am your father” fan art is printed, the more people will think it’s a real quote. And the more they believed in him, the fewer who saw the scene themselves and probably knew better. Plus, there’s our craving for compliance: we simply like to agree with the majority opinion (even if it’s clearly wrong, by the way). Who is willing to admit to themselves that they have sinned and been deceived by their memory?

Of course, there are also widespread misconceptions that are wrongly created or propagated. For example, false reports from the media or deliberate lies by some politicians that lead to “alternative memories”. Or the myth that the Inuit have endless terms for “snow.” It is possible that a statement by ethnologist Franz Boas, who already said that the word snow in the language of some Inuit tribes, would be possible in many other word combinations, may have been misinterpreted.

What are the causes of collective false memories?

As in many cases, the Internet does not disappoint when it comes to concocting particularly silly attempts to explain the Mandela effect. According to some, behind the false memory there is a treacherous plan of the elite, which manipulates our brains. Chemtrail Keywords. Or aliens kidnap entire crowds of people and plant them with the same false memory. Does anyone have evidence that this is not the case? So it must be true…that’s how conspiracy stories work.

Or it’s a “matrix error” – and thus an indication of the existence of parallel universes. This theory states that there are an infinite number of parallel universes. Only sometimes these universes intersect. For example, if someone remembers Nelson Mandela’s funeral, even though he was still alive at the time, that person is from a world where Mandela was actually already buried. However, the person is currently in a world where Mandela lives. Anyone who has watched the Netflix series “Dark” or the movie “Interstellar” is familiar with the theory of quantum mechanics, in which humans are space and time travelers. And indeed, it’s not just a pipe dream for internet visionaries: Stephen Hawking also believed that parallel universes were possible.

Nelson Mandela is alive and kicking after his release from prison on February 11, 1990.


Nelson Mandela is alive and kicking after his release from prison on February 11, 1990.
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Photo: Reuters

But what is the real reason? Cognitive psychologists have studied (false) memory capabilities for a long time. Hardly anyone remembers everything and every detail correctly. A study in Psychological Science in 2020 found that our memory is basically very good: people who were tested on adults who were presented with scenes like the ones we see every day correctly remembered 95 percent of all details. However, 76 percent of participants made at least one mistake. So the accuracy with which participants remembered was generally very high – but recall is not infallible.

However, our brain doesn’t just unintentionally visit its memories, as in the case of the Mandela effect, and embellish the details, for example. Sometimes we also reproduce information that was never stored in the brain: one constructs it the new No special memories. This can happen through trauma and depression, but also through suggestion and manipulation. Or just by activating an entire schema with parts of that schema. In either case, the person is not lying intentionally. It’s a trick of the brain, not a deliberate misrepresentation.

How does this happen?

First of all, we have to get rid of the idea that our brain is a huge memory or archive in which we store our memories in order to search for an event from the past when we need it and reproduce it 1:1 as we experienced it – she. Even a healthy brain does not work this way. Instead, our brain is a dynamic network that constantly reconnects. Neuroscientists call this “plasticity.” It leads to a permanent reorganization of the brain.

We “store” what we’ve tested – but selectively. Unimportant things are discarded, experiences are incorrectly grouped. We remember the worst, the remaining gaps are sometimes more, sometimes less freely connected. Then we imagine that we experienced something ourselves, even though we only read about it in a novel or told about it by friends. For neurophysiology, this is simply the spread of excitation in the brain network.

Our brain is not a huge storehouse, nor is it a perfect archive.


Our brain is not a huge storehouse, nor is it a perfect archive.
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Photo: Science Photo Library

‘Historical truth’ vs ‘narrative truth’

If several people remember the same event, it merges them together into a group. These communities of memory arise, for example, when people share information about their experiences during war. In the process, an identical common memory for them all often gradually forms from initially different individual stories. “Historical truth” no longer corresponds to “narrative truth”. Our memory is particularly unreliable during trauma and other emotionally traumatic events.

This became clear when historian Helmut Schnaz gave a lecture to elderly Dresden residents about bombing raids on their city in February 1945. Eyewitnesses told, in some cases in detail, of a British low-flying plane that chased them through the streets as they ran. Across the city to seek refuge from the flames. However, the historian was able to prove that physics and technology oppose this representation. Because of the firestorm, it was completely impossible to fly at a low altitude. He was also able to look at British documents and found no evidence that the planes chased the fugitives through the burning city. This caused discontent among the Dresden fans. One of the old men must have exclaimed: “I protest against the fact that foreign historians who are not at home in Dresden are allowed to write about our city. That is just a platitude you would put on paper.” .

Unintentionally false testimonies

“False memory” becomes a serious problem with witnesses who unknowingly tell a lie – and do so with the full conviction that they remember the truth. Neuroscientist Daniel Schacter describes the case of psychologist Donald Thompson in his book The Seven Sins of Memory. He was accused of brutal rape. The victim testified that she had identified Thompson as the perpetrator. However, Thompson had a solid alibi – he was giving a live TV interview about memory distortion at the time of the crime. The victim must have just seen the interview when the real perpetrator broke into her home and raped her. So I mistakenly associated Donald Thompson’s face on TV with the rapist. So the woman remembered the face correctly, but associated it with the wrong person.

manipulation from outside

False memories can also be manipulated from the outside and “planted” in the mind. Psychologist Julia Shaw explained this when she convinced students in 2016 that they became criminals as children. Xu managed to manipulate about two-thirds of the time. Many people really believed that they had previously committed a criminal act. However, in another study, KA Wade succeeded only with its false suggestion in less than a third of its subjects.

In the “Lost in the Mall” experiment, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus suggested that adults were kidnapped in a mall when they were children and taken home by a stranger. About 20 percent think so — even though everything about him was fiction. In another study by Elizabeth Loftus, people who visited a Walt Disney theme park suggested they saw Bugs Bunny there. Everyone thought they remembered that. In fact, Bugs Bunny is a character from the Warner Bros. universe, not Disney. So he can’t even appear in competition.

Fiona Broom, who coined the term “Mandela effect,” no longer talks to reporters about it. She writes on her website that too many blunt conspiracy stories have formed around the “Mandela Effect” over the years. Now focus on other things like ghosts and haunted places.

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