Editing Our Pasts: Dr. Julia Shaw on The Illusion of Memory

September 26, 2016

Dr. Julia Shaw is a psychological scientist and senior researcher in the Department of Law and Social Science at London South Bank University. She teaches at the undergraduate and graduate level and her research on false memory has been published in several international academic journals. She returns to Point of Inquiry this week to discuss her new book, The Memory Illusion.

Our memories are a collection of perceptions of our past experiences, and they influence what we think we’re capable of in the future. Dr. Shaw argues that if we start to question the accuracy of our memories we’re then forced to question the foundation of who we think we are. She shows us that our memories aren’t as reliable as we think. Not only are we capable of co-opting other people’s memories as our own, but we can also be easily persuaded by the power of suggestion that we’ve committed acts that have never actually occurred. Even when it comes to our most confident recollections, the potential for memory error has proven to be profound, and Dr. Shaw believes understanding the science of memory can help us deal with our brains’ tendency to rewrite the past.

Currently available for purchase in Canada and the U.K, The Memory Illusion will be available for purchase in the United States, October 14th 2016.

This is point of inquiry for September 26, 2016. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production at the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is forensic psychologist Julia Shaw. Julia studies memory in the law. 

She’s the author of the new book The Memory, Illusion Memories of the Bases of Our Personal Identity. And we tend to have a lot of confidence in the core memories that we fall back on. But you’re saying that there’s reason to believe that a lot of the things we think we remember, we really don’t. 

That’s correct. Yes. So we have a lot of what are called false memories where we think that we experience important life events, even that never actually took place, or at least that we didn’t experience in that way. 

How do we know that? 

How do we know that? We know that from neuroscience and we know that some social psychology, we sort of know that intuitively as well. I mean, if you sit around the dinner table with friends or family and you’re discussing an event that you all thought or were involved in, you will all have slightly different accounts. Right. 

And I know that’s partly a perceptual thing because you’ve paid attention to different things, but it’s probably a memory thing where some of you will have pieces. And also, very often discussions and debates come from, you know, that it happened this way. Now it happens this way. And that conflict is because your memory is different of the event and it can be false. So someone might be suggesting to you that you did something in that particular situation, really that wasn’t me or that was something totally different. But the person is telling you their memory is like, no, I’m I remember it exactly this way. And so they might have complex and emotional details, even though maybe your confidence or maybe even independent evidence suggests that that didn’t actually happen. 

Some people claim that they can remember things from very early childhood infancy and even in utero. What do we know about the basis for those claims? 

They’re impossible. So as a memory researcher, it’s clear to see that early childhood memories are impossible memories. And this is because the brain isn’t developed yet. How early are we talking about how really we’re talking? So most people, most scientists would ask before the age of three and a half. You can’t trust your memory. And by that I mean there that you can’t have memories. Some say, you know, the earliest age of ever assembled in the literature that someone has suggested you can have any kinds of memories and bad memories. I mean, autobiographical memories. So memories, that’s of stuff that you’ve done that lasts into adulthood. Obviously, you’re learning language and all kinds of other things that are also memories at that time, but you can’t really remember your life. And so the youngest that I’ve ever heard is two. But the standard age is three and a half. So the reason is yet your brain is just a fraction of the size of what it’s going to become. And your brain is undergoing tremendous growth at the same time as tremendous culling. So you’re growing, growing, growing, and you’re optimizing, optimizing, optimizing. And what do you mean by optimizing, optimizing the optimizing and losing stuff? That doesn’t matter. So it’s good that we don’t remember everything, which sometimes it seems like, you know, you want this memory, super power that you can remember every aspect of your life. But that’s actually not generally the way it works. Forgetting is really important. And if you remembered everything that you thought was interesting when you were one year old, it probably wouldn’t be relevant now. Right. 

I mean, colorful, shiny blocks and Ducky’s and boxing blocks and dinosaurs, which you might not care to remember now. So what it does is it optimizes your brain to remember stuff that actually matters. In order for you to survive and to interact in social environments, how does the brain decide what matters? 

