Are Your Memories Actually Real?

WMS Hello

If you look up the dictionary definition – “the ability of the mind to store and recall past sensations, thoughts, knowledge, etc” – then yes, the word "store" suggests that a memory can only come from something happening and your brain remembering that it happened.  Of course, before you stop reading, there’s something you should remind yourself: brains are fickle things, so why are you so sure it stores memories 100% accurately?

False memories

Yes, like in Inception: remembering something that never actually happened because someone put it in your head.  It sounds like something that shouldn’t be possible outside of films, but it is, and not just in laboratories:

  • The brains of mice aren’t so different from ours.  Scientists at MIT have successfully implanted false memories into sleeping mice who then associated locations with certain things even though they had never actually been to that place before.
  • Mitt Romney once recalled a childhood memory during a speech. The problem? The event happened nine months before he was born.  He either has a perfect memory stretching as far back as the day he was conceived, or his brain took information told to him as a child and adopted it as a memory.
  • Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has a sneakier approach: she takes real data from you and then offers you a profile that includes "false feedback": something that could have happened to you but didn’t, that you then provide the details about.

Repressed memories

These can be real, accidentally-on-purpose forgotten about memories because of how traumatic they were, but it’s unsure just how legitimate they are when there’s a chance that the memory that has been "recovered" is actually one that has been created as a response to pressure from a therapist; this uncertainty is an even bigger problem when people are being convicted due to the testimony of a witness or victim with repressed memories who may have created false memory simply due to how they were asked.

Déjà vu

You’ve never been there, you’ve never done that... and yet for a short time - usually no more than 30 seconds - you’re fully convinced that this has happened to you before.  That’s your brain confusing a real memory from something similar with the slightly familiar but actually new thing you’re experiencing now, as this study found by immersing their subjects into a 3D virtual reality village created in The Sims 2. 

Adopted memories

This article by NY Mag suggests that it’s possible for your vivid memory to actually be something that happened to your sibling.  It doesn’t even need to be a real person, as author Elizabeth McCracken found when she realized that "87% of my kindergarten memories are in fact plagiarized” from the Ramona Quimby books she read as a child. 


Sometimes your memory can be backed up - or triggered by - a photograph.  The funny thing about pictures, though, is that the moment captured in the picture isn’t necessarily an accurate portrayal of the moments that came before and after it; how much are we remembering something because that picture reminds us of that moment and how much have we fabricated the memory around the picture? As Linda Henkel warns us, too much picture-taking means missing out on the moments and details we won’t remember as clearly as we could have if we’d chosen to live in the moment rather than behind the camera.

What are your best and worst memories? Does what you remember match up to what other people remember?  Let us know whether or not you think all your memories are real!

The Washington Post
The Ranch
Scientific American
NY Mag
CBC News