As part of the research study, which is the first of its kind and is published this week in the journal Psychological Science, more than 1600 students were asked to recall memories of events that they no longer believed had taken place. The results revealed that one in five had experienced these types of memories, and most of them related to when they were between four and eight years old.
The main reason why the students no longer believed that the events had occurred was that somebody, usually a parent or sibling, had told them so. In other cases, the person realised that the event or incident was so implausible that it simply couldn’t have happened.
For example, one respondent in the study claimed to have remembered seeing Santa Claus, while another recalled seeing a living dinosaur. Other participants said they had memories of flying unaided and one recalled being a hockey player, even though she had never played hockey before.
Until now, this phenomenon has escaped in-depth empirical analysis and has instead been the subject of rare, but intriguing, anecdotes. One such account involves the famous developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, who for much of his life vividly remembered being kidnapped in a park at the age of two, while out with his nurse. He even had memories of the scratches on his nurse’s face, caused by the attacker.
However, 13 years later Piaget’s former nurse confessed that she had fabricated the story. But although Piaget no longer believed he had been kidnapped, he was unable to stop remembering the traumatic event.
“Autobiographical memory provides us with a sense of identity and it is usually accurate enough to help us negotiate our lives,” said Professor Giuliana Mazzoni, from the University of Hull’s Psychology Department. “But as our study shows, not all that we remember about our past is true.
“Our research also shows that this phenomenon of non-believed memories is much more frequent than people had imagined. Crucially, if these memories are not challenged by some form of evidence, they would still be considered part of the individual’s autobiographical experience.”