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Memory is Unreliable 1


Nostalgia is the Best Liar: Why Human Memory is Unreliable

Mary E. Mumford
Glen Allen High School
Memory is Unreliable 2


Memory is an element of the brain that allows humans to encode and recall events from

the past. Without such a tool it would be nearly impossible for humans to function because one’s

memory gives them a basic sense of self, at the least. For decades, people have regarded their

memory as being concrete and unchanging, yet in recent years the malleability of memory has

become a topic of debate. Behind this debate, causes of what contributes to memory plasticity of

events that are more stimulating than everyday occurrences. Though there has always been some

question of the memory’s dependability, the ease of memory alteration and creation of false

memories has made this a trending topic for exploration, particularly in relation to the criminal

justice system and its impact on falsely accused criminals. There has been a compelling amount

of research and studies conducted that prove memory as not being completely reliable, which

prompt investigation on many significant implications leading to the question: Should we rely on

human memory for accurate recollections of events?

False Memory

Memory is complicated mechanism that is a difficult to understand on all platform.

Because there are so many outside influences on one’s memory, the brain can easily form

memories of completely false events. Subtle cues in one’s daily life have the ability to aid in the

formation of a completely falsified memory (Hogenboom, 2013). The ease of creating false

memories was proven by Elizabeth Loftus in a 1994 experiment where she conducted a study

using suggestive techniques in order to implant false memories into participants. As a result,

Loftus (1994) was able to implant a false memory of getting lost in a grocery store as a child in a

quarter of her participants. The ability to take advantage of the imagination as a method for

creating false memories stems from the human tendency to visualize events told to them in so
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vividly that they are believed to be true (Hogenboom, 2013). Due to the attribution of

imagination, falsely created memories can become even stronger and more vivid as time goes on,

which is the opposite of how true memories function (Cherry, 2017).

False memories can have both minor and major impacts as they relate back to a person’s

self-perception. A false memory can range from a minor error in an existing memory to the

creation of an entirely new one, as mentioned in the Loftus study (Cherry, 2017). Researcher

Sergio Della Sala says that "[false memories] are a by-product of a memory system that works

well. You can make inferences very fast”. The use of inferences is an influential cause behind

false memories because humans naturally will fill in gaps of their memories with what they think

would have happened. Contrary to popular belief, memory is not able to record every detail that

occurs on a daily basis therefore humans must use inferences in order to fill in the gaps of an

event (Hogenboom, 2013).

Additionally, another major source of falsified memories is psychotherapy, which is the

treatment of a mental disorder using psychological means rather than medical. The recovery of

repressed memory in adults is a vital technique used in this type of therapy, yet often times it can

evoke false memories to be formed as a result of suggestion from the therapist (Brainerd &

Reyna, 2005). This form of therapy has created extreme cases of false memory in adults such as

childhood sexual abuse or harassment (Brainerd & Reyna, 2005). Many false memories are from

childhood and adolescence therefore proving that memory is susceptible to revision later one in

addition to immediately following an event (French, 2016). Evidently, memories that are often

modified or falsely created are those that have an increasing significance and are more often

recalled, giving it a more extreme effect.

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The Influence of Trauma

The establishment that traumatic events have a significant impact on memory recollection

has sparked a variety of studies and tests to prove the extent of the impact. Generally,

recollection of an event from memory includes a combination of compiling remembered events

and using inferences to fill in the memory’s gaps (Lents, 2016). Because inferences cannot be

entirely accurate, a person’s biases, previous experiences, drives, and expectations can all impact

the inferential process therefore distorting what one seems to remember. The uncertainty of these

processes translates to traumatic memories because people tend to “over-remember” them

(Lents, 2016). These memories are likely to be extensively rehearsed into the victim’s brain

therefore enhancing the event and exacerbating the attached emotion. This is where memory

distortion comes into play because victims will re-encode a heightened form of the memory each

time they recalled it. The action of over-remembering and enhancing a memory plays a role in

the formation of mental illnesses, such as PTSD, following traumatic experiences (Lents, 2016).

Post-traumatic stress disorder results from the intrusive nature of traumatic memories and the

deficits that occur thereafter (Samuelson, 2011).

