I've been reading an interesting book which makes mostly founded claims. However, there is no reference to any studies in regards to one of the following claims: according to the author, visualizing something that never happened every day for 3 weeks results in a memory which seems as real as any memory of something that did happen

Let's not focus on the 3 weeks statement. The interesting part is the claim that we can actually create memories which are as good as real. I am well aware that our memory is terrible. I've read around about various ways in which our memories can be changed: phrasing questions in a certain way, basing some false information on real information, priming etc.

But can we really make something that behaves just like a real memory, even if we are well aware that in reality, it's just a scenario that we imagined and repeated in our minds multiple times?


1 Answer 1


If I understood correctly, you are talking about "false memories" in the context of the following definition in (Johnson, M. K., 2001)

"A false memory is a mental experience that is mistakenly taken to be a veridical representation of an event from one's personal past. Memories can be false in relatively minor ways (e.g., believing one last saw the keys in the kitchen when they were in the living room) and in major ways that have profound implications for oneself and others (e.g., mistakenly believing one is the originator of an idea or that one was sexually abused as a child)."

From Scientific American, September 1997, Vol. 277 # 3, pages 70-75

This is a an article from 1997 by Elizabeth Loftus that may shed light on your question. Yes, the information may be outdated and recent research might have expanded on it. In that case, I might edit my answer soon to reflect those updates after completing further readings relating to the topic

If recent developments interest you, in a study published in the journal Science, Tonegawa et. al [associated with RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics] manipulated individual neurons to manipulate encoded memories in the brains of mice. Read here.

Misinformation Effect

My own research into memory distortion goes back to the early 1970s, when I began studies of the "misinformation effect." These studies show that when people who witness an event are later exposed to new and misleading information about it, their recollections often become distorted. In one example, participants viewed a simulated automobile accident at an intersection with a stop sign. After the viewing, half the participants received a suggestion that the traffic sign was a yield sign. When asked later what traffic sign they remembered seeing at the intersection, those who had been given the suggestion tended to claim that they had seen a yield sign. Those who had not received the phony information were much more accurate in their recollection of the traffic sign.

My students and I have now conducted more than 200 experiments involving over 20,000 individuals that document how exposure to misinformation induces memory distortion. In these studies, people "recalled" a conspicuous barn in a bucolic scene that contained no buildings at all, broken glass and tape recorders that were not in the scenes they viewed, a white instead of a blue vehicle in a crime scene, and Minnie Mouse when they actually saw Mickey Mouse. Taken together, these studies show that misinformation can change an individual's recollection in predictable and sometimes very powerful ways.

False Childhood Memories

My research associate, Jacqueline E. Pickrell, and I settled on trying to plant a specific memory of being lost in a shopping mall or large department store at about the age of five. Here's how we did it. We asked our subjects, 24 individuals ranging in age from 18 to 53, to try to remember childhood events that had been recounted to us by a parent, an older sibling or another close relative. We prepared a booklet for each participant containing one-paragraph stories about three events that had actually happened to him or her and one that had not. We constructed the false event using information about a plausible shopping trip provided by a relative, who also verified that the participant had not in fact been lost at about the age of five. The lost-in-the-mall scenario included the following elements: lost for an extended period, crying, aid and comfort by an elderly woman and, finally, reunion with the family.

False Childhood Memories

After reading each story in the booklet, the participants wrote what they remembered about the event. If they did not remember it, they were instructed to write, "I do not remember this." In two follow-up interviews, we told the participants that we were interested in examining how much detail they could remember and how their memories compared with those of their relative. The event paragraphs were not read to them verbatim, but rather parts were provided as retrieval cues. The participants recalled something about 49 of the 72 true events (68 percent) immediately after the initial reading of the booklet and also in each of the two follow-up interviews. After reading the booklet, seven of the 24 participants (29 percent) remembered either partially or fully the false event constructed for them, and in the two follow-up interviews six participants (25 percent) continued to claim that they remembered the fictitious event. Statistically, there were some differences between the true memories and the false ones: participants used more words to describe the true memories, and they rated the true memories as being somewhat more clear. But if an onlooker were to observe many of our participants describe an event, it would be difficult indeed to tell whether the account was of a true or a false memory. Of course, being lost, however frightening, is not the same as being abused. But the lost-in-the-mall study is not about real experiences of being lost; it is about planting false memories of being lost. The paradigm shows a way of instilling false memories and takes a step toward allowing us to understand how this might happen in real-world settings. Moreover, the study provides evidence that people can be led to remember their past in different ways, and they can even be coaxed into "remembering" entire events that never happened.

