i Editor's Letter: 'Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?'

 

 

How many times have you tried to convince a friend or colleague that you definitely did tell them something, only to sheepishly realise that your brain might be playing tricks on you? (“I thought we were meeting Will on Tuesday night...”)

Not only is the brain unlike a tape recorder – we frequently record events wrongly in our memory, and then play them back differently – our minds are also susceptible to having bogus memories planted in them.

Scientists have done just that, to show how easy it is to create false recollections. Their suggestion is that this happens routinely in our lives – we conflate the imagined with our perceived reality – and that there is very little difference between the way we store erroneous and actual thoughts.

In separate research a decade ago, Washington psychologists found that people were wistfully recalling experiences from their childhood that they had in fact simply watched in TV ads. (Visiting theme parks, baking bread, accepting sweets from grandparents...)

The more profound implication of the latest research into false memory syndrome is for eyewitness testimony in criminal trials. While eyewitness evidence can often be persuasive before a jury – he/she seems pretty certain, right? – misidentification is cited as the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the US.

I was tickled by the observation from the lead researcher on this new project, Dr Xu Liu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that “sometimes people are more confident about false memories than true ones.” Sounds like a few people I know...

i@independent.co.uk

Twitter.com: @olyduff

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