Moreover, the theory of source monitoring regarding memory distortion says that “people

do not store the details of an experience in their memory accompanied by labels specifying their

origins” (Lents, 2016). Rather people use heuristics in order to determine whether a memory

occurred or if it was subject to suggestion or imagination (Lents, 2016). In relation to trauma,

post-event processing can easily increase the awareness of details, whether or not they are true,

making it easier for people to mistake inaccurate details as “genuine memory traces” (Lents,

2016). Dr. Deryn Strange conducted a study and a follow-up examination to test source

monitoring in relation to trauma where he found that “inattentive source monitoring can lead to
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memory distortion and that these distortions are most pronounced with traumatic memories”

(Lents, 2016).

Additionally, there is a neurological explanation for the distortion of memory in response

to traumatic events which lay mainly in the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala. The pre-frontal

cortex is responsible for executive functions in regards to where one’s attention is focused,

rational thought processes, and inhibiting impulses. When the body is put in high stress

situations, like the fear or terror experienced during sexual assault or combat, the prefrontal

cortex can be impaired or even shut down due to the abrupt surge of stress chemicals being

released (Lisak, 2014). When this part of the brain is impaired people lack the control to focus

their attention, it becomes more difficult to make sense of what is being experienced thus making

it harder to recall such experiences in an orderly way (Lisak, 2014). Since the prefrontal cortex

becomes less able to control attention when fear kicks in, the brain’s fear circuitry in the

amygdala takes charge of where one’s attention is placed. The overwhelming nature of traumatic

events leads to attention being placed on fragmentary sensations rather than the defining and

important elements of the experience (Lisak, 2014). During an event, the attention controls what

is encoded in memory therefore the recorded memories are not always the most accurate

recollections of the traumatic because not all aspects are taken into account. In addition to

controlling attention, the fear circuitry also alters the hippocampus which encodes experiences

into short-term memory and can store them into long-term memory (Lisak, 2014). Fear, which is

often prevalent during trauma, also impairs the ability of the hippocampus to encode contextual

information and time sequencing information thus invalidating the memory in comparison to the

reality of the situation (Lisak, 2014). Because of the various brain processes that occur during

traumatic experiences, memories of these scenarios are easily altered.

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The Role of Emotions

The emotional state of a person during an event can impact the process of encoding of a

memory and whether a person is able to recall a memory at a given time. One’s emotional state

can influence whether or not they can memorize certain details that are present during an event,

despite one’s stress level (Waude, 2016). All memories have an emotional association and those

that we remember best have the strongest emotion attached (Trafton, 2014). From an

evolutionary perspective, emotions influence memory because the experience of distressing

emotions is an inherited trait which become a method of survival because humans are able to

recognize situations involving danger or discomfort (Waude, 2016). Emotionally stimulating

events often receive priority garnering the greater share of available resources in the brain (Talmi

et al., 1970). Furthermore, one’s attention is more likely to be focused on stimuli that elicit

emotional response, which was demonstrated in a study where “participants were shown a

control set of emotionally neutral images with pictures such as those depicting various injuries,

eliciting an emotional response” (Waude, 2016). The results of the study suggest that people’s

attention is drawn to emotive stimuli because the subjects’ focus would increase where the

images shown to them were more emotive (Waude, 2016).

Because attention is shifted to emotional stimuli, many people will experience an

attentional blink, meaning they are unable to focus on a second stimuli therefore it may be harder

to remember something if immediately focuses on something beforehand (Waude, 2016). Since

attention of emotionally driven events is undivided, the memories are much more focused so

memories, in theory, should be must more concentrated on details pertaining to the event. In

addition to attention being hyper-focused in such situations, the processes of emotion in the

encoding process of memory is also prioritized so emotion is more strongly encoded as part of
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the memory than the actual details (Talmi et al., 1970). This prioritized processing is a part of the

attentional blink phenomenon meaning that people will often miss a second stimuli after

experiencing an emotional charged first one (Talmi et al., 1970). However, the negativity

associated with traumatic events can lead attention to be focused on insignificant things, making

recollection of details much more unreliable. In addition, the long term memory of such events is

much more focused on the attached emotion rather than the true sequence of events. A person is

more likely to recall their emotional state of the time of an event rather than the details of the

occurrence (Talmi et al., 1970). Though emotions can create a stronger memory consolidation,

the nature of strongly attached emotion can mislead humans to believe they have a better grasp

on the event.

Karim Nader’s Theory

Because there is no way to have a definite answer to the processing of memory, many

experts in the field have created theories to answer the question of why human memory is ever-

changing. Karim Nader in an expert and researcher on memory malleability and has presented

the idea that “the very act of remembering can change our memories” (Miller, 2010). Nader’s

research is focused on memory consolidation and reconsolidation with a focus on emotional

events and fear (Eaves, 2012). His research suggests that it may be close to impossible for a

person to recall a memory without some sort of misguided alteration taking place (Miller, 2010).

This suggests a greater amount of memory malleability than previously believed to be true,

bringing an entirely new perspective to memory. Additional research done at Northwestern

University School of Medicine, tested the ability for participants to correctly place an object

based on memory and the results show that the memory was edited therefore supporting Nader’s

claim that a memory can be altered after consolidated (Heslin et al., 2014).
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Nader’s unconventional theory has been studied down to the basic building blocks of the

human brain, neurons and neurotransmitters. Studies done on rodents revealed that drugs and

electric shocks weaken a memory demonstrating the ability for a memory to be changed after it

is consolidated (Miller, 2010). Nader’s ideas were further examined in terms of flashbulb

memories, which are memories of momentous events (Miller, 2010). Though people are

typically able to remember the basic facts of an event, they may be unable to remember the

personal details completely accurately (Miller, 2010). Researcher, Oliver Hardt (2010), theorizes

that flashbulb memories are reactivated in various different scenarios allowing people to permit

others’ personal details of the event to mix with their own. Hardt believes that “[w]hen you retell

it, the memory becomes plastic, and whatever is present around you in the environment can

interfere with the original content of the memory”. This theory of reconsolidation accounts for

the influence of other people on one’s memory because of the ease of allowing other people’s

truth to creep their way into one’s own. Nader believes that there are additional ways that

flashbulb memories can be altered: television and other media sources. Media sources can

reinforce certain facts of a recalled memory, making it susceptible to modification. Because

consolidation of a memory does not make it fixed, memories can be changed on the basis of a

variety of factors every time it is recalled. Reconsolidation contributes to the instability of

memory therefore making it difficult to trust a memory each time it is recalled because the more

it is recalled the more susceptible the memory is to change.


All the provided research suggests that humans cannot trust memories as much as

believed, creating some negative societal effects. One of the most pressing issues in relation to

memory malleability is within the criminal justice system and the prevalence of false accusations
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based on eyewitness testimonies. In courts it has often been believed that memory acts as a

recording device leading to over trusting testimonies solely based on memory recollection

without other supporting evidence (Loftus, 2013). When witnesses to a crime are being

interviewed it is easy for misinformation to be created by the questions they are being asked and

how such questions are worded. A study done by Elizabeth Loftus (2013) concluded that people

will answer questions different solely based on how they are worded, which demonstrates the

simplicity in feeding victims or witnesses false information that can create inaccurate

accusations. Moreover, survivors of trauma often forget many important details that are vital to

identifying the perpetrator (Lisak, 2014). The prefrontal cortex, which controls where attentions

goes, is often impaired or shut down in states of increased stress or fear making it difficult for the

brain to make sense of the situation and later recall the event in an orderly fashion (Lisak, 2104).

Evidently victims are unable to accurately recall events of high stress situations, such as rape or

assault cases, therefore their memory is easily impaired. This fault has been demonstrated in

many real world criminal cases where people have been falsely accused and sent to jail only to

later have their innocence revealed through alternate methods. The Innocence Project (1992) is

an organization that works to free criminals who have been wrongly convicted of crimes. One of

the many cases that was taken on by this organization is that of Marvin Anderson, whom was

convicted after being chosen from a lineup after the victim had previously been exposed to his

picture (Innocence Project, 1992). The victim initially had little recollection of her attacker yet

she was able to easily identify him and testify in detail regarding an attack she hardly

remembered (Innocence Project, 1992). There is an abundance of stories similar to Anderson’s

where one’s false or modified memories have become the deciding factor of a criminal’s

innocence. According to the Innocence Project (1992), 37% of wrongfully imprisoned

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individuals are convicted, in part, due to false testimonies. Memory plays such a large role in

criminal cases that its ability to change so vastly has a major, negative impact on the system.

Though there are many negative associations with the malleability of memory, many

researchers have also discovered how to use this to their advantage. A study at MIT discovered

the brain circuit that links a memory to either positive or negative emotions therefore giving the

researchers the opportunity to shift one’s emotion association to a memory (Trafton, 2014).

According to Trafton (2014):

“the researchers found that they could reverse the emotional association of specific
memories by manipulating brain cells with optogenetics — a technique that uses light to
control neuron activity. The findings, described in the Aug. 27 issue of Nature,
demonstrated that a neuronal circuit connecting the hippocampus and the amygdala plays
a critical role in associating emotion with memory. This circuit could offer a target for
new drugs to help treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

As new research arises it is increasingly simple to alter memories for the benefit of human

existence. Generally, memories impact the way people behave and think therefore bad or

traumatic memories are given a large amount of power on humans. By manipulating the

reconsolidation process of memory, scientists are able to change bad memories to good ones.

Another idea in investigation is the ability to completely extinguish memories through the use of

various drugs (Lu, 2015). Researchers are attempting to take away receptors from the synapse of

a neuron in order to alter the strength of synaptic transmission and learning, which can

selectively disrupt memory-related mechanisms in certain brain regions (Lu, 2015). The intent of

this research is to remove bad habits or fears that result from negative memories. The

malleability of memory processes is a human loophole to alter their everyday behavior as it

relates to their memory. Humans form their actions and perception based on life experiences
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which in term makes it difficult to erase memories with negative influence, yet modern research

allows for this to be a beneficial factor of the human brain.


There are many factors that contribute to complexity of the memory processes and why

human memory has increasingly been regarded as unreliable. Analyzing the different

contributors provides reason as to why people do not remember events as accurately as one may

think. There is not one part of the brain the completely controls memory, on the contrary there

are many different components that impact both long and short term memory, as well as how

they are encoded and recalled. Though there is not set cause of the memory’s plasticity, there are

many contributing factors. One of the most pressing of these factors being traumatic events

because the brain’s attention is often focused elsewhere in order to restrict harmful influence in

the future. Additionally, the emotion one is feeling at the time of the consolidation of a memory

can impact both processes of encoding and recollection. This idea of consolidation is debunked

as Karim Nader’s theory of reconsolidation offers newfound information on how memories can

be changed simply by recalling them. The implications of the inaccuracy of memory mainly lays

in the criminal justice system and the false convictions of criminals based solely on witness

testimonies. There are also positive ramifications to memory malleability as it grants leeway for

researchers to remove the negative influence of traumatic memory. It has become increasingly

common for people to question the trustworthiness of memory, which is helping to decrease

memory reliance. From the research provided it is abundantly clear that the complexity of human

memory inhibits us from being able to trust it wholeheartedly.

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Reference List

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Eaves, E. (2012, July 17). Altering Human Memory. Retrieved April 25, 2018, from


French, C. (2016, March 29). Social recall: Factors that can affect false memory. Retrieved

March 22, 2018, from


Heslin, D., Kumfor, F., Kim, J., & Bates, K. (2014). The instability of memory: how your brain

edits your recollections. Retrieved February 27, 2018, from


Hogenboom, M. (2013, September 29). Why does the human brain create false memories?

Retrieved March 22, 2018, from

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Lents, N. H. (2016, May 23). F, PTSD, and Memory Distortion. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from


Lisak, J. H. (2014, December 09). Why Rape and Trauma Survivors Have Fragmented and

Incomplete Memories. Retrieved March 20, 2018, from


Loftus, E. (2013). Elizabeth Loftus: How reliable is your memory?[video file]. Retrieved from

Lu, S. (2015, February). Erasing Bad Memories. Retrieved April 25, 2018, from

Mastin, L. (2010). The Human Memory. Retrieved March 27, 2018, from


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Samuelson, K. W. (2011, September). Post-traumatic stress disorder and declarative memory

functioning. Retrieved April 25, 2018, from

The Innocence Project. (1992). Retrieved from

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Talmi, D., Anderson, A. K., Riggs, L., Caplan, J. B., & Moscovitch, M. (1970, January 01).

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Trafton, A., & MIT News Office. (2014, August 27). Neuroscientists reverse memories'

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