Skip to main content

Our Memories Are Deeply Flawed, and We’ll Be Happier If We Accept It

Criminal psychologist Julia Shaw’s first book reminds us that we can’t always trust our memories.

By Ed Cara


(Photo: Health Blog/Flickr)

To know ourselves is to remember. We cement our identities by reflecting on the slights of childhood, or the sparks of a first adolescent kiss. Even our subjective ideals of beauty or terror depend on the earliest remembrances of a sunset, or the pitter-patter of raindrops on our bedroom window late at night. Memories are the language we use to tell our story: who we are and how we came to be.

The act of remembering something requires a mix of conscious and unconscious processes so complex that it’s a near-miracle we’ve been able to glean the tiniest insights into it, and so automatic that we often take it for granted. That process is also woefully easy to screw up — a point that criminal psychologist Julia Shaw elegantly demonstrates in her new popular book,The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting and the Science of False Memory. Shaw’s debut book is a spryly paced, fun, sometimes frightening exploration of how we remember — and why everyone remembers things that never truly happened.*

Currently a senior lecturer in criminology at London South Bank University and contributor to Scientific American’s Mind blog, Shaw is part of the new generation of memory scientists, following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Elizabeth Loftus and Ira Hyman. It’s fitting, then, that her book is equal parts breezy guide through the recent lessons we’ve learned about memory, and a loving tribute to the sometimes eccentric researchers who toiled away in the laboratory to uncover them.

The ubiquity of false memories isn’t exclusive to humans — Shaw explains that bumblebees and rats can also experience them — but we’re likely the only species capable of being terrified to our core by their existence.

Shaw’s quirky charm enlivens the book throughout. With an air of devilishness, she tells us about the experiment where Hyman and his colleagues convinced one-third of their volunteers to falsely remember the time they embarrassed themselves at a family wedding by spilling a punchbowl onto the bride’s parents when they were just five years old. Her explanation of early neural development and why we can’t remember our births is sprinkled with a reference to Spiderman’s guiding mantra (“With great brain growth comes great pruning”). And during Shaw’s illuminating discussion of the shaky theory of traumatic memory repression, she confesses in an aside that she sometimes imagines walking alongside Sigmund Freud, who originated the theory and who spent his last frail days in the same London neighborhood where Shaw currently lives. Shaw also makes no bones about her curmudgeonly skepticism on hypnosis, particularly when it’s used to restore supposedly forgotten memories.

There is an unwavering, sensible brightness throughout the chapters, one that you’d be hard-pressed to find in other books on the phenomenon of false memories, such as Ethan Watters and Richard Oshfe’s forcefully argued Making Monsters, Harvard University professor Richard McNally’s more academicRemembering Trauma, and Meredith Maran’s personal memoir My Lie: A True Story of False Memory. Though these previous efforts approached the topic from different angles, they all focused more narrowly on the era of the late 20th century when memories themselves became a battleground on which the larger cultural war over sexual abuse was fought.

The recovered-memory movement in the 1980s and ’90s emboldened people to root out their supposedly forgotten pasts — usually with the help of a therapist — and confront their tormentors, often their own parents, while fueling an adjacent hysteria about uncovering clandestine, sometimes occult-themed, networks of sexual predators. During that period and to this day, advocacy organizations and mental-health professionals rightly asserted that victims of sexual assault and abuse, disproportionately women and young children, were often ignored by society.


The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting and the Science of False Memory. (Photo: Random House)

This impulse to ignore trauma proved so powerful (argued a vocal minority) that victims could shut themselves off to the experience by wholly repressing their memories of the abuse, especially if it had happened repeatedly and during childhood. Though the memories lay dormant, they manifested physically through a variety of vague symptoms like body aches, and under the most extreme circumstances could even cause the fracturing of a person’s mind and the creation of multiple personalities. Soon enough, a cottage industry of newly trained therapists and tell-all books of recovered trauma encouraged women to step forward and reinstate their abusive pasts, while law-enforcement agencies and prosecutors aggressively pursued and sometimes jailed alleged perpetrators of repressed childhood abuse within their small towns.