Imagination Inflation

What happens when people imagine childhood experiences that did not happen to them? Does imagining a childhood event increase confidence that it occurred? To explore this, we designed a three-stage procedure. We first asked individuals to indicate the likelihood that certain events happened to them during their childhood. The list contains 40 events, each rated on a scale ranging from "definitely did not happen" to "definitely did happen." Two weeks later we asked the participants to imagine that they had experienced some of these events. Different subjects were asked to imagine different events. Sometime later the participants again were asked to respond to the original list of 40 childhood events, indicating how likely it was that these events actually happened to them. Consider one of the imagination exercises. Participants are told to imagine playing inside at home after school, hearing a strange noise outside, running toward the window, tripping, falling, reaching out and breaking the window with their hand. In addition, we asked participants questions such as "What did you trip on? How did you feel?" In one study 24 percent of the participants who imagined the broken-window scenario later reported an increase in confidence that the event had occurred, whereas only 12 percent of those who were not asked to imagine the incident reported an increase in the likelihood that it had taken place. We found this "imagination inflation" effect in each of the eight events that participants were asked to imagine. A number of possible explanations come to mind. An obvious one is that an act of imagination simply makes the event seem more familiar and that familiarity is mistakenly related to childhood memories rather than to the act of imagination. Such source confusion when a person does not remember the source of information can be especially acute for the distant experiences of childhood.

Impossible Memories

A procedure for planting "impossible" memories about experiences that occur shortly after birth has been developed by the late Nicholas Spanos and his collaborators at Carleton University. Individuals are led to believe that they have well-coordinated eye movements and visual exploration skills probably because they were born in hospitals that hung swinging, colored mobiles over infant cribs. To confirm whether they had such an experience, half the participants are hypnotized, age-regressed to the day after birth and asked what they remembered. The other half of the group participates in a "guided mnemonic restructuring" procedure that uses age regression as well as active encouragement to re-create the infant experiences by imagining them.. Spanos and his co-workers found that the vast majority of their subjects were susceptible to these memory-planting procedures. Both the hypnotic and guided participants reported infant memories. Surprisingly, the guided group did so somewhat more (95 versus 70 percent). Both groups remembered the colored mobile at a relatively high rate (56 percent of the guided group and 46 percent of the hypnotic subjects). Many participants who did not remember the mobile did recall other things, such as doctors, nurses, bright lights, cribs and masks. Also, in both groups, of those who reported memories of infancy, 49 percent felt that they were real memories, as opposed to 16 percent who claimed that they were merely fantasies. These findings confirm earlier studies that many individuals can be led to construct complex, vivid and detailed false memories via a rather simple procedure. Hypnosis clearly is not necessary.


The formation of false memories.
Loftus, E. F. & Pickrell, J. E. (1995).
Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725.

Imagination Inflation: Imagining A Childhood Event Inflates Confidence That It Occurred.
Maryanne Carry, Charles G. Manning, Elizabeth F. Loftus and Steven J. Sherman
Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, pages 208-214; June 1996.

Remembering Our Past: Studies In Autobiographical Memory.
Edited by David C. Rubin.
Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Additional Reading:

Crisis or Creation: A systematic examination of false memory claims.
Dallam, S. (2002).
Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 9 (3/4): 9–36.

False Memories Affect Behavior.
Association for Psychological Science (2008, August 20).

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. This is not exactly what I meant, but interesting nonetheless :) It seems (not surprisingly) that there isn't much (if at all) research about intentionally manipulating your own memories. However, It seems like you answered a question I had planned to post as a follow-up $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2015 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ Well, the book I've read actually suggests this as a way to overcome trauma by changing the memory, but the claim was about creating memories, which is also interesting, and might be useful. Though I have come to realize that even seemingly good thoughts/memories have serious implications which aren't always intuitive (for example, perfectionism often leads to procrastination) $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2015 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ It's called "Five gifts to the mind". I don't think the name (or any information about the book other than it's actual content) will be of much help. Either way, I think I've made my point clear - intentionally and knowingly creating false memories in yourself. $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2015 at 19:59

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