What’s up Doc?

In a lecture a few weeks ago the lecturer asked if anyone had an early childhood memory. A few students raised their hands and told us all of an event in their lives. The lecturer went on to ask how do they know if this was a real memory or one formed from stories of the event from family members. Due to this question I have decided to look at an experiment that plants false memories in children, and how such false memories had drastic consequences for one family.

The experiment I will first look at involves a doctored photo of the participant holding hands with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. If you are not aware this photo is not possible, as Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros character and so would not be at Disneyland. In an earlier study participants were shown an edited picture of them with Mickey Mouse, but it was decided that this was possibly a true suppressed memory, so was updated to include Bugs Bunny in the picture instead. Participants were shown a picture of themselves holding hands with Bugs Bunny just once and 16% when asked recalled the experience as a childhood memory. In a later study the participants were shown the picture more frequently, but still only 3 times and a massive 48% recalled the experience as a memory.

It astonishes me to believe that a false memory can be implanted so easily, when I look back to many of my early childhood memories I can’t truly say I can picture them happening but can recall being told the stories by family members on several occasions. Even though I am sure these events happened, can I truly say these memories are mine?


In 1989 such a memory destroyed one family. While watching her daughter play Eileen Franklin had a flash back of a childhood memory, it involved her father murdering her childhood friend. For about 10 months Eileen tried to ignore the memory, but decided to tell her husband about it as it would not pass. Eileen’s husband insisted that she went to the police, so on the 25th November 1989 Eileen reported the incident to the police.

Eileen reported to the police with great clarity the events of September 22nd 1969, down to small details of where they played. Eileen went on to say how her father got violent and raped her childhood friend and later killed her. 3 days later her father George Franklin was arrested and on November 29th 1990 was found guilty of murder. After serving 6 years in prison, with no evidence apart from his daughter’s testimony, George Franklin was proven innocent from DNA sampling. It appears that the childhood memory she recalled was due to being hypnotised by her therapist.

It is scary to think that this could occure, not only was George Franklin committed of a crime he did not commit, but his daughter Eileen went through years of mental anguish.


9 responses to “What’s up Doc?

  1. I think it’s insane how the mind and create false memories through the power of suggestion or even from nothing at all, after researching this I found a few things that when you read them you cannot possibly believe that memories such as these can be made from nothing.

    Reilly (1997) interviewed a solider in the British army who helped liberate a concentration camp in Belson, the solider was called Daniell, he stated..

    “I saw the gas ovens, which had been cleaned out because there was no fuel to run them. This was why there was so many corpses lying around, it was pathetic. There were worn paths to each of the gas chambers and on the side a pile of spectacles at least 6ft high”

    The interesting thing about this eye witness account is that Belsen did not have any recorded gas chambers, it was later found that the media compared Belson to German concentration camps which lead to the media creating untrue stories which was the incorporated into the mind of Daniell as truth. From this his mind invented piled of bodies lying around him and items of clothing in piles next to cleaned gas chambers that never existed.

    Thing like this really make you think about what is actually true in history and what is made up.

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  3. An interesting blog and as you say it really is scary that a therapist could do this! (and often not even mean to!)
    After many cases of false memory came to light researchers have become increasingly interested in the workings of the human memory. According to one study individuals with higher working-memory capacities are less likely to remember false information than those with lower capacities. In the study 50 undergraduates with a high WM capacity were selected alongside 50 undergraduates with lower WM capacity. Each group studied lists containing 16 related words (e.g. bed, rest, tired etc). These related words were expected to result in a false memory of another related word such as ‘sleep’. Researcher told half of the participants that ‘this is a memory trick- don’t let us trick you’. The undergrads then had to write down all of the words from the lists that they remembered. The students who didn’t know that there was a memory ‘trick’ in both the low and high WM capacity groups were found to recall approximately 60% of the words they had viewed. They also falsely remembered related words such as ‘sleep’ that were not presented in the lists 36% of the time. However the undergrads that were aware that there was a memory trick; in the high WM group falsely remembered words 18% of the time, compared to the low WM group who falsely remembered words 33% of the time. This suggests that individuals with higher WM capacities have better control than those with lower capacities when pre-warned about the ‘memory trick’.
    The reason I have presented this research is because it shows that there are individual differences in memory and some people are more susceptible to false memories than others. The case you mention above demonstrates that some people may be played by their therapist whilst others may simply have been led by the questions that the therapist was asking. Therefore surely we should design and implement more measures to ensure that therapists do not unwittingly implant false memories in their clients?

    Watson, J. – In Kersting, K. (2005). Increased cognitive control helps prevent false memories.

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  5. I find your topic of discussion fascinating, but at the same time quite frightening. It makes me wonder how much of my childhood I can actually remember and how much it is just false memories built from pictures or stories told by my parents.
    Memory psychologists who work with adults trying to recover from childhood trauma or abuse claim that several recovered memories could be false memories (Kihlstrom, 1993; Lindsay and Read, 1994; Loftus, 1993). In order to analyse this, the Western Washington University carried out an experiment investigating whether college students, after being exposed to misleading information and repeated interviews, would create false memories of their childhood. In the experiment the researchers asked the students to recall some really-happened events and also some experimenter-created events. The findings showed how those participants created false events, reconstructing memories from their childhood that had never happened but that were simply created by the experimenters.
    It’s crazy to believe how the human mind can create fake memories and how it can all be so easily be manipulated by others.

    False Memories Of Childhood Experiences (Hyman; Troy; Husband; Billings, 1995)

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  7. Interesting blog, funnily enough I recently read about the Franklin case and it’s a scary thought that a “memory” can change some many people’s lives.
    Elizabeth Loftus has written an interesting article about the malleability of memory and it’s implications on court cases and the law. Detailing some cases that have dealt with False Memories. http://edssspa.pbworks.com/f/Loftus+False+Memory.pdf

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