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Can You Really Plant False Memories into Someone’s Mind?

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Self-proclaimed “memory hacker” Julia Shaw just came out with a new book called The Memory Illusion and in it, she describes how false memories can be placed in people’s minds, which can sometimes lead to false police confessions, and even detailed accounts of being abducted by aliens.

Julia Shaw, author of The Memory Illusion, is a “memory hacker.”

Julia Shaw, author of The Memory Illusion, is a "memory hacker."

Shaw explains that memory is a network of brain cells that stretch across different regions of the brain. As it gets updated, it can also be manipulated. For instance, some people claim to remember details from when they were toddlers, but’s that’s actually a false memory. At that age, our brains aren’t even developed enough to store memories. Instead, what we think we remember is caused by stories people told us, alongside photos related to the event.

Memory is a network of brain cells that stretch across different regions of the brain. As it gets updated, it can also be manipulated.

brainnetwork

Now, false memories aren’t just in the realm of youngsters because even adults can have false memories implanted into them. “In the lab, I convince people through memory hacking that they committed crimes that never happened,” said Shaw says as a senior lecturer and researcher in the Department of Law and Social Sciences at London South Bank University. “I do it to show that the interrogation process can really distort memories, in consistent ways.”

All it really takes is to get someone to confuse their imagination with their memory, and then get them to repeatedly picture it happening. To demonstrate, Shaw would start off by letting the subject know they committed a crime, and then claim to know insider details about it. In her example she explains, “Your parents told me that, when you were 14, you stole something, and the police were involved,” she said, adding that she’ll say she called the parents, and give details of their talk, “and then you believe me. You know I contacted your parents, and you trust them.” And because she sounds credible, the subject will start to believe.

With a trained expert, false memories of crimes can be implanted in someone’s mind. Just imagine if this happened during an interrogation!

interrogation

But Shaw doesn’t stop there. She’ll keep adding layers to the false memory such as the subject’s age, hometown, the name of their childhood best friend, all the while getting them to imagine the crime happening. She explains that over the course of a few weeks, the subject will then find it hard to decipher imagination versus a memory coming back – and that’s how the subject becomes convinced that the crime actually happened.

This information is groundbreaking in the legal justice system, especially if interrogators themselves are convinced that their suspect is guilty. It’s important to really scrutinize the way they carry out investigations in case some of them may intentionally or unintentionally start planting false memories.

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