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How Researchers Were Able To Plant Memories In People’s Heads (Before Helping To Root Them Out)




A shattered mirror shows the reflections of people as they pass by.
A shattered mirror shows the reflections of people as they pass by.
PHOTO: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

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It might sound like a concept out of Chris Nolan’s 2010 box-office-hit-turned-cultural-touchstone “Inception,” but researchers in Germany and the United Kingdom were recently able to successfully plant memories in the minds of study participants before going back and helping the participants identify and root out the memories.

In the study, researchers did interviews in which they convinced test subjects that they had experienced events in their childhood that they had not actually experienced, for example that they had been in a car accident when they hadn’t, or that they’d been separated from their family when they actually had not. The researchers then used different interviewing techniques to bring the participants back through their memories and help them realize that they were false. While the study was conducted in a controlled setting and it’s difficult to say given its size how applicable the findings are on an individual level, it does back up pre-existing research about how moldable human memories actually are. And this study, in fact, goes one step further in suggesting that there may be ways that we can help people identify false or misremembered memories.

Today on AirTalk, we’ll explore the study and its findings as well as what the research tells us about how memories can be influenced.

Guests:

Hartmut Blank, co-author of the study "Rich false memories of autobiographical events can be reversed” and reader in psychology at the University of Portsmouth in Southern England

Elizabeth Loftus, distinguished professor of psychological and cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine, where she also teaches in criminology, law and society department