Past imperfect: exploring the challenges, and the promise, of the malleability of memory (2023)

Barra lateral:analyze amnesia

Throughout human history, countless metaphors have emerged to encapsulate the fundamental experience of remembering the past. As described in a 1980 article by former APS President Henry L. Roediger III, these metaphors can be as broad as a subway map of interconnected experiences, Plato's wax tablet, and "melodies on a piano" brought to life. world point out how our memories can change over time. More recently, indie rock musician Andrew Bird, in his 2012 song "Lazy Projector," characterized the mind as a "forgetful, prettifying, lying machine" that can cause two people to approach the same relationship in entirely different ways. .

Even when focusing solely on empirical evidence, psychologists also position their understanding of memory metaphorically, Roediger added, often drawing parallels between mental and physical behavior. Notions like "memory" and "cosmopolitanism" arise from this way of thinking, as does Freud's comparatively ornate concept of conscious and unconscious memory as a two-room house managed by a sophisticated doorman who can banish certain thoughts from consciousness.

Regardless of the metaphor used,Roediger wrote, the way we talk about memory, generally positions the mind as a physical space and the memories we "store" in it as physical objects that can be lost, found, or destroyed. Memory processes are also often equated with the most modern technology of the day, which means that our understanding of memory is changing in parallel with the development of ever more precise tools, from wax tablets to projectors and computers.

While none of these metaphors provide a perfect analogy for how memory actually works, Roediger continues, they can still help laymen and scientists conceptualize complex phenomena in everyday terms.

Increased awareness of the malleability of memory may have led to overcorrection in favor of the notion that our memories simply cannot be trusted.

Recently, memory metaphors have been used to demonstrate the unreliability, or "malleability," of our memories. Decades of evidence suggests that our memories can be altered in both subtle and extreme ways, said Nicholas B. Diamond (University of Pennsylvania) in an interview with theobserver, but increased awareness of these findings may have led to overcorrection in favor of the idea that our memories simply cannot be trusted.

“Just as the science of perceptual illusions should not necessarily be used to question the veracity of what you see at every moment, so the science of false memory should not be used to completely undermine the reliability of a person's memory, without pointing out specific details. evidence-based factors,” Diamond said.

An unreliable start

In addition to the everyday experience of forgetting names or what we ate for breakfast, there is, of course, significant experimental evidence for our imperfect memories.

In one study, Shazia Akhtar (University of London) and colleagues found that almost 40% of 6,313 participants reported that the first memory they could recall was at or before the age of 2 years. This is highly unlikely because people generally have difficulty recalling experiences from this preverbal stage of development, even for highly singular events like the birth of a sibling, Akhtar and her colleagues explained in a paper.2018psychological science Article.

Participants who reported that their first memory occurred between 2 and 5 years of age tended to mention more detailed events, such as family vacations, the start of school, or even dreams. Participants with improbably early memories, on the other hand, often reported impressions of experiences that are typical of early childhood, such as being pushed in a stroller or being sad, without necessarily having to refer to a specific event.

These more impressionistic memories of typical early childhood experiences could be the result of people capturing the image of an object or action from later experiences, photos or stories about their early life, the researchers suggested.

"These episodic memory-like mental representations are collectively experienced over time as they come to mind, so to the individual they are simply 'memories,' memories whose contents point to a specific time: childhood." explained Akhtar and his colleagues. . "In fact, from a constructive memory point of view, all memories contain some degree of fiction."

Visit the APS Archives for more information on eyewitness accounts and false convictions. Recommended content includes:

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Research also shows that the way we interpret our existing memories can be intentionally manipulated in retrospect.

In two 2019 studies inClinical psychology, Lawrence Patihis (University of Southern Mississippi) and colleagues asked 500 people to write about it.childhood memories of their mothers. Participants who responded to cues about negative moments, when their mother displayed a lack of love, warmth, and other supportive behaviors, reported fewer fond memories and current feelings of love for their mothers than those who responded to positive cues. These self-reported effects lasted an average of 4 weeks, but began to return to normal 8 weeks after the experiment.

"Loving parents has been a timeless and valuable part of the human experience throughout history," Patihis and colleagues wrote. "That the memory of love is malleable is an uncomfortable but important realization."

This malleability allows us to reconstruct memories in ways that can help people maintain a consistent life narrative, Akhtar and his colleagues suggested in their book.Clinical psychologyArticle. Using impressionistic memories to extend this narrative to the early stages of our lives may even support positive self-image and social interactions, the researchers added.

The ability to "make and reshape" memories also plays an important role in our learning, a phenomenon that APS fellow Lynn Nadel (University of Arizona) discusses in her2018 Fred Kavli Grundsatzredeat the 30th APS Annual Meeting in San Francisco. This allows us to integrate new information with our existing knowledge, but every time a memory is reactivated there is also a risk that it will be rewritten in a way that does not accurately reflect the past.

Memory on the test bench

In a 2002 study led by Kimberley A. Wade (Victoria University of Wellington), researchers were able to convince 10 out of 20 participants that they had taken a fictional hot air balloon ride as children using fake photos and guided imagery exercises. much more serious thandiscussed by APS Fellow Michael P. Toglia (Cornell University) and Garrett L. Berman (Roger Williams University)in the September/October 2021 editionobserverhas shown that misidentification of suspects by eyewitnesses, particularly non-white suspects misidentified by white witnesses, is one of the leading causes of known false convictions for violent crimes in the United States.

One of the easiest ways to exclude yourself as a suspect in a criminal case is to provide investigators with a solid alibi: an explanation of where you were at the time of the crime, backed up by evidence and eyewitness accounts. in one2021psychological scienceStudy of 51 adults, Elizabeth Laliberte (University of Melbourne) and colleagues tested participants' memory for 'where' and 'when' using a GPS tracking app. A week later, the participants got their locations wrong 36% of the time, despite being given four choices, one of which was guaranteed to be correct.

WhatThe malleable nature of memory can also contribute to false confessions., wrote Julia Shaw (University of Bedfordshire) and Stephen Porter (University of British Columbia) in a 2015psychological scienceArticle. Using leading interview techniques, including false evidence allegedly provided by a child care worker, Shaw and Porter were able to persuade 70% of the 60 non-police contact participants to report that they believed they had committed a grand theft or assaulted someone. when they were between 11 and 14 years old. . Participants were given a narrative of the fictitious event along with actual memories from their childhood and were pressured to recall the experience over the course of three interview sessions.

"In the context of a highly suggestive interview, people can easily generate false and rich memories of having committed a crime," Shaw and Porter wrote. "The type of research presented here is essential to prevent memory-related judicial errors."

trust but check

Even as the "memory wars" surrounding these and other potential memory errors rage in court and in other parts of the world, it can be difficult to determine the true prevalence of memory errors in real-world conditions, Diamond said. .observer.

Diamond and colleagues examined this prevalence ofAnalysis of 74 participants' memories of two verifiable eventsat Baycrest Hospital in Ontario, Canada. The first group of 34 participants participated in a standardized mask fitting procedure for hospital staff during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. The remaining 40 participants experienced a staged tour of a small art exhibition in the ground floor of the hospital.

In both cases, days or years later, participants were invited to share their memories of the event with a researcher, who encouraged them to provide additional details with general statements such as "Is there anything else you can tell me about this event?" Memories were recorded and scored based on whether each detail represented a specific episodic memory and whether the researchers could objectively verify that the event occurred as remembered.

Mask fitting participants, most of whom were interviewed years later, recalled a total of 61 unique details about the event, with an average of 23 details reported per person. Tour participants, some of whom spoke to researchers only days later, recalled 209 unique details. Tour participants aged 19 to 35 recalled an average of 79 details, while participants aged 65 to 75 recalled an average of 52.

Despite the marked decrease in details recalled by older or later respondents, one result was consistent across groups: the vast majority of verifiable details that respondents voluntarily provided in interviews were correct. In fact, the lowest accuracy of all groups among older tour participants averaged 93%, and no participant in any group was less than 70% accurate.

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"Consistent with centuries of previous work, our study participants forgot much information and recalled less and less detail with longer retention intervals (for example, 2 years versus 2 days) and with older ages," Diamond explained.

The accuracy of information recalled by participants was very high, but this suggests that people who are not pressured for details in a leading way are likely to only share information that they can remember with certainty.

"Because we forget, we tend to omit information rather than make it up," Diamond summarized.

unveiling of the past

While many researchers continue to wrestle with the extent to which we can trust our memories, others are investigating how this malleability can be harnessed to improve well-being.Conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are accompanied by memory impairment., explained Maryam Piltan (Tarbiat Modarres University) and colleagues in a 2021Clinical psychologyArticle. PTSD is most commonly defined by the presence of intrusive memories related to a traumatic event, the researchers continued, but it has also been shown to cloud patients' memories of events unrelated to that trauma.

Hierarchical theories of memory suggest that memories from our past can be organized into two levels: at the top of the hierarchy are general memories of different categories of events, such as "shopping" or "birthday parties"; Beneath this, we store specific reminders for individual instances of these events, such as "Going to the grocery store this morning" or "My 31st birthday party."

analyze amnesia

Amnesia, the loss of some or all of one's memories, has become so common in fiction that it is essentially cliché. Although movies likeThe Bourne Identityyfull recallcreative liberties can be taken with the concept, the clinical diagnosis of amnesia should be much more standardized. Unfortunately, this consistency is sometimes lacking in practice, as Ivan Mangiulli (KU Leuven) and colleagues in aArticle 2021 inClinical psychology.

Mangiulli and his colleagues reviewed the cases of 128 people described as having "dissociative amnesia" in English-language journals between 2000 and 2020. This term generally refers to memory loss that occurs without a specific physical cause, such as a head injury, possibly after a traumatic event. Some patients were evaluated using neuroimaging and other established diagnostic tools. In others, self-reported dissociative amnesia has been described, even if they did not meet all the requirements for the disorder described in theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

"Dissociative amnesia, as described in these case studies, appeared to be a rather elastic and openly defined construct describing various types of memory loss," Mangiulli and colleagues wrote. “Without adequate investigation that excludes a differential diagnosis and alternative explanations, the diagnostic label ofdissociative amnesiaaccording to the current state of knowledge may be misleading".

McKenna M. Garland (University of Tulsa) and colleagues have focused on this in separate studies.Anterograde amnesia, a difficulty or inability to store new information, through apsychological scienceStudy of seven patients with damage to their medial temporal lobes.

Patients and their caregivers reported five times on the patients' personalities over a one-year period after their injury. Personality assessments were conducted using the Big Five inventory, which classified participants into neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

Patients and caregivers were found to have significantly different perceptions of the patients' current personalities, but not the patients' personalities before their brain injury.

"Patients with amnesia had a keen sense of who they were before the brain injury, but were stuck in the past because they had no clear idea of ​​who they were now," Garland and colleagues wrote. "We interpret our results to mean that the ability to form new declarative memories is not necessary for maintaining a stable sense of self, but may be important for updating one's sense of self over time."

According to this theory, trying not to think about a traumatic memory can prevent an individual from accessing not just that memory but a whole storehouse of specific memories, Piltan and his colleagues said.

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"Attempts to avoid trauma memory can generalize to all autobiographical memories, leaving people with difficulty retrieving specific memories of other individual events from their personal past," Piltan and colleagues wrote. The clarity of an individual's autobiographical memory is highly predictive of long-term PTSD severity, and improving this process can also lead to better patient outcomes, added co-author Caitlin Hitchcock in an interview with theobserver.

Researchers demonstrated the link between memory rigidity, lack of specificity, and PTSD through a study of 43 people who were in a serious car accident in Tehran, Iran. After admission to Sina Hospital, half of these participants had symptoms severe enough for a clinical diagnosis of PTSD.

In addition to being tested for PTSD symptoms, the participants also completed the Alternate Instruction Autobiographical Memory Test (AMT-AI). In this test, people are asked to recall specific or general memories from their past in response to positive, negative, or neutral keywords.

Participants diagnosed with PTSD were more likely to give incorrect answers when asked to recall specific memories than those who did not have clinically significant PTSD scores despite having been in a car accident. The PTSD group also had more difficulty switching between general and specific memory recall during the mixed trials.

Participants without PTSD performed similarly to a matched sample of crash-free participants on measures of memory specificity, but had lower memory flexibility.

“Memories from our past play a key role in the way we think about ourselves and the world around us. Therefore, enhancing the ability to access autobiographical memories at different levels of detail and emotional valence can help foster a balanced and flexible view of oneself and the world," Hitchcock said.

In a related study, Piltan, Hitchcock, and their colleagues, including lead author Ali Reza Moradi (Kharazmi University), examined this theory.Investigate how a memory flexibility intervention called MemFlexcould be used to improve outcomes for people with PTSD. In this proof-of-concept study, the researchers worked with another group of 43 people in Iran who had survived car accidents and suffered from PTSD. All participants completed the AMT-AI and were assessed for PTSD symptoms before being divided into two groups: one receiving the MemFlex intervention and one serving as a wait-list control group.

Although both groups received ongoing therapy and medication to control their PTSD, the MemFlex group also received a workbook with eight autobiographical memory exercises. Similar to AMT-AI, these exercises involved recording positive and neutral memories that were general or specific in nature. At this point, a researcher met personally with the participants to explain how memory impairment is related to PTSD, help them practice the exercises, and encourage them to complete two exercise sessions per week for 4 weeks.

After 4 weeks, the researchers collected the workbooks, and participants in both groups again completed the AMT-AI and PTSD symptom measures. They were also tested at a follow-up appointment about 3 months later.

Participants in the MemFlex group performed better on AMT-AI. More importantly, 70% had a clinically significant reduction in PTSD symptoms compared to only 40% of patients in the control group. At the completion of their follow-up appointment, control participants were also given the option to complete the MemFlex intervention.

"Training someone to move flexibly between specific events and generalized accounts of the past may help curb overly pervasive negative beliefs," the researchers wrote.

MemFlex has a number of advantages over other commonly used PTSD interventions, Hitchcock added. The intervention is inexpensive, can be provided digitally or as a workbook for people without internet access, and is still effective when performed by someone without psychological training. Furthermore, it allows patients to confront the symptoms of PTSD without having to revisit traumatic memories.

"MemFlex focuses on increasing access to positive memories from their own lives, and people who completed the intervention told us they liked that the focus was solely on increasing the positive," Hitchcock said.

As his work and that of other researchers demonstrate, it is certainly reasonable to question the reliability of our memories. Both traumatic experiences and the mists of time can cloud the details of events, how we felt about those events when they occurred. But the same malleability that allows difficult experiences to shadow our past can also be used to build a better future.

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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 print issue of The Observer under the headline "Past Imperfect."

Comments on this article? Emailapsobserver@psychologicalscience.orgor scroll down to comment.


Akhtar, S., Justice, L.V., Morrison, CM, & Conway, MA (2018). First fictional memories.psychological science,29(10), 1612-1619.

Diamond, N.B., Armson, M.J. and Levine, B. (2020). The truth is out there: accuracy in recalling verifiable real-world events.psychological science,31(12), 1544–1556.

Garland, MM, Vaidya, JG, Tranel, D., Watson, D., & Feinstein, JS (2021). Who are you? The study of personality in patients with anterograde amnesia.psychological science,32(10), 1649–1661.

Laliberte, E., Yim, H., Stone, B., & Dennis, SJ (2021). The fallacy of an airtight alibi: understanding human memory for "where" by sampling experience.psychological science,32(6), 944–951.

Mangiulli I, Otgaar H, Jelicic M, and Merckelbach H (2021). A critical review of case studies on dissociative amnesia.Clinical psychology, 10(2), 191–211.

Moradi, A.R., Piltan, M., Choobin, M.H., Azadfallah, P., Watson, P., Dalgleish, T., & Hitchcock, C. (2021). Proof of concept for autobiographical memory flexibility (MemFlex) intervention in post-traumatic stress disorder.Clinical psychology,9(4), 686–698.

Patihis, L., Cruz, CS and Herrera, ME (2019). The change in mothers' current evaluations leads to changes in children's memories of love for mothers.Clinical psychology,7(5), 1125–1143.

Piltan, M., Moradi, A.R., Choobin, M.H., Azadfallah, P., Eskandari, S., & Hitchcock, C. (2021). Impaired autobiographical memory flexibility in Iranian trauma survivors with posttraumatic stress disorder.Clinical psychology,9(2), 294–301.

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Roediger, H. L. (1980). Memory metaphors in cognitive psychology.memory and cognition,8(3), 231–246.

Shaw, J & Porter, S (2015). Building rich false memories of the commission of crimes.psychological science,26(3), 291–301.

Wade, KA, Garry, M., Read, JD, & Lindsay, DS (2002). A picture is worth a thousand lies: create fake childhood memories with fake photos.Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 9(3), 597–603.


What does it mean when we say memory is malleable? ›

Memories can change, or be manipulated, over time so that what you "remember" may not be wholly accurate. Memories can be planted, invented, or merely change as time passes.

How can memories be malleable? ›

Memories are not fixed but are fluid and malleable. As part of an organic supercomputer (the brain), each time they are 'retrieved', they can be rewritten unwittingly by new information or perceptions coloured by the dispute.

Why are our memories imperfect? ›

Flaws in memory can arise at different points in the process, explained Daniel Schacter of Harvard University. When someone first records a memory, the viewer incorporates his or her own reactions and inferences about the event. As a result, the viewer can color or distort the memory from the very beginning.

What can result in inaccurate memories for traumatic events? ›

Our review suggests that individuals with PTSD, a history of trauma, or depression are at risk for producing false memories when they are exposed to information that is related to their knowledge base. Memory aberrations are notable characteristics of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

What does malleability mean in psychology? ›

Malleability of intelligence describes the processes by which intelligence can increase or decrease over time and is not static. These changes may come as a result of genetics, pharmacological factors, psychological factors, behavior, or environmental conditions.

Why is it important to understand the malleability of memory? ›

This malleability allows us to reconstruct memories in a way that may help people maintain a consistent life narrative, Akhtar and colleagues suggested in their Clinical Psychological Science article.

What are some examples of malleable? ›

Malleability is a material's ability to form thin sheets under pressure by hammering or rolling. Examples of malleable metals are gold, iron, aluminium, copper, silver and lead.

What is an example of malleable intelligence? ›

For example, teachers might ask students to identify subjects where they wanted to improve and help them design a plan for maximizing their learning in those subjects, demonstrating the concept of malleable intelligence.

What causes malleability? ›

Malleability is caused by metallic bonds that have freely moving electrons that allow the atoms in the metal to shift and slip past each other when a physical force is applied.

How can our memory become unreliable or imperfect over time? ›

But neuroscientists have shown that each time we remember something, we are reconstructing the event, reassembling it from traces throughout the brain. Psychologists have pointed out that we also suppress memories that are painful or damaging to self-esteem. We could say that, as a result, memory is unreliable.

Why do we make mistakes with our memory? ›

Memory errors may include remembering events that never occurred, or remembering them differently from the way they actually happened. These errors or gaps can occur due to a number of different reasons, including the emotional involvement in the situation, expectations and environmental changes.

What is the cause of false memories? ›

Research suggests people who have a history of trauma, depression, or stress may be more likely to produce false memories. Negative events may produce more false memories than positive or neutral ones.

What kind of trauma causes memory loss? ›

Memory loss from childhood trauma can affect your life in many ways. Your memory loss may even make you believe that you were never a victim of childhood trauma. Physical, emotional, and psychological trauma can all play a factor with memory loss.

How does emotional trauma affect memory? ›

Intensified Traumatic Memories: Flashbulb Memories and the Hippocampus in Overdrive. The effect of fear, threat or states of intense stress on memory can result in intensified memory recollection, or it can result in fragmented or impaired memories.

What is it called when your brain makes up false memories? ›

No one's memory is 100% percent accurate, but some people make many memory errors. They believe in the accuracy of these faulty memories and can be convincing when talking about them. This is what scientists call confabulation.

What is the malleability of the brain? ›

Plasticity refers to the brain's malleability or ability to change; it does not imply that the brain is plastic. Neuro refers to neurons, the nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and nervous system. Thus, neuroplasticity allows nerve cells to change or adjust.

What is the simple definition of malleability? ›

The property of metals by which they can be beaten into thin sheets is called malleability. Examples of malleable metals are gold Au , silver Ag ,iron Fe , and copper Cu .

Which is the best example of malleability? ›

  • Some metals can be beaten into thin sheets. This property is called malleability.
  • Silver and gold are examples of the most malleable metals.

How is malleability used in our daily life? ›

Malleability means that metals can be hammered into sheets and foils. For example, aluminium foils are used for wrapping food stuffs, silver foils are used for decorative purposes on sweets and fruits. Ductility means that metals can be drawn into wires. Gold and silver wires are used in ornaments.

What are the characteristics of malleability? ›

malleability - being able to bend or shape easily would make a material easily malleable, eg sheet metal such as steel or silver is malleable and can be hammered into shape.

What effects malleability? ›

Answer: The elasticity of a substance determines its malleability. The more elastic a metal is, the more malleable it is. In other words, a substance must be malleable if it can perform under compressive stress.

What is the type of malleability? ›

Corrosionpedia Explains Malleability

Malleable metals will bend and twist into numerous shapes when affected by a hammer, whereas non-malleable metals might break apart into pieces. Examples of malleable metals are gold, iron, aluminum, copper, silver and lead.

How do you know if something is malleable? ›

A malleable material is one in which a thin sheet can be easily formed by hammering or rolling. In other words, the material has the ability to deform under compressive stress. A malleable material is one in which a thin sheet can be easily formed by hammering. Gold is the most malleable metal.

What is the creative or malleable mindset? ›

Malleable creative mindsets refer to perceptions that creative ability can be developed and refined over time and with effort. Fixed creative mindsets refer to beliefs that creative ability is innate and stable and thus cannot be further developed (O'Connor et al., 2013).

What is an example of something malleable? ›

Malleability is a material's ability to form thin sheets under pressure by hammering or rolling. Examples of malleable metals are gold, iron, aluminium, copper, silver and lead.

What is the meaning of malleable in a sentence? ›

A malleable substance is easily changed into a new shape: Lead and tin are malleable metals. easily influenced, trained, or controlled: He had an actor's typically malleable features.

Is malleable negative or positive? ›

Malleability is a personality trait describing an individual who is flexible, willing to accept the opinion of others, and lacks the confidence to put forward his personal opinion. Malleability is rather positive than a negative trait.


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