Can our memories be altered through recall?


Theorists are now suggesting that the more we try to remember and recall events, the more likely we are to fall victim of “false memory“.

One example put forward for this comes from Oliver Sacks autobiography – Uncle Tungsten. In it, he recalls a bombing during WWII;

…an incendiary bomb, a thermite bomb, fell behind our house and burned with a terrible, white-hot heat. My father had a stirrup pump, and my brothers carried pails of water to him, but water seemed useless against the infernal fire – indeed, made it burn even more furiously. There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal, and meanwhile the bomb was melting its own casing and throwing blobs and jets of molten metal in all directions”.

This extremely emotive and descriptive event has apparently been misremembered, stated Sacks’ brother. Oliver and one of his older brother’s were said to be at school that day, and missed the bombing. Is it possible for Oliver to have the idea implanted in his memory by a letter written to him by another of his siblings describing the event?

An earlier incident that Sacks did actually witness himself was also described in his autobiography;

“One night, a thousand pound bomb fell into the garden next to ours, but fortunately it failed to explode. All of us, the entire street, it seemed, crept away that night (my family to a cousins flat) – many of us in our pajamas – walking as softly as we could (might vibration set the thing off?). The streets were pitch dark, for the blackout was in force, and we all carried electric torches dimmed with red crepe paper. We had no idea if our houses would still be standing in the morning.”

This description is less emotive and less descriptive than the last, but Sacks was actually there to witness it. Why is this the case?

St. Jacques and Schachter (2013) set out to answer this question. They told participant which exhibits to visit on a self-guided museum tour. Two days later participants were shown pairs of photos of exhibits at the museums (both those they had seen and those they hadn’t). This was supposed to be representative of the times in your life when you look back on you memories and sometimes even fabricate some of them – imagining scenarios that in fact didn’t happen.

Three sessions later, participants were again shown photo’s of museum exhibits, but were this time asked to point out which ones they had actually viewed on their visit to the museum. At this point, it was shown that participants’ memories were enhanced, and distorted by the recall process. They were more likely to remember the exhibits they had seen photos of over the three sessions, than the ones they actually visited.

St. Jacques and Schachter (2013) also found that false memories can be strengthened, as participants who saw a picture in the second sitting were more likely to falsely remember that picture in the third sitting. It seems our memory doesn’t just get stronger as we grow older, it also becomes more susceptible to false memory or fabrication.


Written by: Philippa Berry.

Information taken from:

Posted: 19th February 2013

Photograph Source: