The human brain is susceptible to suggestive comments, subliminal messages and other tricks that create false memories, but new research has found a way to reverse fabricated ideas.
Previous work has focused on planting fictitious events in people’s memories, but teams from Germany and the UK collaborated in developing interview techniques to undo them.
Subjects were convinced they endured childhood trauma with both slight suggestions and aggressive tactics by interviewers that resulted in a 15 to 25 percent acceptance rate.
To rid volunteers of the false memories, interviewers asked them to recall the source of the incident and told them that being pressured to repeatedly remember events can lead to the creation of false memories.
Aileen Oeberst at the University of Hagen in Germany told Inverse: ‘If you can bring people to this point where they are aware of that, you can empower them to stay closer to their own memories and recollections, and rule out the suggestion from other sources.’
Scientists conducted a follow up with participants one year later and found 74 percent either rejected the false memories or had no recollection of them at all.
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Previous work has focused on planting fictitious events in people’s memories, but teams from Germany and the UK collaborated in developing interview techniques to undo them
Many previous studies with false memories developed methods for planting the fictitious memories in a bid to understand how they can be used against individuals by the legal system.
Some researchers have said that the likelihood of determining whether someone is sharing a real or false memory of a crime that has been implanted in a person’s recollection is ‘no better than tossing a coin.’
And with this in mind, the new study aimed to reverse these potentially dangerous memories.
‘False memories of autobiographical events can create enormous problems in forensic settings (e.g., false accusations),’ reads the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To rid volunteers of the false memories, interviewers asked them to recall the source of the incident and told them that being pressured to repeatedly remember events can lead to the creation of false memories
‘While multiple studies succeeded in inducing false memories in interview settings, we present research trying to reverse this effect (and thereby reduce the potential damage) by means of two ecologically valid strategies.’
Researchers implanted false memories in 52 subjects with an average age of 23 and had assistant from the volunteers’ parents.
The team spoke to parents about negative events that had occurred to their child, along with two that did not happen but could have taken place.
These included being lost as child, involved in a car accident, stung by a wasp or running away from home.
Participants were then asked to recall each event and provide details about what they experienced and witnessed.
During these conversations, interviewers told the volunteers that their parents told then about the negative events and provided them with four ‘memories’ that the interviewers said the parents had told them about—two real and two fabricated.
And this is where the implanting of false memories began
The interviewers encouraged participants to remember the events, starting with a light suggestion to aggressively push them.
Following this portion of the study, participants were asked at what level they believed the fake events.
Surveys showed that volunteers had some level of memory about the fake events 27 percent of the time after the interviewers mildly suggested an event.
But when put under pressure that number increased to 56 percent.
Not only did some participants believe the false memories, but 20 percent of them were able to describe them even with light encouragement from interviewers.
And just under 45 percent vividly remembered when aggressively suggested.
However, researchers note that some people fully rejected the false events or said they had no recollection of them.
In the second part of the study, researchers tried to see whether they could reverse the false memories over two additional interviews.
Volunteers were told that the traumatic events were not of their own memory, but came from other sources like their parents or photographs from separate events.
Interviewers then explained that when a person is pushed to repeatedly recall memories, their mind can create false ideas in order to fill in gaps and put an end to the aggression.
Following this portion of the study, the team found that more participants rejected the false memories.
After those interviews, fewer study subjects subscribed to the fake memories, though a few people still described the false memories in detail, the study found.
‘In a 1-y follow-up (after the original interviews and debriefing), false memory rates further dropped to 5%, and participants overwhelmingly rejected the false events,’ reads the published study.
‘One strong practical implication is that false memories can be substantially reduced by easy-to-implement techniques without causing collateral damage to true memories.’