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Study suggests we're all susceptible to false memories

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Brain drawing (Wikimedia)
Brain drawing (Wikimedia)

Researchers from UC Irvine have found that people with extraordinarily accurate memory are as vulnerable to the inception of fake memories as others, indicating that perhaps nobody is protected from memory distortion. The study, published last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on people with highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), who are able to recall highly specific facts about their lives, like what they ate for lunch, going all the way back to their childhood.

In one test, subjects were falsely told that news footage captured the plane crash of United 93 in Pennsylvania on September 11th, 2001. The researches found that when asked if they had seen the footage before, 20 percent of subjects with HSAM said they had, compared to 29 percent of people with normal memory. In other tests including false narratives, people with HSAM said they remembered the false facts about as much as people with normal memory.

The results echo earlier scientific studies about the implantation of false memories. The consequences are far reaching and impact our ability to trust things like eyewitness reports, which are vital for historical, journalistic, and legal matters. The Innocence Project claims that the leading cause of wrongful conviction in the United States is improper identification in eyewitness testimony; the Project says that of the 311 convicts who've been exonerated by DNA since 1989, 72 percent of those cases involved false eyewitness testimony.

"Even though this study is about people with superior memory, this study should really make people stop and think about their own memory," researcher Lawrence Pathis told The Atlantic. "Gone are the days when people thought that [only] maybe 20, 30, or 40 percent of people are vulnerable to memory distortions."