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Friday, December 6, 2013

Even people with superior memories can be fooled

Memory is a fascinating thing. Our memories are a huge part of making us who we are, and yet it’s surprisingly easy to implant false memories. And you don’t have to enter people’s dreams or give them drugs to do it. All you need to do is be moderately suggestive.
Of course, there are people who have ‘highly superior autobiographical memory’ (HSAM). This extremely rare condition is also called hyperthymesia, but you could think of it as possessing a superhuman memory. 

People with this kind of memory don’t remember everything better than mere mortals. If you give them a list of unrelated words to memorize, they do no better than anyone else. They just remember the details of their own lives with amazing precision. They can recall the day of the week and the events of any day in their lives with 97% accuracy for details that can be independently verified. Meanwhile, I can’t remember what I had for dinner two nights ago.

You would think that people with such exceptional and accurate memories would be much less susceptible to false memories. Wrong. Lawrence Patihis and his colleagues from the University of California, Irvine found that it’s just as  easy to implant false memories in HSAM individuals as it is in the rest of us. 

The researchers gave 20 HSAM participants (which represents nearly all the confirmed cases) and 38 age and sex-matched controls a series of false memory tests. For example, participants were given lists of 15 words, one at a time, and then asked whether they had seen a word that had not been included. All the participants were equally likely to have falsely remembered seeing that word.

In a more interesting memory test, participants were shown a story through a series of photographs. For example, they saw 50 pictures showing someone breaking into a car. Forty minutes later, the subjects were given a 50 sentence written description of the events depicted in the photos, 47 of which were true and 3 of which were false. After another 20 minutes, subjects were asked what they remembered having seen in the pictures. 

HSAM people were even more likely than regular people to insist that they had seen events that they had not seen. 

Finally, when primed to think that video footage of United flight 93 crashing on 9/11/2001 exists (it does not), HSAMs were just as likely as controls to say that they had seen that footage. And this was despite the fact that HSAM individuals have extraordinary recall of personal and public events.

Clearly, even people with remarkable memories are not immune to memory distortions. They’re no better in the jury box than anyone else.

Lawrence Patihis, Steven J. Frenda, Aurora K. R. LePort, Nicole Petersen, Rebecca M. Nichols, Craig E. L. Starkb,c,, James L. McGaugh, & Elizabeth F. Loftus (2013). False memories in highly superior autobiographical memory individuals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1314373110.

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