That our memory isn’t veridical is not a novel idea. This means that we don’t perfectly remember everything that we have seen or experienced in the past. Broadly speaking, there are two fundamental memory errors that occur in everyday life. One is forgetting events that have occurred, and the other is remembering something that did not transpire (or misremembering them in the way that they occurred). The first error, forgetting, is very common, and needs no explanation. We can all think of instances where our memory has failed us. However, the latter error is a more curious scenario. Often times, when a friend mentions a funny episode that happened at a party you were at, you might incorporate that into your memory even though you yourself may have not witnessed it. In fact, you may even go as far as to visualizing the event in your head. This begs the question, how could a memory that seems so clear and vivid in one’s head be anything but completely accurate? And more importantly, why do we make such errors in remembering events?
To be able to answer that question comprehensively, we first need to identify how our memory system works. The current model that is accepted in academic circles today is the ‘Working Memory Model’ proposed by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch. It offers a more accurate explanation of short-term memory than the previously held Atkinson & Shiffrin’s ‘Modal Memory’ model. The present model is composed of three main components: the ‘central executive’, which acts as supervisory system and controls the flow of information from and to its slave systems – the ‘phonological loop’ and the ‘visuo-spatial sketchpad’ (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). The slave systems are short-term storage systems dedicated to a content domain (verbal and visuo-spatial, respectively). While the Modal Memory model had the short-term memory as a state of limited capacity within which information is mainly just stored and rehearsed, the Working Memory model describes a system that is actively storing and processing information on the go. This is to say that the brain works on the information even after we store it in our memories.
And therein lies the problem. The fact that our cognitive system processes raw data in order to make better sense of it is a probable cause of the aforementioned lapse in our memory. This experiment aims to study whether the information processing in our cognitive systems leads to the formation of false/illusory memories, and if so, what are the possible reasons as to why these false memories take shape.
The experiment was in the form of a word recognition test. Participants went through a list of 12 words; the words were all thematically related (car, wheel, bike, motorcycle …), with the exception of one of two in the list (pencil). After they had gone through the list, they were presented with another set of words, and were asked to recognize which of those words had been present in the initial list. Each of these...