Recalling Memories Makes Them Stronger

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On his PsyBlog, Jeremy Dean writes about a fascinating study of the way we form and strengthen memories:  

“Experiment participants took part in a self-guided museum tour in which they were told to stop at particular exhibits along the way. Two days after the tour, participants were asked to look at pairs of photos of exhibits in the museum. Sometimes the photos showed two exhibits at which they had stopped; other photos were of exhibits in the museum  they hadn’t visited.

Participants then returned for a third session, at which they were shown photos and asked whether they’d stopped in front of them at the exhibit or not. This time, some of the pairs of photographs were of exhibits they had, or hadn’t,  looked at, plus some that mixed viewed and not-viewed exhibits.

Across the three sessions, then, the researchers had simulated the recall of the jumble of real and false memories that are likely to be returned to consciousness when we try to recall past events. Real aspects of a memory get mixed up with false aspects and the whole confection gets stirred up each time we recall it.

In the study, researchers found that participants’ memories were both enhanced and distorted by the process of recall. People found it easier to remember those exhibits which they were subsequently shown photographs of. This shows that merely recalling a memory is enough to strengthen it.

But the study demonstrated that false memories were also strengthened. When participants falsely recalled seeing a particular exhibit in the second session, this made it more likely to be flagged as a ‘real’ memory in the third session.” (Read more here.)

As Dean notes, “Memory is an active, reconstructive process. Recalling something is not a neutral act—it strengthens that memory in comparison to the others.” This study shows that false memories can be strengthened through recall just as true ones are.

Have you ever come to realize that a memory you were sure was real was actually false?

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