Burning memories

By • Published: October 8th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Most scientists think that crimes and other negative events focus our minds… burning accurate, unforgettable details into our memories… especially in adults.

These are the memories so often referred to by insurance adjusters and police officers, or retold on witness stands in courtrooms around the country.

But could it be that our recollection of traumatic events is not extra sharp, but in fact more inaccurate, even foggy?

Cornell researchers have presented findings that emotions triggered by violence, loss or trauma distorte memories. And although it goes against prevailing wisdom, children get through these painful events with clearer recollection than adults.

The researchers showed lists of closely related emotional words, such as pain, cut, ouch, cry, and injury, to children and young adults.

But some words, like “hurt,” were not on the list.

Participants were later asked to recognize the words they had seen, but from a new list with new words like “hurt” mixed in. Children more easily recognized the original words, while adults would mistakenly remember that “hurt” was on the list.

The scientists continued to tinker with the emotional content of the word lists, discovered that negative emotional content in fact resulted in more false memories.

From these mistakes, researchers determined the level of emotion-induced false memory at each age.

The researchers believe the results, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, cut against the grain of most legal and psychological thinking and have implications for the criminal justice system.

For the rest of us, maybe we can take it to mean that our fond memories are our truest ones, and that our bad memories may really not have been so bad after all.