How does the brain decide what matters? That is a great question. One answer to that is emotion. So things that we perceive as emotional ourselves often have are more likely to be remembered, although that we can also false memories of emotional things. But generally, emotions get you need to pay attention to something in order to even have the possibility of it becoming a long term memory and importance. So the idea that something is important to us and we maybe go over it repeatedly, we tell other people about it and that reinforces the memory, everything we do. Although even that has a potential to slightly change it. But it’s still going to stick over time. So to some extent, what the hippocampus is doing for when it makes short term memory into long term memories. There’s a bit of an unknown, but there are these key factors that generally play into it and will overall predict somewhat whether or not you’re going to form a long term recently. 

It’s really interesting. In the book you talk about the False Memory Archive, where researchers asked people to submit autobiographical memories that they experiences memories but somehow know are false. 

Yeah. So, yeah, this is actually art project. So this is something that I’ve learned is that science can work hand-in-hand with art and artists. And so I’ve actually I’ve been involved in the theater production where memory is the issue involved with movie stuff. It makes a great storyline. They did this actually happen. But this is an artist who just learned about false memories and was like, these could be interesting stories. And he asked people to submit a story and then you visualize them so people would tell about, you know, this. I watched the church burn down in my local neighborhood and I have no memory of what happened. And then, you know, the person would say and then I realized years later that this was impossible because it happened before I was born. So these are what are called nonbelievers memories. But you realize that a memory that’s still made you feel like a memory can’t be true. And so he collected these these narratives, which can be fascinating and really show sort of insight into this process as well. And it needs art with this. So he made pictures of what that would have been like. That thing that never happened. 

Is that feasible online? Any pictures of his work that we could link to? 

Yes. So it’s called the False Memory Archive. And the man who curates it lives in London. And it’s funded mostly by what’s called the Wellcome Trust, which is a science arts initiative. 

So, yeah, you can you can look that up and we’ll put a link on the Maguire website. You go have a look. Yes. Do you have any memories that you know are false in your files? 

Well, I don’t trust most of my memories. So are any of my memories. So I always assume that the piece is a fiction in a lot of my recollection, and I just never assume that they’re entirely right. But I do have memories. I know from memory of when I found out about 9/11, a false identity. I have this mental picture. So those kinds of memories are called flashbulb memories, whereas like I found out, this critical historical life event. And this is exactly, you know, I was at breakfast or I was. Whatever and it’s people will recall these and retell these repeatedly in social situations with such confidence and vividness. And in my situation, I remember, although I’m now quite sure it’s impossible, I remember being in the living room in Germany. So living jury at the time and looking at a TV screen and being appalled and, you know, sort of finding out that way that this had happened. I don’t think this is true because I’m pretty sure even though I still and I recall this vividly, see this TV screen right next to the couch in our living room, I’m pretty sure I never had a TV there. So it’s it’s impossible memory because there was never a TV where I supposedly saw it on the TV screen. So, yeah, but this happens all the time. I mean, a lot of us have false memories of know moments. We found out about historical events. 

Do you think that this accounts for your politicians, a lot of times seem to get caught up in the sincerely recount, seemingly sincerely recounting things that happened to them and sort of get caught out in these sort of debates, like Hillary Clinton’s reminiscences of being under fire on the tarmac? Is that an example of a false memory formation? 

Potentially, yes. So just because someone says something was a lot of emotion and detail and confidence doesn’t mean that it happens. But it also doesn’t mean that they’re lying. So when politicians who are monitored. So this is something that we need to appreciate more. I think with politicians and people in the press is that their stories, if they tell them on the air, are monitored. Right. So there’s lots of evidence as to, you know, different versions if it’s happens to change over time. So you can go back and there’s evidence. Also, of course, as to especially for more important situations, what if they actually happened in that way or not? But the bigger thing is that those situations people can become confronted, can be directly confronted with their own account previously. It’s like 10 years ago you said something totally different, which most of us don’t have because we’re not closely monitored, but when then the accusation comes. So that must mean that now you’re lying. That’s my goal. Well, no, wait a minute. Because these people, just like everybody else, are prone to memory distortions. And just because something is self-serving doesn’t mean that it’s intentional deception. So it’s A, Kansas B, because every time we tell a story, every time you tell memory, it changes slightly. And we as humans, whether famous or not, like to accidentally make on details or other people. So if someone else tells us a compelling story about something they experienced. Sometimes our memories can mistake them as things that we experienced because we imagined what maybe that could have been like. So politicians like Hillary Clinton or other people who have come under attack for changing your stories over time might just be the victims of false memories rather than intentionally lying to us. 

