Advances in the understanding of memory have come on in leaps and bounds since Eric Kandel first isolated the physiology of memory back in the last century. Psychologists used to say that ‘memory is not video tape’, but technology has moved on, so it is more pertinent to say that memory is not a flash drive.

One fascinating discovery is that memories are not laid down like film, in individual frames. We can be fairly sure that we have general and specific memories, and we fit the latter into the former. So, when I remember a room from my childhood, I will fit into it the events that occurred there (and quite possibly accurately so), but on closer inspection, my memory of the room will prove to be generic. Checking photos, I may well incorporate furniture that had not even been purchased at the time of the particular memory. We ‘fill in’ our memories.

This sounds improbable, because it shakes the foundation of our sense of self, which is largely based upon the notion of an unbroken continuum of experiences leading to this moment. The truth is that almost all of us have missing events – sometimes weeks or even years where memory turns up a blank. This is partly due to the nature of memory recovery – which is not necessarily instantaneous. It might take a while to drag a memory back to the light, but it also seems true that some memories are simply gone, perhaps because they have no real relevance to us anymore.

Some seemingly lost memories can return. I nursed my aging mother for the last years of her life and was fascinated when she left behind the stories she had retold for the 50 years I’d known her and came up with fresh memories – which I had every reason to believe were accurate – from her youth.

We have faith in our memory, though as Warren Beatty has wisely said, all too often we tend to remember not what was said to us, but how it made us feel. A simple thought experiment shows just how easily we can come to believe false memories:

Think back to a time when you lost something and were looking for it. Was there a moment where you were sure you knew where it was, but you were proved to be wrong? Surely, we have all had this experience, and the conviction we felt about the whereabouts of the missing item is exactly the conviction we feel about any false memory.

I’ve spent some time elaborating on ideas of false memory, because false memory is often a vital aspect of undue influence. Coerced partners, abused cult members and even radicalised terrorists all have their guilt manipulated. They come to feel incompetent without the guiding hand (and mind) of the manipulator. And guilt is often manipulated by changing the past. For instance, Margaret Singer interviewed one former cult member who had been convinced that he was a ‘drug addict’, because he’d once shared a single cannabis spliff.

False memory can also be used to elevate the subject of influence, so that they feel competent, but only within the limits set by the manipulator, and often so that the sense of competence can be slapped down later. There may be false memories of intimacy and of compassion on the part of the abusive partner or leader, but that compassion usually boils down to an insignificant act made for show.

There is a simple question that we can ask of those memories that disturb us: ‘Is this true?’ It might take a while to bring back real memories, but it can be done. I do not recommend any process beyond life itself, because this is not a ‘counselling’ process (though in some cases it may need to be) but a life process.

We chew things over as we progress through our days. Some of those thoughts will continue for years, and that is perfectly healthy (so long as it isn’t obsessive), but just putting attention on some claimed ‘reality’ will often cause it to shift. That process looses the grip of the manipulator.

It is important to be sure of our memories, and, paradoxically, this is often best achieved by being unsure, by rechecking facts, by asking others for their memory of shared events, by digging out old photos and seeing that you never really did ride in that hot air balloon.

The ‘multiple drafts’ hypothesis of memory is also important. It holds that every time we call something to mind it, becomes a new memory, which means that when we next recall it, we may be remembering the last recollection, rather than the original event.

With constant recollections, it is possible for a memory to shift so that it reflects more positively (or, in totalist relationships, more negatively) upon the self. Thus, the ten-inch trout becomes a five-foot shark with years of retelling.

We need to be honest with ourselves if we are to be honest with others: admitting the truth of our memories and the possible uncertainty within them is an important part of that honesty.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about false memories that like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

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For more about the Ingram case, see Lawrence Wright, Remembering Satan

Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters’ book on false memory syndrome is Making Monsters

The Chinese thought reform programme is described in Robert Jay Lifton’s seminal Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

And don’t forget to check out Jon’s recently updated book: Opening Minds – The Secret World of Manipulation, Undue Influence and Brainwashing