Take a moment to think about a childhood memory. Think about a specific thing you liked, or maybe a specific thing you hated, or even just one overall general attribute of your young life. Maybe you remember a time where you and your best friend snuck into a scary movie. Perhaps it was a time when a bird flew into your house, causing the entire family to panic. Don’t ask any family members how things went down, don’t view any videos or pictures, just think about those memories as hard as you can. Once you think you’ve sufficiently remembered such memories, defer to those people or videos, and compare your own recollections to what they remember. No matter how many details you think you’ve gotten right, you’ll start to notice that there are gaps within those recollections. It’s all because your brain is altering these memories to fit what you want in this point of time.
These false memory findings come from Elizabeth Loftus. According to her research, “the hippocampus, which plays a key role in the creation of memories, has not matured enough to form and store long-lasting memories that can be retrieved in adulthood events” (Loftus). Because of this, our brains doesn’t have all the pieces to our childhood memories like our adult ones do. Even the most vivid memories we have can be filled with false memories. This truth came to me personally as I discussed memories with my sister one day. As we conversed, my sister brought up events and actions that I either couldn’t recall or that I assumed I had done differently. She told me that I had once played with my hands as if they were action figures. It was strange to me that such a habit of mine seemed to be more vivid to her, to the point that my mother would agree with her. This clearer outlook on my past was because she had been older at the time those events had occurred, allowing her to remember more than I did.
Usually the brain will alter the memories of the mind by accident, in an effort to fill in the missing parts of different memories. However, the brain is most often fueled by the influence of surrounding people, filling in those gaps based on the comments and suggestions of others. When we want to recall a memory that supports the type of person we’ve become, our memories become open to the suggestions of other people. “Corroboration of an event by another person can be a powerful technique for instilling a false memory” (Loftus). Due to the constant input of other people, every time our brain recalls any of our distant memories, it adds details that weren’t there before. Sometime entire memories can be false, created based on the suggestions of others. I’ve experienced such a thing myself in my own adult years. There was once a time where I reunited with a person who told me I was once friends with them. However, I had no memory of the person myself due to being very young during that time. Because I don’t remember such an uneventful part of my life, my brain started filling in the parts I couldn’t recall based on the suggestions by the friend. Even if I had actually spent time with the friend in the past, any memories I have of our friendship now are still technically false, completely recreated by his suggestions.
Even memories that are not false can be affected by the words of others. My mother often tells me how much I used to adore the song “My Favorite Things” as a child. She tells me this so often that I’ve come to just accept it. As a result, even though I can never remember singing the song that often, I have still come to remember it being a notable detail of my childhood. Any question or statement made by anyone around you works the same way, subtly altering the way the mind perceives its own memories. We are always influenced by the world and people around us, even if it isn’t always noticeable. The people around us do this subconsciously, since their thoughts are focused on making a connection with others. In turn, our brains reciprocate or reject this connection, shown either when you agree with their recollection or if you remember things differently. Although the most influential forces on our brains occurs when we are at our most vulnerable.
When I was very young, I lost my birth father to cancer. There are things I recall about it that were true, such as my family members around me being very torn over the loss. I often like to remember I myself being the same way. However, when I focus on those memories, I find that it didn’t affect me as much as I thought. Perhaps I cried when he passed, but in the years afterward I remember being rather unaffected. In the years after though, I would often hear from my family how I had similar interests to him, and how much I acted like him. It felt wrong for me not to experience strong emotions when it came to a person so close to me passing away. I believe that is why I often incorrectly recalled how I felt about the situation. I didn’t want to feel less human, and my brain forged false memories in response. As I’ve grown older, I’ve had to come to terms with the absence of my emotions. I wasn’t less human, I was only a toddler that didn’t necessarily understand what he had lost.
Although I’ve made it sound as if you should be paranoid of any memory you can ever recall, that isn’t necessarily true either. While the brain can forget details of events, it can still recall more major aspects. Just as it can’t get everything right, it also can’t get everything wrong, either. Because memories are such fickle things however, it can be troublesome to rely on them to make decisions in the present. These memories are so influenced by our imperfect brains, that they may end up being little more than our own imaginations. In a study on implanting false memories, Loftus found that the more times their subjects imagined an unperformed action, the more they remembered doing it (Loftus). With so much of our childhood built on false memory, basing our present actions off of them can cause problems.
It is said that it is unwise to hold onto the past. Most people would say this because a person is holding a grudge or because they can’t let go of something important to them. In truth, it seems we can’t hold onto those memories, no matter how hard we try. It isn’t our faults entirely. Our brains can’t always keep track of all information running through our heads, and glitches can occur, causing bits and pieces of data to be lost. These false memories are meant to compensate for such data loss, a way for our minds to fit to our needs. It is when we dwell on these memories that we become hindered by them. We make decisions based on false pretenses of what we think happened. We become confused as to who we really are, much like I was when I forced myself to have feelings about my father’s death I didn’t really have. But when I scrutinized my contemporary feelings on the matter and focused on who I wanted to be in that moment, I was able to come to terms with the emotions I didn’t feel and the memories I couldn’t quite remember. In the end, it is not the actions we may or may not have taken in the past that matter, but the choices we make now. By realizing that, we can help ourselves move forward while still admiring our childhood memories, whether they be false or not.
Loftus, Elizabeth F. “Creating False Memories.” Scientific American, vol. 277, no. 3, 1997,
pp. 70–75. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24995