This wonky nature of memory play into the legal system through the faulty nature of memory challenges. 

Everything we know about the legal system is not to overstate this importance, but really signs here. But I mean, in legal situations, almost always. Memory is a important factor, right? So how do we remember what happened? And it’s a victims statements. This is their memory. This is their account. Then it’s a witness statement. And it’s their memory and their account. And then it’s the defendant’s memory and their version of the events. And these three can be strikingly different. And again, there’s questions. Some are lying or someone exaggerating or is that the truth? And there’s issues around just accuracy. So how good are we at this? And what we find time and time again is that eyewitnesses, especially when asked leading questions or when poor police practices are at play quite automatically on their own, can say things that are untrue. But they believe obviously are true. So the victim or an eyewitness can point at a defendant on the stand and say, that’s the man who did horrible things to me and mean it. And clearly with conviction, say this incredibly compelling way to the judge and jury. And yet we find out later through things like the Innocence Project that this man couldn’t have been the perpetrator and he’s now in jail as an innocent man. So miscarriages of justice can happen because of errors of memory, but they can also happen because people could falsely confess. Right. So people like Brendan Darcy and making a murderer can be coerced into saying things that are demonstrably welcome, but that Mr. Lynch, who would probably enter and other people can also, even beyond that, become convinced that they actually committed a heinous crime that never happened, which is what I do in my research for his crimes. But they do convince people that they committed crimes. 

It never happens. What kinds of crimes? 

So that’s assault and assault with a weapon. And in these kinds of situations, I mean, is there teenage memory? And so an assault with a fight? It’s not a vicious assault. Fight with a weapon is a weapon. Is any object used to hurt another person? I did a study in Canada. It was Iraq. It wasn’t a semiautomatic assault with a weapon. Well, yeah, 14 year olds, you know, think about what a weapon could be. It’s not going to be a gun in this country generally. Luckily, the people at the end of my study came to at the age of No. 20 recall at a rate of 70 percent that they had committed this crime. That never happened. And they told me why they did it. They told me how it happened and and given lots of details. And so that by all accounts, they created compelling false confession that they had supposedly internalized. 

Was that the study where you had the. It’s where you would get people to validate a memory that never happened, like. And these are parents or whoever would say that kid. Do you remember when? 

Do you remember when? Yeah. I mean, this is this is where it all matters. It’s obviously important for the legal system. This goes to the very heart of everyday interactions. And that’s something I focused on. The book a lot is sort of making it relevant to everything we do, because you’re right. If someone suggests you remember when and if that information that follows the remember when is incorrect. But you trust that the person knows something you don’t like. Like a family member. Like your mom. Remember when you were five? I remember when you were one and you did this kid thing. You go, oh, yeah, maybe. And you start to picture what it could’ve been like. And that becomes next time you talk to another family member. I remember when I was one and you might feel like you actually are accessing a memory even though you aren’t. 

So how do we change our memories by remembering them? 

How do we change our memories? By remembering them? We change the physical shape of a memory in the brain. So memory is a network of cells in the brain which can be shifted around. So it’s a little bit like I said, I would like to think about the brain as this cosmos. Does this like a billion neurons? I mean, we have so many brain cells, it’s crazy and they’re constantly changing. So as you’re listening to this podcast, your brain is changing. I mean, there is this buzzword. So neuroplasticity. 

