False Memories & Lies

Picking up on my last post, the saga of the news anchor’s fabulist memories continues. Will it end his career? Will every report he ever made be branded a lie? Will consumers of American news suddenly become conscious of all the discrepancies in the “first draft of history” that is broadcast constantly on cable and on the Internet?

Answers: (1) Maybe. (2) By some —most likely his colleagues from more conservative news outlets, who prefer critiquing him to self-examination… And, (3) unlikely as memories are very short and ideas about politics are deeply entrenched.

But the story will not die quickly and, in this case, I continue to be fascinated by its wider ramifications. This time the science section of The New York Times carried an article on the phenomenon of FALSE MEMORIES and on how memories are stored in the complicated attics we call brains.

The widely held misconception is that memories are swallowed whole and remain unchanged, filed away like old 8mm home movies to be viewed later, is entirely wrong, and anyone who has sat down with an old friend to reminisce has no doubt experienced two, or more, versions of the same event.


I was the one driving and you lost the map.

No, it was your map. I remember that clearly.


We ran into that guy you had a crush on. It was right after you met your husband and…

No, no… You it was right before I met my husband. I remember because I was wearing that dress we both liked. Remember, it looked better on you, but…


False memories often conflate different experiences or become altered over time as bits and pieces become cloudy and are replaced with other memories, things you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, etc. Altered, enhanced, embellished and sometimes missing memories can become false when the facts are at odds with the recollections.

I have an early memory that, intellectually, I understand is really a family story I heard often enough to believe it’s my individual memory of the experience. As it’s about a lost doll and I was under two years old… Well, it’s a story and NOT a real memory. I’ve also woken up from vivid dreams wondering if it’s a memory and not a dream —or something in-between. My vote usually goes for in-between when it’s particularly vivid.

False memories can be planted. Some people are susceptible to these created memories that can nestle into our brains via hypnosis, drugs or, even, mere suggestion. We want to believe that what we remember is the truth and that belief in our own infallibility gets us every time.

The legal implications of false memories —especially implanted memories— have fascinated me for a long time. Memories created through suggestion have led to false confessions and false accusations. The infamous McMartin Preschool trials of the late 1980s are just the most vivid example of the harm that can come from false memories.



  1. Oddly enough we also went through a phase of sexual abuse accusations around that time. I’m sure there was an Island in the Orkneys where the children were taken away from the parents and put in care because of accusations. Also another big case hit one of our Northern Cities in a similar fashion an every day seemed to bring new stories about witchcraft cults or something so children were being taken into care left, right and centre.In the end it proved to be more hysteria than anything else and the children were returned but our Social Services departments took a hammering from the public for their zeal.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    • Candy Korman

      If you switch out the locations, it sounds like stories from the 1980s & early 90s in the U.S. Satanic Cult activity (never proven) and the suspect testimony that undermined genuine testimony in other cases. What a mess!

      Of course all the confusion is great fiction fodder. It just sucks as reality!

  2. lol – eye witness accounts that don’t match. Yes, I know this happens because my late mother and I had some seriously different memories about certain occurrences! So much so that I used to wonder if she had been born without the ‘reality’ gene. 🙂

    These days, the disconnect is sometimes between me and my daughter. She does the dishes once and thereinafter believes she does them /every/ day. 😀

    As to that news anchor, I suspect that after so many years, he probably did believe his own story. Sad for him, and disturbing for us.

    • Candy Korman

      Sometimes the differences originate in different perspectives — your mom and you, your daughter and you… A perspective presupposes certain ideas about how things are, or should be.

      But then there’s this magical mix in our brains as we retrieve bits and pieces to form a memory. When that process gets manipulated on purpose it is diabolical! (And great for fiction.)

      Yes, I think Brian Williams eventually believed he was in the helicopter that got hit. Repeated often enough a lie becomes the truth (or something like the truth).

  3. I was recently going back through my journal and realized I had a false memory. I remembered a big conflict I had with my husband as being one year into our marriage, but it turns out it was only one month. It’s made me rethink a lot of my memories, but my journal is too much to weed through at the moment! I rarely go back and read entries, but now that I have, it makes me think of the many surprises that would be in store and how my memory will be different from my entries.

    • Candy Korman

      If you consider your diary entries as the first draft of your personal history, it is likely to be factually accurate but missing the context of how things played out later. Having that timeline of events enables you to place events, but it won’t stop your mind from altering the importance of difference aspects over time. Still, it’s a fabulous resource!

      I’m told that I have an excellent memory and still people have recalled experiences with me that are strangely at odds with what I recall. Recently, a friend recalled an event that’s important to her and thanked me for the role I played. My memories were quite different. Should I have argued with her? She was so pleased with her recollections that I let her memory stand.

      Of course neither of us were in a position where our credibility was being called into question OR, for that matter, neither of us have to be credible on the subject. I keep thinking about how difficult all of this must be for cold case detectives.

      False, distorted, implanted and otherwise altered memories are fabulous for fiction and very hard on the facts!