How much of your own memories can you actually trust? Unfortunately, not as many as you may have hoped.
The act of remembering and recalling information, including experiences or general knowledge, is a wide brain activity involving many parts of the brain. This is advantageous in some aspects; as if memory was localized to one specific brain region, then a by the chance brain injury could occur and would lead to all memories being completely lost. However, it does make our memories malleable to change and creation, to the severe extent of constructing false memories. This is because during remembering, all the brain regions interact together, assembling different parts of different memories. Overtime, it has been shown that the more this is done for a certain memory, the more the brain analyses the information and decides to keep or displace certain aspects of the memory, and sometimes splice in seemingly relevant information from other memories into that particular memory.
You may be naïve to the extent this occurs. After all you do not realize you have false memories; they just seem like every other correct memory.
However, the extent of malleability in our memories has been highlighted through experimental studies. Research in this field has partially stemmed from some wrongful-conviction cases, where suspects gave a coerced internalised confession; they were questioned in ways leading them to falsely believe and confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
An example of this research, published in Psychological Science, indicates that people internalise the misinformation and are able to provide rich details of fake events. The lead researcher, Julia Shaw, says that these false memories are “easy to generate, and can have all the same kinds of complex details as real memories”, and that “all participants need…is 3 hours in a friendly interview environment, where the interviewer introduces a few wrong details and uses poor memory-retrieval techniques”. Even more shockingly, by the end of three interviews conducted in this study, 71% of participants believed they had committed theft, assault or assault with a weapon and gave a detailed confession to the police.
Wrongful convictions are a lot more frequent than one would think, and this has obvious consequences on the innocent and society as the true perpetrator remains free. However, from learning why people confess to crimes they did not commit, the legal processes have scope for improvement; for example, interrogative techniques could be less suggestive, involve better memory-recall techniques and be more relaxed. Despite this silver lining, it is still a little concerning you don’t remember your actual experiences.