Can you make up a memory?

A green and cream coloured exhibit table with the words 'can you make up a memory' on it. on the table top are two boards resting at 90 degrees towards each other.

Sometimes when we try and remember things about a situation, our brains invent details that can fool the brain into inventing a memory.

How it works

This exhibit needs two people. One person reads out loud a list of words to the second person. The second person needs to recite the list of words out loud back to the first person, who checks a list of the words remembered. People often insist that they remember a particular word being on the list, even though it is not! This is because their brain created a ‘false memory’, which is a normal process within the brain.

Things to try or ask around the exhibit

Does the topic covered by the list of words influence your memory?

Background

Scientists are still discovering how we store and retrieve memories, but we know that our brain doesn’t store discrete amounts of information like a video library. Instead, memories seem to be represented in the brain as networks of related concepts. One hypothesis is that a healthy memory system copes with massive amounts of information by forming connections between concepts based on associations we’ve developed through experience. Then, when we’re trying to remember a piece of information, our brain either pulls up an assortment of associated concepts which ‘feel’ right, or our mental networks are structured to generate associations which ‘feel’ right.

When people ‘create’ a memory like this, the process is called DRM (the Deese/Roediger/McDermott paradigm).

Finding the science in your world

Memory failure isn’t just about forgetting someone’s name or what you wrote on a lost shopping list. Memory failure also includes fabricating false memories such as fooling your recall of an event and filling in details that almost match the situation. While being able to invent memories may seem like fun, it can impact on witness statements about an accident or a crime.

Marketers on the other hand can take advantage of the way we create memories and associations. They often use suggestion or inference in their advertising to persuade customers to buy products without the customer having to remember specific details.