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ISU Professor's Research Explains the Creation of False Memories

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MRI scan taken during working memory tasks.

The old saying is memory is a faulty crutch. For years, a professor at Illinois State University has focused her research on proving that old saying right.
Professor of Psychology Dawn McBride studies memory and the creation of false memories. She said on GLT’s Sound Ideas memory is not unchanging, even in the sharpest of minds. It’s a reconstructive process each time.

“Memory works such that we store each of the pieces of an experience in different areas of our brain, and an important part, the hippocampus, helps us put it all back together when we want to remember something,” McBride said. “Sometimes those pieces come back differently, they (don’t) come back at all, or they come back changed.”

A “good memory” is not a result of how ideas are reconstructed but how they are stored in the first place and how often retrieval of a specific memory is practiced.

“Encoding in a particular way is usually the best way to remember it, and of course, another way is to practice remembering it. The more you retrieve something, the more likely you are to then retrieve it again later in the future,” McBride said. “It’s like a muscle. The more you work it, the better it gets.”

But sometimes, the memory that is retrieved is not completely accurate. In most cases, people are not even aware the memory is false.

“Memories change all the time without us even realizing they’ve been changed. They can change quite implicitly, simply because we thought about something differently, (or) because someone has made a suggestion to us about an experience,” McBride said.


Credit Illinois State University
ISU Psychology Professor Dawn McBride

This idea is at the core of McBride’s research. McBride uses the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) paradigm to study false memory and how it can influence decisions.

“The DRM method is a simple experimental technique that creates very basic and benign false memories in research subjects. What we do is present lists of items that are thematically related to a word that is never shown or spoken to the participants,” McBride said.

“For example, if we present items like bed, slumber, blanket and dream, later when we ask subjects to recall or recognize items we’ve presented to them, with high frequency they’ll think they have heard or seen the word sleep because it’s thematically related to those items,” she added.

False memories can make their way into everyday life, even for McBride.

“I encounter situations often in talking to my husband where he says, ‘You never told me you were going to be home late today,’ and I say, ‘Yes, I did, I remember explicitly telling you that,'” McBride said. “And we may talk some more and reconstruct what actually happened, and I realize I only thought about telling him I was going to be late that day and never actually did it. Just thinking about it created an event in my mind that I later confused with an actual event that never really happened.”

False memories can make their way into more serious aspects of life, however, such as eyewitness testimonies.

“Eyewitness memory is not perfect, and in some cases, even when eyewitnesses are quite confident in their memory, their memory is not accurate,” McBride said. “Confidence is not always the best predictor of memory accuracy.”

McBride said with the advancement of research in that area, changes are being made to help prevent the kinds of false memories that might wrongfully convict someone of a crime.

“Questioning techniques of individuals who are witnesses or victims of crime have slowly been changing. Officers are now aware of how suggestive questioning can change the answers they get from potential witnesses,” McBride said.

Although no one’s memory is perfect, McBride said that does not mean it cannot be relied on.

“In most cases, our memory does work reasonably well. In fact, false memories are often not necessarily thought of just as memory errors, but a byproduct of our memories trying to help us by filling in pieces of things that may not be complete in our memories,” McBride said. “But (it) also sometimes does that to excess and fills in pieces that are just not quite accurate. In most cases, I think the core of our memory is correct. It’s just that we sometimes get some details incorrect.”

McBride’s research on false memory has been published in journals such as Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Memory & Cognition, Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences and Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition: A Journal on Normal and Dysfunctional Development. She is also the coauthor of the book "Cognitive Psychology: Theory, Process, and Methodology."

Hear Charlie Schlenker's entire interview with Dawn McBride.

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Dania is a reporter at GLT, as well as a student at Illinois State University.
WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.