Thanks to the dogged efforts of Loftus and those like her, as well as the testimonials of those who recanted their recovered pasts, we now accept that many of these stories were elicited through suggestive therapeutic and interviewing techniques known to induce false memories. And while memories of trauma can often be fragmented, imprecise, or inaccessible for years at a time, the majority of research indicates that wholesale traumatic repression (and subsequent therapeutic recovery) is more folklore than fact. Leaders of the movement like Dr. Bennett Braun were temporarily stripped of their licenses amid hefty settlements paid to patients; popular daytime television personalities like Geraldo Rivera apologized for their role in fueling the Satanic Panic; and the accused parents and daycare workers convicted in these criminal investigations were eventually released — though some, like Dan and Fran Keller, would wait 23 years for their freedom.

Shaw devotes plenty of time to these memory wars, crucial as they were to the growth and development of her research field, but her central point is broader: False memories aren’t a “syndrome” caused by therapists, or by reading Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil too many times; they’re an everyday part of us — a consequence of our brain’s otherwise remarkable ability to snatch learned concepts of the outside world (what flowers look and smell like) and combine them with the details of an emotionally tinged moment (a first date at the botanical gardens). This associative system of memory — which Shaw likens repeatedly to a house party filled with cherished recollections, the occasional unwanted thought, and intriguing recent experiences that mix and match with one another — allows us to be creative and remember distant childhood experiences with a warmth that helps us keep living. But it also creates opportunities for our mind to routinely generate memories that aren’t always objectively true.

It’s unnerving to accept that implausible memories of Satanic cults or sexual abuse can be conjured under certain conditions, but it’s chilling in a different way to know that all our recollections are a patchwork of imprecise perceptions that generally make our pasts rosier.

The ubiquity of false memories isn’t exclusive to humans — Shaw explains that bumblebees and rats can also experience them — but we’re likely the only species capable of being terrified to our core by their existence. It’s unnerving to accept that implausible memories of Satanic cults or sexual abuse can be conjured under certain conditions, but it’s chilling in a different way to know that all our recollections are a patchwork of imprecise perceptions that generally make our pasts rosier than they really are. To make matters worse, Shaw illustrates that we’re also deeply overconfident about the accuracy of our memories, a troubling problem for the criminal justice system and its reliance on eyewitness testimony. We even plagiarize other people’s accounts of the past and retrofit them to portray ourselves as protagonists — a parlor trick that might better explain news anchor Brian Williams’ false retelling of his harrowing escape from enemy fire during the Iraq War in 2003 than any willful intention on his part to deceive the public, Shaw notes.

This sort of terror helps explain why Shaw’s descriptions of her recent work in memory manipulation sometimes feel like a horror novella. In what’s easily a highlight of the book, Shaw deftly details the experiments where her team convinced as many as 70 percent of their volunteers to believe they committed crimes, lost large sums of money, or experienced bodily injury when they were young. How? By first asking them to reflect on a true and emotionally relevant memory, then falsely recounting an event in their lives that their parents had supposedly told the researchers about beforehand and encouraging the volunteers to visualize that event. For those who returned a week later convinced that the event had happened, their subsequent memories proved so indistinguishable from the real deal that third-party observers who watched a video of the participants describing their pasts were unable to tell the difference. Shaw’s research also serves as a rebuttal to embittered critics who have long argued that experiments in the lab can’t effectively, or least ethically, nudge people into falsely remembering childhood traumatic experiences.

With a bit of defensiveness, Shaw assures us that she isn’t a brainwasher: Her team takes pains to disclose their deception to the volunteers after the experiment is all said and done. But the science performed by Shaw and others certainly threatens our most popular conceptions of memory and learning.

Over my short career as a journalist, and much as Shaw has, I’ve obsessively researched the science of memory and personally investigated recentcases where the accused perpetrator of a sexual assault claimed that their victim had falsely remembered the act. These cases, fraught with complexity, still keep me up at night, stirring over the accusations as well as about the uncertainty of my own lived past.

But while Shaw sympathizes with that angst of feeling betrayed by our own brains, her outlook remains optimistic. Rather than be paralyzed over the knowledge that our memories are inevitably flawed, Shaw invites us to embrace this knowledge and to use it — especially as new ways of remembering, via the digital memories of our social media accounts, become commonplace. Whether it’s improving how police officers interview eyewitnesses in the wake of a crime or avoiding the latest free trial of HBO Now (since we’ll likely forget to cancel it before the monthly bills start coming), Shaw insists that acknowledging the shortcomings of memory can only help us “adhere to a whole new ethos.”

“It encourages us to live in the moment and not to place too much importance on our past,” she writes toward the end of the book. “It forces us to accept that the best time of our lives and our memory, is right now.”



*Update— June 23, 2016: This post has been updated to better reflect Julia Shaw’s area of scholarly expertise.