Memory is not as reliable we think

Memory may not be as reliable, powerful or objective as many people assume, new research has suggested. Appearing in the journal PLoS ONE, the investigation found individuals are often mistaken regarding their intuitions about the mind.

University of Illinois Psychology Professor Daniel Simons and Union College Psychology Professor Christopher Chabris said one of the most compelling examples of such mistakes centres on what a person can or cannot remember.

Professor Simons noted: "People tend to place greater faith in the accuracy, completeness and vividness of their memories than they probably should."

The investigation was carried out by opinion research company SurveyUSA - which has conducted more than 24,000 such projects - and showed nearly two-thirds of those asked believe memory to be similar to a video camera that can precisely record events, while nearly half think memories cannot be altered once they are fully encoded.

Professor Chabris observed that while scientific literature shows the fallibility of memory, uneducated beliefs about its reliability still persist.

Chartered Psychologist Dr Catherine Loveday from the University of Westminster commented: "We intuitively trust and believe in our own memories which means we also have a natural tendency to overestimate the reliability of human memory per se. 

"The brain's ability to store information about what we've experienced is of course truly impressive but our sense of a fluent and accurate back story is a clever cognitive illusion. Memory is essentially a reconstructive process and it is far more fallible than most people realise.

"The level of general misconception revealed by this research is an important finding and demonstrates how vital it is that those of us working in the field continue to improve public understanding, particularly in relation to the legal system. This need has already been recognised to some extent in the UK with a guide on memory and the law published by the British Psychological Society in 2008. We are currently working on an updated version."