Your Memories Most Likely Created Using Paint from
Our memory is no video camera; it edits the past
with present experiences
Feb. 5, 2014 - Your memory is a wily time traveler,
plucking fragments of the present and inserting them into the past,
reports a new Northwestern Medicine study. In terms of accuracy, it's no
video camera. Rather, the memory rewrites the past with current
information, updating your recollections with new experiences. Love at
first sight, for example, is more likely a trick of your memory than a
"When you think back to when you met your current
partner, you may recall this feeling of love and euphoria," said lead
author Donna Jo Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow in medical social sciences
at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "But you may be
projecting your current feelings back to the original encounter with
The study will be published Feb. 5 in the
Journal of Neuroscience.
This the first study to show specifically how
memory is faulty, and how it can insert things from the present into
memories of the past when those memories are retrieved. The study shows
the exact point in time when that incorrectly recalled information gets
implanted into an existing memory.
To help us survive, Bridge said, our memories adapt
to an ever-changing environment and help us deal with what's important
"Our memory is not like a video camera," Bridge
said. "Your memory reframes and edits events to create a story to fit
your current world. It's built to be current."
All that editing happens in the hippocampus, the
new study found. The hippocampus, in this function, is the memory's
equivalent of a film editor and special effects team.
For the experiment, 17 men and women studied 168
object locations on a computer screen with varied backgrounds such as an
underwater ocean scene or an aerial view of Midwest farmland. Next,
researchers asked participants to try to place the object in the
original location but on a new background screen. Participants would
always place the objects in an incorrect location.
For the final part of the study, participants were
shown the object in three locations on the original screen and asked to
choose the correct location. Their choices were: the location they
originally saw the object, the location they placed it in part 2 or a
brand new location.
"People always chose the location they picked in
part 2," Bridge said. "This shows their original memory of the location
has changed to reflect the location they recalled on the new background
screen. Their memory has updated the information by inserting the new
information into the old memory."
Participants took the test in an MRI scanner so
scientists could observe their brain activity. Scientists also tracked
participants' eye movements, which sometimes were more revealing about
the content of their memories and if there was conflict in their
choices -- than the actual location they ended up choosing.
The notion of a perfect memory is a myth, said Joel
Voss, senior author of the paper and an assistant professor of medical
social sciences and of neurology at Feinberg.
"Everyone likes to think of memory as this thing
that lets us vividly remember our childhoods or what we did last week,"
Voss said. "But memory is designed to help us make good decisions in the
moment and, therefore, memory has to stay up-to-date. The information
that is relevant right now can overwrite what was there to begin with."
Bridge noted the study's implications for
eyewitness court testimony. "Our memory is built to change, not
regurgitate facts, so we are not very reliable witnesses," she said.
A caveat of the research is that it was done in a
controlled experimental setting and shows how memories changed within
the experiment. "Although this occurred in a laboratory setting, it's
reasonable to think the memory behaves like this in the real world,"
The research was supported by the National
Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke grant R00-NS069788 and
the National Institute on Aging grant T32AG20506, both of the National
Institutes of Health.
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