Study: Minds incorporate new information into original memories

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Our memories — they’re not as accurate as we think. Study results just released show how our minds work using current information to rewrite events of the past so we’ll make better decisions today.

“Our recall is never precise. We forget details, we distort information,” said Donna Bridge, PhD, Northwestern Medicine neuroscience researcher.

A video recorder it’s not. Our memory, it turns out, is in a constant state of change.

“Every time we recall an experience, we change it, and so we tend to remember what we recalled last time. That information we retrieve gets incorporated into our original memory,” Bridge said.

It’s a finding Northwestern Medicine researcher Donna Bridge wrote about in her just published paper.

“It seems to be this property of memory that we update or modify our memory to conform to what is more relevant or important now,” Bridge said.

It started with an experiment carried out in a functional MRI scanner. It ended with results like the game of telephone.

Hooked up to eye trackers, the participants were shown an object — an apple in an underwater scene. About 20 minutes later, they were asked to place the apple in the same location it had appeared earlier – only this time they were shown a different background image.

Then, a final test: The original underwater scene and a choice of three locations – the first location they saw the apple, the location they had moved it to in the second test and a random spot.

“She’s looking at the object in those three locations and trying to decide where she originally studied the object. It turned out participants still chose the location from the second scene even though they never actual saw the apple in that location. They have updated their memory representation.” Bridge explained.

All but one of the 17 study participants did the same thing – chose their location for the apple, not the original. A simple test with implications.

“It’s important for thinking about eyewitness testimony. Our memories are always changing, and we only show this in a very small, very controlled experimental setting, but it’s reasonable to think this might be a basic function of how our memories work,” Bride said.

For more on this study, go to:

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