How the human brain lies to us

Even in important moments, our brains are not as good at creating accurate memories as we think they are.

This clip from the World Science Festival features two stories that show how easily the brain can be manipulated. In the first, writer Jonah Lehrer describes how he remembers his cousin ruining his 8th birthday party (except, that, he later found out, this incident never happened). The second is significantly more rattling, as Harvard psycholigst Daniel L. Schacter describes a case of mistaken identity that could have led to an innocent man being tried for rape.

This tendency of the brain to naturally distort memories has been studied in relation to what people believe they remember about September 11th. It turns out, even memories that we think of as being seared into our brains aren't as accurate as they're often treated as being, writes Greg Bousted in a piece for Scientific American. Human memory simply isn't that reliable.

Memories of tragic public events have been of interest to researchers for years. Dubbed as “flashbulb memories” for their extraordinary vividness of detail and photographic recall, these emotionally charged memories are described as being “burned” into one’s mind. Knowing exactly where one was or what one was doing during the assignation of John F. Kennedy, the Challenger disaster, or now, the September 11 attacks has become a quintessential phenomenon of the past few generations. In 1977, a pair of Harvard psychologists studied the reported memories of the JFK assassination. Participants had “an almost perceptual clarity” for recalling when they learned about the assassination and during the immediate aftermath, noting even trivial details with impressive accuracy. The researchers concluded that flashbulb memory is more detailed and accurate than memories of ordinary daily events. The defining characteristic of these types of emotionally charged, shared memories is that one’s confidence in their accuracy tends to be unshakable. But does that really make them more accurate?

In an attempt to answer that, Duke University’s Jennifer Talarico and David Rubin conducted a study on the day after the 9/11 attacks. They gave volunteers a questionnaire about their memories of the morning of September 11 as well as some other unremarkable event a day earlier. They later followed up with the questionnaires at several intervals up until almost a year later. What the researchers found is that the memories of the individuals’ goings-on during the events of September 11—the vivid and picture-like ones—were in fact no better than their recall of, say, lunch the day before. Like most memories, they predictably declined in accuracy over time.

I certainly have very detailed childhood memories that, upon reflection, can't possibly be true—in particular, I remember cooking soup for my mom while she was sick in an apartment that we moved out of somewhere around the time I was 4 years old. Obviously, she didn't actually let a toddler stand over the stove with chicken soup. But my brain "remembers" it. Maybe, at the time, that was simply something I wanted to do and my brain mixed that desire up with later memories of cooking in other, similar, kitchens.

What false memories has your brain concocted up?


  1. I grew up in a country that drives on the left, and when I was 13 my family moved to America where I live now. Since then I’ve found that most of my driving-related memories from my childhood have switched sides, so I remember sitting in the *right-side* passenger seat instead of the left, or passing traffic on the left, etc.

  2. For false memory, from about when I was four, I have an absolutely clear memory of putting so much Tang into a glass of water that it actually turned into an orange.  

    I have a couple of other clear, early memories from when I was about 2 or 2.5 — but it’s hard to know how much of that was really retained or got built back in from the retelling but I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually conjure up a lifeform from Tang, even in the heady days of 1974.

  3. a friend once told me a story about how a friend of his died when skydiving — he was diving at the same time and saw it happen. 

    his description was so vivid, i’m certain i’ve seen the incident on video that i assume he was taking while diving… but no, my mind’s created the images i remember.

    1. I, too, wonder that about my very early memories. The stuff I trust the most are the ones that are short, and not connected to a specific story about me–like remembering the location of the trailer park in Topeka where my best friend from preschool lived. (We didn’t go to the same grade school and I never saw him much after age 4.)

      But then, there’s stuff like that soup cooking memory. So, who knows. 

  4. Duh, your brain is a pathology liar, on a recent BBC documentary, there was an experiment displaying a ripe (yellow) banana under various primary lighting , but along a colour chart, whilst the colour chart displayed what should be correct, e.g. under Green and Red, not blue, through the rotation of lighting, the damn banana remains yellow! A learned response.

    Then there’s languages at play, groups that doesn’t have an description of a particular colour can’t perceive it!

    Then there’s the biological/physiological, that our brain are hard-wired through the eyeballs, with receptor that plays no part interpretation of colours but affects the body clock ((through the colour blue, from evolutionary hang ups). 

    Of course our brain is unreliable! 

