egg

A few years ago, the actor Alan Alda, visited a group of memory researchers at the University of California, Irvine, for a TV show he was making. During a picnic lunch, one of the scientists offered Alda a hard-boiled egg. He turned it down, explaining that as a child he had made himself sick eating too many eggs.

In fact, this had never happened, yet Alda believed it was real. How so? The egg incident was a false memory planted by one of UC Irvine’s researchers, Elizabeth Loftus. Before the visit, Loftus had sent Alda a questionnaire about his food preferences and personality. She later told him that a computer analysis of his answers had revealed some facts about his childhood, including that he once made himself sick eating too many eggs. There was no such analysis but it was enough to convince Alda.

Your memory may feel like a reliable record of the past, but it is not. Loftus has spent the past 30 years studying the ease with which we can form “memories” of nonexistent events. She has convinced countless people that they have seen or done things when they haven’t – even quite extreme events such as being attacked by animals or almost drowning. Her work has revealed much about how our brains form and retain memories.

While I wouldn’t want to plant a memory of a nonexistent childhood trauma in your own brain, there is a less dramatic demonstration of how easy it is to form a false memory called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm. Try the following thought experiment:

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Read the first two lists of words and pause for a few minutes. Then read list 3 and put a tick against the words that were in the first two. Now go back and check your answers…

List 1

apple, vegetable, orange, kiwi,

citrus, ripe, pear, banana, berry,

cherry, basket, juice, salad, bowl,

cocktail

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List 2

web, insect, bug, fright, fly,

arachnid, crawl, tarantula, poison,

bite, creepy, animal, ugly, feelers, small

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NOW WAIT A FEW MINUTES. THEN SCROLL DOWN.

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Check the following words that you remember from being on List 1 or List 2

Spider, feather, citrus, ugly, robber,

Piano, goat, ground, cherry, bitter,

Insect, fruit, suburb, kiwi, quick,

Mouse, pile, fish

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How did you do?

Michael Michalko author of Creative Thinkering.