You know, our brains can be changed and we want our brains to be plastic, which is which is fine. But of course, they are always because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to think or learn or do anything. But this plasticity also means that our memories are constantly changing. And when you’re accessing a memory, you’re accessing that network. That is a memory and you’re reinforcing certain parts, things that you find interesting later on, things that you talk about a lot maybe, and you might lose things that are less interesting. Simultaneously, you might be playing to the audience. And by that, I mean, let’s say you’re telling a friend about this great thing that happens. She is going home and to certain parts and other purchase, falling asleep. Now, what happens is we go more in detail into the things that are getting good response and we’re more like a committee embellish or maybe go, oh, maybe that’s a maybe some hypothetical for a bit. And we sort of call the bits that are less interesting. So next time we tell the story, though, we forget or we don’t think about the fact that we believe in perhaps the pieces that are more interesting and we then tell them as if that’s the way it initially occurred. Every time there’s interesting pieces get better. So that’s sort of the whole idea that a story gets better every time it’s told. That’s actually quite accurate. Most of the time it’s like a game of telephone like you whisper to. 

The next story starts with somebody sort of adding things that they know or inferences, let’s say, and telling the story. And it feels like an inference at the beginning. But then it gets recoded as part of a memory. Yes, exactly. 

Because I think part of it is guessing at connections and making coherent narratives when maybe you don’t remember every piece of the story initially, but you’re guessing. Well, you know, so I went out. We had a great night. How do we get home? Oh, we probably took a cab right next time. Yeah. We went out and then we took a cab. And that piece just quite naturally becomes integrated into the next telling of that story. So, yeah, that’s how we can sort of fabricate false memories in ourselves. But it’s within the social context quite often. So it’s quite often, not always, but quite often a social process. This generation of stories and narratives and that raise. 

You talk about something called the recollection bomb, where we recall things that happened to us at very different rates, depending on the phase of our life. What implications does not have in terms of producing a narrative of our lives or a sense of self? 

So memories define who we are as one of my arguments. Because, I mean, if you have people with dementia or Alzheimer’s, quite often family members will say things like they’re not who, you know, I remember them to be or they’re not themselves anymore. And so you can see when people start missing pieces of their autobiographical memories, they stop recognizing their friends and family that they change and they might not be the same person. And so if you take out the other way, it shows how important autobiographical memories are for our sense of identity. And yeah, so what’s called the reminiscence bump is this tendency for us to recall autobiographical life events between certain ages with more frequency than at other ages. And so, especially if you’re over the age of 40, you’re more likely to go back. And this is cross-cultural. This is just across individuals. Generally, you’re more likely to remember things that happened and you’re likely to remember more of them. So you’re remembering them better and you’re remembering more. But in terms of quantity, memories between the ages of about fifteen and twenty five, that changed slightly. But it’s around there than any other time of your life. And it’s called the reminiscence bump. And some times I refer to this. It’s related to the good old days phenomenon. You know, back in my day, we used to walk 10 miles up in the snow and we had respect for whatever and things were different and better. But this seems to be something that everybody has. And so it’s not it’s not to feel sad to hear from your grumpy grandpa, but it’s probably because those are the times in our narratives and a personal narrative that really played a key role in defining us between at that age, like late adolescence, early 20s is when we really sort of define ourselves, defined our sense of self. This is who I am. These are the kinds of things I want to do. These are my hopes and dreams. And it’s the first of many things. The first kiss, the first job, the first important life achievements. And so this reminiscence about probably comes from this high concentration of self defining moments that we remember stronger than other parts of our lives. 

Could it also be developmental? You mentioned the book that there’s this winnowing and pruning process of our memories that continues. We think through an extended adolescence. Do you think that there might be a developmental piece of that, that that we’re primed to have this burst of recollection before the big age, 25 prunings that happens? 

Maybe. I mean, you write that it’s sort of up to 25 year brain growing and then slow down motion there. But it’s certainly your brain is starting to shrink. And in terms of number of brain cells replaced, and that might be related. But I think it probably does have more to do with the meaning that is attached to these kinds of memories rather than just developmental changes. But there has been some research that came up this year that showed that moving so changing where you live also creates a mini reminiscence bump, even if it’s at a later time. So let’s say you move when you’re 35. You can have a little peak there as well. So there’s something about the novelty of new situations. So when you move, you again have a lot of firsts. It’s the first time you visited that restaurant. It’s the first time you went down that street. It’s the first time you met a person. And so that novelty seems to introduce another little peek. And so that can be sort of hijacked and appear at different ages as well. But it’s just more likely to happen in late teens. 

How does culture influence what people choose as as the memories or what their brains choose for them to be? The memories that have characterize the reminiscence bump. 

