Most people realise that memory is fallible. However they usually only relate this to false negatives i.e. not remembering something that did happen, and tend not to recognise the possibility of false positives i.e. remembering something that did not happen. Research has shown that memory is quite malleable and that not only do we re-interpret past events in light of new information but we can also change our recollection of those events or create entirely new ones. This does not usually greatly impact our daily lives, we may occasionally be sure that we locked the front door when actually we were distracted just when we would normally do so.
For some people though false memories start to define their entire character, in 1988 a deputy sheriff in Washington had his life almost destroyed when he was encouraged to remember fictitious acts of sexual abuse against his daughter as well as murder by well meaning members of his department. This event is on the extreme end of a spectrum that includes all of us and can, by it’s intense nature, show us how fallible our memories really are.
Memory is coming to be seen as more like an interactive theater show than, say, a DVD. Consider studies that have successfully implanted memories of being lost in a mall as a child as well as impossible memories of being a one-day-old baby. In fact it is disturbing how easy it seems to be to induce a false memory. Key components of creating false memories include imagining the event taking place and positive reinforcement from those around us. Someone simply saying they saw us do something can influence how we remember events. Now, I have to go find the unicycle I’m told I rode to work on.