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News anchor Brian Williams made headlines earlier this week after he was suspended from NBC due to his false claims that he’d been on a helicopter shot down in Iraq in 2003. No one can say for sure if Williams deliberately mislead people on this and other possible whoppers, but experts say memories can be notoriously unreliable.

Hallie Levine
February 13, 2015

News anchor Brian Williams made headlines all over the nation after he was suspended from NBC due to his false claims that he’d been on a helicopter shot down in Iraq in 2003. No one can say for sure if Williams deliberately mislead people on this and other possible whoppers, but experts say memories can be notoriously unreliable, even for major events like a crashed helicopter.

“Even though our brains are wonderful at what they can do, they’re limited with our memory,” explains Susan Walsh, PsyD, a psychologist at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. “When we experience a moment, you experience it in fragments—it’s not like a snapshot or video tape of the moment. Your brain puts it together in a way that makes sense to you based on your past experiences.”

Here, three ways your memory can have you fooled:

False memories can be easily implanted

One disturbing Canadian study published in the journal Psychological Science in January found that researchers were able to convince more than 70% of college students that they committed crimes in adolescence…when they actually had nothing to do with them. How? They told students about an alleged crime they committed such as assault or theft, while weaving in details of other events that did occur in their lives around the time.

“People who have lapses in attention and memory are somewhat more susceptible, but it appears that most of us are susceptible to some extent,” explains false memory expert Elizabeth Loftus, PhD, professor of Psychology & Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine.

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You really can believe your own tall tales

Steven Sherman, PhD, a psychologist at Indiana University, remembers his shock at a Thanksgiving dinner several years ago where his 30-something daughter asked him about the time a helicopter crashed into the family home. “I insisted it never happened, but she was adamant,” Sherman says. “It’s highly likely that she dreamed about it several times, which led her to believe it was reality.”

Theoretically, the same phenomenon could have happened to Williams, he says, especially if he saw repeated news coverage of the event. Even if the lie isn’t as extreme, it’s easy to embellish something but believe it is real. “Your memory is very malleable, so as you read news reports or have conversations with others, your brain takes details of that and stores it, until eventually you convince yourself that it’s the truth,” says Walsh.

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Your emotions can override the truth

The amygdala, where emotions are processed, is located right next to the hippocampus, the part of the brain which stores and encodes memories, Walsh explains. This is one reason why, for example, there may have been such widely divergent witness accounts in the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting, says Gary Wells, PhD, a psychologist at Iowa State University who specializes in eyewitness testimony. Witnesses may have been “biased” due to whatever emotions were evoked as they watched the events unfold, Wells says.

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What you can do about it

The good news is, you can train yourself to remember. Typically if you rehearse or rehash the details soon after it helps strengthen the truth of what really occurred, says Loftus, although she notes that this didn’t seem to work in Williams’ case.

The key, research suggests, is to make a conscious effort to "turn on" your memory. A recent study published in Psychological Science found that people were excellent at recalling information they had previously been told they would have to remember, but terrible at coming up with details they didn't anticipate having to remember later.

“It seems like memory is sort of like a camcorder,” one of the study authors said in a press release. “If you don’t hit the ‘record’ button on the camcorder, it’s not going to ‘remember’ what the lens is pointed at.”

Just don’t rely on whipping out an actual camera to help you: snapping photos may in fact impede your memory, according to one 2013 study done at Fairfield University. Using your camera during an important event can actually make it harder to remember the details later on.

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