When we watch a show on stage, TV or movie, we do the little trick of suspending disbelief. We do not believe what we are experiencing but we treat the content ‘as if we believed it’ for the duration of the show. We can re-enter that disbelieved experience if we choose, as if it were a memory of something that actually happened. The show can have lasting effects on how we view the world and interact with others. It has all the hallmarks of a really personal experience except that we know it is fictional. Some books and story-tellers have enough power to activate the imagination in this way, even though we do not experience the sight and sound that we would in a show. What is the difference between this sort of memory and what we call false-memory? It is only the believe that the events remembered actually happened to us.
According to a recent paper (Clark, Nash, Fincham, Mazzoni – see citation), belief and memory are separate processes. We can have: memories that we believe were events, memories that we do not believe were events, beliefs about events that we do not remember, and events that we neither believe nor remember. So in the same way that sight is not like a camera, hearing is not like a microphone – memory is not like a video recording, and a good thing too, or we would have much less material to think with. But we have to be aware that there are such things as false-memories; they may even be quite common.
The authors found that belief is easier to modify than memory. It is easier to create a false belief in a subject that it is to create a false memory. And likewise, it is easier to destroy a false belief than a false memory. You can remain with a memory of an event, long after you have been convinced that the event did not happen and the memory is false.
The authors sound a note of caution:
Finally, our findings have broader implications for memory distortion research. To the extent that debriefing might not always completely ‘undo’ the effects of a suggestive manipulation, we might question the ethics of inducing false memories in experimental participants. Is it ethical for participants to leave research labs with remnants of nonbelieved false memory content in the forefront of their minds? A sensible approach to answering this question might be to consider whether the memories would likely be consequential. For example, it is conceivable that a person who ceased believing in a traumatic experience might nevertheless continue to be traumatised by intrusive mental images experienced as memories. We suggest that for most false-memory paradigms and study designs, this is highly unlikely to pose an ethical problem. Nevertheless, how participants might feel about any residual memory content should be an important question for researchers to consider when planning studies.
Clark, A., Nash, R., Fincham, G., & Mazzoni, G. (2012). Creating Non-Believed Memories for Recent Autobiographical Events PLoS ONE, 7 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0032998