The truth about false memories

By Carrie Johnson Weimar • Published: December 8th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

It’s probably happened to all of us at some point: You get so caught up in watching something that later the line between seeing and doing gets mixed up in your mind. For example, you remember smacking a 300-yard drive down the middle of the fairway. But no, wait… that was Tiger Woods, whom you spent all last week watching in the Masters.

A group of scientists conducted several experiments to document this phenomenon. This builds on research that shows false memories can be created by imagining yourself doing something in great detail. For example, you just know you’ve told your spouse about the company picnic, only to find this is the first he’s heard of it. You’ve only pictured yourself saying it to him in your head.

This phenomenon is echoed in the experiments conducted by the scientists, all involving shaking a bottle. One group of participants was asked to imagine shaking a bottle, while another watched a video of a person doing it. A third read a statement about the shaking, and a fourth played word games using the phrase. Two weeks later, many of the participants who watched the video erroneously believed they were the ones who shook the bottle. The only group with stronger false memories was those who imagined shaking it.

Why does this happen? Scientists believe it’s due to the brain’s mirror neurons. When we watch someone doing something familiar, our brain unconsciously pantomimes what we observe. For example, when people connected to a brain scan observe someone throwing a ball, the sectors of their brain that govern throwing typically light up.

This gives us our capacity for empathy, which is a pretty terrific quality. Just try not to be discouraged when you can’t repeat Tiger’s performance on the golf course!