How does culture blend? Good question. Culture. Language do. Well, I mean, generally a range, regardless of where you live and regardless of what language you speak, works the same. So overall, I like to highlight the sort of normalcy and the the ubiquity of these memory processes and this memory flexibility. There’s also if you’re like if you’re listening and you’re going, you know, I don’t think I have false memories. That’s called overconfidence. And you do. Everybody does. That’s how your brain works. So there’s no protective mechanism that you can really just possess that prevent this from happening. But when we talk about different cultures, what we see is that it really changes is what matters for our memory formation. 

So people in China, people in Canada, people in the UK, people in all parts of the world have been shown to be able to create false memories, but they get them from different things. So, for example, I work with the military and the military in Germany, specifically people who work in places like Afghanistan and talked to a lot of warlords. And they’ve told me how Rondos will sit down under a tree. And there are sort of socially. Really agreeing upon this was our history and the idea there is that they don’t actually see history or the past as a single reality. They see it as an agreed upon reality. And so, in a way, it’s more honest than that. They are saying, you know, there’s no objective piece here. What matters is what our society, our group agrees happens. And so that is a fundamentally different approach to memory. But whether or not that’s that’ll murder your memory accordingly. But other than that, I think false memories are universal and culturally independent. 

That’s fascinating. So subjectively, if you talk to a warlord who knows this is going on, who’s participated in these kinds of group reconciliation asks under the tree. Do they have the equivalent of a false confession in their memory where they come to subjectively feel as if what was agreed to happened? I mean, I know everybody must do that to some extent, just in terms of being human. But how do they reconcile the knowledge that they’ve actively revised history with their own feeling? 

Well, not doing that right. So this is where they have the knowledge, but they don’t know that they. So they will argue. I’ve got a terrific meal recently from Africa where there is a relief worker who’s like we heard about your research and I was talking to people in Africa. This handwritten note notes do know we talk to people in Africa. And they’re like, well, obviously, there’s no such thing as objective reality, which, again, is just a different level inside in some ways. But you’re right. But they probably then remember, it’s the way that they’ve agreed upon it. But there’s just a fundamental different appreciation of what it is in the first place. 

So do they believe that they can through talking about it? In fact, estab like, do they. Do they acknowledge that there is a discrepancy that is resolved? 

Yes. They essentially no, they they agree that in some ways they realize that false memories happen all the time. And that’s a lot of what we remember is just a social construction. And so there there is no and this is actually quite hard to reconcile with western western idea of sort of a single reality, because it’s like, well, no. But what actually happened. Right. That’s the question. 

Well, you know, there is an act. They don’t believe that there is an actual fact of the matter. There’s no answer today. 

I only believe that there’s have self consciously socially constructing reality. 

The answer to that question is what we agree. It’s not. This is what happens. Which is it is crazy and mindblowing and awesome that it’s so interesting, so different from Western perception of it. 

But what they say when you ask them, well, you know, before the meeting, what was the case? 

If I’d asked a person after the become come into these meetings with different memories, come in with the memories of like hundreds of years at times, like these are the kinds of people we liked over time. These are the kinds of groups we are fighting against. And so it’s obvious that these things are changing, although it’s maybe a bit less obvious in oral cultures where you’re not writing stuff down all the time because you also don’t know how far you’ve come, how much that idea has morphed, because you can’t rely on written records to say, oh, look, actually 20 years ago we got something totally different. So there’s also that piece that’s missing. 

But in terms of the epistemology of it, like how would they describe that? I did not know. And then I came to know through this constrictive process. 

Yeah. Or I came to accept that this is what we generally agree and accept as the best version of accounts. 

And do they do they acknowledge that it’s the social construction and not the facts, like it’s one thing to say, oh, well, you know, I came in thinking this. But then I’m going to go with what happened during the meeting, because obviously, I think this whole group is closer to the truth. 

And I think that and I think that’s mostly what it is. That is mostly, you know, I I still remember it this way. But the group agrees this. So this is what we’re going to say now, which is something I do think that there is that incites, although, of course, I can’t speak for everyone in these kinds of situations. But there does seem to be just a different like. You know, I remember the same. And we’ve agreed that that’s not how we’re going to tell the story. 

