Science-- there's something for everyone

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Remembering false memories

Memory is notoriously unreliable. It’s common to clearly remember an event one way, only to discover (upon watching a replay or rereading a journal entry) that we were completely wrong. Isabel Lindner of the University of Cologne, Gerald Echterhoff of Jacobs University Bremen, Patrick Davidson of the University of Ottawa and Matthias Brand of the University of Duisburg-Essen have now added an item to the list of ways memory can be fooled. Apparently, watching other people perform an action makes people 'remember' doing it themselves.

The researchers showed a group of volunteers a video of other people performing simple actions, such as shuffling cards. In some cases, the subjects had performed that same action themselves, in others they hadn’t. When questioned two weeks later, many of the volunteers distinctly remembered doing things they had only observed. This was true even when the volunteers were primed ahead of time with the knowledge that this phenomenon could occur. The scientists called this effect ‘observation-inflation’.

This effect could be a result of the ‘mirror neuron system’. These neurons fire when an individual either performs an act, or observes another person performing that act. They are believed to be involved in empathizing with others, as they allow us to literally put ourselves in another's place. Now it appears that not only can we imagine what it would be like to perform an action upon seeing someone else do it, but we think we’re the ones who did it!