10 Ways Your Memory Is Completely Inaccurate

Implanted Memories
Hypnosis, guided imagery and dream interpretation can all implant false memories in a person's mind. © 2015 HowStuffWorks, a division of Infospace LLC

In the 1990s and beyond, a raft of cases came before American courts concerning implanted memories. A typical case involved a female who went to see a psychotherapist for an issue such as depression. During the course of treatment, she suddenly recalled being sexually abused by a trusted friend or family member as a child. The conclusion was that she had repressed this traumatic memory over the years, and over time it caused her depression or other mental health issue.

Many researchers have conducted studies showing false memories can be implanted into someone's mind by asking suggestive, leading questions. For example, "You're depressed but don't know why. Do you remember your father ever touching you inappropriately as a child?" Hypnosis, guided imagery, dream interpretation and feeding a subject misinformation after an event can also implant a false memory into someone's mind [sources: Hayasaki, Vitelli].

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory has conducted hundreds of experiments throughout her career that show it's pretty easy to change someone's memory about an event. She told attendees at a conference of the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry that it's also quite easy to create a false memory in someone's mind. For example, in one study, researchers were able to convince 25 percent of subjects they'd been lost in a shopping mall as children. She added that even traumatic false memories — nearly drowning or, yes, being sexually assaulted — can be implanted in the minds of some [source: Vitelli].

The subject of implanted false memories is a hotly debated issue, namely its relation to recovered memory therapy, one of the more divisive issues in the mental health arena. The issue is serious and contested in part because it can have such dire consequences. The case typically cited is that of Gary Ramona, whose daughter accused him of years of sexual assault after going through psychotherapy and receiving the drug sodium amytal. Ramona vehemently denied the accusations and sued the therapist for implanting false memories in his daughter. Although he won the case, his wife divorced him and he remains estranged from all of his children [sources: LaGanga, Vitelli].