People who don’t forget can still be tricked with false memories

Despite being able to remember minute details from every moment of their lives, the ability to never forget has other costs for some people.

“Time is the thief of memory,” wrote Stephen King in one of his many books. For some people, however, that is not true. They are gifted with what scientists call highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), which means they can remember in vivid detail every day of their life going back to childhood. But new research shows that even these special people are susceptible to forming false memories, sometimes more than normal people.

The first study of a person, later identified to be Jill Price, with this special ability was published as recently as 2006. Since then the database of HSAM individuals in the US has grown to about 30 people. It includes people like Bob Petrella, who can recall the date he met every one of his friends and acquaintances. Or Brad Williams, who can remember both what he did on any day and what significant world events occurred.

James McGaugh at the University of California Irvine was the author of the 2006 study, and for the past seven years he has been working to understand what makes HSAM individuals so special. A 2012 study showed, for instance, that HSAM individuals have different brain structures. They posses more white matter in areas linked to autobiographical memory. But because there are so few of them “we still don’t know enough to be able to draw robust conclusions”, says Martin Conway, a cognitive psychologist at City University London.

Knowing how HSAM people form memories would be a great leap in our understanding. With graduate student Lawrence Patihis, McGaugh set out to fill that gap. One way to do that would be to test if HSAM individuals are susceptible to false memories. After all, memories are easy to distort. It happens to everyone: the young, the old, the intelligent and the dumb. Now, in a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Patihis finds that HSAM individuals too can be tricked to possess false memories.

Not so perfect
For the study, Patihis recruited 20 out of the 30 known HSAM individuals in the US. They were matched, by sex and age, with 38 people with normal memory. All of the participants were then given three tests.

In the first test, each participant was shown a series of words that were all supposed to be connected to a “lure word”. So if the lure word was “lamp” then they will be shown words like light, table, shade and stand, but not the word lamp. After they have seen the list, they are asked if they saw the word lamp. People with normal memories got the answer wrong seven out of ten times. HSAM individuals too got it wrong just as much.

The second test was more elaborate. It showed a slideshow of photos depicting a crime. After 40 minutes, they were then shown words describing the crime with misinformation sprinkled in them. Then 20 minutes later they were tested to see how many people believed the misinformation to be true. This time HSAM individuals did worse than normal people. They were 73 percent more prone to false memories. “Maybe HSAM individuals form richer memories through absorption of more information and that is why they are also more susceptible to false ones too,” says Patihis.

Perhaps it is easy to manipulate recent memories. So in the third test Patihis looked to test long-term memory. All participants were asked to recall the September 11 terrorist attacks. They were then given irrelevant facts about that event, one of which was not true (someone captured the footage of United 93 in Pennsylvania). After 15 minutes, all participants were then asked whether they had see such a footage. Like the first test, normal people and HSAM individuals performed almost equally badly on this test.

“This shows that maybe people with superior memories form them just like normal people. Thus, in the process, they are also prone to making the same mistakes,” says Patihis. Equally, they may use a different process of forming superior memories, but one that has same problems as that of the normal process.

There is still contention among experts whether HSAM individuals are “special”. K Anders Ericsson of Florida State University says, "our work has pretty much concluded that differences in memory don’t seem to be the result of innate differences, but more the kinds of skills that are developed." To which McGaugh says, “you’d have to assume that every day they rehearse it ... The probability of these explanations dwindles as you look at the evidence."

Price had admitted that remembering everything meant bad memories were always around to trouble her. It led researchers to believe that such superior memory may come at a cognitive cost of lost abilities, or less happier lives. But research since has shown that not to be the case. HSAM individuals tend to have similar lives to normal people. With the latest study, McGaugh has shown one more task where HSAM individuals are normal. They too may be made to believe that as a kid they were lost in a shopping mall, even if that isn’t true.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

Some people have no need for post-it notes. Photo: Bala Sivakumar/Flickr
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The internet dictionary: what is astroturfing?

Yes, like the fake grass.

Thanks to the internet, there are a lot of new words. You’re most likely up to speed with your LOLs and OMGs, which became Oxford English Dictionary-worthy in 2011 (LOL OMG if you’re not). But words emerge constantly, and it can be hard to keep track of them. This is what this column is for. Every week, I’ll define a word that is crucial to understanding the internet, starting with “astroturfing” – like the fake grass.

To astroturf is to mask the author of a message to make it appear to have come from the grass roots. Messages created by brands, politicians and even the military are disguised as comments made by the public. The practice existed before the web – the term is thought to have been coined in 1985 by a US senator who received a “mountain” of letters from insurance companies posing as the public – but the internet has propelled it to new, disturbing heights.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” reads a tweet by a handsome teenage boy named Ashton, who tweets the same words day after day, followed by crying and heart emojis. Ashton lives to promote the book of a 19-year-old self-published author from Sheffield – or, at least, he would, if he lived at all. Ashton is fake, a profile designed to make the book seem popular. Many teenage girls have been duped by this. One told me: “I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

It has been estimated that a third of all consumer reviews online are fake. But it doesn’t end with bad books. In China, the “50 Cent Army” are astroturfers who are allegedly paid a small fee for each positive post they write about the Chinese Communist Party. And in 2011, it emerged that the US military was developing an “online persona management service” to spread pro-American messages, allowing one person to manage multiple online identities.

We would be foolish to assume that our own democracy is immune. Much was written about how the Tories used targeted social media adverts at the last election, and it is easy to see how astroturfing could transform our political landscape for ever. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon