False Childhood Memories?

I often wonder if I have false, or distorted, memories of my time spent in the NICU as an infant. I was born at 25 weeks, weighed 1lb 12oz, and therefore had to spend 89 days in the NICU after I was born. I underwent two surgeries before I was discharged, and I often wonder if I can remember details about my hospitalization. I’ve often asked my mom if she placed a pink rabbit in my incubator, as I seem to vaguely remember some details about this very early stage in my life. This memory could, however, possibly have occurred due to a photograph of my incubator that I have seen as a child. Other times, I wonder if I can remember the sensations of nurses and doctors placing my central line in my ankle or taking blood samples when I look at the scars on myself that are left behind from my birth trauma. Again, this memory could have occurred in reality or have been generated falsely when I was told stories about my scars.

In another example of false memories, my younger sister, Lindsay, once believed that she was adopted when she was younger. Lindsay believed that all the photos of her in her scrapbook were staged. For some time, she thought that she was not my biological sister, and she admitted years later that she once had memories that proved this to be true. 

Some of our memories sometimes seem to be connected to very real and salient events, even if they are random or incorrect in nature. False memories, as defined in this article, are related to cognitive psychology in the context of the “misinformation effect,” which occurs when people’s memories of an event are distorted in some way due to additional, and often incorrect, information. In one study about false memories, participants were told that they had once been lost in a department store at the age of five. The subjects, aged 18 to 53, were asked to remember three childhood events that had been recounted by a close relative of the subject. They were shown three paragraphs that recounted separate childhood events written in a booklet. One of the events described in the booklet included the false event in which the participant was lost in a shopping center as a child, comforted by an elderly woman, and later returned to their family. 

If the participants did not remember the false event, they were told to write that they did not recall that specific memory. Twenty-nine percent of the subjects wrote that they remembered getting lost in a shopping center when shown the booklet of memories. Later, when asked if they partially or completely remembered the constructed event in follow up interviews, twenty-five percent of the subjects claimed to remember the pretend event. 

  The lost-in-the-mall memory was not about the trauma that some people claim to have remembered about their childhood, but it was focused on the impact of a planted memory and the misinformation effect. It was also noted in this study that if an onlooker was to watch the participants describe both the accurate memories and the false memory, it would be difficult for one determine which memory was fabricated. Thus, is it natural to wonder if false memories are applicable in events we recall from our younger years, such as my experiences of remembering my days spent in the NICU or my sister’s belief that she was adopted as a child. It is important to remind ourselves that our memories and cognition can be faulty and easily manipulated by relatives’ stories, pictures, or other evidence. 

2 thoughts on “False Childhood Memories?

  1. cookcl

    This has always been a very interesting topic to me because I am amazed at what the brain can do. Thinking about how your own mind can be “tricking” you is crazy to me. I have these reoccurring thoughts to back when I was a baby and have always wondered if they were “first memory” sorts of things or if I had just heard them in stories. The most bothersome part is that you will never really know.

  2. jadeturner

    That is very interesting that our minds can create these false memories by even photographs. We can warp our minds and memories without even realizing it. Especially since once I learned that we do not remember anything from the first few years of life. So the fact that your mind created that memory and sensation from the nurses is so fascinating to me.
    When you spoke of your sister believing she was adopted, was crazy to me. That from pictures, believing those were staged is wild. Does she still believe that she was adopted?

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