You talk a bit about Metta memories, a faculty like how what works and what it’s for. 

Not a memory as a faculty. Yeah. So a memory may not mean a memory. That’s a mouthful. Our ability to appraise our memories. So it’s the ability to say whether or not something actually happened or not and whether or not we remember something versus whether it’s imagination. But it’s also the ability to harness or direct our memories. So mnemonics, for example, our ability to use memory AIDS, which are mnemonics to make us remember stuff better. So motor memory suggests that we can, for example, do things like study memory. We can remember our memories. And it’s a fascinating process. And generally, we do have an appreciation of how good or bad our memories are. Right. So you might have a fuzzy childhood memory and you go, oh, and my confidence. And that is quite low. What you’re doing there is you’re making a meta memory assessment. Your brain is looking at that memory and saying, you know, I’m not so sure about this one. This one doesn’t feel quite complex enough. So memory is fascinating. And it develops differently in different people. 

But overall betterment met memory is going to make you more likely to harness your memory and to use its flexibility to advantage this meta memory or better motor memory associated with being more tuned in the sort of more reality based in general, like having a better sense of the difference between reality and fantasy and all kinds of contexts. 

Probably probably being bad. You know what tends to choose to rely on and you probably understand. So I really think like books on Hamri, you understand how it works better and so met a memory process is probably going to become more efficient because you’re introducing sort of cautionary tales. You’re going, well, you know, this memory feels real. But if I think about where this memory may have come from, I feel like, you know, this childhood of events feels really real. But it happened before the age of three and a half. That’s Numata memory that you’re playing and you’re saying, okay, well, that can’t be my memory. That can be a telling of a tale by a family member or maybe a self picture of that event. Or maybe I just made it up. But that’s something that, again, you can learn. And so I do think that having better met a memory is going to make you more able to distinguish between things that you actually experience, the things you didn’t and bad, and that a memory can also lead to things like feelings of deja vu, potentially. Like I’ve been here before. It’s a misfiring of a familiarity kind of idea where, you know, I know this. I’ve done this even though you haven’t. And so that’s sort of a misfiring of a process and maybe even a misfiring of your appreciation of how that process works. 

So to kind of recap, if you were giving somebody a guidepost to improving their own meta memory, where do the top themes that you would want people to consider when they’re evaluating their memories to make them as reliable and truthful as possible? 

I’d like people to consider where memory came from. So when does the first time you remember that event, like, let’s say you experience something a week ago and you’ve recalled it quite shortly thereafter? That’s probably going to be a pretty good memory, especially if you recalled it for the first time and you’ve recalled it maybe on your own or not. But you haven’t had much time or input to interfere with that memory trace. Now, with things that are longer ago, you can look at the process and say, okay, well, maybe this was brought up to me and maybe even therapy. The therapist suggested to me that this must have happened. And then we talked about the events and leaving some red flags here, because when the therapist initially suggested to me that I must have experienced this childhood event or probably experiences childhood events, I didn’t know what they were talking about. But then over time, I came to, quote, remember this event. And actually maybe that’s a false memory. So look at the process through which memory has come about as much as you’ve in yourself and others as well. Look at people like Brian Williams, the news anchor who is accused of lying about being shot down in a helicopter or almost shot down in a helicopter and sea. Okay, well, look, it’s actually quite naturally progressed. The story just changed piece by piece over time. And so maybe he’s online. So look at the process. That one start to realize that memory is flexible and creative and that this can happen to everybody. And what else about my memory? I’m thinking of the confidence. Don’t assume that just because you generally think you have a good memory or just because you feel like this particular memory is really confident, that is necessarily true. So always be cautious and always be curious as to where memories are from and be kind. So when other people are saying something that’s demonstrably untrue. Don’t assume that they’re lying. Don’t assume that you know, and Emma, who is saying something that you’re like that didn’t happen. That that’s necessarily a lie. 

Julia Shaw’s book, The Memory Illusion, is on sale now in Canada and the United Kingdom, and it will be hitting store. On October 14th in the United States. Julia, thank you so much for coming on the program. 

Thank you so much for having me. 

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Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.