  5. Orange body, green legs. Watched her build a web all summer, then one day there’s a big egg in it. The egg hatched… 

  6. Up until about 2 years ago, I could have sworn I’d had adult teeth pulled when I was a kid.

    Never happened.  Mere counting would have told me I have the full set of 32…

  7. When I was 5 or 6 I watched an episode of Star Trek (the original), the one with the blue skinned-white haired guys with antennae on their heads. In one scene a blue guy attacks Spock… the real episode is very tame violence wise. Years later when I would think back on that episode I imagine all this blood and gore… none of which existed. The implied violence became a platform for my brain to do its own thing. I always thought it was a horrible and traumatizing episode to watch… I finally saw it again when I was 18 or so and I couldn’t believe my imagination had gotten the better of me.

    1. Last week, I watched Labyrinth for the first time in decades and realized that David Bowie’s codpiece is nowhere near as big or prominent as I remember it being when I was 8. 

  8. We remember what we choose to remember. If you want to remember lies, you will. If you want to remember what really happened, you will. 

  9. I remember in my early single-digit years having memories of sitting in my mother’s womb, playing with my sister.  That was of course before I realised that her being twenty months older than me would make that a little bit tricky.

  10. My non-caching proxy (privoxy) notified me that the embed has gotten a 503 “This is Privoxy 3.0.17 on kissmetrics .com (, port 8118, enabled ”
     The embeded media on this page connects to a site which I Have recently put kissmetics in my hosts list to block what i was told was from this article has possible “undeletable cookies”

  11. I have no false memories.  All of my memories are “flashbulb” memories in HiDef, regardless of emotional content.  After approximately 10 years they mostly, independent of their emotional content, degrade in fidelity and after 15 small details start to conflate from different incidents.  A few, completely random, memories permanently stay in HiDef although, as I age, the rate of accumulation of these has slowed greatly.  Amusingly, one of the permanent ones is the JFK assassination announcement although I was too young at the time to have given a fig about it and have never been a Kennedy fan since.

  12. I have an identical twin brother. We actually confuse some of the memories from our earliest childhood, ie, each of us will be certain that a specific event happened to him, rather than to the other one. It even extends to dreams. Each of us will argue fervently that a certain dream was dreamt by ourself and not the other, with no hope of resolving the argument.

  13. Is anyone else going to post a non-satirical comment? I’m rather enjoying reading other people’s false memories, since I can’t think of any of my own.

    1. Yes. I actually have a memory of when I was perhaps 5 years old or so waking up from a nap, going to the window, and seeing a witch fly across our backyard. It was a stereotypical witch – black dress, pointed hat, broomstick, etc – but the memory of seeing it from my window, and the fear and confusion is such a vivid memory. Of course, I consider it a memory of a dream. But it feels like a real memory.

      My mother always tells the story of a memory she has when she was a little girl in Georgia of being teased by her older sister for being afraid of a feral black cat that lived in their neighborhood. She specifically remembers an incident where she was out in front of their house, and saw a woman walking towards her. The woman transformed into the black cat. I don’t know if this was a dream or what, but she describes it as a real memory.

  14. I have a vivid memory of living in a tree house with my family when I was about 3. I have a more realistic memory of my mother laughing when I asked her about it when I was about 7. I still remember that tree house. – Funny, I just watched Swiss Family Robinson with my daughter last night. Not the same tree house. Mine was more 60’s modern.

  15. The memories that are being described are only the memories that we know are false because there is something improbable about them.  We probably have a bunch of false memories that we have no idea are false.

    1. Right, the improbable stuff is the clue that the memories are false. Also, most of these descriptions are memories from childhood, when the world was a more magical place, therefore (some) people are more likely to believe they *really* saw what they think they saw. However, I think the article is about false memories from adulthood. 
      My experience w/false memories is pretty boring; that’s why I like to read other people’s memories. I remember seeing an episode of a tv show in which a main character describes herself as Cuban. And so I believed throughout the rest of the series (two whole seasons!) that she’s Cuban. Then when I re-watched the DVDs of the show, it turns out she says she’s Puerto Rican! But I totally remember her saying Cuban–the memory is SO CLEAR. My false memories are so lame…but I can see how easily a false memory can convince you it’s real.

  16. Here’s a real one, Mister Juju.  I told a story for years about the time my dad hit a dog when he was taking me, my brother, and my sister to the airport.  In my story, we stopped to check on the dog and it got up and wobbled off only to leap back in front of the car again as soon as we were under way.  I remember it so clearly.  But a couple of years ago I mentioned the story to my brother, who is 4 years older, and he said it never happened.  Then I asked my sister, who is 7 years older, and she said he did hit something, but it was a cat, it definitely never got up again, and we didn’t stop.  Unfortunately my dad is dead so I can’t ask him about it, but I thought it was fascinating to see how we all dealt with an event that was obviously traumatic.  In my memory  the animal wasn’t hurt that badly at first, and we tried to help it, but it really wanted to die.  In my sister’s memory it was an animal she doesn’t like that much.  And my brother blocked it out completely.

