What if you're most treasured memories from childhood were false? A shocking new study finds that one in five people fondly recall events that never actually happened.
When I was seven years old, my family and I had a black and grey cat named George Washington. I thought George was a boy, but then one day I came home from school to discover Mr Washington behind our foldaway bed/couch, giving birth to a litter of kittens. We gave away the kittens and George Washington left with a couple of them, but I'll never forget that cat.
According to everyone else in my family, that cat never existed.
For the longest time I would argue with my mother and siblings whenever the subject of pets came up. How could they not remember something I recalled so vividly? Eventually I had to acquiesce. It was all in my head.
Yet the memory remains and it's a strong one, through if you pressed me for more details on the animal other than that particular incident, I couldn't tell you anything. Over the years I've come to accept that the recollection, no matter how vivid it was, wasn't true.
Apparently I am not alone.
Psychologists at the University of Hull in England polled some 1600 students, asking them if they'd ever experienced a false memory.
One in five claimed they had.
One volunteer said they had memories of playing hockey, even though her parents and family members assure her that she's never hit a puck. Another remembered seeing a living dinosaur. As with my own case, even after the subjects accepted the experiences did not happen, the memories remain.
'Autobiographical memory provides us with a sense of identity and it is usually accurate enough to help us negotiate our lives,' said researcher Giuliana Mazzoni.'But as our study shows, not all that we remember about our past is true. Our research also shows that this phenomenon of non-believed memories is much more frequent than people had imagined. Crucially, if these memories are not challenged by some form of evidence, they would still be considered part of the individual's autobiographical experience.'
It's extremely discomforting to realise that some special memory we've held dear for years could be false. It's even more disturbing once we realise how easy it is to implant false memories into our minds, as discovered by a University of Washington experiment. In the experiment volunteers were shown a doctored Disneyland commercial featuring Bugs Bunny, a character not appearing at the theme park. A week later, a third of the volunteers for the study remembered seeing Bugs at Disneyland.
And should you combine the results of that experiment and the University of Hull study, it brings up serious questions about the nature of repressed memories. Are they real memories, or implanted?
George Washington would have thought they were real, but apparently she wasn't.