Two people fighting
There are a range of factors that could influence false memories, misinformation, and misplacement of the original source of information. Image Credit: Shutterstock

He sent a flower emoticon, she insisted. It was seared in her memory.

Diya Khanna (let’s name her that for now) was furious when she saw that her husband had responded in a seemingly friendly manner to her old enemy on Twitter. She said she read the exchange of tweets several times and was particularly hurt that he had been friendly to someone who had hurt her, once before. He had put a flower emoticon, she said, particularly aggrieved.

Yet, her husband insisted that he had only replied once to this person on social media out of mere courtesy, and there was no flower emoticon. He had just thanked this rival for attending his book launch. “Thank you,” was all that he had written. There was no sign of a flower emoticon.

Later, Khanna went through the exchange of tweets. Sheepishly, she admitted that there was no flower emoticon and the perceived friendliness had been in her imagination. Why was the flower emoticon so important? Well, to her, it was a sign of someone she cared about, being overtly friendly to someone who had hurt her. It had happened too many times in the past, as she explained. Clearly, a flower meant betrayal.

And so in her fright, she saw the non-existent flower emoticon.

That’s the thing about memories; they aren’t always infallible. They have the potential to be malleable..

Sometimes, the mind tricks us.

Why do we create these false memories? 

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Sometimes, you blend the details of one memory with another. Image Credit:

A simple example of a false memory as explained by the Neuroscience News magazine, would be, you eat eggs and bread for breakfast every day. One day, you were running late and you decided to have cereal. Everything else was the same; you sat at the same table, at the same time, ready to go for work. When someone asks you what you ate for breakfast, you incorrectly answer eggs and bread.

Quite often, false memories can be mundane; they make for fun stories. They aren’t just simple memory errors like forgetting. Many of the times, they’re from usually familiar contexts, explains Gene Anne Thomas, a Dubai-based specialist neurologist. You remember locking the door, because that’s what you do every day. Except, spoiler alert, one day you forgot. But you still insist that you did.

There are a range of factors that could influence false memories, misinformation, and confusing the original source of information. In the case of misinformation, the right information gets mixed up with the incorrect information, which leads to a distortion of the memory. Sometimes, you blend the details of one memory with another.

As Thomas explains, other existing knowledge and memories can also confuse the formation of a new memory, which leads to the event being possibly false in its entirety. False memories could also be induced by suggestion, as memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus showed in 1994. In her most famous study, she had convinced adults that, as young children, they had been lost in a mall, crying.

People fighting
Emotions can wreak havoc on memories, too. Image Credit: Shutterstock

However, another complicated driver is emotion, a factor that researchers have been trying to understand for decades. Most of the time, emotions are said to make an experience more rewarding, and quite often, they can lead to mistaken or untrustworthy recollections.

What happens in our brain when we create true and false memories

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Memory fragility also occurs due to how it is encoded and dispersed in different parts of the brain for storage. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Memory may sound simple and like a single term, but it encompasses a variety of abilities, including the working memory, episodic memory where you remember episodes of your life, as well as general knowledge of the world, which is semantic memory. As Thomas explains, remembering involves three crucial processes, encoding, storing and retrieval.

In the case of encoding, you learn and perceive the information. You store it, and then retrieve it, which means accessing the information whenever you need. Memory fragility also occurs due to how it is encoded and dispersed in different parts of the brain for storage, which is the limbic system, including the hippocampus, amygdala, cingulate and hypothalamus.

The limbic system is a series of structures in the brain that support a variety of functions including emotion, behaviour, long-term memory, and olfaction or smell.

However, a failure can occur in any one of these areas, which could lead to forgetting or the creation of false memories. However, a lot is to do with the hippocampus. “The main function of the hippocampus is to form long-term memories,” explains neuropsychiatrist CB Binu from the Al Fasht Medical Centre in Sharjah. There are neural secrets in the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, learning and emotion. It is also known to be involved in the retrieval of memories, bound to a particular context. While the hippocampus is responsible for the construction of true memories, it is also said to be responsible for the creation of false ones. There have been many studies and research on the hippocampus’s role in creating false memories. "Earlier, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies showed that there can be overlapping neural activity in the hippocampus during the creation of a true memory and false memory," he says.

The main function of the hippocampus is to form long-term memories. It is also known to be involved in the retrieval of memories, bound to a particular context...

- CB Binu, neuropsychiatrist, Sharjah

However it isn’t the sole fault of the hippocampus alone; the prefrontal cortex plays a role too. The prefrontal cortex, which is a crucial structure in the brain and covers the front part of the frontal lobe, regulates our thoughts, actions and emotions through extensive connections with other regions.

So, whenever, a false memory is formed, hippocampus is activated as well as the prefrontal cortex, explains Binu. These two regions work “in concert” during the creation of false memories, and according to current research, the anterior prefrontal cortex could inhibit the hippocampus during the creation of false memories.

The electric signals in the hippocampus

In fact, recent research suggests differing electric signals in the brain, more specifically, the hippocampus. A specific pattern of electrical activity erupts in the hippocampus immediately before someone recalls a false memory, and it differs from the electrical activity that occurs when people remember an event correctly.

According to a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists demonstrated this in an experiment. They found that the low-frequency activity in the hippocampus reduces, prior to a false recall, as compared to the correct recall. The brain exhibited lower signals ahead of false memories.

In the study, the participants were asked to study a list of unrelated words, such as ‘pizza’ and ‘clock’, and then recall them in any order after a brief break. Before studying the ‘target’ word list, the participants had been shown a different list of words that could confuse their memories. In such tests of episodic memory, the words are contextually bound together by their source, indicating the word list on which they're presented. The researchers analysed patterns of electricity generated in the hippocampus, capturing brain activity leading up to correct or false recall.

The electrical activity in the hippocampus was rather different when people correctly recalled a word from the target list or incorrectly remembered one that hadn't been included. The research concluded by saying that these findings could pave the way for new therapies to treat diseases where memory recollection is amiss.

When false memories become dangerous

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People with PTSD or depression, are often confronted by their own intrusive and distressing memories, and connect it to others’ experiences, while rewriting their own again. Image Credit: Shutterstock

When a person starts confabulating, which means when they consistently produce false memories and events, there could be several mental illnesses at play. These aren’t minor episodes of incorrectly remembering something or just mixing up details; they would claim to remember false information in vivid detail, according to Binu.

This could result in genuine emotions, like grieving over a friend who isn’t dead yet, and could also be a part of delusions.

However, there are many illnesses and conditions where people confabulate, including depression, dementia, or they suffer dangerous delusions. This isn’t conscious or by design; the person isn’t aware that they are presenting false memories. Moreover, people with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) also suffer the risk of producing false information, which is connected somehow to their experience, says Binu. People with PTSD or depression, are often confronted by their own intrusive and distressing memories, and connect it to others’ experiences, while rewriting their own again.

How do we protect against false memories? 3 tips to help

False memories are rather complicated to spot, once they are created. They aren't standing unique as compared to other recollections and are meshed with the remembered experiences. However, here are a few strategies to help combat false memories, as explained by the neurologists.

1) Talk with the help of images: When you resort to imagery to create a visual imagery of information, your information is better and less vulnerable towards creating false memories. (Courtesy VeryWellMind)

2) Take some time: Keep examining and searching your memory, to introspect on the presence of any false information in the memories

3) Check with others: If you doubt your own memories, check with others and corroborate with them. The best way to acknowledge the presence of false memories, is to know that they exist. Otherwise to sharpen your memory, you can engage in doing puzzles, learning a language or instrument, reading, keeping up with social interactions, retracing your memory carefully, always helps to sharpen your cognitive abilities.