  17. I remember when I was between 2 and 3, I was paddling in the local swimming pool and – what with being but an infant – started to sink and drown, despite whatever ring/armbands I had.  My dad swam down and rescued me.  I asked him about this years later, when I was about 12 – apparently it never happened.

  18. As a seven-year-old I was on the outskirts of a pretty serious earthquake. I have two separate and contradictory memories of exactly where in the house I was at the moment the earthquake started.

  19. Before my teen years Life Magazine ran a story on Russian spying which included a picture of a horizontally bisected nickel. My brain believes that while working at McDonald’s I received one of these nickels. When I showed it to my manager and asked for pliers to pull it open he dismissed the idea and told me to get back to work.

  20. I remember once looking out my bedroom window towards the back yard as a kid (a window that no longer exists as my parents had an addition put on that part of the house) and seeing an armadillo walk across the yard. The house is in Buffalo, NY, not Texas or wherever else armadillos live. Most likely it was an opossum, but I still vividly remember it being an armadillo, with the distinctive armor and color and everything.

  21. I have a similar thing where I remember stepping on a small (baby?) porcupine while running barefoot in our backyard when I was around five or six.  I remember having one black spine impaled  in the bottom of my foot and having some adult pull it out.  Neither of my parents remember this and stepping on a porcupine in a backyard in Sacramento, California seems unlikely.

    My mom tells a story about standing in her front yard with three other adults when she was in her 20s.  A car comes up the road, sideswipes a couple of parked cars and drives off (I’m pretty sure it was Dick Whitman).  When the police show up and the first person gave their description and said the car was everyone looked at him like he was crazy.  As they talked about it, they discovered that each of them thought the car was a different color (and they were probably all wrong).

  22. when i was 6 years old, we were living in the poor, dangerous part of town, and i had just started school and was completely miserable. cried myself to sleep every night, etc etc. so, one night i decided to run away.

    in this neighborhood, there were dogs that had pretty much free reign at night. they ran in a pack and ate garbage and whatever else–and they were in the parking lot when i flung open the front door. and they were bigger than me. and i shut the door on them and ran back upstairs in terror.

    the false part of the memory (the existence of the dogs was later confirmed by family) was my mother discovering i had tried to run away and spanking my ass. my mom frequently spanked my brother, but she never had reason to touch me because i was the quiet kid. she had no idea i had tried to run away until i told her, years later. i guess i was so scared of being caught, i dreamed/imagined it.

  23. I remember when I was three or four my aunt and I were in the backseat of the family car on a trip to a nearby city.  My dad was driving and my Mom was in the passenger seat.  A giant dinosaur was towering over the buildings, walking around and generally destroying things.  My dad had to swerve to miss one of its feet.

  24. Buddhists have long understood the unintended, unconscious biases and implicit “favoritism” conditioning identity fabrication in people.  It’s good to see the slow erosion of Cartesian dualism creep forward a little bit more. Antonio Dimasio would, I believe, be tickled by the panel’s discussion in the video.

  25. I don’t remember EVER being sun burned as a kid.  Our house was directly on the beachfront, our front yard the sand.  I was on the beach every waking moment when I wasn’t in school or doing mindless chores.  We never wore sunblock.  I am SURE I would have suffered sunburn but I just can’t remember a single episode.  Both my older brothers don’t remember being burned either.  Weird.

  26. When I was in kindergarten, I was awoken late at night on Christmas Eve by a sound like someone rummaging through a drawer full of silverware. I got up and went to find the source of the sound. I saw Santa Claus standing at the fireplace, digging through a large bag of metallic-sounding things, as though looking for a particular item to put in my stocking. I didn’t want him to know I had seen him, so I raced back to my room, got back in bed, and lay awake until the clock said whatever time I was allowed to wake up my parents and brother for gift-opening.

  27. I remember quite clearly hanging around with a bunch of kids watching a spider climb the wall of a 6-7 story apartment building. The spider was about a metre or so wide. This was in southern Ontario. Even if there was a spider that big, I don’t think any spider can climb that fast – ground to roof in about 15 seconds, as I recall.

    Every once in a while, I will encounter an odd, vivid memory fragment that doesn’t quite make sense, and, after a good while I realize it was something I’d dreamt months previous.

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